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22 April
The tools of the trade

I’ve had a lot of work to do in the past couple of weeks, which is why I haven’t been on here. Most of what I’ve been doing has been interviewing for a series of articles and in virtually every case, because I’m dealing with subjects where my understanding is limited, I’ve been recording the interviews.

This isn’t something I’ve much done in the past. Way back, I learned a kind of speed-writing-cum-shorthand which mostly works well enough in face-to-face interviews or at presentations. But interviewing on the phone is trickier because the other person can’t see, when there’s a pause at my end, that I’m actually still scribbling away, capturing the previous bon mot. So I’m recording. Then transcribing.

And how boring is that? Transcribing interviews has, I reckon, to be one of the worst jobs in journalism, as each interview takes at least five times as long to write up as it took in reality. Worst of all, though, in all of my interviews, there’s this droning bloke with a terrible voice, going on and on and on. It is, of course, my voice, and how I dislike it. And what it says. Waffly questions, repeating things, playing for time, filling in the gaps, trying to think of something sensible to ask while still talking… It’s all there and I can hear it. Just get on with it, I want to tell my disembodied voice; stop talking; now.

All of this is necessary, of course, because over my lifetime in journalism the rules of the interview game have subtly shifted. These days, people interviewed very often want to see what you’re quoting them as saying; in the past, they mainly seemed less bothered, and many were actually happy that you tidied up their quotes to make them sound more coherent than they really were. Now, paranoia rules and they want to see what you’re writing. And, of course, the basic rule of good journalism is that you shouldn’t let them.

Hence the recording devices. I can get away with saying no to people who want sight of copy by saying: “Look, I can’t put words into your mouth because I’m only going to use words you actually said.” Honour satisfied on both sides. But at what a cost: the cost of having to sit there, for hour after hour, reliving a conversation and listening to the drear sound of my own voice.

6 April
Automotive news contrasts

There’s contrasting news going on in the UK automotive industry today. Jaguar Land Rover has announced that will take on an extra 1,000 “engineering” staff at plants in the West Midlands up to 2013. But Honda at Swindon has announced that it is going on to half-production to the end of May. Which of these should we take as indicative of the state of the UK manufacturing economy?

The answer is probably both. Or neither. They illustrate that in a big and important industry there are both global and local factors at work. JLR had limited success in 15 or so years of Ford ownership in breaking away from its dependence on the UK market and a UK-based supply chain, particularly with the Jaguar brand, and even under its new Tata owners its fortunes are tied more closely than most other manufacturers’ to the ups and downs of the UK economy. Currently, after a deep down, we’re on an up: hence there is good news not just for JLR but also for the many suppliers it has in the UK.

Honda’s a bit different. It’s having to cut production because of the interruption to its supply chains caused by the Japanese earthquake and the consequent industrial disruption in Japan. With the current upturn in the UK auto market (and more widely in Europe), this is probably the last thing Honda would have wanted to do. It’s going to keep its Swindon staff on full pay in this hiatus, which is decent of it and which is also what it tried to do for as long as possible when the bottom dropped out of the UK automotive market in 2009 and Swindon went on to (very) short time.

So do JLR’s bullishness and the contrast with Honda tell us anything about optimal supply chains and corporate organisations in the automotive industry? Yes, perhaps, but probably not anything that would stand the test of time. On the face of it, keeping things fairly local (JLR) or having significant buffer stocks of parts ready for use in a contingency (not the Honda way, of course) look good policies in this particular period. But you don’t have to go backwards many months to find a period when JLR’s limited markets, apparently parochial purchasing and its lack of scale were perceived as weakness, while Honda’s global reach and just-in-time global parts sourcing was a source of strength, helping it to manage the-then downward curve of demand better than many others.

The common thread all the way through this is volatility and the problems of adjusting to it. But there are no simple patterns in this. There are local ripples in the pond and there are global ones too. And that’s even before the tsunami. We’ve probably known over many years, however good the news looks today, that JLR isn’t exactly an optimal automotive manufacturer; we may have thought in the past that Honda was somewhere closer to the ideal, but today’s news shows that isn’t the case either. The simple truth is that there isn’t a simple, single truth here. And anyone who tells you otherwise, or tries to draw simplistic comparisons from events such as today’s, is having you on.

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