Quotes, ‘present’ and absent

: several posts on this blog have remarked the BBC use of what some of my colleagues call ‘scare’ quotes to distinguish between left-wing experts and right-wing ‘experts’, right-wing terrorists and islamic ‘terrorists’ and so on (see examples here and here). An amusing story on BBC Ceefax yesterday (it may in time be less amusing for the baby girl involved, of course :-/) gave a classic example of not using quotes.

US Man gives birth to daughter

The story was that a woman who had had a ‘sex change’ operation (arguably a rather unsuccessful one even by the low standards of these things :-)) had acquired sperm from a sperm bank / anonymous donor and so given birth. The story seemed to give the facts clearly enough (I certainly have no criticism on that score): the woman was stated to have had her breasts amputated (and perhaps other cosmetic assistance towards presenting herself as a man in society) but had not been neutered, so her still being able to give birth was no surprise.

Now, I can quite see that from a professional journalist’s point of view, the headline

Woman gives birth to daughter

lacks something, but I found myself musing on why the headline was not

‘Man’ gives birth to daughter

and why the story used male pronouns throughout, always he, never ‘he’.

The story did indicate that she had, after the operation, managed to get herself legally registered as a man. ‘The law is an ass’ is a well-known quote and I should in fairness raise the abstract possibility whether the BBC might actually credit her with the ability to sue if not referred to as he, or (not quite so unlikely) be colourably able to pretend such concern. However it seems more likely that there were no quotes for the usual reason: if it suits the agenda, report it straight (or should I say ‘straight’ in this case :-)); if it does not, report it in quotes.

Whatever the reason, next time any of my colleagues wish to question the BBC’s use of quotes, this non-use will give them a demanding standard to judge by: most right wing ‘experts’ and islamic ‘terrorists’ are less deserving of quotes than was this ‘man’.

If it doesn’t fit the agenda …

. The BBC’s Burma coverage since the cyclone always speaks of ‘generals’ or ‘the military’ when discussing the regime. After more than a week with no clue to the ideology of the regime in any of the reports I caught, I had to go to reference works and Wikipedia to discover that (quoting the latter):

Democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d’état. He ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies under the rubric of the Burmese Way to Socialism. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a Revolutionary Council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control (including the Boy Scouts) …. Between 1974 and 1988, Burma was effectively ruled by General Ne Win through the Burma Socialist Programme Party

(For the whole wikipedia entry on the involved history of military rule in the country, go here.)

This socialist origin and orientation of military rule in Burma seems to have been airbrushed out of routine BBC coverage. The mention of ‘generals’ and ‘military’ with no hint of their ideology has an obvious tendency to suggest a right-wing regime rather than the left-wing regime it more appears to be. Is this actual deceptive intent, unconscious prejudice, mere carelessness, mere brevity of reporting, mere ignorance, …? Take your pick.

[Added a few hours later] To be fair, I can believe the Burmese junta does not shout about ‘socialism’ as loudly now as in the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union (when it was more fashionable), and with frequent coups of one general against another it may be hard to say just what their current ideology is – beyond holding onto power, of course. I conjecture a situation similar to China: an unrepudiated socialist past but with little ideological rigour today. My reason for posting is that I found myself wondering whether, if the regime had a similarly-explicit right-wing origin, I would have found it equally easy not to hear of it during a week of coverage.

[highlighting of text in wikipedia quote added by me]

Insensitivity Training

is what I sometimes think the BBC needs but there are limits. On today’s six-o-clock news, a BBC reporter spoke of the ‘insensitivity’ of the school teacher in Sudan who allowed her class to name their teddy bear ‘Mohamed’.

The reporter’s words contrast with the carefully neutral tone in which he (like all other BBC coverage I’ve seen) described Sudanese actions. They could, of course, say that comment is needless. And I could say the same about their calling the teacher’s action ‘insensitive’.

Freudian typo :-)

: at 19:30 tonight on BBC 1, you can watch a ‘Saving Planet Earth’ programme from Cameroon about

”how young gorillas are being orphaned by the Bush meat trade” (BBC CEEFAX)

Despite the capital B, I suspect the programme is not going to expose the appalling consequences of a hitherto-concealed taste for exotic tucker on the part of the U.S. president. We all hit the wrong key at times.

Propaganda Victory, Propaganda Defeat

: the BBC 10 o’clock news report (Wednesday May 16th) on the MOD decision not to let Prince Harry go to Iraq was an interestingly pure example of a kind of bias the beeb has acquired in the years between WWII and now. It was (I’m most pleased to be able to say) virtually unmixed with any of the other kinds of bias we often blog about here (what I talk about below could therefore be studied in its pure state).

Back in 1986, when three kidnapped Britons were murdered in Lebanon after the U.S. bombed Libya from UK bases, the BBC fell over itself in eagerness to give the terrorists the propaganda advantage they sought by the murders. (This was so obvious that pointed contrasts were drawn at the time between the beeb’s, “Britain is paying the price for its support of the U.S. … “, and ITV’s ,“Three kidnapped Britons were killed today … A spokesman for the group said it was in retaliation for the U.S. bombing …”.) This unwholesome enthusiasm has often been seen since but was pleasantly absent from last night’s report, which did not yet again wheel out Reg Keys or similar for predictable negative comment. The framing remark that opened their summary of Warminster views, about Prince Harry and others of the royal family being “… usually popular here but now …” was hardly necessary, but that’s a very minor point. Showing yet another cameo of April’s British casualties in Iraq was also somewhat irrelevant since it is fairly clear that it was the Iranian-backed threat to kidnap and torture the prince, not the long-known-and-accepted threat of death or injury, that caused the MOD’s reversal, but this fact did emerge strongly from the overall report so that too is a very minor (perhaps even carping) point.

What was lacking was any counterpoint to the report’s closing line about the propaganda victory we have given to Iran. The whole report simply led naturally to this line. Yes, indeed, we have given them a propaganda victory. In WWII, Germany sent films of its army and airforce in action to neutral countries. Their message was clear: see our tanks blasting your neighbours, our planes bombing them – this can be you if you don’t cooperate with us. Thus Germany gained a propaganda victory from its acts. These films were re-shown in British newsreels; you can hear the disdain in the voice of the British announcer saying, “This is what Germany is proud of.” Thus the Nazis’ propaganda victory was also their propaganda defeat: they got respect from their ruthlessness and military skill, and they got a lack of respect from the same thing. In those days, British media coverage hid neither the one nor the other.

The Iranian government (it would seem from the BBC’s report, and I can very well believe it for many other reasons as well) are extremely ready, nay eager, that their agents in Iraq arrange the kidnap and torture of the prince (or presumably, of anyone else suitably prominent whom they can hope to capture) and have made such effective and convincing preparations to support this that the MOD are no longer willing to take the risk. That we are so unsure we can protect him in Iraq is a propaganda victory for them, and would have been in WWII. That they are so very ready to do such a thing would have been a propaganda defeat for them in WWII. Will we hear a BBC announcer say that, “This is what the Iranian government is proud of.” ? One may hope.

[All quotations from memory after the programme.]

Unconscious lack of bias

: heard on BBC2 (circa 20:00, 9th April, advertising a later programme)

Experts say it’s now or never to tackle climate change …

Taken literally, this is a very balanced presentation of the two main viewpoints on this subject. Some experts state that humans cause global warming and we must act now. Other experts regard that theory as scientific nonsense and see never as a more appropriate time to do the pointless and costly actions it recommends.

Alas, something in her tone persuaded me that the presenter did not mean it that way.

Biting the hand

: at one time, a desire to denigrate Wilberforce was a sign of liking slavery. Now it is the latest thing in politically-correct chic. “In Search of Wilberforce” (BBC2, 21:00 – 22:00, Friday 15th March) was actually in search of ways to belittle him. His memorial states that

… his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity … [1]

but he has not, it would seem, outlived the enmity of presenter Moira Stewart and suchlike politically-correct BBCers.

The belittling was pursued by the usual PC techniques of demeaning emphases and questions (“He is called …”, “But did he actually …) and the setting up of straw men to be demolished. One of these was the fact that Wilberforce began by devoting himself to abolishing the slave trade. The presenter’s attitude to this reminded me of Kipling’s lines

Lesser men feign greater goals

Failing whereof they may sit

Scholarly to judge the souls

That go down into the pit

And despite its certain clay

Heave a new world towards the day

Lesser women too; the presenter was “much puzzled” at the distinction. The idea that you have to start somewhere seemed beyond her. The great difference in death rate and physical misery between the slave ships and the colonies was beneath her politically-correct notice. Wilberforce, like anyone who means to do real good, not just strike a pose, pursued a strategy that would work; that meant attacking the greatest evil – the trade – first.

Repeated absurdities supported this straw man:

  • “In Britain most people don’t realise that Wilberforce bill only made the trade illegal. Slavery continued in Britain’s colonies.” This was repeated over and over. Most people, if you ask them sensibly, can tell you that the trade was abolished first, slavery later, and that Wilberforce campaigned against both, which does seem the main point.
  • “Wilberforce believed the abolition would improve the lot of Africans in the plantations” but “it has been proved to me that it did not”. The so-called proof consisted of the presenter’s visiting the Caribbean and discovering that after the trade was prohibited slavery was still slavery, which was still bad. Wilberforce knew that; that’s why he campaigned for abolition. (See also footnote [2] below.)
  • Wilberforce died shortly after learning that the bill abolishing slavery had passed its third reading, usually seen as a fitting moment for the close of his life, but not by the presenter, to whom it was just a demonstration of how irrelevant he had become: “Wilberforce did not have the driving role”, “he was a figurehead” was her attitude to the anti-slavery speeches of his final years. The implication seemed to be that several decades campaigning in parliament and out simply wasn’t good enough for the reputation he had; he shouldn’t have grown old and died before all was done.

A second straw man was made out of the famous Wedgewood cameo, in which a kneeling slave pleads, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ The presenter “had great difficulties” with this image, both the original and a copy in a stained glass window; it was “a travesty of the Africans who have fought for their freedom” since it shows them “as only a supplicant.” If she had been more observant she might have noticed a kneeling white man, as well as a kneeling black man, in the stained glass window example that particularly aroused her ire. A better historical sense (or a look at other kneeling figures in churches) might have reminded her that Wilberforce must have knelt every evening and every Sunday, and that the posture was not then seen as her narrowly modern mind sees it. Finally her knowledge of slavery might have told her that slaves are people deprived of power, people who must plead for compassion; that the image (as well as being very effective propaganda for its cause) expresses a simple truth about the overwhelming majority.

Another straw man was that, “For Wilberforce, the slave trade was a sin for which Britain had to repent, but he was not alone.” The presenter complained several times that he was but one of many in the movement. Oh yes, we all imagined that Wilberforce fought slavery without the help of anyone else, just as we imagined that Churchill fought the Nazis alone while the rest of the nation just watched! Anyone who knows the history knows about Clarkson and others she mentioned. Wilberforce is simply the name you remember first and forget last.

Listing all the programme’s follies would make this already long post gargantuan. Let us turn to the question why. Why does a politically-correct BBCer want to demean a man who in his day was sneered at by slavers? Whence comes the visceral dislike that was so plain under the urbane commentary, from the very first questioning sentence to the final grudging partial admission of his deeds? I thought I saw two reasons.

The first could be seen underneath several remarks. “It’s been proved to me – they were not mere supplicants grateful for a morsel of pity.” A statue of a Jamaican slave who led a slave strike crushed in January 1831 was a “monument to people the Jamaicans regard as the true abolitionists.” The unstated implication seemed to be that Wilberforce real crime was to be white and to be British. His actions deprived the African tribes of the dignity of someday ceasing for themselves to sell the losers in their wars, and deprived the slaves of the dignity of someday freeing themselves by revolt. Put another way, his crime was to be part of the real history of the victory over slavery, not of a more emotionally-satisfying myth history.

The second arises from the ugly necessities of modern politically-correct ‘multiculturalism’, committed in theory to the equality of cultures but in practice to despising the culture to which Wilberforce belonged. This prompted some minor distortions of details [3]. But more fundamentally, with this mindset the real achievement of the anti-slavery movement, which went far beyond ending specific cruelties of British traders and British colonists, simply cannot be faced. “During three to four hundred years the entire world saw the slave trade as legal.” No, during 6000 years of recorded history, every culture, every race, every continent, saw slavery, and the trade in slaves, as legal. Some tried to mitigate it: the Old Testament proclaims laws that try to restrain the worst horrors; so did the Indian king Asoka. Some personified callousness: “Sell old and sick slaves”, wrote Cato. Always, slavery was legal. “The strong do what they can; the weak endure what they must”, said the Athenian general to the Melosians before enslaving them. Over two thousand years later, the African chief Comoro said much the same to explorer Samuel Baker: “The good people are all weak: they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad.” [4] Sometimes slaves rebelled or escaped. Rarely, they were successful: the Messenian helots eventually drove out the Spartans; the slaves in Haiti triumphed; some in Surinam escaped. More often they failed, sometimes after victories like Spartacus, but usually by being swiftly crushed. Either way, the idea of slavery went on.

The anti-slavery movement, born of a society that had eliminated first slavery and then its lesser cousin serfdom centuries earlier in its homeland, taught that slavery was wrong, not just for citizens or for people like them but for absolutely everyone. They made this conviction a practical reality, backed by preaching, by the force of law and above all by their power, especially their navy. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”, said Lincoln. It is an obvious thought to us; who would deny it? Answer: most of the past. Wilberforce and the movement he led stand at the fulcrum of that change. Our minds inherit their achievement. “I cannot understand why for so many centuries mankind allowed such a trade”, said the presenter (“for so many millennia”, she should have said). We share her feelings, if not her limited timespan, easily, without needing a trace of Wilberforce’ moral grandeur because she and we live after Wilberforce, not before. But to the politically-correct mind, that origin of this knowledge is unwelcome; better to sneer at him.


[1] The ‘great obloquy’ included threats and even physical attacks so that at one time Wilberforce had to travel with a bodyguard.

[2] For what it is worth, the claim that abolishing the trade offered no benefits to existing slaves in the Americas can easily be seen to be false, even in its own irrelevant terms, by comparing survival of the main groups.

  • More than twice as many African slaves travelled the short, ocean-current-assisted route to Brazil and South America than went the long passage to North America. The route was easier and in use longer, only finally being shut down when the Royal Navy raided into Brazilian harbours in the 1850s. Yet while there is a population of mixed race there, the purely African descendants of these slaves are rare. Their treatment seems not to have been good enough to favour forming families and raising children. Cultural differences may have played a role but the fact that it was so much cheaper to buy a new slave off the dock is surely relevant.
  • More African slaves were sent to the Arab world than went to the whole western hemisphere. The trade (often straightforward capture by Arab slavers, not ‘trade’ in any sense) began even earlier and lasted even longer. Only in the second half of the 19th century did the Royal Navy mount effective blockade of the key Zanzibar depot and stifle the sea-borne trade; intercepting small Arab dhows in the shorter passages of Africa’s east coast was a harder task than interdicting the west coast trade. Effective action against the land route to the near east had to await imperial annexations (archeology can still trace the routes by the clusters of skeletons around water holes, perhaps representing a last desperate effort by the captives to reach water). Yet the near east today has almost no descendants of these slaves. Their treatment – obviously so for the thousands who were made harem guards but apparently also for the rest – seems not to have been of a kind to favour it. The much greater ease of obtaining fresh slaves, relative to any part of the western hemisphere, seems highly pertinent to this.
  • (The majority of African slaves never left the continent of their birth. There is no immediate way of assessing the survival of those who lived and died in Africa. Treatment appears to have been harsh in the plantations in the eastern part of the central axis, and of course those chosen by the king of Dahomey for his annual execution spectacles did not survive. Estimates of overall numbers enslaved and numbers shipped to other continents can be found in e.g. ‘Conquests and Cultures’ by Thomas Sowell. Alternatively, the reader can verify that the above ratios are generally correct simply by checking the durations of the various slave-taking activities, looking at the relative distances on a map, and reflecting on the difficulties of transport in a pre-industrial society.)

Thus Wilberforce’ opinion that ending the supply of new slaves might also be of some benefit to those already enslaved was obvious common sense with support from the evidence. However his main motivation for campaigning against the trade was disgust at its cruelty and injustice. He then campaigned for abolition, clearly not thinking the possible collateral benefit to slaves of ending the trade was remotely sufficient in itself.

[3] Examples include the following tendentious descriptions:

  • “Merchants came here to buy or capture people”, she stated as though ‘buy’ were not the overwhelmingly standard mode of operation. I know of no historical instance in which a British slave trader obtained slaves from Africa by capture. Capture by Portuguese traders was extremely rare but in their longer – four centuries – history in the trade one or two instances are known.
  • “This African complicity is hard to accept” said the presenter about the selling of slaves, which doubtless helped her accept the claim that the tribal wars in which winners sold losers were fermented by the British; as though such events were not endemic before and after the period.

[4] Alan Moorehead, “The White Nile”.

Quotations from the programme are from notes made while watching it.

Old News

(last Wednesday’s BBC news to be exact): the announced withdrawal of 1600 of our troops and the funeral of the 101st British soldier to die in Iraq were the lead story. Via a transparently thin linkage (“One father who will be pleased at today’s news is…”), the story gave a cameo appearance to Reg Keys. I think the BBC were a little rash to run him (with so little excuse) quite so close to an item reminding us that there were 100 other possible candidates. It prompted the question, why does he get so much more value from his licence fee than the parents of the other 100? It also suggested an answer: bias. But that really is old news.

Stranger than Fiction

: never let it be set that the BBC headlines all news from Iraq negatively. Yesterday’s CEEFAX headline

Baghdad morgue dead rise again

suggested very positive if extremely surprising news from that quarter. Sadly, the article made it plain that only this month’s count had risen, not the dead themselves, so that morgue staff were ‘worried about their ability to cope’, making it a very unsurprising minor example of the BBC’s eagerness to squeeze every last drop of worry from the situation.

Looking for the exit

Others have posted about use and abuse of casualty statistics on last night’s Panorama programme. It is odd that the BBC should reportedly promise not to broadcast what they then nevertheless did. The body of the programme was in keeping: emphatically-presented bad news for the coalition, about all the many obstacles to the coalition’s finding an exit strategy

‘to let them withdraw from Iraq in reasonably good order with at least some of their war aims intact’

It all made an unlikely prelude to John Simpson’s closing remarks. Any viewer who turned off before the end would have concluded that the BBC thought coalition failure likely, or even inevitable. John, it would seem, thinks otherwise:

However it would be wrong to conclude from all this that the process is bound to fail. In fact, I think it is bound to succeed. It’s just a pity that it has been so badly botched by so many people along the way.”

John has more insight than some in the BBC and this may represent his exit strategy for them from the situation in which their coverage of the last two years has placed them. If, a few years hence, Iraq has not subsided into chaos or a brutal regime like Saddam’s, they could still claim that the process of moving from Saddam to the present was so badly botched by so many people that it nevertheless fully merited all the hostile coverage it got.

This strategy could allow the BBC to withdraw from the Iraq issue in reasonably good order with at least some of its aims intact. It will face some difficulties, not least because it has been, and will probably continue to be, so badly botched by so many in the BBC along the way. However it would be wrong to conclude from this that the process is bound to fail. In fact, within the BBC itself at least, I fear it is bound to succeed. Less so with me, however. The Iraq war would be unique in military history if it had no foul-ups. But I shall rely on sources other than the BBC to tell me what they were.

[All quotations noted from memory after the programme.]