BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Five years old

Jamie Donald | 10:47 UK time, Thursday, 10 January 2008

The Daily Politics was launched five years ago this Wednesday; next Thursday it will be five years since the launch of This Week; and as we enter the sixth year, both programmes are doing well.

The Daily Politics logoLet’s get the back patting out of the way: audiences for both were up last year, to new highs, so too were the measures for audience appreciation.

This Week can now keep well over a million people up and watching long past midnight in an age of gazillions of channels. Both programmes have won a number of national and international awards, which is rare for political programmes which have no special category in the luvvie and media firmaments. So happy birthday and well done to all who’ve sailed in the good ships Daily Politics and This Week since first they floated.

Diane Abbott, Michael Portillo and Andrew NeilA great deal has been constant for both programmes. Andrew Neil has presented throughout. Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo have remained the mainstays of This Week. The approach for both hasn’t altered, which is to concentrate on people not process, be brave and have fun. People still say they don’t really feel like BBC programmes, and I still take that as a compliment.

But a great deal has changed too. We’ve seen two Labour prime ministers, three Tory and four Lib Dem leaders. Several wars have come and gone; we’ve survived the Hutton Report and general elections both real and imagined. The BBC has thrown at us ‘Make it Happen’, ‘Value for Money’, ‘Creative Futures’ and now five more years of budget cuts.

Andrew Neil and Daily McAndrewWhen we first launched The Daily Politics I was convinced that a set involving green satin seats, pink cushions and a yellow lighting wash would make for an exciting and politically balanced look. The first review remarked on how Andrew Neil looked like the cherry on a particularly nasty knickerbocker glory.

We’ve gone all staid since. Daisy Sampson, Andrew’s first co-anchor became Daisy McAndrew and left for ITN, to be replaced by Jenny Scott. Laura Kuenssberg is now a regular on the Six and Ten O’Clock News. Ed the Bookie has had his day. And the competition for the mug – the great Daily Politics mug – was suspended last year, though I hope it will return next week.

Jenny Scott and Andrew NeilNot everything has gone right. When we first launched This Week, Michael and Diane were an emergency pair because Oona King had pulled out on us with a week to go.

My original plan had been to replace both Michael and Diane with another pair for the summer term, and to try yet another pair for the winter after that. We’d already signed Ann Widdecombe for the summer – but Michael and Diane proved so irresistible after the first run we didn’t use Ann as promised.

To this day this great media stalwart won’t appear on any of my programmes. The This Week election titles with Andrew in a feather boa miming to a satirized version of ‘Show me the Way to Amarillo’ wasn’t universally acclaimed. And the odd guest, like Shane McGowan from the Pogues, has provided endless hours of fun for the TV blooper programmes.

Alesha Dixon and Vince CableBut both programmes have also provided some vintage moments: for The Daily Politics my personal favourite was Andrew’s scoop that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and his questioning of the party leaders during their election press conferences; for This Week it was last month’s Christmas special with Vince Cable and Alesha Dixon dancing the waltz together (which you can watch here). If you have some vintage moments of your own you can go to the programme websites here and post your nominations.

As for the future, it’s steady as she goes; more of the same with a little less money. I know the programmes aren’t to everyone’s taste. Luckily the BBC has a plurality of political programmes, something for everyone – while the competition now seems to have none. But this year, after five years, I’m beginning to worry whether the programmes are as cutting edge for politics as I once thought them to be - still as relevent and challenging – or whether after all this time they could benefit from a fresh eye, a new look, and a different approach. If you have a view, let’s hear it.

Injunction talk

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Jamie Donald | 16:21 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2007

I wondered if we were broadcasting nonsense on The Daily Politics this morning. I woke to learn from the Guardian that police were investigating whether Lord Levy, the prime minister's fundraiser, had urged Ruth Turner, the prime minister's director of external relations, to modify information that might have been of interest to Scotland Yard's cash for honours inquiry.

The Daily Politics logoWas this not the story that for three days the BBC had been referring to but not allowed to report? Could we not on the programme today at last put some bones and flesh on the story?

I then decided I couldn't. The BBC's senior legal and management teams had some very clear advice. Of course we could say that the Guardian had printed a story, but if we reported the content we would fall foul of the very strict injunction on the BBC. The advice was also not to connect the Guardian story with the BBC story for fear of falling foul of the same injunction.

Unfortunately we couldn't explain the terms of our own injunctions. And it would be better not to report that the BBC was, that morning, asking for our injunction to be lifted or varied.

So we said what I thought we could. James Landale told Andrew Neil on air that the Guardian had a jolly good story which it had printed, but that he couldn't tell us about. And then he told Andrew the BBC had a separate jolly good story involving Ruth Turner and Lord Levy. And er... that was it, because of all the legal complications. Then James called the whole thing Kafkaesque. My hero.

There were two more turns of the knife. Had you been watching Sky News when James and Andrew were talking, you would have seen Sky merrily reporting the full details of the Guardian allegations, discussing them with all and sundry, and reporting the just released and robust denials from Lord Levy.

And to top it off, the injunction against the BBC was lifted just as we came off air, allowing Nick Robinson suddenly to report in full his story from Friday on News 24... about 12 hours after the Guardian.

Had I got this completely wrong? Maybe. Did the viewers understand what on earth we were on about? I suspect not. So should we have mentioned the story on the programme at all, given the limitations? Debatable, but I thought so. Was it a great day for the programme? You decide. But hats off to the Guardian.

Should sport come first?

Jamie Donald | 12:56 UK time, Tuesday, 23 January 2007

I’m not a tennis fan, nor do I support Scotland when it comes to sport, but I have to stand up for the schedulers on BBC2 who pulled The Daily Politics (and Working Lunch) yesterday to show the up and coming British tennis star Andy Murray try to defeat Raphael Nadal in the fourth round of the Australian Open.

The Daily Politics logoI know many fans of the programmes were upset: First, because The Daily Politics was delayed with a promise to show it after the tennis; second, because it was then dropped when the match went to five sets over four hours. I was sorry too. We had the programme all ready to go, and then pre-recorded it when it became clear our guests couldn’t stay. It included a great interview by Andrew Neil with Phil Woolas, the minister for communities, about the above inflation increases to the council tax (though you can watch it by clicking here) . It also included a film about Edward Heath in our ‘favourite post war prime minister’ series (watch that here), followed by an impression of the great man by the founder of Yo Sushi, Simon Woodruffe who was our guest of the day (watch that here).

But the schedulers were right to pull us for the tennis. We draw an average audience on a Monday of a quarter of a million for the Daily Politics. At noon, the tennis had an average audience of nearly a million. And it turned into a very exciting match, with Murray taking Nadal – the undisputed number two in the world – all the way. By the end over a million and a half viewers were cheering for him. We value sport at the BBC as much as politics, and while we at the Daily Politics can get on every day a match like yesterday’s doesn’t come along very often. Do you agree?

Some of you have suggested that we and the schedulers could have come up with some more creative solution to allow both programmes to be scheduled somewhere on the BBC – one was to break into the tennis for half an hour; another was to offer it on the red button; a third to make use of the digital BBC3 and BBC4 during the day.

Again, what’s your view: the schedulers will be reading this too.

Perception Panel

Jamie Donald | 09:53 UK time, Wednesday, 17 January 2007

I’ve had a lot of comments, for and against, about our Perception Panel – a new format we use around Prime Minister’s Questions on The Daily Politics every Wednesday. Jane wrote to us and said, “I no longer shout at my TV as I can now tell the politicians exactly what I think".

The Daily Politics logoBut then Manjit said (in response to my last blog entry)...

    What I would love for Jamie Donald to do is to come onto this blog and justify why the BBC continue to spend money on the Perception Panel and how much it exactly costs?

The Perception Panel is the world’s largest focus group. It can tell you straight away how people in Britain may be feeling about an issue or a politician. We run it every Wednesday, and to take part you must tune in just before Prime Minister’s Questions at noon, and ring the freephone number on the screen. You are asked some questions and then by pressing buttons on your phone you can register your positive and negative feelings about what you’re seeing and hearing on your TV. All those touches up and down the country are transformed – by a clever computer - into a continuous wave of approval and disapproval. After PMQs we show some of the highlights, with the moving graphic of the viewers’ reaction on top. You can see the results of last week on our website.

It costs about £1,000 each time we play. At the moment we pick up the full cost of the calls, and we’ve set the limit on the number of people who can get through at 600 (and we get literally thousands trying to ring in, so it’s a case of first come first served). It’s not perfect. For example it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between man and ball, sometimes the graphs are a little unclear (we’re working on it) and there’s a hint of the blunt Roman 'thumbs up thumbs down' about it.

perceptionpanel.jpgBut it is robust. That’s because we weight it. If you are a young Lib Dem voter in Liverpool (of whom we have not that many on the Daily Politics), our computer ensures your touch may be worth a little more than an older Tory man from the Home Counties, depending on the numbers of types of people who get through. It’s what the pollsters do all the time with their samples of public opinion, especially those who operate online rather than face to face. So while you may think it’s just a random sample of viewers to the programme (and so what value does it have beyond instant gratification and the pursuit of everything interactive) we see it as a fairly good snapshot of how Britain is reacting.

From it we’ve already picked up the strength of feeling about the NHS, the shift in women’s votes towards David Cameron, and how Labour in the North has turned on Tony Blair. It also spotted David Cameron as the next Tory leader a year ago, but Frank Luntz got there on Newsnight a day before us.

I’d like to know what you think, whether you’ve played the Perception Panel, seen it, or are reading about it for the first time.

Top PM?

Jamie Donald | 14:49 UK time, Tuesday, 9 January 2007

On the Daily Politics we're launching a new series, and an interactive vote to determine Britain's Greatest Post-War Prime Minister.

The Daily Politics logoEvery Monday from now until Easter we’ll showcase one of the ten post-war prime ministers, and ask viewers to give their judgement.

We’ve decided to exclude Churchill from the list, for two reasons: it would be impossible to disentangle his wartime and post-war leaderships; and, as the vote for Great Britons several years ago showed, he’d probably win by a mile anyway.

So that leaves nine men and one woman: Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. We have scripts, archive and celebrity champions for all of them bar poor old Eden - so if you’re interested in championing him let me know.

Downing St doorWe’re doing it because it’s a good way of marking Blair’s place in modern British history as he prepared to bow out as prime minister. And it will set up some strong debates: Thatcher v Blair; Heath v Wilson; who was the worst as well as the greatest; and are we right to leave out Churchill... what do you think?

We started today with a curtain raiser film and a debate between William Hague, Tony Benn and the historian Andrew Roberts (which you can watch here). The first vote was cast by a viewer from France for Ted Heath.

Surprisingly, Hague, Benn and Roberts all agreed on their top two ‘greatest’ - Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher - though they disagreed on the order. None were keen on Blair. And that’s how it stands in the popular vote as I write.

Anyone can vote anytime between now and Easter by visiting The Daily Politics website, and following the links. And as Today programme editor Ceri Thomas wrote in an earlier blog, even if you campaign for votes it won’t spoil the fun.

Saying sorry

Jamie Donald | 15:02 UK time, Wednesday, 4 October 2006

We've had nearly 200 complaints to our audience logs about our decision to switch away from live coverage of yesterday's speech by William Hague (watch it here) to the Conservative Party conference to instead interview Michael Howard. Here's a flavour of what's being said:

The Daily Politics logo"Did Labour pay for this to happen?"
"Even Michael Howard in the studio said he would rather watch William Hague's speech."
"Have you lost your minds? He is such a brilliant speaker."

I'd like to tell you there was a good reason. But I haven't one. So here goes: it was a poor editorial decision, I accept the criticism and I apologise. We'll try to learn from this mistake which I believe was uncharacteristic of the coverage as a whole; and I hope that those of you who were upset can understand that - when under the pressure of doing extended live coverage in fixed time slots - we can all make the odd unintentional error.

But now that's off my chest, I don't want the error to overshadow what was some great conference coverage over the past three weeks, and I don't want the apology to suggest I'm not very pleased with the programmes overall. Why?.

Little Andrew and Little JennyTake Little Andrew and Little Jenny: Three weeks ago I wrote about our recruiting them and my hopes for their impact on the attitudes of the young toward politics. Some very distinguished commentators rather rubbished the idea. Since then, they've interviewed the three men seeking to be prime minister, reported for The Daily Politics, led Newsround, been interviewed on a dozen regional news programmes, appeared on News at Ten, and featured on Conservative Home. Their contribution has been refreshing and insightful. And I know they've reached millions of viewers and listeners young and old.

Or take The Perception Panel - an innovative way of allowing audiences to engage with key speeches by recording their reaction directly into their phones and downloading the information onto air. You can find out more about it on the programme website. It's the world's largest interactive focus group, and the technology deserves to be used more widely by programme makers in every genre.

And of course, we've covered and analysed quickly and well over a hundred stories and speeches from the conferences themselves. In this light, my opening 'sorry' hasn't been the hardest word.

Little presenters

Jamie Donald | 10:31 UK time, Wednesday, 13 September 2006

One of the perils of being an editor is the brainstorm - that time when you know the ideas need refreshing, and you ask the team to come together to think up new ways of covering the same situations and stories.

The Daily Politics logoYou tell them - and you think you mean it - ‘the crazier the better’, ‘nothing is ruled out’, ‘think laterally’, and - most foolishly of all - ‘you can decide on the best ones and I promise we’ll carry them through’.

In the fashionable backwater that is political programmes we don’t have ‘watering holes’ or ‘green hat, red hat’ games when we brainstorm: we toss them out over drinks, laugh about them and vote.

And so it is that political programmes will be taking a Little Andrew Neil and a Little Jenny Scott to the conferences this year, and I have to defend it as a brilliant idea.

Little Jenny and Little AndrewOver 600 kids entered our competition - run with Newsround - to find a ‘Little Andrew and Little Jenny’. Thirty have been shortlisted and interviewed by phone. And the winners are 12-year-old Christopher Duffy from Inverclyde, and 12-year-old Becky Philips from Devon. We’ll take them to each conference for a day to report and interview leading politicians. And they’ll start with Sir Menzies Campbell at the Liberal Democrats conference a week on Monday.

You may say it’s a straight rip off of Little Ant and Little Dec on ITV, and so neither original nor appropriate to serious political coverage. Fair enough. But for me there are at least two good reasons for doing this, apart from the fact that it’s different and fun.

Politics is no longer the draw it used to be. Viewing figures are falling. Fewer people are voting. And most alarmingly, the average age of those who say they’re interested in politics is rising sharply. Very few people under the age of 45 take our political processes and institutions seriously. So 600 young hopefuls is a fantastic return before we’ve even started. And if it draws just a few more younger viewers to the conference coverage this autumn, and introduces the million and a half who watch Newsround every day to this annual political event, we’ll have done a public service.

Andrew Neil and Jenny ScottThe other reason: Little Ant and Little Dec got to interview the prime minister, and put to him some very challenging questions. For four years, Mr Blair and Mr Brown have consistently refused to be interviewed for the BBC’s conference coverage, believing it doesn’t reach the people they want to speak to. Maybe now they’ll change their minds.

Open Mic

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Jamie Donald | 16:46 UK time, Tuesday, 18 July 2006

‘Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey...’

The Daily Politics logoEveryone at The Daily Politics is humming the old Searchers hit after hearing the ‘open mic’ tape of George Bush and Tony Blair chatting informally at the G8 summit.

‘Yeah, he is sweet’ says Bush at one point. ‘He’s honey’, Blair replies.

We don’t know who they’re talking about – is it President Assad of Syria – and we’ve had a big argument in the office over whether Blair says ‘he’s honey’ or in fact says ‘he’s had it’. Our reporter Giles Dilnot, no mean hand with a mike, is convinced only the later interpretation makes sense of the whole exchange. Click here to listen and make up your own mind.

Is 'Yo! Blair' a friendly greeting from Bush to an equal, or patronising and disrespectful? Our linguist – Dr. Colleen Cotter from the University of London and an American to boot – thought it was just what you’d expect of two old mates kicking back at a summit. Some of the British papers this morning are more sceptical.

George Bush and Tony BlairAnd is ‘shit’ a good way to sum up what’s happening in Lebanon? Bush uses it (though on air we bleeped it out) and our linguist thought it was exactly the kind of language you’d expect in private conversation between friends. Again the papers disagree, some believing it say more about the American president’s grasp of diplomacy than the Middle East.

And then there’s the sweater. Or should that be jumper. Nick Clegg, the great Liberal Democrat hope, thought Tony had made a classic fashion mistake by picking out knitwear for George when the weather is so hot here and in Texas. But in the office we reasoned that if an American billionaire give John Prescott cowboy boots and a Stetson then Burberry is the only riposte.

Open mike cock-ups are legendary, and make fantastic talking points. Remember John Major calling half his cabinet ‘bastards’ when he thought the tape wasn’t rolling – or Prince Charles thinking he was too far away for reporters to hear him describing the BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell as an awful man.

The Blair-Bush exchange tops them both in my view, because it will be picked over for weeks for meaning, and for clues about one of the most important relationships in the world.

Jamie Donald is editor of live political programmes

Break in transmission

Jamie Donald | 17:12 UK time, Thursday, 29 June 2006

What goes through an editor's mind after his programme falls off air?

The Daily Politics logoToday on The Daily Politics, Jenny Scott gave a "big board" presentation on the troubles in Gaza - the kind of item where to tell the story we run pictures, graphics and clips into a big screen in the studio with a presenter, standing in front, linking them all together live.

Suddenly, in the middle of it, a picture of a bearded man in a studio flashed up, followed by the BBC Two caption saying there had been a break in transmission. We were back on air within two minutes; it was still a good show, and there weren’t loads of complaints; but there are two things I still think are worth talking about.

jennyscott.jpgThe first is about what went on in the studio. The problem was a straightforward bit of finger trouble: I won’t name names, but someone hit the wrong button in the gallery, was distracted by another problem and there we weren’t. The production team were understandably upset – all that work and careful preparation wasted. There was much grumbling. But to his eternal credit, the un-named button man, immediately owned up and then sent an e-mail to the entire production team apologising to each of them. That was a great move. But it made me think...

We all make mistakes. It was unfortunate for him that this one was at the end of the production chain and immediately apparent to anyone watching. Mine are never so exposed, but might often be much more damaging. When I (or any of my producers) make a bad call on a story, miss a key fact, rubbish a reporter, or perhaps – whisper it gently, despite my devotion to the BBC guidelines – let something untrue hit the air, the consequence is not there for all to see. But the effect is long-term, rarely addressed, and almost never the subject of an e-mail of apology to those affected.

The other thing worth talking about is the effect on the audience. Though it may not look like it, we spend a bit of time in meetings at The Daily Politics to find and produce the angles on the day's stories that are political and will move the narrative on. Today, before we were rudely interrupted, the big board would have laid before our audience some important facts; on the nature of the conflict in Gaza, and on the limits to British political influence there.

So the instant calculation when we went off air was this: to stop and reset everything so the argument could be followed by everyone once we returned to air – or to plough on with the big board regardless, unwatched, apologise once we came back on air and hope people picked up the gist anyway in the interviews that followed. I chose the latter course.

As I said we didn’t get many complaints, and I don’t think the viewing figures were affected. People either didn’t notice, haven’t written or rung yet, or were as engaged by the Auntie’s Bloomer unfolding in front of them as by the original story. So I’m inclined to think it was the right thing to do, and have told everyone we handled it brilliantly. But I’m still not sure. And it may prove to be another mistake which, unlike the one by my much appreciated technical colleague, will remain unnoticed and undiscussed. Perhaps I should apologise to him.

Getting MPs fit

Jamie Donald | 13:45 UK time, Monday, 22 May 2006

I’m sure we’ll take some stick for doing this. There’ll be those who think it’s not right to give Mark Oaten a platform, or take MPs away from their legislation and constituents. There will be others who think it's unseemly or a waste of the licence fee. Some of the bloggers out there already given us some feedback. Here’s a sample:

The Daily Politics logo• "That's just conjured images of green lycra that I just didn't need." (The Vented Spleen)
• " [Mark Oaten] should be aware though that all this exercise will not get him his hair back."
(Peter Black AM)
• "[You] can already sense the shudders from some party stalwarts who will feel that this kind of public spectacle (entertainment) on national TV won't do the party's image any good.
(Susanne Lamido)
• "Get a hat and suitable condiments ready." (Guido Fawkes)

As you’d expect, I’m a big fan of both the idea and the execution. Think Jamie Oliver and School Dinners. Think too about politics and engagement; about the issues facing ordinary people. Think seeing the mighty struggle, the powerful sweat, and those remote and gilded villagers of Westminster being put through a lot of pain and anguish. It’s all there.

As for my own pain and anguish – it’s pretty much over now. The heart rate is settling, the tremors are lessening and I wish I could say I feel better for it. Well maybe a little. You can catch the series – which we’re calling The Body Politics - every Monday for the next six weeks on The Daily Politics on BBC Two at Noon. We’re also going to run little tasters on the days in between. There’s more background, and video of the Body Politics, on our Daily Politics website.

Mark Oaten's punishment

Jamie Donald | 10:31 UK time, Monday, 22 May 2006

I am not enjoying this form of exercise. Really – I’m not. My heart is pounding, I feel sick in the stomach, the sweat is beginning to prickle on my arms and shoulders, and my hands are trembling. It’s my very first blog posting.

The Daily Politics logoBut that’s nothing compared to the exercise that’s facing four members of the great and the good over the next six weeks. They’re going to be prodded and poked, measured and weighted, bullied and sweated. They’re going to tone up their bodies, lose pounds of fat (but hopefully none of their dignity), and try to eat and drink properly. All in a good cause.

The Daily Politics on BBC Two is filming three MPs and a baroness as they take part in a diet and fitness regime to help themselves shape up, and lead the way in tackling the obesity crisis facing Britain. From Monday until the end of June the Daily Politics cameras will follow them as they get training instruction from the formidable Body Doctor, David Marshall at his London gym. And from what I’ve seen so far, it’s looking great.

The highlights are the agonies of the MP, Mark Oaten. You remember him - home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, family man and would-be leader of the party, whose affairs with rent boys were exposed earlier this year.

oaten.jpgWhy’s he doing it? Well, there’s a relationship between absolution, pain and humiliation: think hair shirts, pilgrimages on one’s knees, and self-flagellation. So I think it’s an act of penitence. Others think it might just be cheap publicity as part of a hopeless attempt at a comeback. But this is what Mark himself told us: "Exercise is a way of cleansing the brain – it’s a mental health thing and I want to learn how to do that."

Whatever his reasons, he is suffering. He’s trying to give up chocolate. He’s got to limit and improve his eating and drinking. And his regime is a punishing one: an hour-and-a-half three times a week for six weeks. Each visit he’ll do a 15-minute warm up, a 45-minute full body workout involving all the muscle groups, and a 30-minute cardiovascular session. At one point in his first session he – nearly – couldn’t take it. He was on his knees whimpering.

Although Mark has rather hijacked the attention surrounding the series – with a series of interviews to the media about how its all part of his comeback from hair loss – the films are actually about much more than him.

There’s Sailesh Vara, the fortysomething Tory MP from Cambridgeshire, who used to hold a black belt in a martial art in his youth, and who’s trying to recapture the glory days of his six pack and 30-inch waist. He wants his constituents, the Indian community and Conservatives everywhere to take up the health message.

With him is Meg Hillier, one of the new intake of Labour MPs, who’s 37 and from Hackney. She’s well up for it, and her plan is to get rid of her "mummy tummy", and push the health message through to kids everywhere. Though she’s quite fit, she’s also finding it very tough.

Then there’s Susan Greenfield, the svelte barnoness with the big brain, leading scientist and member of countless academies, who at fiftysomething is the oldest of the group, but the one with the fewest pounds to shift. For her it’s about getting the more-than-middle-aged to understand how diet and activity can keep you feeling younger and healthier.

They’re all as interesting as Mark Oaten in their own ways.

But perhaps the real star is the Body Doctor himself – David Marshall, trainer to sports starts, celebrities like Ant and Dec, and now MPs. His very high tech gym in Chelsea is the base of all operations. And his approach puts the toughest chief whip and most acerbic Speaker to shame.

How's this for a manifesto pledge: ‘The end product is the empowerment of the individual and their complete and utter belief and knowledge that they and not us have been the primary factor in their physical mental and emotional improvement." He’s devised the punishment, he’s a tartar, but he’s also very good.


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