29 SEPTEMBER 1967, Page 10


J. W. M. THOMPSON As some readers will have noticed from press reports, an unusual discussion is at the moment in progresi between the Periodical Publishers Association (to which this and a host of other journals belong) and the Bac. It concerns the status of the BBC's weekly, the Listener, which recently acquired a new editor and, along with him, a new character. Without going into tech- nicalities, the PPA is claiming that the Listener is now directly competing with the independent weeklies (e.g., New Statesman, Economist, sPEcTAToa.)—and doing so, moreover, with the massive advantage of BBC resources and pub- licity at its disposal. This the association finds objectionable.

As the SPECTATOR has had no part in initiat- ing or conducting these talks, I feel free to offer a helpful comment or two here. The Listener's new editor, Mr Karl Miller, is a dis- tinguished journalist (he was once literary edi- tor of this journal) who had thoroughly earned the many good wishes he received on his appointment. It's indisputably true, neverthe- less, that his paper is competing with inde- pendent periodicals on unequal terms— unequal because of the subsidy (at present, I gather, some £40,000 a year) which it enjoys from a great state corporation. And to many people, at least, it must seem strange that the BBC (which will put up our licence fees very soon) should use viewers' and listeners' money in this way. I suggest, therefore, that the thing could be made perfectly respectable if the BBC simply stopped 'handing over licence money to meet the Listener's losses, and instead raised the paper's price from its present subsidised figure to a realistic one. Perhaps this solution will commend itself to Lord Hill, the BBC's new chairman, who must in any event be sur- prised to find himself being accused of com- peting unfairly with private enterprise, and also to Mr Miller. In calculating the true costs of the Listener, of course, a price would have to be put on the enormous free publicity pro- vided by commercial plugs on Bac TV and radio. A fifteen-second nationwide TV commercial, I'm advised, might very moderately be entered in the books at about £1,000.


The plan for modernising King's Cross Station and its surroundings is a big disappointment. I've always found this one of the most striking corners of London. It comprises a dismal mess of Victorian slums, assorted and often hideous developments of later date, and at its heart the astonishing buildings of King's Cross and St Pancras. The whole scene might have been created on the lines of those imaginary town- scapes which Osbert Lancaster invented, in his witty books on architecture, to illustrate the progress of urban uglification. British Rail now plans, evidently, to get rid of some of the old squalor to make way for new dreari- ness. A nasty-looking structure will be plonked down in front of King's Cross, thus ruining its two magnificent arches; there will be a naked wilderness of roadway; and St Pancras will be abandoned to anyone (I guess) who can be persuaded to take it on.

How dull of us it will be if we miss this presumably final chance to do justice to these noble examples of Victorian railway architec- ture. I admit to having had a particular liking for them ever since the days when, as a boy living in the north of England, I saw them as the gateways of the capital city. But I can't readily think of any modern building (in London, that is—they order these things better abroad) to match them for absolute self- assurance. At least people are now using in. genuity to devise appropriate uses for the St Pancras train-shed (it seems an absurdly prosaic term for that soaring vault) and the old hotel. This latter may become a hotel again: if not, why not luxurious flats? As a High Victorian urban lair it could rival the stylish charm of Albany.


The editors of the new edition of Galley on Libel and Slander make the point, in their preface, that there seems no satisfactory basis in principle for failing to extend legal aid to defamation cases. It's a fair point. On The other hand, I can't see any prospect of • this defect in the legal aid system being remedied so long as defamation actions have the justified reputation of being inordinately long and costly. Political resistance to adding this burden to the cost of the existing scheme would be insuperable. Furthermore, the editors of this refurbished legal classic point out' elsewhere that because libel actions are unpredictably expensive (and a number of recent long cases have ended in one or more disagreements by the jury) the -pressure that can be exerted by a gold-digging plaintiff is increased; as is the anxiety -felt by anyone suing a defendant with a long pocket. The sheer complexity of the law on libel and slander can, in various ways, act as an obstacle to justice as well as a source of greatly increased costs. One judge said re- cently: 'Lawyers should be ashamed that they have allowed the law of defamation to have become bogged down in such a mass of tech- nicalities.' I cannot see the welfare state rush- ing to take on financial responsibility for that little lot.

Bard unnamed

According to the Guardian Mr Wilson ap- peared 'rattled and on the defensive' on Monday. I thought this a shade severe. Clearly, though, some sign of unflappability in Downing Street would be invaluable as the promised hard Winter approaches. I find it rather surprising that Mr Wilson has neglected the calm- inducing possibilities of the post of poet laureate. Masefield died in May, and nothing has been done to name a successor, nor, it's said, is anything in the offing. Quite apart from suggesting a deplorable lack of dynamism at the top, this long delay is robbing the nation of much innocent and pleasurable argument just when inexpensive cheer is needed. If Mr Wilson, having taken over the economy, now finds he hasn't time to manage poetry as well, he could hand over the task of finding a bard to Miss Jennie Lee, who frequents literary and artistic circles. If she doesn't want it, how about Mr Gordon Walker, her chief at Edu- cation? One discerns a sort of sublime harmony between two equally unlikely concepts when one thinks of the poet laureate and then of Mr Gordon Walker: combine them, and who knows what national diversion may result?