Tuesday 30 October 2012

Tell Us A Story

Jon Donnison will be flattered to see that the newly launched website BBC Watch contains several articles dedicated to him. Donnison is another BBC Middle East correspondent who makes no secret of his pro-Palestinian position; he Tweets about it openly
BBC employees are instructed to cover their Tweeting habits  with a meaningless exclusion clause -  “Tweets are my own views, not the Beeb’s”  - but it’s obvious that concealing their personal views is hardly a priority, and revealing them isn’t considered a hindrance to the BBC’s claims of impartiality.

Donnison’s puff-piece about a Yasser Arafat Lookalike in Ramallah was praised by the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief Paul Danahar,who called it “a cracking piece”.
The jocular style somehow encapsulates the perplexing blind spot that afflicts the BBC’s Middle East correspondents. They share the inability, or an unwillingness, to register the difference between the liberal, predominantly gay media folk they mix with back home and the illiberal, homophobic, intolerant individuals whose cause they aspire to promote.
They don’t identify with Israelis. Instead of making a positive comparison between them and their liberal, secular, supposedly tolerant media-world colleagues, Donnison, like most BBC people, is suspicious and distrustful of them. 
Judging by the photo in the article, the lookey-likey doesn’t look like the devious fraudster Arafat at all. The resemblance is all in the tea-towel. 

It’s a supposedly jovial piece, yet Donnison gratuitously insinuates that Israel was responsible for ‘the poisoning of Arafat’, deftly evoking the conspiracy theories that he jokingly mentions a paragraph or two earlier. Donnison gives us an idealised version of Arafat, presenting him as a hero, which he was not.

I’ve been writing about Donnison for some time. I tapped ‘Jon Donnison’ into Biased-BBC’s search box to find out just how much material I’ve amassed.

A newish article headed “Violence ends Israel-Gaza Truce” reports the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel. Unusually, it’s recounted in chronological order, with the first paragraph reporting the rocket attacks on Israel, for once not headlining with Israel’s retaliation.  “Militants in Gaza have fired 11 rockets into Israel, officials say, amid a flare-up in fighting  which shattered a brief ceasefire between the two sides.” 
We already know that despite the UK being amongst countries that consider them a terrorist organisation,  (The European Union, the United States, Canada, Israel and Japan classify Hamas as a terrorist organization) the BBC is bashful about using the T word in relation to Hamas, although Jane Corbin’s ‘Price Tag’ Panorama used the word quite happily to label a pack of teenaged Israeli settlers who daubed graffiti on Palestinian property. 
Once more we find the arguably superfluous “officials say”. Did they fire the rockets or didn’t they? 
Donnison’s ‘who-started-it’ narrative proceeds, back and forth, eventually concluding that ultimately the guilty party was Israel.  However, apart from another unnecessary “Israel says” the last paragraph redresses the balance.
“Hamas militants have been behind most of the recent rocket attacks,....” etcThe block-quoted soundbite passage in this article leads to another Donnison piece in which he explains the Israelis and the Palestinians are engaged in a never-ending tit for tat routine, and that both sides bear equal responsibility for breaking the numerous ceasefires. 
It wasn’t Israel’s fault this time, he concedes, but he’s quick to assure us that it wasn’t Hamas’s fault either, rather “small extremist Salafi groups” in the face of whom Hamas are helpless.

This may or may not be the case, but why does the BBC attach “Israel says” to anything that could remotely be seen to justify Israel’s actions, inactions or intentions, while whatever a Palestinian spokesperson says or does, or what Jon Donnison imagines they say, do or think, is reported as fact. 

Donnison hasn’t said: “ Hamas says it can’t stop it”. He states it.
 “Hamas, which governs in Gaza, has sometimes tried to stop Salafis from firing but has not always been able to do so.”
 He continues:
 “it is widely believed that Hamas does not want a major escalation in violence...” [...]“The movement is more interested in consolidating its power and strengthening the economy.”
 Widely believed by whom? Says who? Is Donnison suggesting that Hamas *is* more interested in strengthening the economy than in eliminating Israel? Or is Hamas saying it? 
So the “says” is absent in perhaps the one place where a “Hamas says” would actually be appropriate.

Like the kidnapee Alan Johnston, who was in Gaza to ‘tell their story” Donnison is telling us Hamas’s story. 
“But when its own members are killed or Palestinian civilians are caught up in the violence, Hamas is under pressure to respond in order to assert its credentials as a resistance movement”  he pleads, “As the governing power in Gaza, it needs to be seen to protect the population.” 
Then why, one may wonder, does it jeopardise the aforementioned population by provoking retaliation by Israel time and time again? Does Donnison believe Hamas really thinks that’s the best way of protecting the population? 
As such Hamas launched a barrage of rockets and mortars into Israel on Monday saying it was a response to the killing of one [sic] its men.” continues Donnison.  Why ‘as such’ ? Probably because without it, Hamas might look like terrorists.

Just before the final paragraph, Donnison adds:
”The Israeli government is also under pressure from the public to be seen to be responding to Palestinian rocket fire which impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living in southern Israel.” 
Impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people? So when will the BBC be telling their story?

P.S. The Telegraph is plugging a new book by Jeremy Bowen. No doubt he’ll be doing the rounds on the BBC. Few of the below-the-line comments are supportive of Bowen, or the BBC’s Middle East reporting in general. They say it’s biased! 

As far as the Middle East is concerned, the answer to the question in the title of this blog is a resounding yes.

Monday 29 October 2012

A response

Craig, these are very impressive studies. For me your examination of the Sunday Programme throws up more questions than it answers. 
Firstly, you’ve shown that the BBC plainly has ‘attitude’. The preponderance of voices from the liberal arm of the Catholic Church (Tablet) and the focus on the child abuse issue are undoubtedly biases, but if bias is inevitable, and it surely is, this is a bias which suits me.

Much has been written about the impossibility, nay the undesirability  of achieving scrupulous impartiality, in news reporting and life in general. There are morals and fundamental principles involved. We talk about the  Judeo Christian tradition, I suppose we mean ‘right and wrong,’ and we wouldn’t want ‘evil’ being given equal merit with ‘righteousness’, now, would we? 

Anyway, when we complain about unfair bias, someone will always be ready to accuse us of not wanting impartiality at all, just our brand of bias. And, to a certain extent that’s true. 

The Sunday programme may have legitimate reasons not to be impartial. It might not set out to give all sides of every story. It might just exist to reflect society’s musings on religious issues. Having said that, when it strays into areas I find startling, it does make one question its raison d’etre. Areas such as its BBC-like prejudice against Israel, which it would probably deny, and even worse, its undeniable lack of interest - until last week - in the plight of Christians in the Middle East, post (the so-called) Arab Spring.

 So, while I personally applaud its bias towards the liberal arm of the Catholic religion as opposed to the psychologically destructive illiberal, conservative arm of Catholicism (I spent some time in Eire when the abuse story was struggling to get out)  I can well see that conservative Catholics might have a problem with this particular bias.  
I think Sunday is a kind of Magazine programme, and the material it selects inevitably reflects the general BBC mindset. 
On the whole the BBC’s liberal lefty bias itself is not exactly what I have a problem with, but I do object to its emphatic denials that such a thing exists, and the stupid ill-thought out claims that ‘impartiality is in its genes’. 

The area which should be balanced and thorough, in accord with its reputation and its charter obligations, is the BBC's news reporting, and this is certainly not the case. It is full of editorial choices, omissions, half-stories and unbalanced voices. We should keep on pointing this out.

Your detailed examinations of this kind are fandabidozy.

A response to a response

Thank you, Sue, for your kind words. I'm looking forward to reading all your thoughts on the reporting of Jon, Jeremy, Yolande, Kevin, Wyre & Co. - and much else besides - in the months to come. 

You raise a lot of interesting points there, not all of which I entirely agree with. (I know you'll be genuinely relieved to hear that!)

I must admit to a certain Gradgrind-like obsession with "Facts, facts, facts" and I've not exactly taken a great deal of time to reflect on the conceptual problems underlying terms like 'bias' and 'impartiality' and such questions as "What hidden assumptions and misunderstandings might I be labouring under?" So your thought-provoking response tells me it's now clearly time to do so!

Is bias inevitable? If it is then the title of this blog, 'Is the BBC biased?' , becomes rather beside the point as it can only ever truthfully have one answer: "Yes." Maybe it should be titled 'What biases does the BBC have, and which ones matter?' instead. (Less snappy though!) 

I would be interested in hearing the case for for the undesirability of scrupulous impartiality and arguments for the inevitability of bias, as I may be missing something important here.

OK, time for a speech on 'What I think about bias and impartiality'!

Regarding the concept of 'impartiality', I would say that it simply means not taking sides (whether for or against) and being fair and balanced. I want my BBC to be impartial in that sense. Using Sunday's  treatment of the various shades of Catholic opinion as a yardstick, I don't want the programme to be either on the side of conservative Catholics or liberal Catholics. Of course journalists are only human and come to their work (like the rest of us) with their own opinions and prejudices, but if they are going to do justice to the depth and breadth of the news or to particular issues they will have to put most (if not all) of those opinions and prejudices aside, however hard it may be for them to do at times. That's the only thing they can do if they are truly aiming at impartiality. If they have personal reasons to dislike, say, the Catholic Church or Israel or if they object in principle to conservative Catholic attitudes towards gay marriage or to a particular Israeli government policy they should never allow that attitude to influence their reporting or interviewing.   The aim of journalism is surely to increase our understanding of the world and if a journalist fails to explain and give voice to the interests, opinions and motivations of a diverse range of parties to a subject or to a particular news item (even if they believe some of those parties to be wrong or mad, bad and dangerous to know) they are failing to report the story properly and do it justice, with potentially dangerous results. People in conflict with each other need to understand each others point of view and impartial reporters should always seek to help their audience to share that multi-faceted understanding too. 

What this would mean in practice is that the Sunday should provide balance, not just in terms of opinions but also in terms of the issues it covers. It should not fixate on particular stories. It should offer a wide - as opposed to a narrow - range of opinions (so not only 'The Tablet' but also 'The Catholic Herald'). It should seek to examine conflicting points of view and it should take strong steps to ensure that no important shade of opinion is either under-represented (e.g. conservative Catholicism) or over-represented (e.g. liberal Catholicism).  

Obviously, the balance sought doesn't mean that every edition of Sunday must feature every important shade of opinion on a particular topic and it is, of course, perfectly fine to feature just one shade of opinion on a single edition. If over time, however, one shade of opinion on a particular topic comes to dominate over the others, then the programme is not being impartial. The greater the predominance of one strain over all the others the greater the bias.

What does the BBC itself say about impartiality? 

Well, at the heart of the contract between the BBC and its licence-fee payers - according to the BBC Charter - is the public service commitment to be impartial. That commitment, as stated in its Editorial Guidelines, ranges across all its output (including magazine-like shows such as Sunday) and involves being "inclusive" and offering a broad range of views on matters on matters of public policy and political controversy. The BBC also says that it commits itself (above and beyond its original charter) to applying that concept of 'due impartiality' to all subjects. It defines 'due' as meaning "that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation". This, it states, is more than merely balancing opposing viewpoints. There is, however, some wriggle-room: "Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles."

If it truly has "points of view", such as a bias towards liberal Catholics and against conservative Catholics, then the BBC is surely breaching its own editorial guidelines. Which would be wrong, regardless of how we ourselves feel about the groups in question. 

I like this concept of 'impartiality' too much to give it up or downgrade it, however unrealistic some may consider this to be. I want it to be The Ideal towards which the BBC always seeks to strive. I don't want it to be dropped - unless and until the licence fee is dropped. I want the BBC to live up to its charter and its overall commitment and keep its wriggle-room to a bare minimum. Yes, it doubtless is impossible for the BBC to be truly impartial and  totally free from bias - just as it is for us as individuals to be perfect - but I think the BBC should always be trying as hard as possible to fight against the inevitable and strive towards the impossible here. This may sound old-fashioned, but I see this as a parallel with what I think individuals should (ideally) also keep trying to do - strive towards understanding and appreciating views other than our own, with a view to arriving at the truth, even when those views conflict with our own wishes and biases (though we aren't bound by a charter so to do, nor do we charge anyone a compulsory fee (or tax)  to fund our so doing!)

To continue with the classic argument (regardless of whether bias is inevitable or not)...The BBC is unique. Unlike its rivals, it is funded by a licence-fee. Newspapers, like the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph, can be as biased as they like as we don't have to pay a penny towards them. People who object to their biases can have nothing to do with them. Anyone who watches T.V. in the United Kingdom is legally required to fund the BBC, even if they fundamentally disagree with its "points of view".  If it truly has "points of view", such as a bias towards liberal Catholics and against conservative Catholics, it is surely doing a disservice to a significant proportion of licence payers.  We may ourselves share the BBC's bias against them, but does that make it right? I don't think so. (There are democratic reasons for strongly disapproving of this too). 

That is, as you say, often the criticism blogs (like this, and several others) which allege BBC bias receive - that we aren't against BBC bias per se, we are only against biases that don't suit us and are only interested in alleging bias when it's something we feel strongly about ourselves. If the BBC were against ideological opinions, religious beliefs, foreign governments, countries, political parties, and social attitudes of which we also personally disapprove, would we care and would we blog? Do we really want a BBC that is, say conservative in outlook and/or pro-Israel - our brand of bias?  I have to say that I think you're right to say that there's some truth in that, unfortunately. 

I will try to fight against my own biases (I'm not Catholic, or religious for that matter, and I'm socially liberal but I can still point out bias against socially conservative Catholics if I find any - which I do!), but do I only try to fight against the biases I don't feel too strongly about? If I found evidence that a BBC programme was strongly biased against the Labour Party, Palestinians and the European Union would I report it? I hope I would, but I'm not kidding myself that I wouldn't do so through gritted teeth and probably with a spectacular lack of enthusiasm. I don't doubt my prejudices will inevitably show through here on 'Is?' and I'll find myself blinded by them from time to time. If I'm going to criticise the BBC for such things I ought to keep a close eye on myself to and try to put some of my affection for the concept of 'impartiality' into practice. I would really hate to think that all I'm doing is trying to reshape the BBC in my own image.

I also see the force of your point about our not wanting the BBC to be so scrupulous in its striving for impartiality (if it really is still striving for impartiality, of course) as to end up in a moral relativistic quagmire where the accidental, unintended deaths of children in an Israeli air-strike intended to take out identified terrorist targets is reported as if it were morally equivalent  to the deliberate firing of missiles from Gaza into Israel (by those self-same terrorists) with the specific intention of killing civilians or to the bombing of an Israeli school bus. I see that, and yet I still don't want the BBC to force me into any moral reactions. I feel that they are trying to force me at times and I object to it. I want BBC reporters to report fairly, fully and accurately and let the fairness, fullness and accuracy of their reporting speak for itself. Then I'll form my own opinions. I don't want them to tell me or to steer me towards 'seeing' what's right or wrong, or evil or righteous. "I'll assess the facts you present, thank you very much Mr. Donnison, and make up my own mind - but please try to present them accurately, fairly and without trying to tug at my heart-strings."  

Of course, much of this has been giving the BBC the benefit of the doubt that it really is striving to be impartial. It's very much the issue at hand as to whether this is actually the case. Some people (and we've read their comments assiduously for several years) think it isn't striving to be impartial at all. (We've thought this ourselves from time to time). Others say that parts of it are trying, other parts of it aren't. Another point of view is that it is striving to be impartial, but failing! Of course, it may be striving and, by and large, not failing - 'On the whole, we think we got it about right', as BBC editors like to say. I've thought that the BBC has serious failings in this respect for years and - on two other blogs (Biased BBC and the embarrassingly-titled Beeb Bias Craig) - have, I hope, provided some stand-up evidence to back this up. However, my contributions were always based on the underlying, largely unexamined assumption that the question 'Is the BBC biased?' was pretty much equivalent to the question 'Is the Pope a Catholic?' (and 'Do bears shit in the woods?') and I didn't feel that its bias was either a good thing or necessarily an inevitable one. I want to challenge myself here to research a subject so thoroughly and in as 'impartial' a spirit as I can muster so that I can test whether I've been correct about the extent and seriousness of the bias all along, or not as the case may be. 

I know I've probably not thought everything through properly here and am open to having my eyes opened. 

Sunday 28 October 2012

'Today' VI: Cherry Picking

On blogs of this kind you often see accusations of "cherry picking" flying about. Sometimes these are made by the blog's supporters and sometimes by its dissenters. People do cherry pick. I have to say that I prefer completeness, wherever possible. It's the best way to avoid the accusation. So, for the sake of completeness, what else happened after the specified hour of Today (24/10/2012) - the starting point for five of my previous posts? 

Having already dealt with the 8.10 food labelling debate (at some length), it's onto the next item on the Today menu:

0821 The Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has become embroiled in a row over the legal advice he did - or did not - receive on whether an independent Scotland would automatically continue to be a member of the European Union. Scotland correspondent James Cook explains the implications of the ambiguity. 

A little Googling around reveals that Scottish National Party supporters have been pouring onto the internet this week to complain vociferously about BBC bias over the reporting of this story, alleging (as they often allege) that the BBC have been falling over themselves, in tandem with the Labour Party, to attack Alex Salmond over this. I can't find anything about this specific item, but here's a brief flavour of what they've been saying (from the links provided above):

"It didn’t take long for the BBC to seize on the latest Scottish Labour verbal hand grenade did it?

The corporation that did nothing about Jimmy Savile despite rumours of child abuse circulating amongst its staff for decades, were out of the traps like a hare when a Labour MSP called Alex Salmond a “bare faced liar”.

When the Scottish government confirmed that they were now going ahead and seeking legal advice on the specific status of an independent Scotland within the EU, at least two BBC Scotland presenters said it “appeared to be at odds” with comments Mr Salmond had made in a BBC interview in March.

Note, that these BBC presenters weren’t quoting a third party, but had decided themselves that this “appeared” to back Labour claims.  On what basis Mairi Stuart and Bill Whiteford made there assertion isn’t known, unless they had viewed the Andrew Neil interview and had formed an opinion."
I'm not really in a position to touch this one; however, I can confirm (for any passing Nats) that the Labour-inspired row was considered important enough to be covered by the flagship Today programme and that it wouldn't have made comfortable listening for any Nat tucking into his or her breakfast porridge. Still, James Cook trod very cautiously and did not say that the Scottish government's confirmation "appeared to be at odds" with Alex Salmond's comments, emphasising instead the ambiguity that hangs over them. He did say, however, that "everybody" took those comments to mean that there was legal advice over Scotland's status with regards to automatic EU membership after independence. He also stressed that the previous day had been "terrible" for Alex Salmond. That's as far as I can go there. 

Next came:

0825 Actress Joanna Lumley will be discussing the question Why Become a Nun? at the Carmelite Priory in London tonight. The discussion is pegged to a production by Grange Park Opera at its festival next year of Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites, an opera based around the lives of nuns. Ms Lumley and Dr Lavinia Byrne, a former nun, discuss the life of a nun.

Who could object to that? A 'pro-liberal' bias hunter might, if feeling grumpy, grumble about the choice of Dr Lavinia, a liberal critic of Pope Benedict XVI, described by James Naughtie as having "withdrawn because of your great support for women in the Catholic Church", as the programme's representative of the Catholic faith. (Joanna coming from an Anglican background.) "Wouldn't do for them to have a conservative Catholic nun, would it?", such a grump might say. Dr Lavinia did have a dig at the Church for not knowing how to deal with intelligent women and said she would now advise girls not to become a nun but to go and join an aid agency like Cafod instead.   

I have to say that this next item didn't look as if it were promoting a 'Gramscian agenda' either...:

0836 Oxfam says a major international scheme to fight malaria which is supported by the British government could actually be endangering lives. Dr Mohga Kamal Yanni, senior health and HIV policy adviser at Oxfam and author of the report, and Oliver Sabot, executive vice president of global programmess at the Clinton Health Access Initiative, debate the findings of the report. 

...until I heard that the objection by Oxfam to the Global Fund's scheme [and thus the angle of this segment] is that it is distributing medicines "through existing networks of private shopkeepers". Aha, the Gramsci-hater might cry, the "private enterprise putting lives at risk" meme again! Sarah Montague conducted the double interview reasonably fairly though:

"Dr Kamal Yanni, what is so wrong with the way that this massive scheme is working?"

"Let me go to Oliver Sabot on that...the central criticism. Why are you using private shopkeepers in this way when there are people who are better trained?"

"Dr Kamal Yanni, that would suggest that you're just not being pragmatic, that this is actually a way of getting practical help quickly...yes, in the long run, the ideal would be what you're suggesting, but this is an immediate solution?"

[To Dr Kamal Yanni:] "You mean ultimately it would be better to spend the money on training health workers and holding off on distributing the medicines?"

"Oliver Sabot?"

"Oliver Sabot, you have Oxfam...I mean, such a serious agency...making some very crit...serious criticisms of the way that you're doing this. Do you recognise that this money might be better spent in the way that they're suggesting?"

Now, pausing for breath, what does everything on this post so far prove (or at least strongly suggest)? That the BBC is biased against the SNP? Well, if by reporting that Alex Salmond had a bad day (which by nearly every account I've read - other than on SNP websites - he did) and if by dint of reporting the story of the row at all (which nearly every other major news organisation in the country also reported) then that's considered proof of BBC bias against the SNP, then I wouldn't blame a defender of the BBC from saying that it sets a very low bar for proving bias. OK, but doesn't that invitation to Lavinia Byrne prove (or strongly suggest) that the BBC favours liberal Catholics when it comes to Catholic-related subjects? It could, of course, simply prove that Today knows and/or likes Lavinia Byrne, a former nun after all (the topic of the segment) and an ex-regular on their Thought For The Day feature - plus a far from unpleasant woman. As for the 'anti-private enterprise angle' sniffed out in the malaria feature, was it a conscious or unconscious left-wing agenda that prompted the programme's invitation to Dr Kamal Yanni, or did that actually come about because it's a big story in the world of medicine and aid and a debate that deserves covering and which a serious news programme should in fact be praised for giving time to?

I read (and made) enough comments on the subject of BBC bias over the years to know that those of us who think there is/may be a problem can get carried away and start seeing what they are looking for everywhere...and many such comments over the years have passed into the realms of the barking mad. Does the 0842 interview with Bernard Diederich, "author of the Seeds of Fiction, a book that revolves around the life of his travelling companion Graham Greene, [who] spoke to the BBC reporter Nicola Stanbridge from his home in Haiti about his new work," show the BBC plugging a left-wing author (just because he's a left-wing author)? What about the final feature - 0855 "The Football Association is launching a five-year plan to boost the women's game. The head of the FA's National Game Strategy Kelly Simmons comments of whether women's football could be as popular as men's."? Pure feminist propaganda! And as for the 0847 feature on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile crisis someone mentioned [in passing] CND. Communists!

Should you ever think I'm straying into 'barking mad' territory, please do let me know!

Triple standards?

Since drafting my Double Standard? post in mid October, the BBC itself has been sent reeling by the Jimmy Savile scandal - a dizzying swirl of child sex abuse and sleaze allegations made worse by accusations of a decades-long cover-up and recent bungling by the leadership of the corporation. I was waiting to see how Sunday, given its long track record of keenly pursuing the Catholic Church over the issue, would respond to its own institution's travails. Would it go after the BBC the way it goes after the Catholic Church? Would it seek out victims of the alleged abuse and critics of the way historic child abuse seems to have been turned a blind eye to by the BBC, canvassing those angrily denouncing the morality of the BBC or claiming an institutional cover-up? Would Ed Stourton ask questions critical of the present leadership of the BBC, especially of the DG and the chairman of the BBC Trust (Lord Patten, trustee - like Ed- of The Tablet) for their handling of the affair?

The programme stayed very quiet on the issue throughout the 21st October edition, when the crisis at the BBC was already in full swing. By the 28th October editionSunday really had no choice but to discuss the scandal, given that it had been the biggest news story in the country's media for a couple of weeks by this stage. It was something it simply could not ignore. 

The test I pre-set (in my own head) for the makers of Sunday was to see if they would, somehow, twist it against the Roman Catholic Church. If they didn't I would be able to happily report that my leniency towards them in that earlier post (re charges of anti-Catholic bias, and relentlessness in their cover of the Catholic priestly abuse scandal in particular) was justified by their actions. If they did, then I would probably no longer be able to give them the benefit of the doubt. How did they fare? 

In the light of all that has gone before in that earlier post, what do you make of the way Ed Stourton announced the subject during the programme's introduction?:

"Welcome to Sunday. As the Archbishop of Westminster asks the Pope to remove Jimmy Savile's papal knighthood, we'll debate why big organisations can foster a culture of silence where evil can flourish?"

Straight in goes Ed with his attempt to tie the Catholic Church to the BBC's mess over child abuse. Unbelievable! (I almost spat out my cornflakes in surprise.) That one sentence really says it all - an attempt (however pre-deliberated) to shift the focus from the (unmentioned) BBC onto the Catholic Church and other big organisations. Not a good start from Ed, was it?  

Midway through the programme we got this taster from Ed of the (pre-recorded) closing discussion of the affair, which continued down the generalising path found in the introduction:

"What goes wrong in an institution to stop people reporting abuse of the kind Jimmy Savile has now been accused of? 

(Another voice:) 'All the institutions we're describing - and add in any business that's not a co-operative or a   partnership - and you have a totalitarian state with a monarch, aristocrats, robber barons and everybody else is a peasant.'" 

Again no use of 'BBC' there, as you will have noticed. 

The closing discussion is described on the programme's webpage like this:

"In the light of the Savile case we explore to what extent being part of an organisation influences an individual's moral choices, with guests Dr John Blenkinsopp, of Teeside University Business School, Professor Roger Steere - Visiting Professor of Organisational Ethics at the Cass Business School, and Donald Findlater, Director of Research and Development at the child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation."

That's a very revealing list of guests - someone from a child protection charity and two people whose expertise lies in the area of business ethics - largely reinforcing what seems to have been the programme's clear intention to shift the focus from the BBC onto large institutions in general, especially businesses and the Roman Catholic Church. None of the guests said anything specific about the BBC, and none were encouraged to do so by Ed Stourton.

What follows is a transcription of Ed's contributions to that debate. Please see what you make of them. Does he seem to be trying to steer the discussion away from the BBC and onto large organisations in general? Does he try to tie in the Roman Catholic Church again?: 

"How is it that the abuse of vulnerable people can go on for years in a big organisation without anyone saying anything about it? The question is especially difficult to answer when the organisation in question is supposed to be dedicated to public service. It's a question we've asked often enough on this programme over the past few years about the Roman Catholic Church in relation to the paedophile priests scandal. Now people are asking it about the BBC in relation to the Jimmy Savile affair. Dr John Blenkinsopp is the assistant dean of Teeside University Business School. Roger Steare is Visiting Professor of Organisational Ethics and Corporate Philosopher in Residence at the Cass Business School, and Donald Findlater is Director of Research and Development at the child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. I asked John Blenkinsopp how a culture of silence can develop in an organisation."

"Well, standing up and being counted in circumstances like that, Professor Steare, requires what, in an old-fashioned way, I suppose one would call 'moral courage' and I think you've done some work trying to measure what a 'moral character' is?"

"Sorry, just to pick you up on that, do people notice when they are crossing that line or is it something, I don't know, that happens when you're half-asleep or concentrating on something else?"

"Well, I'd like to pick that up in a moment or two but, Donald Findlater, you have worked with, I think, both the Catholic and the Anglican Churches in these areas. Do the sort of descriptions of what happens that we've just heard  match what you've found?"

"Do you think, John Blenkinsopp, in this area it's right to..erm..compare institutions like the BBC and the Catholic Church. I was just looking at a headline in The Guardian  - 'The BBC's real crime was to act like the Catholic church'?" 

"Well, let's talk about how we..or how you can combat these tendencies. Er..John Blenkinsopp, staying with you, what would you do to change the culture of a big organisation where something like this has occurred?"

"Turning to you, Roger Steare, it is a question of creating a democratic organisation, is it?"

"Donald Findlater, the news came through at the end of last week that the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, had written to the Vatican suggesting that Jimmy Saville's papal knighthood be removed posthumously. It does raise the interesting question of whether, when something awful emerges about somebody after their death, it undoes all the good that they did when they were alive?" 

"That, Professor Steare, does pose a slight challenge to your solution because you've got to have a management that's simultaneously open to democratic culture and is telling people quite clearly the way they should behave?"

"Roger Steare, ending that discussion."

Well, that was pretty blatant, wasn't it? Ed Stourton, at all stages of this edition of Sunday tried to generalise the issue, focusing it on business (which hasn't been implicated in a child abuse scandal!!) and appearing to want to smear some of what Chris Patten called "the tsunami of fifth" from the BBC/Savile scandal onto the Roman Catholic Church instead - including those two mentions of Savile's papal knighthood, one of which opened the programme! The edition gave no impression that the programme was anywhere near as keen to investigate allegations of paedophile rings at the BBC as it has been, on Ed's own admission, about historic priestly child abuse. It looks as if we could be in 'double standards' territory again. 

Maybe I was being over-generous in my earlier lenient view of Sunday's coverage of Catholic abuse scandal stories. This edition of the programme suggests there may be more to the charge of obsessive coverage of the issue than meets the eye, whilst also spotlighting its presenter's personal biases.

If you were wondering by the way, the Guardian headline referred to by Ed came from an article by Jonathan Freedland and, yes, you will have spotted that Ed didn't ask anything specifically about Chris Patten.  

'Today' V: Of poppies, Pixie Lott and liberal hand-wringing

As we approach Remembrance Sunday some of you may have read the depressing story about the Royal British Legion having to provide adult minders for some of its young poppy sellers (army cadets) in Bradford, following a spate of attacks on them last year. This was reported in the Sunday Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday (both 21/10/2012), as you might expect. As the final item before the 8.00 news on Radio 4's Today (24/10/2012) - the subject of this ongoing study - Teresa Greener, the head of fundraising events at the Royal British Legion, was invited onto Today. She wasn't there to be asked about this startling state of affairs - or to give a boost to the launch of this year's appeal - but rather to face challenging questions about why we wear the poppy. It was this segment of the programme that particularly outraged the Biased BBC commenter who described it as "shameful" and regarded it as the epitome of bias. 

The choice of an angle can, of course, be an indication of what matters to programme-makers. The decision to pass on the Bradford story - presuming (which is a reasonable assumption) that they knew about it - suggests that it wasn't of sufficient interest to them. So what angle caught their attention instead? What angle mattered enough to them for them to base a segment around it?

Here's Sarah Montague and her two interviewees:

"The Royal British Legion launches its annual poppy appeal today. But why will you be wearing one? As a symbol of remembrance, of grief for those who have died in past wars? Or will you also be wearing it as a sign of your patriotism and support for troops fighting now? Well, Dr. Ted Harrison is a writer and artist. He created the giant display of poppies at St. Paul's Cathedral last year and he's just written a book called 'Remembrance Today'. Good morning Dr. Harrison."

"You're uneasy about what it's come to represent, aren't you?"

[TH: "Yes". I'll buy a poppy because it contributes to the Legion's valuable welfare work but I worry that the poppy has changed from being a symbol of grief and peace. If you don't wear a poppy now you're thought of being somehow unpatriotic, not associating yourself with the troops. We need "to go back to the roots of the poppy again."]

"Why does it matter, because in one sense you could argue that over the years, over the decades its meaning has changed  little, depending on what the country is involved in?"

[TH: It matters a great deal. Poppy mustn't glorify, trivialise or sentimentalise war. Royal British Legion is selling some sentimental stuff.  B-list celebrities wearing the poppy on TV. Politicians using it "as a symbol of their own patriotic virility."]

"But the British Legion last year raised record sums from the poppy appeal - £40 million. They're aiming for more this year. They..now you made the point they do good work, the money is spent well. Surely it is right that they capitalise in one sense...I mean they might say that they're not doing that... but that they raise as much money as they can, and if that's because somebody is feeling sentimental about it and, therefore, buys...puts more money into the tin, does it...what...?"

[TH:  This is a balance. Getting money to those who need it now is OK, but not if it goes towards glorifying or trivialising war. British Legion has high responsibility to ensure we're remembering for the right reasons. It's a half-truth to tell children we're remembering to honour those who kept us free because there are a lot of other wars where people gave their lives "for no reason at all". "The true horrors of war need to be expressed."]

"Dr. Harrison,  thank you very much for that. Listening to that is Teresa Greener, who is head of fundraising events at the Royal British Legion. Good morning."

"Is this something which you are aware of and perhaps a little bit concerned about at the Royal British Legion?"

[TG: "To be honest, no." The poppy has never been about a political statement. It is a symbol of remembrance. It's broadly worn across the whole community. Myriad different reasons why people wear their poppies.]

{interrupting} "If someone is wearing it..and over the past few years we've perhaps seen this..as a sign of patriotism and a sign of support for British troops in conflict now, are you quite comfortable with that?"

[TG:  "Yes we are". They are supporting troops. The 'in conflict' is not relevant. I don't think we're part of that political debate.]

"But what about the argument that Dr. Harrison says, that if you end up in the sort of situation where you have a sort of...and we've seen this sort of..some of the..the way that the ceremonies are done, that there's a danger that they could sentimentalise war and by doing so perhaps trivialise it, perhaps glorify it, and in a...and as a result of that make it more likely, not less?"

[TG:  "No, I'm sorry, I don't think it glorifies war in any way, shape or form." It's about remembering the horrors of war, which is how it started...]

{interrupting} "But it has changed from that, hasn't it?"

[TG: "No, I don't believe it has." I think we're still remembering all those killed or injured in conflict. Not about glorifying war..]

{interrupting} "But you've got...let's just be..today there's going to be...there's a pop concert, isn't there? The launch today is a pop concert with Pixie Lott, Alesha Dixon. You've got a song that you're releasing, the first time there's a poppy appeal single, which is about..written by Tim Rice and others called 'Landlocked', about letters home from people in the armed forces to their sweethearts?"

[TG:  Yes, but the point is that we want it to appeal to everybody. There's also the Military Wives' Choir, the Band of the Grenadier Guards, So there's tradition and the more modern. As for the point about B-list celebrities wearing poppies, I'm sorry, whether you think they're B, A or Z it doesn't mean they can't feel strongly about remembrance and wear a poppy...]

{interrupting} "Teresa Greener, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much."

So, the angle that took the fancy of the makers of Today was the moral and political queasiness of Dr. Harrison over the way he feels that the poppy is being transformed into an object of patriotism, sentimentality, and commercialisation, risking the trivialisation and glorification of war. Unsympathetic types (you know who you are!) might call this 'liberal hand-wringing'. 

If the name (and voice) seems familiar, Ted broadcast for the BBC for some 25 years, acting as a  reporter and presenter for many famous BBC programmes, especially on Radio 4. (He presented Sunday for a while). Sarah's interview with him was gentle and interruption-free, though she did ask him two questions from a contrary point of view. Her interview with Teresa Greener was less respectful in tone, more challenging, more full of interruptions - though it was hardly rude. 

Now, I have to say that, though I think the choice of angle does betray a liberal bias on the part of the programme-makers, the issues raised are ones I suspect many listeners would have found thought-provoking (in a good way). I think it's a shame that the discussion was held on the day of the launch of the poppy appeal though. It would have been much better had it been staged a week or so after Remembrance Sunday, but I don't think it's in any way beyond the pale to air the views of Ted Harrison or to question the head of fundraising at the Royal British Legion about them. Do you? 

"Hello Jim. Hello John"

For the millions of ardent fans of Thought For The Day, Today's daily offering of short religiously-inspired talks - though the word 'inspired' doesn't always spring to my mind while listening to many of them -, here's a list I prepared earlier which may be of interest. 

If you're bursting to to know whether Giles Fraser has been on more than Angela Tilby, here's your chance to find out. 

Does the BBC monitor such things? If it does it has never revealed its figures for TFTD for public consumption - as far as I'm aware.

The BBC website used to have a dedicated archive for past editions of TFTD since February 2001 which listed every appearance by individual speakers. They stopped updating the archive in April last year and removed the page altogether earlier this year. That means that tracking who’s speaking on TFTD either becomes a slog from each page of the Today programme’s archive (with its occasional gaps) or, much easier, a run through the (ever-amusing) archive at ‘Platitude of the Day’.

I did a tally a year or so ago, after someone on another blog wondered whether a FOI request could be put in to get the BBC to give figures for TFTD speakers. (He had his reasons for that. He thought they were inviting too many Muslims on.). Updating it to include all recent editions of TFTD thus provides a complete record from February 2001 to 3 August 2012.

The following list shows the number of talks given by TFTD speakers over the last eleven and a half years, in descending order (with their religious affiliation, for added spice):

Tom Butler 166 Christianity
Anne Atkins 150 Christianity
Jonathan Sacks 146 Judaism
Richard Harries 143 Christianity
Roy Jenkins 136 Christianity
Rob Marshall 130 Christianity
Angela Tilby 129 Christianity
Indarjit Singh 128 Sikhism
Alan Billings 126 Christianity
Giles Fraser 122 Christianity
Mona Siddiqui 121 Islam
Rhidian Brook 120 Christianity
Clifford Longley 118 Christianity
James Jones 112 Christianity
David Winter 107 Christianity
John Bell 107 Christianity
Lionel Blue 104 Judaism
Akhandadhi Das 99 Hinduism
Catherine Pepinster 83 Christianity
Joel Edwards 83 Christianity
Colin Morris 80 Christianity
Elaine Storkey 78 Christianity
Brian Draper 77 Christianity
Abdal Hakim Murad 67 Islam
Rosemary Lain-Priestley 51 Christianity
Vishvapani 51 Buddhism
Dom Antony Sutch 47 Christianity
Oliver McTernan 46 Christianity
David Wilkinson 40 Christianity
Lucy Winkett 40 Christianity
Jim Thompson 34 Christianity
Martin Palmer 31 Christianity
Lesley Griffiths 30 Christianity
Jeevan Singh Deol 29 Sikhism
Michael Banner 27 Christianity
Johnston McMaster 25 Christianity
Huw Spanner 21 Christianity
Christina Rees 19 Christianity
Harvey Thomas 19 Christianity
Lavinia Byrne 19 Christianity
Graham Jones 17 Christianity
Cristina Odone 14 Christianity
Satish Kumar 14 Jainism
Russell Stannard 12 Christianity
Gabrielle Cox 11 Christianity
Laura Janner-Klausner 9 Judaism
Rowan Williams 9 Christianity
Eric James 8 Christianity
Jonathan Bartley 8 Christianity
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor 7 Christianity
Shagufta Yaqub 7 Islam
Gavin Oldham 5 Christianity
Jonathan Gledhill 5 Christianity
Vincent Nichols 5 Christianity
Annabel Shilson-Thomas 3 Christianity
Antonia Swinson 3 Christianity
Jo Ind 3 Christianity
Madeleine Bunting 3 Christianity
Mark Christian 3 Christianity
Hamza Yusuf 2 Islam
Penny Faust 2 Judaism
Raj Sharma 2 Hinduism
Alan Woodrow 1 Christianity
Anna Magnusson 1 Christianity
Benedict XVI 1 Christianity
Bishop Angaelos 1 Christianity
Brian Protheroe 1 Christianity
Courtney Cowart 1 Christianity
David Hope 1 Christianity
David Wilkes 1 Christianity
David Wells 1 Christianity
Duncan Green 1 Christianity
Farhan Nizami 1 Islam
George Carey 1 Christianity
Gilleasbuig Macmillan 1 Christianity
Ian Sherwood 1 Christianity
Jerome Murphy O’Connor 1 Christianity
Jimmy Morrison 1 Christianity
John Barton 1 Christianity
John Sentamu 1 Christianity
Julia Neuberger 1 Judaism
Keith Patrick O’Brien 1 Christianity
Kevin Franz 1 Christianity
Khaled Fahmy 1 Islam
Maurice Michaels 1 Judaism
Mary Steel 1 Christianity
Michael Sanders 1 Christianity
Michael Symmons Roberts 1 Christianity
Nicholas Papadopulos 1 Christianity
Richard Thomas 1 Christianity
Robin Eames 1 Christianity
Yunus Dudhwala 1 Islam

There have been 92 individual speakers on TFTP. The number of speakers representing each religion breaks down as follows:

Christianity 73
Islam 7
Judaism 6
Hinduism 2
Sikhism 2
Buddhism 1
Jainism 1

There have been 3443 TFTDs over that period.

This is the total number of talks given by representatives of each religion (and their percentage of the total):

Christianity 2657 (77.17%)
Judaism 263 (7.64%)
Islam 200 (5.81%)
Sikhism 157 (4.56%)
Hinduism 101 (2.93%)
Buddhism 51 (1.48%)
Jainism 14 (0.41%)

The above figures, of course, say nothing about the standpoint of the speakers. Regular listeners of TFTD will be able to draw their own conclusions from the list of presenters above.

As regards the question 'Is the BBC biased?' I'll leave you to form your own opinions. 

'Today' IV: More Thoughts...including those For The Day

This post is (for the most part) a bit of a scamper, perhaps. The story so far, as seen from the perspective on an 'ideal' Today listener (if I may be droll for a moment)....

"That new traffic light food labelling system, great idea! 
Shame it isn't going to be compulsory and that it was so long in coming. 
Aren't ASDA a bad lot, though? Hypocrites! 
Ah yes, the 'kids dying in custody' story. There's a charity that's really worried about the problem. Such a shame! Our prisons are terrible, so let's give offenders non-custodial sentences instead. 
Oh, and ARGOS are going down the pan and have a terrible business model. (Who wants to hear about business anyhow?) 
Heh, some mum in North America has untidy kids. We all know about that - and she's blogging about it. Cool! (James Naughtie seems grumpy about it, for some reason). 
Maria Miller is, well, quite useless."

Moving on (and on)...and the specified hour of Today (24/10/2012) continued with the 7.40 paper review, where Sarah Montague ran through a couple of "bad" headlines for the BBC's D.G. George Entwistle re the Savile Scandal - from the TelegraphIndependent and Times - before James Naughtie brings in the FT, which is "a little more supportive", followed by more criticism from the Guardian, Mirror, Sun and Daily Mail. Sarah then used a Times cartoon to segue from the BBC story to the government 'u-turn' on the badger cull story, with more criticism of the government from the Mail, Independent and Telegraph. Finally, tougher maths A-levels in the Telegraph. Nothing to see here bias-wise, I'd say, with a good spread of papers, no editorialising and no asides from the presenters. 

The paper review was followed by a report from Syria by the BBC's Tim Whewell, bravely reporting from a small rebel-controlled town near Aleppo. As the website puts it, "Despite many calls for more action to end the bloodshed in Syria, western nations have refused to intervene, partly because they say too little is known about the rebels fighting President Assad's regime. BBC reporter Tim Whewell went to Mare'a, a little town under regular bombardment just north of Aleppo, to find out what rebels are fighting and dying for."

This was a preview of a Newsnight report to be broadcast later that day. The report, as heard on Today, can be summarised as follows: The people in the town can't understand why the West (including Britain) isn't intervening. The West doesn't entirely trust the rebels though. A rebel leader with a glossy black beard says they are not extremists, but moderate Muslims. Tim goes to a makeshift court where three smugglers are on trial. They make an oath and are free to go. Will Islamic practice become more important? A local headsman says sharia law should come first as it has proved itself over 14 centuries but other laws should be grafted onto it to make it suitable for different communities, including minorities. The rebels say they want an inclusive Syria after the war. A local activist fears that if the West stays out of Syria they will bring about the very thing they fear - that the extremists will gain in importance. Unfilled graves are dug in cemeteries in preparation for more deaths. 

Is that report biased? I have no idea. Overall, it presents a reassuring picture of the rebels and seems to be saying that Western intervention may be a good thing. That is what the people in Tim's report are telling us. Is it also what Tim is telling us? It's hard to tell sometimes. 

Joel Edwards

As for things being 'hard to tell', it was certainly hard to tell what the point of the day's Though For The Day was. If this was an exercise in Gramscian thought control, it was an overly subtle one. The speaker was Rev Joel Edwards, international director of Micah Challenge (and advisor to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, something which rarely gets mentioned on Today for some reason). You can read the transcript here. It seems to be about crime and justice. Peter Hearty's take on the talk over at Platitude Of The Day will give you a good flavour of it:

"Waffle, waffle, waffle, twilight zone, waffle, waffle, good and evil, waffle, waffle, old as hills, waffle, waffle, waffle, professionals, charities, waffle, waffle,

People of faith waffle, waffle, waffle. As the Chief Rabbi said waffle, waffle, waffle. Martin Luther King waffle, waffle.

This just goes to show the real practical value of faith.

Waffle, waffle, waffle, inmates into citizens, waffle, waffle, waffle."