Fine words butter no parsnips

Bishop Hill blogged about how the BBC forced George Alagiah to quit his role as a Fairtrade charity patron. His Grace wrote:

Does it strike anyone else that the BBC have got this the wrong way round? Allowing BBC journalists to make programmes about issues on which they are active campaigners would indeed lead to biased programming. But merely demanding that they leave their official posts in those campaigns doesn’t change a thing. We now know that George Alagiah is an active campaigner for Fairtrade. Ergo his programme on the subject is still biased, whether he has left his position as patron or not.

I’d like to look at two subsequent letters to the Times written by BBC top brass in response to a letter from various charities (that is, charities and “charities”) complaining about Mr Alagiah being forced to quit. The bold type in the quoted letters was added by me. Here’s the first BBC reply:

Sir, The charities that ask that George Alagiah be reinstated as patron of the Fairtrade Foundation neatly articulate the reason why we asked George to step down from this role in the first place. Their letter (Aug 8) says that the Fairtrade Foundation seeks to “transform trading in favour of the poor and disadvantaged”. Such an ambition is the prerogative of the charities. Many may find it admirable, though others may take a different view of global economic priorities.

It is not the business of BBC journalism to take a view on this or to be perceived to take a view. We are committed to due impartiality, which means we do not take sides on issues of controversy including the fairness of the global trade system. Our job is to represent all sides in an argument accurately and fairly, and test them as rigorously as we can to allow our audiences to reach their own judgments.

And it is not enough for our journalism to be impartial. We must also be seen to be impartial. That is why it is inappropriate for a BBC journalist to take a high-profile, public role representing an organisation which, as the charities’ letter makes clear, takes a very particular view of the controversial issue of global trade.

Helen Boaden

BBC Director of News

Fine words! I really approved of the tone of that letter. I liked the second BBC response – that came after a further letter of complaint – even better:

Sir, Michael Mitzman (letters, Aug 12) misunderstands the BBC’s commitment to impartiality. Yes, of course we would give airtime to those in favour of, as he defines it, “unfair” trade practices, should the story demand it. We would also give airtime to their opponents and a range of views in between. More likely, we would also want to hear the views of those who believe in the untrammelled operation of the market, even though that might give rise to “unfair” trade.

In Burma we would be very keen to hear and test the arguments of the generals were they ever to grant us access. We would challenge all those views with vigour but as long as they fall within the law and within our own code of taste and decency, it would be entirely against our commitment to plurality of voice and due impartiality to exclude them. Assuming a liberal consensus is dangerous for any news organisation.
Putting someone on air and testing their argument is not an endorsement by the BBC — the BBC does not have a view — rather it is allowing the audience to hear the whole story. Our job is to find the facts, test a wide range of opinion fairly and rigorously and let the audience, armed with the best assessment of the evidence we can provide, make up its own mind. And given that, it is important that our journalists, who carry the brand of the BBC, do not take on public roles that call into question the BBC’s impartiality on issues of controversy or dispute.

David Jordan

Director, Editorial Policy and Standards, BBC

Very fine words. Really, could scarcely be bettered. Only…

How does the BBC cover trade? How does it go about ensuring that all sides of the story are heard? All this caught my eye because in 2004 I wrote a post called Fair Trade 4 Kidz which dealt with the way Children’s BBC handled trade issues. Looking over five articles I found literally half a sentence that was not promoting the idea that trade was exploitation and corporations oppressors. I was particularly struck by the fact that all the links provided were to bodies like Oxfam and Make Trade Fair. There were no links to any pro-trade organisation. Come 2005 I posted Fair Trade 4 Kidz Part II. Basically, I called up the CBBC Newsround website, typed “trade” into the search box and saw what I got. Among the things I got were two lesson plans, one written by Christian Aid and one by the Fairtrade Foundation. Yes, the same Fairtrade Foundation that Mr Alagiah supports. Why does the BBC website host lesson plans provided by bodies who, by its own admission, support only one side of the argument about trade?

Well, that was then, you might say. What is there now? So off I went back to the CBBC Newsround website, typed in “trade” again and got…

Do you care about fair trade? Somehow I don’t think that the next story was called “Have you ever heard of selection bias?”

Big protest at trade talks. Contained “A draft agreement from the summit has already been attacked by relief agencies, with ActionAid calling it “a disgrace and an insult to poor people all over the world”. Also had a link to the same piece about the WTO as I mentioned in the Fair Trade 4 Kidz II post – lots about why protestors hate it, nothing to the contrary view.

How fair is international trade? A lesson plan! With a picture of a puppet! The same lesson plan and the same puppet as the one I mentioned in both the earlier post as provided by Christian Aid… only all reference to Christian Aid has gone and it is presented as the BBC’s own. Funny.

By then I was running into stories I’d covered earlier. But I had an inspiration – instead of typing “trade” in the searchbox I would type in “Fairtrade”.
Whointroducedthiswordtothedictionary, anyoneknow?

And I got…

Do you support Fairtrade products?, Cadbury to make Fairtrade chocs, There should be more fairtrade easter eggs, We rapped with Shystie for Fairtrade, Why I support Fairtrade products

UPDATE: A further thought or two. I asked above who introduced this new all-in-one word “Fairtrade” to the dictionary. The answer is, of course, supporters of “Fairtrade” such as the Fairtrade Foundation. If the BBC were to be as exquisitely careful about avoiding all loaded words as it is with the word “terrorist”, then it would say not “Fairtrade” but “fair trade” – or indeed “fair trade”. After all, it’s keen enough on the scare quotes in other contexts! But talking of the t-word, I suddenly remembered where I’d heard of Helen Boaden. She is the one who sent out the memo saying that the 7/7 bombers could not be referred to “terrorists”, for fear it might offend the World Service audience. The BBC has the duty to be impartial between shades of opinion within the democratic pale and it also has the duty to not be impartial between those within and without the pale; in this example, between the victims of murder and their murderers.

The Rielle Story

Did you know the BBC has only mentioned Rielle Hunter once ever on its website?

I didn’t intend to post about this. It just happened I had read on some US blogs and in the papers that John Edwards was being investigated by a Federal Grand Jury over illegal payments to Ms Hunter to buy her silence over their affair and was, you know, checking the BBC website for news about it. Silly me.

Seems odd. John Edwards is quite an important person – if the 2004 election had gone the other way he’d have been Vice President of the United States of America, and he had hopes that were not by any means crazy of becoming President himself. Furthermore one would have thought that the story had a certain degree of human interest – Edwards cheating on his terminally ill wife, the love child, getting his aide to take the rap, the birth certificate with no father listed, finally getting caught by the National Enquirer when all the respectable papers wouldn’t look at the story.

“John Edwards” is a common name. A search gives loads of irrelevant results. I did try “John Edwards” and “affair” – didn’t get much. In fact I couldn’t find any other mention of the affair other than the story I linked to above, though I didn’t search through all the thousands of results. It’s almost as if the BBC didn’t want to talk about a Democrat behaving badly.

I suppose one of these days the BBC will run a second story on the matter.

There were a hundred and twenty seven stories on the BBC about a sex scandal (which didn’t involve any actual sex) concerning the Republican Mark Foley. Foley represented the 16th District of Florida in the House of Representatives.

UPDATE: Aha! I thought to do a search for “John Edwards” and “National Enquirer”. I found … three mentions in BBC blogs.

Invisible UKIP

In the first comment to David’s post about the Norwich North by-election, an anonymous commenter said:

I caught the commentary on The World At One. The report included the returning officer reading the results for the Labour Party, Liberal Democrat Party, Green Party, Conservative Party and …. no, that was it.

As a listener, I got the impression the Greens came fourth. No mention of UKIP beating the Greens in to fifth place (and coming pretty close to the Lib Dems).

This was backed up by a comment from GCooper who said:

JeffD’s report was more or less the same as the one on the BBC R4 6pm news roundup I listened to a few minutes ago.

With one exception. The announcer said ‘….Labour were beaten into second place, ahead of the Lib Dems and the Greens…”
Used as I am to the shocking political bias routinely displayed by the BBC, even I was poleaxed by that.

Again, see this post from Bishop Hill:

I was just listening to the BBC coverage of the Norwich by-election on Radio 4. The reporter was talking about Labour holding on to second place, “ahead of the LibDems and the Greens”.

The problem with this is that UKIP were in fourth place, 600 votes ahead of the Greens.

Can’t mention UKIP on primetime, can we?

Update on July 24, 2009 by Bishop Hill
I notice that UKIP are complaining that the BBC froze them out in favour of the Greens during the run up to the election too. There’s a clear pattern emerging isn’t there?

Some writers of BBC dramas speak out.

In last week’s episode of the ground-breaking new drama “Left of Centre”, the Guardian published a lament about the state of BBC drama by veteran producer Tony Garnett. The BBC’s drama commissioning controller Ben Stephenson responded, using the word “passionate” four times and – controversially – saying that the BBC ought to promote “left of centre” thinking. (The Biased BBC specials dealing with this story are to be found below.) But his was not the only defence of the BBC. The Guardian also published “TV writers in support of BBC drama” in which

Along with Ben Stephenson’s blog, the BBC passed on the following comments from a selection of TV writers

Someone ought to fire the scriptwriter for this one. They were so exactly like you’d expect BBC writers to be that I began to wonder whether they weren’t parodies. Here’s Tony Jordan (EastEnders, Holby Blue, Hustle, Life On Mars) (Emphasis added by me in both excerpts):

Do I prostitute my vision for a fast buck or do I stop the process and put my beloved script back in the drawer and wait for its time to come? As I write this, my bottom drawer is bulging with scripts that saw the light of day briefly and came under sustained attack before being rescued from the brink of whoredom.

Why? Because I’m an artist, not a fucking arse licker.

During my time at EastEnders, I wrote almost two hundred episodes. My chest still bulges with pride at every single one of them, reaching out to an audience of 20 million-plus in its heyday still gives me a hard on.

Guardian commenter “acme” suggested Viagra. Equally stereotypical in a different mode was Billy Ivory (Common as Muck)*:

Because television has changed massively. There is no longer the solid block of white, middle-class, metropolitan, male viewers sitting in their droves, waiting to lap up a certain kind of programme once it is put before them. The TV demographic has changed and misty-eyed remembrance of times past is inadequate as TV tries to shake itself up to compete with the new media to capture the current audience for TV drama.

At the same time one has to acknowledge that there IS less cash around and the BBC is a public service broadcaster, which must cater for a broad church (not just that white, middle-class, male, heterosexual one … am I going on about that? Well, that’s because it’s such a critical point and one which MUST be considered in remembering the good old days of drama; who was the audience?) so of course it’s going to be hands on in how it develops its output. It can’t just chuck cash at it.

Finally, one has to be aware that the arts in this country have always been prey to the most awful snobbery. Remember the 1970s and the time when certain cinemas were called FILM THEATRES?

Why? Because the middle classes always want to claim the good art, the thoughtful art, the liberal art, for themselves.

That mention of “liberal” art is just the same sort of Freudian slip as Stephenson’s “left of centre” thinking.

*That’s a credit, not a comment.

Left of centre, off of the strip…

BBC executive says corporation should foster ‘left-of-centre thinking’ reports the Telegraph.

Hat tip: DB, who wrote in the comments to David Vance’s earlier post on this: “An anonymous commentator mentioned the Ben Stephenson piece in the comments here yesterday. I brought it to the attention of Conservative Home where Jonathan Isaby blogged it. This led to the Tory culture and media spokesman commenting on it, as did a number of Telegraph bloggers. The Daily Mail has run a story on it and today I see that it’s on the front page of the Telegraph. Not bad going.”

Not bad at all.

Takes me back, this does. I just went on iTunes and spent 79p on a little Suzanne Vega nostalgia. Having spent three minutes back in 1986 I can almost, sort of, maybe believe Ben Stephenson’s claim that:

“Like ‘left-field’, it is a phrase that I use with frequency when talking to the creative community to encourage them to develop and approach their ideas from a completely new perspective,” he said.

Correction: that he frequently uses the phrases “left field” and “left of centre” when talking to the “creative community”, that I believe 100%. I bet they lap it up.

The bit I almost – but not quite – believe is that he really doesn’t think he is being political. I didn’t believe it of Suzanne Vega either.

Everything in the garden is lovely.

Apologies if someone has already posted or commented on this outpouring of Obamalove from Matt Frei. It’s a month old now but still astonishing.

Turning one corner of the White House lawn into a vegetable allotment was an inspired move. And like just about everything else the First Family has turned its attention to, it seemed to come naturally.

The Obamas do not look awkward doing normal things.

Considering the combination of limelight and expectations weighing on the White House, this is quite an achievement.

George W Bush smirked too much, displaying the unbearable lightness of his being at inappropriate times. His father was accused of not knowing what a supermarket checkout scanner was.

I love that “was accused of”. Was it too much trouble for the BBC (aim: to be the world’s most trusted provider of international news) to check out this rumour on Snopes and establish whether the accusation was – what was that word again? – oh, yes, true?

As a candidate, Barack Obama showed that he can harness the power of the Internet and reach out to millions of eager foot-soldiers while keeping the decisions that matter confined to a tiny kitchen cabinet.

Apart from a few slip-ups, he has maintained that mixture of outer charm and inner discipline, of outreach and exclusivity

But what I do remember is that they hit the right note and touched the right nerve at the right time.

On the economy, he was sober without being too pessimistic. On bankers’ bonuses, he shared our outrage without inciting the masses to put heads on stakes. On life in the White House, he combined humility, pride and fun at being the boss with bemusement at life in the armoured bubble.

He told Europe that America had been too arrogant and then chastised Europeans for being prone to a knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

On swine flu, he said there was reason to be concerned but no cause for alarm.

Fear the flu. But flu is not to be feared. When you understand this koan, said the Master, then you will have enlightenment.

He is both bold and measured. It is called nuance – and America and the world have been yearning for it.

America and the World: Yearning for Nuance Since November 3rd 2004.

The marriage of reassuring language and bold policy has been his true victory in the first 100 days.

And there I was thinking his true victory was something to do with General Motors.

I knew I would be writing this post.

Via Samizdata I found this post by Timothy Sandefur: They’re fanatics; we just have isolated incidents. Mr Sandefur writes:

This week a religious fanatic, driven by his ideological fixations, shot and killed a man that, for political and religious reasons, he considered a murderer. The fanatic drove off and was later caught by police. Of course, the killer himself harbored a idiosyncratic mix of toxic religious and political ideology that led him into violent hatred of the institutions of freedom and those who live in freedom. But was he also not encouraged by a background of more “mainstream” partisanship in which political spokesmen—television and radio talk show hosts, bloggers, and political leaders—speak in increasingly angry, bitter, and violent terms of their political opposition? The political atmosphere has seen more and more spokesmen speaking in anger, hostility, and disrespect about those they view as their enemies, and this breakdown in civility must have had some impact on this gunman.

By the way, I’m not speaking of the murder of George Tiller in Kansas.

Mr Sandefur was not writing about the BBC particularly. But I am, and the BBC provided at least four stories on the Tiller murder:

Man charged in US doctor killing

Man quizzed over US doctor death

Profile: George Tiller

US abortion doctor is shot dead.

This level of coverage is reasonable in that it was not just a random killing or a murder motivated by gain or personal animosity. Rather, it was the first targeted assassination of an abortion provider for over ten years. (In fact, if I may digress, the length of time since the last such murder might surprise many, since the media usually give the impression that such killings are common in the US.) It is reasonable to fear that the murder of George Tiller might be followed by others. It might be part of a terrorist movement. But the same, surely, is true of the killing of William Long?

“William Long,” you say. “I haven’t heard about the killing of William Long.” No, you haven’t, not on the BBC at any rate. Nor have you heard about Quinton Ezeagwula who was wounded in the same crime. Nor have you heard from the BBC about the killer, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad.

UPDATE: Commenter DB points out that he mentioned this in the comments on June 2nd.

BBC Blankety-Blank a.k.a. Name That Party. Part Big High Number.

Compare two stories about allegations of political corruption from today’s BBC front page.

First, one from the States:

Illinois Senator Roland Burris has denied that he attempted to “buy his seat” from the state’s disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich.

What party do any of these people represent? One might make a guess from the fact that Blagojevich was arrested for corruption and transcripts were released of his discussion of what he could get for selling then-Senator Obama’s seat after he became President. Or from the fact that there’s a story headed “Senate Democrats endorse Burris” in the “See Also” column. But the BBC does not feel the need to explicitly mention it in any of the approximately 450 words of the story.

Contrast that with:

Tory MP Julie Kirkbride has admitted “it might appear strange” that her sister Karen worked as her secretary 140 miles from her constituency.”

It’s not the jokes, it’s how you tell ’em

(NB: This post is not by Natalie, but by occasional B-BBC poster Niall Kilmartin.)

It’s not the jokes, it’s how you tell ’em: BBC red-button news this morning reported the arrests in the US. The final sentence of the report was:

New York has been on alert for a new terror assault since the 9/11 attack claimed by Al Quaida militants

(no emphasis in original) Al Quaida do indeed claim the attack and one would hardly accuse them of lacking militancy, so the sentence is not factually wrong. It seems an odd way to put it – except, I suppose, inside the BBC, where it presumably seems natural to phrase things to accommodate the ‘truther’ viewpoint. (As the post below suggests, some other viewpoints get less consideration.)

Similar ‘how you tell it’ thoughts occurred to me during last night’s 10 o’clock BBC news in a piece on the never-ending expenses scandals. As usual, numbers were balanced: they mentioned one Labour MP and one Tory MP (there are few LibDem MPs so I concede some difficulties in their mentioning a LibDem every time as well). The report on Hazel Blears consisted almost entirely of a summary of Labour MPs’ sympathy for her and criticism of Gordon’s criticism. It was all reportage of others’ views but it had a ‘sorry for her’ flavour and lacked balancing hostile remarks – except Gordon’s, and ‘her behaviour was unacceptable but she’s doing a great job’ (I paraphrase) is already balanced, whatever else you may say about it. No such considerate remarks were reported of the Tory MP whose ducks benefited from our taxes; no suggestion that spending public money on wildlife habitat was very much the norm these days. 🙂 To be sure, there were probably no sympathetic remarks to report: David Cameron’s statement about him was not as ‘balanced’ as Gordon’s about Hazel, and if any Tory felt otherwise, perhaps they (wisely) kept it to themselves.

What more do you want?

The headline of this BBC news story reads, “Sri Lanka leader hails ‘victory'” The same headline, along with the first few lines of this story, also appears as top story on the main BBC news page today.

What’s with the scare quotes round “victory”? I can go with the quotes round “liberated” a few lines later. That’s a matter of opinion. But it is a fact, not an opinion, that the Sri Lankan government has won a victory over the Tamil Tigers. The BBC itself writes that the Tigers are “finished as a conventional military force”. The Tigers’ leader is dead. They hold no territory. They have surrendered.

This is starting to sound like the Dead Parrot sketch. But do you get my point here, Beebfolk? Even if the Tigers were to stage a comeback, this, today, is still a victory. Or are you trying to convey that, “In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers,” as Neville Chamberlain put it in 1938?