After the shocking explosion of rioting and lawlessness that shook several English cities in August 2011, Sunday commissioned three talks from prominent figures to reflect on the events that had just taken place.
'Is the BBC biased?' is the name on the tin so, if Damian Thompson is correct that "Nowhere in the BBC's output is Left-liberal bias more thickly applied than on Radio 4's Sunday programme", then we should be able to see that reflected in the choice of figures, in how their contributions are framed and in what they actually say. Let's see then!
1. Choice of speakers
The three speakers were a Labour MP, a liberal rabbi and the leader of a Muslim organisation. A classic Left-liberal choice, at first glance.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger is 'certainly Left-liberal' through and through. A familiar figure, at the time she sat on the Liberal Democrat benches in the House of Lords, though she resigned from the party later in the year.
Fiyaz Mughal of Faith Matters, which Ed Stourton described as being "a Muslim group committed to reducing extremism and inter-faith tension", turned out to be 'Left-liberal' too. He was a former Deputy President of the Liberal Democrat Party.
Interestingly - and complicating matters pleasingly! - the Labour MP was Frank Field. Being a Labour MP, he can obviously be described as being 'Left' (to an extent!) but 'Left-liberal' doesn't fit him, and he's always been popular with conservatives - and Conservatives. He is a leading Anglican too.
An actual Conservative or, more generally, any right-wing speaker is noticeably missing from this short list - a revealing omission, don't you think? Why was that side of the debate missing?
2. What they said
What follows are my transcripts of the three talks. They are all of interest, and can now be preserved for posterity (thanks to this little blog!).
1. Frank Field:
"The country no longer sings from the same hymn-sheet. That is the lesson I draw from the recent rioting and looting. To give a sense that the whole country from onboard the same train journey, even if we were in different compartments, the Victorians put much effort into creating what we would now call 'a public ideology'. This was a period when Christianity had come under sustained attack. The governing elite reacted by seeing how it could maintain much of Christian morality without it being underpinned by Christian dogma. The question posed was 'Is it possible to retain allegiance to our moral code or social ground rules without that code being undergirded by faith?' For almost a century the Victorians achieved what many people now think impossible - they maintained, in effect, a secular morality. The country WAS blessed by one individual, the philosopher T.H. Green, took much of the honey from the Christian hive and placed it in more secular surroundings. English idealism, the product of Green's work, became a public ideology or hymn-sheet. The aim was to create a society where everyone could develop their best selves and one that realised that this could only be achieved if we has a strong sense of community. Although this was a period of falling church attendances, it was one in which English idealism held sway. But no more. Why? One reason stands out. We have lost the confidence to teach a set of beliefs about our society's objectives and the rules that need to be followed if these ends are to be achieved. No-one, sadly, is much interested in doing what T.H. Green did. So how might we go about trying to emulate this extraordinary Victorian achievement? In place of one faith we now have many, and those without faith. Yet I've found it impossible to interest anybody in the task of looking at what each of these faiths see as the goals of life. There has been a similar lack of interest in knowing what these faiths see as the ground rules if the good life is to be achieved. My guess is that we will find much agreement over both ends and means. If I'm right we could have the basis for an agreed morality, a social highway code which we could confidently teach. It would tell us what the country was trying to achieve, both in terms of each individual's worth and what we see as the right ends to which individuals should aim. Nobody should pretend this journey would be easy and there is an alternative. That alternative erupted onto British streets only weeks ago."
"In my view the riots this summer were not a particular sign that our society is sick. Unlike the Prime Minister, I think it may well have been a one-off and not the start of something new. We've always has occasional rioting - Notting Hill, Broadwater Farm, Brixton and so on - but I DO think that there is a deep moral malaise in our society. It's just that those problems go deeper and our more widespread than the riots, however unpleasant, however frightening they were. First, we depersonalise our older people and talk about them as a demographic time-bomb. We've watched Southern Cross go bust and seen thousands of older people in care homes waiting anxiously to know their future, yet what are we doing to bring comfort, certainty and hope? Secondly, and similarly, we've allowed a huge number of our young to be in a position where they can't find work. However bubbly, energetic and full of hope they are when they start looking, the dejection and the depression is real as they are rejected time and again however hard they try. I think we should be creating jobs for young people and carving out exciting new volunteering opportunities for them as well. But that's expensive and would mean stopping cuts in those parts of our voluntary sector that could find things for them to do. So it's not really about riots, it's about our attitudes to the young and the old. And it's about our lack of energy and sense of urgency in doing anything about all this. When societies recognise they are in trouble they often heal themselves by a massive growth in what we might call 'civic institutions'. The Chief Rabbi makes this point. After the Industrial Revolution, with people living in fear of attack on the streets of our cities, friendly societies mutuals, charitable foundations and housing associations, many of them religious, with loads of people volunteering, sprang up all over the country. People felt they had a responsibility to heal what was wrong with our society. And that's what's missing now. Sure, there are modern philanthropists doing their best (though we need far more) and there are small, independent start-up organisations trying to make the world a better place, but it's for ALL of us to make the world a better place, riots or no riots. At a time of real worry about our future, real tightening of belts, with an angry element in society that doesn't feel it has a share in it, that sense of needing to make the world, our country, our city, our neighbourhood a better place needs renewal. We saw local communities could out to clean up in the wake of the riots. If we could just harness that wonderful energy, we might just find a way through. But it's not just for them to do it. It's for all of us - of all faiths, ages, political views, wherever we live, nationwide."
3. Fiyaz Mughal:
"The prime minister suggests that our society is broken and sick and suggests that there is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society. This view, which is simplistic, does not reflect the huge activities in civil society - faith groups and groups who are based on social justice, who have acted for decades as a glue between communities in local areas in the UK. Such a statement by the Prime Minister simply disregards all of this energy and focus. Without such interfaith, cohesion and community development activities involving young people the intensity and the length of the riots would have been considerably worse. Our society is NOT broken. It's simply challenged from time to time when we stop listening or when we disregard those who are the voiceless or the unseen. Within an Islamic context, ensuring cohesive communities is fundamental to the well-being of a community, a region and a nation. Indeed, at the very roots of the inception of Islam debate, discussion and listening to one another were a fundamental part of the faith and its energy. Allied to that, within Islam there is a consistent message that while God can provide solutions and give hope we must also use our energies to create a sense of social justice and harmony. Islam repeatedly talks of the divine and the here-and-now within a strong envelope of social justice and social harmony. It always gives people a direct link to God whilst stating that the mercy of God is available for those people who make mistakes. With this in mind, the role of family, education, social action for good and hope are all part of the equation which Islam promotes and whilst there are areas of confluence with the statement of the Prime Minister about the need for proper ethics, morals and parenting, there is also a distinct set of differences. We cannot regard society as broken when there are so many energies and so many social forces that have successfully kept us together for decades - young and old, black and white, male and female. Islam asks people to look at the totality of social situations and guides people away from narrow definitions and this is why the actions of many of those who commit crimes in the name of Islam are so fundamentally wrong. This is also where it diverges from such a comment made by the Prime Minister. We must, therefore, step back and look at the reasons why the riots took place and come up with reasons that we can act upon without blaming our younger generations or our society or our communities. A handful of young people simply cannot dictate how we look at our younger generations in the future. That would be a disastrous legacy of the riots."
As this is a blog about bias, I will not dwell too long on my own reactions to these talks. Frank Field's contribution had me thinking for hours after I first heard it. He has a part-alluring, part-concerning big idea. It is most unlikely ever to be put into practice. (The ideas of T.H. Green, incidentally, seem to be quite popular with Labour Party thinkers. Roy Hattersley is another fan). Baroness Neuberger's feeling that the August riots were "a one-off" looks to have been a shrewd insight. Having had the all the uplift of the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games (an uplift most people in the UK seem to have shared), the August riots seem like an old nightmare. (They won't, of course, to their victims). Mr. Mughal's contribution might be said to make him a natural for
Platitude Thought For The Day, and it was a bit too 'missionary' in nature for my tastes.
Back to the bias. I don't think there's anything in what the three speakers chosen by Sunday actually said to bat away the claim that the programme fished only in the 'Left' or 'liberal' pool of public opinion for its perspectives on the riots - except that Mr. Field's contribution would surely appeal more to to conservatives (of Right or Left) rather more than to liberals. (Do you agree?)
It is also worth pointing out that the Labour MP was the only speaker not to criticise and disagree with David Cameron!
...which brings me to...
3. How the talks were framed
The debates were framed as responses to David Cameron's claims of a "broken" and "sick" society. This makes the absence of a Conservative voice all the more puzzling.
Frank Field's contribution was was introduced by Edward Stourton in the following way:
'There are pockets of society that are not only broken but frankly sick.' That was the Prime Minister's response to the outbreak of looting and public disorder which erupted early last month. We've asked three prominent figures to reflect on what happened and the way that we collectively should respond. They're all people of faith and people who are actively involved in politics or community service. First up Frank Field, a member of the church of England General Synod and a veteran Labour MP.Julia Neuberger's talk was introduced by William Crawley like this:
On last week's 'Sunday' the MP Frank Field gave his analysis of the August riots. We had a lot of response to what he said. Here's just a taste of what you told us. Phil Edwards picked up on Frank Field's reference to the 19th Century philosopher T.H. Green. Phil writes, 'I don't think we can adapt the ideas of Victorian philosophy to the age we live in. My own personal belief on how to change people's attitudes is for our governments to lead by example, by behaving in a moral and honest way, but it is clear that there is no single explanation for the recent riots that enjoys universal support. Politicians, religious leaders, columnists, bloggers, academics and community activists will probably continue to debate the factors that became triggers for the riots for years to come.' Here's another voice in that debate, Rabbi Julia Neuberger.
Ed Stourton's introduction to Fiyaz Mughal ran as follows:
Over the past couple of weeks we've broadcast a series of essays prompted by the Prime Minister's response to the August riots. We've already heard from the Labour MP and General Synod member Frank Field and from Rabbi Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer. This week the thoughts of Fiyaz Mughal, direct of Faith Matters, a Muslim group committed to reducing extremism and inter-faith tension.
The absence of a voice from the Right making a case that right-wing listeners would feel reflected their outlook of the August riots certainly suggests 'Left-liberal' bias on the programme's part. You may be perfectly comfortable with that (if you take a 'Left-liberal' line yourself, but please imagine the boot being on the other foot. Would you be happy if Sunday had asked three 'Right-conservatives' to give their views?