In this era of endless austerity, would you sign a petition calling for the Prime Minister to create a special government job that is bound to be given to a multimillionaire currently sitting in the House of Lords? Nah, me neither. But you cannot fault Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho for not trying (it on).
A few weeks ago Lane-Fox appeared on the BBC and lectured several Dimblebys about the evils of nepotism that fester whenever a quasi-public body is run by people who look after their own… usually at the expense of talented ordinary people who lack connections and so never get a look-in or leg-up. I joke, of course. Nobody would be so rude at use the Richard Dimbleby Lecture to lecture Jonathan and David Dimbleby about the evidence that our society sometimes suffers from nepotism. At least, nobody who might get invited to speak would be that rude.
Instead, the chancer formally known as Martha Lane-Fox lectured an exclusive audience about how prejudice is preventing people like her from becoming really successful in the technology sector. Obviously, she did not mean people exactly like her. She is reputedly worth half a billion dollars, thanks to being extraordinarily successful at making a website and then selling it off. Cast your minds back to a time before dotcom silliness, when fools struggled to believe a human being might book a holiday on something called the internet. Then some chancers came along, like Lane-Fox, and said the fools were fools, and insisted they could make squillions by proving the internet is the future. And so they did, thanks to dotcom silliness, which was a massively idiotic stock market bubble that burst very soon after Lane-Fox pocketed her cash.
If I try to be a bit more specific, I must admit I do not know what Martha Lane-Fox actually did. But then, nobody seems to know. When people argue she is an internet guru, the argument is always summed up by the phrase: lastminute.com!!! The truth of this 14-character proposition is seemingly so obvious that nobody ever dares to enquire further. But we do know she had something to do with lastminute.com, and she got a lot of money as a result, and nobody can argue with that.
Of course, they could argue a bit. They could argue that exploiting the dotcom bubble earned her several thousand times more than a nurse makes in a year, and that there is something morally dubious about that. Or they could argue that she made a fortune from disrupting traditional travel agents, causing them to go out of business, and meaning lots of low-paid people lost their jobs. But nobody said that at the Dimbleby Lecture. When you get invited to the Dimbleby Lecture, you must be the right sort of greedy self-absorbed stinking rich business executive, and never the wrong sort. If you cannot tell the difference, just ask a Dimbleby to give an impartial opinion. After all, the BBC is always impartial about matters like that.
So, according to Lane-Fox, what kind of people need more chances to succeed at British techno-wizardry? People like Martha Lane-Fox, obviously. By which she means white people who were educated at private school and Oxbridge. I joke, again. I mean women. And some miscellaneous others. Lane-Fox was a lot more vague about the others, but she was very definite about the women. Of course, she knew she was on to a surefire winner with that theme. Half the population are women. Add two Dimblebys and the maths indicated she would have a strict majority backing her plans, so surely no Prime Minister could possibly refuse her demand to create… (drum roll)… DOT EVERYONE!!!
DOT EVERYONE!!! Yeah! That is what we need. DOT EVERYONE!!! The purpose of DOT EVERYONE is so obvious, you should be able to work it out from the name.
(Do not blame me for the capital letters. Despite all the netiquette guides, Lane-Fox insists on writing the name like that.)
And what would DOT EVERYONE do? Well, sadly there was nobody in the audience who can be relied upon to ask tough questions. In other words, Paxman was not there. The Dimblebys already knew what DOT EVERYONE would do, so had no need to ask.
Judging by her lecture, Lane-Fox would prefer not to explain what DOT EVERYONE would specifically do. But she did say it would do lots of good in a British-y internet-y opportunity kind of way. And who should be in charge of DOT EVERYONE? Well, Lane-Fox was not explicit about that either, but I think we all worked out who she had in mind.
What Lane-Fox did say is that DOT EVERYONE would be a great British invention in the mould of two other great British inventions: the NHS, and the BBC. That presumably makes Lane-Fox a cross between Aneurin Bevan and Lord Reith, though in a more webby, womanly kind of way.
Some of you may have noticed that neither the BBC nor the NHS is an invention, as such. At least, they are not much like the inventions which techy people come up with, and then patent. People patent inventions because the inventions are brilliant and lots of people will want to copy them in order to make lots of money. Britain gifted the idea of the NHS and the BBC to the whole world. Sadly, the rest of the world declined to copy them. That is because the NHS and BBC suffer a particularly British trait that plagues most of our best ideas: they cost an absolute fortune and make bugger all money. Would DOT EVERYONE cost a fortune and make bugger all money? Only Lane-Fox knows the answer to that, and she did not share it with us. But as I said, there was nobody in the audience who wanted to ask such an awkward question. So instead, they all nodded and agreed that the new Prime Minister should create DOT EVERYONE, even though none of them knew what it would do or how much it would cost. Hoorah!
Lane-Fox’s success seemed assured. Within weeks, the new Prime Minister would hear a public outcry, as people rushed to the internet to demand DOT EVERYONE, a venture whose very name is demonstrably in the interest of everybody everywhere. How could Lane-Fox fail? She was backed by the massive propaganda machine that is the BBC, which pumped out the news that we cannot thrive without DOT EVERYONE. Then, Lane-Fox could also rely on her incomparable internet skills, harnessing millions of internet enthusiasts in a viral campaign of unprecedented proportions.
However, at time of writing, a month after Lane-Fox’s lecture, her petition on Change.org has been signed by only 10,084 people. That is barely half the number who work for the BBC. Did the Dimblebys forget to send round the memo?
Who knew that a really vague plan to give a posh millionaire a fancy government job with no clear remit might fail to capture the hearts and minds of ordinary people? Who could have guessed that, in the midst of the tightest general election campaign ever, most people might have more important things to think about? And who would have said that if you want a snazzy internet logo, then you should avoid images that look like Pac-Man ate too many blueberries and started throwing them up?
Not Lane-Fox, obviously. This is why she would be the perfect leader for a visionary new public body like DOT EVERYONE. Only she has the single-minded blinkered outlook that would stop her being distracted by such inconvenient truths as the country does not have money to waste on a millionaire’s pet project, and that nobody knows what the hell she is proposing.
The BBC was set up by great visionaries in the 1920s. The NHS was set up by great visionaries in the 1940s. Extrapolating from that, DOT EVERYONE would have been a great vision for the 1960s. But sadly, we are living in the 21st century, and in this age of hyper-connected super-knowledge broadband-highways, DOT EVERYONE sounds like a load of old cobblers.
Maybe some of the blame lies with Lane-Fox. How should I put this? Lane-Fox obviously has no fucking idea how to use a perfectly straightforward website. When she started the Change.org petition, she entered her location as London, California which is both wrong and a bad way to appeal for a job in Britain. She has since corrected that mistake, but she cannot undo the way she fucked up trying to post an update to the petition, not once, but three times in a row. (See here, here and here.) To the untrained eye, Lane-Fox seems as adept at using the web as an orangutan in boxing gloves.
Is 10,000 signatures a lot of people? Please, let us not be silly. Lane-Fox is desperately spinning that they ‘smashed’ the 10,000 barrier – even though it took a month to reach that number. But she had already given the game away when they passed the 5,000 mark within 36 hours of the petition’s launch. Overflowing with optimism, Lane-Fox proclaimed:
We need 100x that number
Forgive my cynicism, but I think the number ‘needed’ to justify wasting the time of the Prime Minister is about to be sharply revised down. And I can always turn to an impartial body for guidance on what is, and what is not, a popular petition. Just a short while ago, the BBC mocked a petition to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson as a host of Top Gear. This is what some ‘impartial’ BBC journalist wrote about petitions:
An online petition in support of suspended Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson attracted more than 300,000 signatures as of Wednesday lunchtime – but how does that compare with other campaigns?
Some of the biggest petitions at the moment on Change.org are asking to:
- Pardon all men who, like Alan Turing, were convicted under UK anti-gay laws: nearly 600,000 signatures.
- Continue broadcasting BBC Three on conventional television: 275,000
- End UK VAT on sanitary products: about 200,000.
And what about some of the most popular petitions of all time on the site? More than 2.2m people signed a petition to prosecute George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Treyvon Martin, a black teenager shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in the US in 2012. And a #BringBackOurGirls petition – related to the disappearance and abduction of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria – attracted more than 1m supporters.
Many of these petitions have been live for some time, whereas the one backing Clarkson has seen tremendous growth in a short time. The story is in the news and numbers are climbing fast – adding tens of thousands just during the writing of this post. So there’s no telling how much support the presenter might get online, but he has some way to go to becoming an all-time cause célèbre.
So there you have it, from the BBC. 10,000 signatures is fuck all. Clarkson could get 10,000 signatures in the time it takes a dogsbody BBC journalist to write about how few people have signed his petition. 10,000 signatures is clearly not enough to justify the establishment of a new publicly-funded body like the NHS or the BBC.
Of course, that particular BBC journalist might have regretted dismissing the trifling 300,000 signatures obtained by the Clarkson petition at that point in time. It took just a few more days for the Clarkson petition to breach the million mark. (I would have offered a link to a BBC article reporting that particular news… but I could not find one).
A million people could not persuade the BBC to renew the contract of a very successful TV presenter who is popular all around the world. So why the fuck should the Prime Minister give Martha Lane-Fox a job on the basis of a measly 10,000 signatures?
For anyone not good with numbers, here is a bar chart that shows Lane-Fox’s petition to scale, alongside what the BBC considers to be genuinely popular petitions.
By now, some of you may have identified a brilliant way that Lane-Fox could achieve her goals, without wasting the time of the PM or demanding lots of taxpayer’s money. She could reach into her own pocket and pay for DOT EVERYONE that way. But I think I discovered the reason why she is not planning to do that. It is because she already has a crappy charity that is supposed to do the same thing as DOT EVERYONE. (And yes, you are correct, the front page of that website is dominated by a big picture of Lane-Fox giving her lecture at the BBC.)
Why do I say this charity is crappy? Because the stated aim is:
to empower everyone in the UK to reach their digital potential.
And at the time of writing, the ranking of her charity on Alexa, an independent measure of the popularity of websites, is:
Global Rank: 1,637,294
Lane-Fox’s charity website site has jumped up the rankings by over 600,000 places recently, presumably as a result of the extra traffic generated by the Dimbleby Lecture. But without all that extra publicity, Lane-Fox’s charity website would have a global ranking below my own business website. Does that mean I am an internet guru? Or just that Lane-Fox and her backers are full of shit?
The truth about DOT EVERYONE is that a privileged person wants a privileged job where they get to pick and choose which other people will benefit from privilege. When I use the words ‘pick and choose’, I mean people like me will never be picked. People like you might be chosen… but only if you know Lane-Fox personally, or if you fit her arbitrary ideas about who is most deserving.
Working class, raised in a council house, not privately educated, not Oxbridge educated, the child of two immigrants… but I just need to look in the mirror to know I would never get any help from the Baroness. Whatever success I may have with my webby business affairs, we can be sure that Lane-Fox thinks I already had more advantages in life than she ever did. However, we are dissimilar in more ways than she can see. Whilst she demands a high-profile government job to boost her pension pot (and her fading public image), I would never expect payment just because I saw an opportunity to help others.
Sadly for Lane-Fox and the Dimblebys, their comically overhyped petition will get no more publicity, not even from the BBC. Their failure is evident, or it would be, if anybody was paying any attention to it. The British public do not need reminding about how some people become rich and successful. From their actions, Lane-Fox and the Dimblebys make it clear that success in Britain is too rarely determined by merit. It is not even connected to popularity. They succeed because of personal connections, and the doors that open as a result. DOT EVERYONE? They should have called it DOT ELITE.