“Viewpoint” Or Propaganda?

This “First Person” segment for the BBC’s online Magazine is not journalism but instead borders on political advertisement. It’s another one of those “bespoke” video magazine pieces for which the BBC has increased their spending and staffing in the US.

Why are ex-convicts in the US barred from voting?

Is it just me, or is that an interrogative? We should expect an answer of some kind from the piece, no? No. Unless by “answer” you mean getting told that they should be allowed to vote, which is answering an entirely different question.

I understand that the concept of “First Person” necessarily involves presenting that person’s perspective. In and of itself that’s not bias. But this goes far beyond that and is little more than an advocacy advertisement.

The entire piece is a combination of an interview with an activist for restoring voting rights to felony ex-cons, Hasan Zarif (an ex-con prison chaplain, a rather common phenomenon), and quotes from the activist group The Sentencing Project. This group identifies itself on its website as an advocacy group, but the BBC doesn’t think you need to be told. I guess it’s supposed to be obvious so they don’t need to, but it’s really just another example of the BBC declining to label a person or organization if they’re on the Left/approved side of an issue.

It’s all about justifying the restoration of voting rights to felony ex-convicts. We also get ominous interstitials informing us of gently prodding facts such as how only the Governor of Virginia (one of the states at which the BBC’s bony finger is pointed) has the power to restore the right to felony ex-cons. As if that’s supposed to be evidence against the policy. At one point, Zarif speaks with another felon who is currently petitioning to get  his right to vote back. Zarif helpfully reads out the evidence that the man has turned his life around and deserves it. We’re meant to think that if this violent criminal can do it, why not all felony ex-cons? It’s a false proxy, but that’s all part of storytelling (just like the tear-jerking piano ostinato in the background).

Plus, due to the unspoken (because we all know, right?) fact that African-Americans are convicted of felonies* at a much higher rate than white people, they’re hit hardest, when the BBC tells us that more of them are affected by this policy, the message is that it is de facto racist. The real question ought to be: is this de jure racist? Do we get an alternative perspective? Don’t make me laugh. That’s not why this piece was produced.

The only moment which is even a gesture towards explaining why felony ex-cons are barred from voting is when Zarif says this:

“We have committed some terrible acts, so it is reasonable that many individuals, they don’t want to see us vote.”

That’s it. This counts as balance in BBC land. The very next sentence is back to the advocacy.

“We need to prove that we can come back to society, be contributing members of the social order, and that we can take that second chance and do great things.”

Once again that’s a reason why voting rights should be restored. At no point is there discussion as to why some States withhold the right, which is what the title asks. Why don’t the anonymous Beeboids who produced this bother to go into it? Because you’re all expected already to have the approved thought that it’s wrong, so the question doesn’t really need answering at all. If you think like them, that is. This piece was produced from that perspective.

Because the BBC isn’t interested in discussing the overall scene in the US regarding the voting rights of ex-cons, here’s some information to put this sob story into perspective. It’s always difficult for the British Beeboids (and sometimes for the US-born ones as well) to grasp the concept of States Rights (aside from slavery and the Civil War, of course – in that case they definitely act like they know all about it), so they probably don’t understand how this can be. As one would expect, the rules vary widely around the country. Some states hold that people lose the right once they’re convicted of a felony, and even there the metric varies. Maine and New Hampshire even allow felons to vote via absentee ballot from prison. Other States restore the right to ex-cons after parole, or after petition.

What’s left out of this bespoke video piece – professionally produced from a media perspective as it is – is the fact that in every single State it’s possible for an ex-con to get that right back one way or another. Every single State. But that’s not good enough for advocates: they want it restored automatically, and eventually want the right granted to incarcerated felons. The goal of this particular BBC report isn’t about that at all, but is rather about pushing the idea that felony ex-cons should have the right restored, full stop. That’s why the insterstitial about how in Virginia only the Governor can restore the right is presented so ominously.

Before any defenders of the indefensible get busy, let me remind you that my opinion on whether or not felony ex-cons should be allowed to vote is irrelevant, as is yours. This is about the bias of the BBC’s video report.

* I’m using passive phrasing here, rather than saying “African-Americans commit  felonies at a much higher rate”, in the interests of appearing impartial.

Suppressio Veri (again)

While the BBC did find space to report the sentencing of 20 year old Robert Tozer for the brutal murder of 85 year old Joan Charlton, uniquely among media outlets they forgot to mention that he’d been released from prison only weeks before.

In fact he’d served only 5 months of a fifteen-month sentence for assaulting a man with a pool cue before he was released “on licence”. He’s just one of hundreds who kill under probation service “supervision”.

Why the BBC report should omit this fact I really can’t imagine. They’re terribly keen to amplify calls for “corporate manslaughter” charges to be brought when private organisations – or prisons for that matter – are implicated in avoidable deaths. I think it’ll be a long time before we hear Helena Kennedy, Marcel Berlins or Michael Mansfield (he’s just on R4 now) being interviewed on the BBC about the need for the Probation Service to be included in corporate manslaughter law.

I Missed …

… the first two of the series of Radio 4 party political broadcasts on behalf of the (admittedly substantial) bleeding heart wing of the Labour Party by Helena Kennedy, but did manage to catch the third.

Helena Kennedy QC examines the ways in which the best intentions in legal reform can sometimes produce unexpected and unpalatable consequences.

Helena looks at the development of alternative systems of justice that bypass the courts. Restraining orders to protect the victims of domestic violence, once championed by liberal lawyers like Helena, have in recent years been broadened in scope and application by politicians, with possibly troubling results.

To put it in plain English, it was fine as long as the people being banged up were evil patriarchs. But from these restraining orders (the breach of which entails imprisonment) was developed the ASBO (the breach of which entails imprisonment). Now yobs who made life miserable for other people were being locked up – and (gasp) they were young people !

Now that may well be an unpalatable consequence for well-heeled “criminal justice professionals” who think that prison should be reserved for racists, smokers and foxhunters. To the law-abiding poor who have to live alongside ASBO recipients they’re a good thing – when enforced.

Tragically it is too late to hear again Episodes One (“Helena began her career championing the victim’s voice, but is now worried it has gained such strength that it is beginning to threaten the rights of defendants“) and Two (“In the 1970s and 80s, Helena and a generation of liberal lawyers attacked the judiciary for being too right wing and out of touch. Now right-wing politicians have taken up their language and attack the judiciary for being too liberal and out of touch“), but I’m sure we’ll hear the arguments again on the BBC – probably on the Today programme.

"Why Have Prisons ?" Redux

An afterthought to (and some additional information on) the Today programme’s three-item (one, two, three) ‘don’t lock them up’ fest of last Thursday, noted by David here :

Two points. One is the BBC double-whammy reporting – that not only do Barnardo’s think that too many young criminals are being locked up, but the Parliamentary Justice Committee think the same thing – which was reported as a separate item on Radio 5 news that day.

Alas, the BBC failed to tell us who’s at the top of the list giving evidence to the Parliamentary Justice Committee. You wouldn’t be too surprised to know that it’s – wait for it – Barnardo’s.

In fact the list of organisations giving evidence to the committee (mostly ‘fake charities’, the bulk of whose income comes from the taxpayer – Barnardo’s for example closed its last children’s home in 1989) is one to warm a social worker’s heart, and the evidence presented (here) by the assorted pointy-heads deeply depressing. It’s worth a read if you want to know why crime is so high in the UK.

But I digress. The thrust of the evidence presented by Barnardos, and through them by the Justice Committee, is that too many young criminals are being jailed. Why too many ? Because – wait for it – the judges are too harsh. There are government guidelines – which the judges ignore and go their own punitive way. Were they to keep to the guidelines fewer young criminals would be in jail (according to the evidence presented over 97% of young criminals appearing in court are NOT sent down – I cannot find the figures, but I would be very surprised if the majority of young criminals ever got as far as an actual court appearance).

A small thought experiment. Imagine – even if you live in Islington – that you go out onto the streets of your neighbourhood and ask, say, a hundred people at random if they think judges are too harsh on young criminals. How many do you think would agree that they were ? Perhaps the BBC should have headed their story :

“Judges too tough, say charities and MPs”

Even the Today programme might have trouble with that spin, but the BBC are happy to present (albeit obliquely) this thesis with a straight face.

A small quote may be in order here, from the first chapter of Steven Pinker’s excellent work The Blank Slate.

“The problem is not just that these claims are preposterous but that they did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as a proof of one’s piety. That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for the truth …”

Only On The BBC …

There’s concern about the number of prisoners released early from prison on license who go on to kill or commit serious crime while still under ‘supervision’ :

Criminals on probation committed more than 1,000 serious crimes over the last two years, including nearly one murder a week in England and Wales.

The government figures give details of the 1,167 offences committed by people being supervised by probation officers.

The total included 94 murders, 105 rapes and 43 arson attacks.

Only a BBC producer could decide that the best person to interview on the topic is someone who believes the problem to be, not that criminals are being released early from prison, but that they were sent there in the first place.

As I’ve pointed out before, Frances Crook of the Howard League For The Abolition of Punishment must be able to find her way to the Today studios blindfold by now.


It’s rare for a week to go past without the BBC running an item somewhere suggesting that Britain should top locking criminals up. It’s all part of the narrative and so it is no big surprise to hear an item on Today earlier this morning suggesting that we should follow the example of Finland and cease “incarcerating” young people (anyone under 21) in our prisons. The debate was between Professor Rod Morgan who supports the Finnish model, and Michael Howard who does not. An exchange of opinions – which is fair enough. But the bit that got me was the way in which BBC reporter Mark Easton set the whole item up in prejudicial language that was clearly very sympathetic to the line then taken by Morgan. In this way, Howard was basically outnumbered two to one, before on then throws in John Humphrys! Bias – it’s just a way of life for them.