Sunday 28 October 2012

'Today' I: Is a traffic light system needed for bias labelling?

A comment appeared on the Biased BBC blog on Wednesday 24th October 2012 from one of its seasoned commenters:

The Today programme from 7:10 to 8:10 this morning was a parade of Gramscian bias. Every single angle, question and comment was from the hard left, rounded off with a shameful interview with a lady from the British Legion. Never mind examples of bias, the output was the bias.
Absolutely, utterly disgraceful.

Now, that's the sort of wild, sweeping, angry assertion (complete with the use of the word 'Gramscian') that is often found on right-wing blogs and on BBC-related threads on newspaper websites. Such comments tend to make my eye roll. Check out the truth of them and they often crumble to dust. I read that one and thought, 'Right, that would make a good test case for our new blog. Someone simply asserts that the BBC is biased and specifies one hour's worth of Today to check. So let's check it.'

I'll spread this over a few posts, for ease of reading. So let's begin at the beginning.

Traffic light food labelling

Traffic light label

(a) Guest Selection

At 7.09 the programme discusses one of its main stories of the day. The Today website describes this segment as follows:

The government wants to introduce a traffic light system of food labelling so you can quickly compare foods and tell how much fat, sugar and salt are in them. Health minister Anna Soubry and Dr Mike Rayner, from Oxford University's department for public health, analyse if this is the right approach.

The first thing to point out here is that both of the interviewees are advocates of the new traffic light labelling system. (Dr Rayner has described himself as precisely that elsewhere).

The issue was (straying beyond the specified hour) discussed again in the programme's prestigious 8.10 spot:

The government and the food industry have reached a voluntary agreement on food labelling, which will come into force next summer. Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which, and Sian Jarvis, corporate affairs director at Asda, analyse whether the introduction of the labelling will benefit consumers. [You can listen to this segment here.]

Again, both of these interviewees are in favour of the new traffic light labelling system. (Which? has actively campaigned for the system.)

So all of the programme's four guests on this subject are proponents of the system and not one of them is an opponent of the system. That's hardly balanced, is it? Shouldn't there have been two supporters and two opponents instead? Today seems to have skewed the debate in favour of the new labelling system by inviting only one side of the argument to take part in the debate. That looks bad, doesn't it?

The other side does actually get a look in. Just before we here the interview with Richard Lloyd of Which? we hear a 33-second clip of Dr. Ed Komorowski, Technical Director of Dairy UK saying that the new system misses the point - that it's calories and over-consumption which is the real problem. Do you think that very short clip of Dr. Komorowski makes amends? I can't say that I do. In fact, it makes me wonder why the programme didn't give Dr. Komorowski a full-length prime-time interview instead of giving that honour to the editor of Which? Given that this labelling system has had plenty of opponents (and was struck down by the European parliament earlier this year), I would have liked to have heard them make their case against the system. An alternative system, which many a shopper at certain supermarkets will have already spotted, is the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system, which how percentages of GDA of sugar, salt, fat and calories in each serving. I would have liked to have heard from someone who thinks that system (as it stands) is preferable to the proposed new hybrid system. 

GDA label

Critics of the new system can't have been hard for the Today team to find, so why didn't they find one for us? (You can read one here).

Now, some of you will also have philosophical/ideological objections to the new scheme, above and beyond the practical ones. I'm sure many of you who don't share such concerns will nonetheless be well aware that any such story brings forth complaints about 'patronising interference' from the 'nanny state'. There's a strong strand of libertarian right-of-centre thinking that feels deeply uncomfortable with the activities of 'the Diet Police'. (You can read one such critique here). To such people (and there are plenty of them) it may well seem unbalanced for one of the four interviewees not to have been someone espousing that sort of line of argument. Worse, what if  the line of questioning on Today were to go so far as to completely ignore their concerns? Would they not then be justified in feeling that Today was (for whatever reason) uninterested  in representing their point of view? They might well smell "Gramscian bias". Did the line of questioning on Today ignore their point of view completely? Did "every single angle [and] question" come from "the hard left"?

(b) Lines of Questioning

The 7.09 section was the responsibility of Sarah Montague. Given that she was about to talk to two advocates of the traffic light scheme, she might have been expected to ask them questions reflecting the views of opponents of their position - questions reflecting the fears of farmers, meat manufacturers and dairy companies that the scheme is "over-simplistic" and "misleading" and that it will "demonise" their products as "junk food" and lead to a damaging loss of sales. Surely Sarah was honour-bound to put the business side of the argument against the scheme rather than to reinforce the campaigners' point of view? Let's see what she does.

What follows is a partial transcription of that segment, quoting (in full) all of Sarah's contributions, along with my summaries [in square brackets] of what her interviewees said in reply. I will insert my own 'asides' in red:

"Now from summer next year it should be possible to tell easily how healthy a food is (or so the supporters of the scheme say, Sarah). The government wants to introduce a traffic light food labelling so you can quickly compare foods and tell how much fat, sugar and salt there are in them. Although it's a voluntary scheme, all the main supermarkets (apart from Iceland) have signed up to it. Well, Dr. Mike Rayner is with Oxford University's Department for Health and he advised the last government on food labelling. Good morning."

Dr. Mike Rayner

"And from the look of it this is heading in the same direction, this is the same sort of thing that the last government would have introduced and were recommending?"

["Yes, it's a great day really", Dr. Rayner begins. "Let's be happy."].

"It is voluntary though rather than compulsory, which is actually down to EU rules. Is it going to make that much of a difference then one wonders?" (Note how Sarah begins pushing this compulsion angle - a campaigners' angle - from the very start).

["Yeah, it will make a difference", he says, because all major retailers have signed up now.]

"Now, at the moment you go and you try to compare foods...If you're trying to pick something healthy or compare food it is very difficult because the labelling is so confused. This will mean it is that straightforward, is it? You can literally lift up two different things and see which one's the healthiest?"

["Yes," he replies. Yes, if you're choosing between two pizzas go for the one with the least reds on it and the most ambers and greens.]

"And what about the fear that...actually I mean, Jim was talking about it like milk, which is high in fat  but, you know, if you don't go crazy with the amount of milk you're drinking is good as part of a healthy diet, it could be lumped with something else that has high fats but also a load of other rubbish too?" (This question is the only one where Sarah does put a question from the standpoint of the opposing business people). 

[He says it's not "the absolute best form of labelling". Wants traffic lights and a score for the food.]

"OK, but it is a traffic light labelling?"

["It is a traffic light labelling" and, he says, will give us an overall impression of the healthiness of the food.]

"Now it's one thing for it to help the consumer. Will it make a difference for the food manufacturer? (At this point you might be expecting the next question from Sarah to be something along the lines of "Do you think a lot of food companies may suffer a serious loss of sales as a result of the introduction of this measure which, especially at a time of economic fragility, is something they might struggle to cope with?"...but, no. Her question is:) Will it make food manufacturers think twice before they put more salt and sugar into foods?" (So another question that comes from the campaigners' standpoint - a question some might say suggests an 'anti-business bias'.)

["Yeah, we've got good evidence that that's what's happened with the retailers who are already using it," he says. "That's a good thing"]

"Mike Rayner. Dr. Rayner. Thank you very much. Well, listening to that is the Health Minister, Ann...Anna Soubry. Good morning."

Anna Soubry

"Would you like, if you could have done, to have gone one further and made this compulsory?" (Same starting point as the interview with Mike Rayner- the compulsion argument. The possible Eurosceptic 'interfering EU' angle is not pursued!) 

["No, I don't think it's necessary actually," Anna replies. "It is indeed as great day." Voluntary agreement is better than forcing manufacturers and supermarkets into this. They need congratulating.]

"Because you think that because you've got the big supermarkets  - Tescos first and then the others following - that it will be very difficult for food makers not to put labels on their food?"

["Yeah, absolutely." Anna replies. Can I just say fat content in milk is 4%. Not true that milk has masses of fat in it, not "a bad thing"]

{interrupting} "And very good with calcium of course."

[Anna agrees.]

"Now, you look mention the British Heart Foundation. I mean, you speak to heart scientists about what is required..or at least what makes a difference in terms of heart disease, which is the number one killer in the country, and they will say 'You look back at something like smoking and it was the banning of smoking that made a phenomenal difference in cutting deaths from heart disease' and so the next step would surely be to suggest that actually what you need to do is get tougher on food makers and ban certain...or the worst kind of foods. (Again, a question from the campaigners' standpoint. Moving beyond compulsion as regards labelling, she moves onto the next stage of the campaign - the wish to ban unhealthy foods.) Would you consider doing that?"

[Anna's not in favour of "that big stick approach"]

{interrupting} "Would you have said the said about smoking then? Would you have said the said about smoking?"

[Anna says the ban on smoking was only in public places, finding it hard to shift remaining 20% off smoking..]

{interrupting} "But of course you know the answer is that it's only as low as may be too's only as low as that because..."

[Anna, "No, it's not as simple as that. Forgive me." The reasons why so many people are overweight (and costing the NHS a lot of money) are complicated. Obesity a big problem. It's how people eat. Smoking is very different because it's an addiction...]

{interrupting} "But if you limited the worse..if you limited the worse that food companies do and, therefore, effectively didn't give a choice you could be making huge inroads". (If you note, all these later questions are pursuing the same point about the potential benefits of banning unhealthy foods).

[Anna, "We're already making huge inroads by working with industry." Salt, for example. It's also up to us to eat better but no so much. "Eat good food but just in sensible quantities"].

"Anna Soubry, thank you very much."

So, except for one question, all the questions that can be said to have been asked from a particular angle were asked from the campaigner's standpoint - i.e. from the the 'nanny statist' side of the argument. None were asked from the 'libertarian' angle. These were not 'pro-business' questions. Rather the reverse. Sarah's questions seem to assume that food companies are up to bad things ("...if you limited the worse that food companies do...") and that legal compulsion is the best course of action in every respect. The interview with Dr. Rayner contained several questions that were helpful to his cause, some of which he could begin simply by agreeing with. The absence of any questions to the minister from the oppositional, business side of the argument is also quite striking. Indeed, instead of pursuing a line of questioning from that angle (surely the most appropriate angle?), Sarah Montague chose to asks questions reflecting an even more hard-line stance, advocating the need to impose even more restrictive legislation on companies. For some people on the political Right (and if you're not yourself on the political Right, I hope my 'asides' help you get a sense of where they're coming from), Sarah would clearly be seen to have been asking questions 'from the Left' here (despite the fact that there are people on the Right - including the Conservative minister being interviewed - in support of the traffic light measure and there are presumably a fair few Conservative/UKIP-voting doctors who would also like to see action taken to ban unhealthy foods.)

So, do you agree that this demonstrates bias (whether conscious or unconscious) on the part of Today?

What about the segment on the subject that opened the last hour of the programme? Does that change our perspective? This section, presented by James Naughtie, shall be transcribed in the same way as the earlier segment. Does it show a similar imbalance in concentrating on supportive points of view and campaigners' talking points rather than business fears? Does it also tend towards questions critical of business? Are there questions that right-wing, libertarian critics of the BBC can take comfort from? Is the interview with the campaigning journalist markedly friendlier and more helpful to the interviewee's cause than the interview with the supermarket spokeswoman?  Please have a read (and a listen to the segment, headlined on the Today website as Food labels: Multinationals 'must get on board') and make your own mind up first:

"The government and the food industry have reached a voluntary agreement on food labelling which will come into force next summer. It doesn't meet the demands of some of those who wanted a compulsory system, for example, but part of the deal is that a traffic light set-up which will label foods 'red', 'green' and 'amber' to show levels of saturated fats, salt and sugar. Supermarkets and manufacturers have also argued that there's the danger of an over-simplistic system that lumps processed foods with high levels of saturated fats together with milk or cheese that should be a proper part of a balanced diet but the pressure for clear information for consumers has produced in the end an agreement. Dr. Ed Komorowski is Technical Director of Dairy UK, representing the dairy industry.  He thinks that this proposed labelling scheme misses the point."

[Short clip of Dr. Komorowski says the main problem with the government's scheme is that it doesn't focus on the main problem - overeating and obesity. They should be focus of the over-consumption of calories rather than ingredients. The one thing people should be seeing on a product is 'Calories'.]

"Well, that's a view from the dairy industry. Richard Lloyd is executive director of Which? Erm, do you think this proposed system does the job?"

Richard Lloyd

["It will, Jim", he begins in reply. We know this is the scheme (which we've campaigned for for over a decade) that will work and will encourage people to make healthier choices. Not silver bullet, but potentially big step forward IF government can can all retailers and manufacturers on board, "that's a big stretch for them I think".]

"From the research with which you are familiar, what difference do you think this will make to the choices that consumers make at the check-out?"

[Richard: People confused at the moments by plethora of labels. Got to be good that quicker at-a-glance healthy choices will be able to be made under this scheme. Encourages retailers and manufacturers to reformulate their foods so that there are less red lights on the pack, which will help tackle obesity.]

"We're going to talk to ASDA in a minute. Be interesting to get a reaction to that, but you think that in order to avoid too many red labels, processed food will come with less..erm..saturated fats that will, you know, get them into the red zone?"

[Richard: Some manufacturers have said it will have that effect on them. We need to watch to see the labels are tough enough and independently set or if the Department of Health is going to go for less strict criteria...]

{interrupting} "We don't know that yet, do we?"

[Richard: "We don't know that yet". Months of negotiation to come to get this in place...]

{interrupting} "Well, that's pretty important those negotiations?"

[Richard: "It's absolutely essential Jim". Government got to work much harder to get the "multinational manufacturers" on board and tough criteria behind these labels.] 

"Richard Lloyd of Which?, thank you very much. And we can join  Sian Jarvis, whose corporate affairs director at Asda. Good morning."

Sian Jarvis

"Erm, when you get into these negotiations with the Department of Health..erm..are you able to say, straight out, that your objective here is to get a system which will be helpful to public health?"

[Sian: "Absolutely it is." Our research shows this is what our customers want. We welcome government's decision.]

"Do you agree with Richard's assessment that...erm..well, he quoted manufacturers as having said to Which? that one of the consequences of this is that to avoid too many red lights, as it were, on products, manufacturers will produce stuff with fewer portions of saturated fat?"

[Sian:  Yeah, because it's been voluntary "there's been a race to the top". We also seen evidence it will bring about reformulation.]

{interrupting} "Well, what has happened to shoppers' behaviour know, in the five years since you've had those labels on?"

[Sian: Research shows traffic light system best, as at-a-glance system. People take only 10 seconds to choose.]

"Of course, that depends on the traffic light system being a fair representation, you know, of the relative unhealthiness, if I can put it in that way, of a product and that's going to come out in the negotiations which go on?" 

[Sian: Yes, there are concerns about demonisation, but research shows people cleverer than we give them credit for].

"You said that you're committed to public health and that that's the reason that you're pleased with this. On the other hand the Children's Food Campaign says that ASDA's just about the bottom of the heap when it comes to the way that children's health is dealt with. For example, at more than 80% of your check-outs you've got great displays of fattening and sugar-loaded confectionery to tempt, you know, the mother with two children at the check-out. I mean, if you're committed to public health that's not something you should be doing."

[Sian: We're looking at this...]

{interrupting} "You accept that's a fair criticism?"

[Sian: "1 in 3 of our check-outs are guilt-free...what we call guilt-free check-outs..."]

{interrupting} "Why do you call them 'guilt-free'?

[Sian: It's a term that's commonly used in retail...]

{interrupting} "So 2 out of 3...2 out of 3 of your check-outs are deliberately your own terminology?"

[Sian: "I don't think we would put it that way..."

{interrupting} "Well, hang on! If you're putting...if you're saying to me that 1 in 3 is guilt-free..and that's your terminology not mine...then 2 out of 3 are guilty."

 [Sian:  "Well, it's actually public health terminology..."]

{interrupting} "I don't care whose terminology it is, it's not mine it's yours. You used it. So, 2 out of 3 are guilt-laden and one is guilt-free?"

[Sian: I think it refers to the choice a customer can use when they go through. I'm a mum with two small children. We aren't about preventing people from making choices about what they want to buy...

{interrupting} "No, come on, come on! Listen! You're not seriously telling me that your supermarket doesn't spend a great deal of time looking at designs which are designed to tempt people to buy things? I mean, that's what marketing is about and you can't say that you, like any other retail outlet, aren't involved in that because you obviously are. You want to sell your goods. So the idea that you just have things neutrally there for people to choose is rubbish! Of course not! You try to tempt people, that's your job."

[Sian: We've spend a lot of time and money improving the quality of all our products. It would be wrong to suggest we're there to try to drive customers into making the wrong choices. We know our customers want help in choosing healthy foods...] 

{interrupting, then pulling out of interruption} "OK, if that's true..." 

[Sian: ..and we were the first to adopt a traffic light system, had it for five years...] 

{interrupting} "Indeed you were." 

[Sian: "Pardon?"] 

"Indeed you were. That's an absolutely fair point." 

[Sian: and that demonstrates our commitment. We're also signatories to the government's Responsibility Deal, first company to hit salt targets. We take it seriously...] 

{interrupting} "And if that's true. Right, if that's true, just to use your own phraseology,  if that's true, will you have more than 1 in 3 of your check-outs guilt-free?"

[Sian: "We'll be looking at that as part of the Responsibility Deal". No evidence at the moment that it makes any difference to number of sweets bought. We want to give our consumers what they want and we listen to them. We will look at the evidence again. No evidence at the moment though."]

"Sian Jarvis, corporate affairs director at Asda, thank you."

Quite a contrast of interviews, I'm sure you'll agree. The interview with Richard Lloyd of Which? (intriguing,  like Mike Rayner, an advisor to the last government, where he served in Gordon Brown's 10 Downing Street) came across rather like an easy-going chat between two journalists, with Jim and Richard discussing the issue a mutually-reinforcing manner. Sian Jarvis of ASDA (who, interestingly, had been director of communications at the Department of Health from 2004-11) had a little of that initially but it wasn't long before her interview turned into a decidedly aggressive affair (with all the aggression flowing from Jim Naughtie).

The Independent has a piece on the latter interview entitled Asda PR slips up on live radio revealing two-thirds of checkouts are 'guilty' (surrounded by sweets and chocolate). Her defence was, shall we say, rather ham-fisted, though it improved as she proceeded? Her 'gaffe' was certainly pounced upon by Jim - and why not? That surely is the job of an interviewer with his wits about him.

Note though, that this interview was always going to involve a challenge to ASDA's business ethics. The opening question which James Naughtie put to her - "...are you able to say, straight out, that your objective here is to get a system which will be helpful to public health?" - was always going to lead to such a challenge. ('Straight out' can mean both 'bluntly' and 'frankly, honestly'). It was not too long before he quoted the campaign group Children's Food Campaign to her, with their strong attack on ASDA's business ethics, and his question challenged the company's integrity. (Now, there is certainly a whiff of hypocrisy from the sale of tempting sweets at check-outs and professions of concern about public health. Such sweets can surely remain a valid choice for customers, as campaigners argue, without being sold at check-outs.) This, let it be noted, preceded the great bust-up over sweets at check-outs. So, those who think that Today has an anti-business bias might well seize on this and claim it as proof.

We cannot know, however, how James Naughtie would have gone on to press his challenge if Sian hadn't given him her gift of a 'gaffe'. How long would he have pressed it for? Could the interview have become anywhere near as heated? Plus, as I say, an interviewer with his wits about him could hardly fail to have may something of the phrase 'guilt-free'.  However, it remains an imbalance that the Today man did seek to challenge a business spokeswoman but failed to challenge (in any way) the consumer rights campaigner - which the editor of Which? unquestionably is. If you're going to ask challenging questions to one, why on earth should you not ask them to the other? Therein, I would suggest, lies evidence of bias.

Other likely evidence of bias lies in the failure of James Naughtie here to press the various arguments being made by critics of the scheme. He too, despite the brief clip of Dr. Komorowski, chose not to critique the traffic light scheme in his questions. Surely he should have countered Richard Lloyd's enthusiasm for the scheme? Here are some questions he could have asked (but didn't):

Can we really have faith in a system that sees a can of Diet Coke and a carton of popcorn scoring green lights, the former because it contains little more than colourings and artificial sweeteners and the latter, of course, because it’s mainly air?

- When (as happened earlier) supporters of the scheme like you concede that the scheme can be misleading and tell us to to ignore the red light for sugars on fruit, how does this make sense? If we can ignore some red lights, doesn't that risk breeding confusion and undermining the whole purpose of the scheme? 

- Isn't the latest dietary research showing that saturated fats in particular aren't as bad for you as we used to think? That our bodies need fat? So, isn't the previous research now out of date?

- But...but...surely some things we are all encouraged to take for our health, such as omega-3-rich oily fish , could could be branded ‘unhealthy’ by the new traffic light scheme?

- Aren't you concerned that consumers who end up taking the traffic light scheme too much to heart will end up avoiding food that gives them not only essential fats, but but protein, iron and key vitamins such as vitamin B12? Isn't there a risk that some people's health might even suffer as a result of the new scheme?

Why were these kinds of questions (and many others) not being put on Today? Should he not also have raised and pursued the issue of whether such a scheme will be harmful to food companies and whether they can afford additional costs and a significant loss of sales at this time of economic difficulty? Moreover, the need for such labelling was clearly regarded as a given by the two Today interviewers. Should it have been? As for those who have philosophical/political objections to the activities of the 'Diet Police', hoping for a question or two (at the very least) to reflecting their fairly common concerns, Jim was not for obliging them.

(c) Reporting

Before moving on, the news bulletin that preceded Jim Naughtie's interviews featured a report on the story from BBC's health correspondent Adam Brimelow. It included a couple of reactions to the news. What would you expect here? A reaction for one group (say the British Heart Foundation) welcoming the proposed move and a reaction from another (say a farmers' group) opposing the move? I think that would have been appropriate. That's not what Adam gave his listeners however. No, following the pattern of the Today programme as a whole, he gave us two sets of supporters of the move - one welcoming it and the other saying 'Shame it didn't come earlier!': "The British Heart Foundation says a consistent approach would be a quantum leap for public health but some experts say getting this far has taken too long."

(d) Conclusion...and anticipation

I think it's safe to say that Today failed to provided balanced coverage of this important topic. So, that's 1-0 to the Biased BBC commentator then. What about the rest of that hour (and beyond)? Time to move on to the next issue. Surely it can't have been slanted towards the standpoint of campaigners too?

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