TV blog: Is Your Pension Safe?

Benjie Goodhart / 15 July 2016

Highlights this week include an analysis of the current pension issues, plus a riveting two-part documentary about Zaatari, a Syrian refugee camp.



Is Your Pension Safe? Channel 4 Dispatches, Monday 18th July, 8pm, Channel 4

Greater love hath no man than that he should watch a Dispatches about pensions for the sake of his telly blog. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I really, really don’t want pensions to go down the swanny. But when people start talking about fiscal issues, interest rates, pension deficits, hedge funds etcetera, my mind doesn’t so much wander as sprint off in the opposite direction with its fingers in its ears singing “LaLaLa I am not listening”.

I dutifully sat down to watch this programme, determined to concentrate like undiluted orange squash. I was going to understand the issues involved. I remember a woman talking about the effects of Brexit, and market volatility, and uncertainty being bad. And then I remember the end credits, and looking down and seeing I’d done a rather impressive doodle of a man in a cap wearing a bow tie, surrounded by shapes with patterns in them.

So I went and had a coffee. Then I started again. And you know what? I made it all the way through. Not in one go, obviously – I’m not a freakin’ machine, man! – but with a few judicious rewinds where I might have started thinking about my lunch, or football, or shoes, or butternut squash, I made it. And bits of it I even understood.

So here it is. (Editor’s Note: It’s probably not worth basing your life’s economic security on the following analysis):

Before Brexit, many employers were struggling to pay their pensions, because people are living longer, and we’ve had a challenging economic environment for so long. Now, post-Brexit, those problems are seriously exacerbated by a volatile market, a weak pound, the prospect of a long term economic slowdown, as predicted by the Bank of England, and an unavoidable fall in Interest Rates. Before Brexit, Britain’s defined benefit schemes were short of more than £800 billion. Now, it’s £900 billion. And worse is almost certainly to come.

Actually, the more you watch this, the more fascinating, and grimly sobering, it becomes. The lack of regulation of some pension funds is simply gobsmacking, like it’s okay to let some complete cowboy mess about with the retirement funds of thousands of people because he fancies giving it a go. Seriously. To run a Master Trust, which provides pensions to small businesses, all you have to do is tick a box saying you know what you’re doing. We don’t let people operate on our loved ones, or fly an aeroplane, on the basis of them turning up and ticking a box saying “Yeah, whatever, I reckon I can do this.” I mean, if that’s all it takes, anyone could run your pension fund. Literally anyone. The Cheeky Girls. The Chuckle Brothers. Me.

But listen, it’s very possible I got totally the wrong end of the stick. I would recommend you watch the programme, and then draw your own, informed conclusions. Ask questions. Listen to experts. Take advice. If this programme teaches us anything, it’s that we all need to be informed about what’s happening with our money. I think. It might have been saying everything’s brilliant, your pension’s never been safer, go out there and spend, spend, spend. But I don’t think so. Good luck, Mr Hammond.

The Refugee Camp: Our Desert Home, Thursday 21st July, 9pm, BBC One

Have you noticed how, every time we attempt to build something in this country, it ends up being three years late, and costing 6000 per cent more than the projected price? This goes for everything from having a fence built around your veg patch to constructing a parliament building or a tram link (yes, Edinburgh, I’m looking at you). Next time, I’m going to employ some Jordanian/Syrian workers. If their efforts in the city of Zaatari are anything to go by, they’re miracle-workers.

You probably haven’t heard of Zaatari. It didn’t exist two years ago. It’s a refugee camp in Jordan, a few miles over the border from Syria. It’s home to 80,000 people, a city the size of Bath. Obviously it’s not quite got Bath’s grandeur or beautiful Georgian architecture – prefabs is more the name of the game here – but it is a logistical wonder nevertheless.

It’s not a place filled with broken, emaciated figures living in tents surrounded by mud, as we imagine refugee camps to be. It has 24,000 homes. It has thriving, tarmacked high streets with shops selling everything from mobile phones to falafels to bikes to wedding dresses. It has several hospitals, countless schools, and a bakery that produces 90,000 loaves every day to feed the camp. It boasts 60 per cent employment – more than some communities in Europe. It is, in short, an astonishing achievement, one of the most remarkable places on Earth.

Hats off, then, to the BBC, for making this absolutely riveting two-part documentary, looking at the logistical challenges of running such a place, and also meeting just a handful of Zaatari’s population. The presenters are Anita Rani, A&E Doctor Javid Abdelmoneim and hostile environment expert Ben Timberlake. Each one of them is clearly astonished by Zaatari – you couldn’t not be. Just providing water for 80,000 people is a feat of genius involving engineering, mathematics, demographics, logistics and a whole load of ma-hussive trucks with big hoses.

They’ve even got a Safeway. Yes, that’s right. Everything you want from a store and a little bit more. Especially if what you want is a tinned good called “chicken luncheon”. An employee urges a clearly reluctant Rani to try it. Her face is a picture.

But while this is undoubtedly a success story, a triumph of human resilience, industry and ingenuity, it is also a tale heavy with tragedy. The hospitals here are full of kids who have lost limbs. And parents. Nobody wants to be here. But they carry on. Life continues. Babies are born. People get married. All human life is here.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 16th July

Tennis: Davis Cup: Serbia v GB: The doubles from Belgrade, potentially featuring Jamie Murray and his fabulously hungover brother Andy.

Golf: The Open Championship, 8pm, BC Two: Tonight and tomorrow night represent the business end of the most prestigious golf tournament of all. Presenter Hazel Irvine is surrounded by men in ill-advised knitwear at Royal Troon.

Sunday 17th July

Fake or Fortune, 8pm, BBC One: New series in which Fiona Bruce and art expert Philip Mould investigate whether someone’s picture is a masterpiece or a piece of old tat my five-year-old daughter could have daubed onto a canvas. Tonight, is a picture of a man in a cravat a Lucien Freud.

The Secret Agent, 9pm, BBC One: Odd new period drama series based on a Joseph Conrad book, boasting a stellar cast (Toby Jones, Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham, Ian Hart) and a fairly baffling script about anarchists, Russian agents, diplomats and whatnot.

Monday 18th July

Money for Nothing, 7pm, BBC Two: Sarah Moore finds stuff on rubbish tips, reinvents them, and tries to sell them for a profit. Clearly BBC Two isn’t paying what it might…

Rip Off Britain, 7:30pm, BBC One: The admirably formidable trio of Angela Rippon, Gloria Hunniford and Julia Somerville test standards and hygiene in some of Britain’s best known restaurants.

Trump’s Angry America – Panorama, 9pm, BBC One: Why an angry, orange, shouty man with weird hair could be the next President of the United States.

Eden, 9pm, Channel 4: A fascinating-sounding new reality series wherein 23 people are sent to a remote UK wilderness, with basically nothing, where they will attempt to build a society for a year (and also probably hook into some local Wifi so they can keep up with EastEnders).

The Big Brexit Debate Live: Divided Britain, 9pm, Channel 5: Channel 5 belatedly gets involved with the whole referendum vibe. For all I know, this debate will involve the Cheeky Girls and Chris Eubank.

The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire, 9pm, BBC Two: Peter Barton explores the unspeakable events of 100 years ago, and finds some evidence that challenges received wisdom. First of three.

Tuesday 19th July

Horizon, 8pm, BBC Two: Dr Xand van Tulleken (one half of the ubiquitous twins who are on TV more than the Go Compare man) looks at the physical effects of sports doping, including cognitive impairment, kidney damage, and testicular shrinkage.

New Zealand: Earth’s Mythical Islands, 9pm, BBC Two: First of a three-part series looking at the flora and fauna of New Zealand, possibly including hobbits and dragons.

Friday 22nd July

Athletics: London Anniversary Games, BBC Two, 8pm: People run about and throw stuff and even do some jumping. One of them is set to be a fellow called Usain, who can fair shift a bit.

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