Sunday 25 November 2012

'The World Tonight' - and last night, and the night before...

Continuing to review the past week's editions of BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight, I want to surf my way over the choppy waters of the last five days and see how often the shark of bias lurks beneath, ready to bite off the leg of impartiality. So to speak.

Besides the Israel-Gaza conflict, this edition looked at Burma in the light of President Obama's visit to the Asian nation. Is the West seeking to draw Burma away from its traditional ties to China? Carolyn Quinn spoke to Josh Kurlantzick from the American think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, about the country's foreign relations. It was an interesting interview. 

Then there was a report by James Reynolds on anti-Assad Syrian refugees in Turkey. They don't like Bashar one bit. There have been repeated accusations that the BBC has been far too embedded - literally and emotionally - with the Syrian rebels. This report won't have undermined that impression (however unfair it may be). Its themes were the plight of refugee children, the badness of the Assad regime, the eagerness of the rebels, the unease of the Turkish state. 

The impending rebel seizure of Goma in Eastern Congo (DRC) was next up for discussion. Gabriel Gatehouse talked to Carolyn. The under-reporting of the various wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the last couple of decades remains one of the scandals of modern reporting. Compare it to the saturation coverage of events in Gaza or the West Bank. Deaths in the DRC since 1996 appear to have topped the 5 million mark (at least) - an extraordinary tally of human suffering. It tells you something that when you do a simple search on the BBC News website, the 'News' results bring up 6,793 results for "Congo" (with includes results for the other Congo - Congo Brazzaville - too) and   14,984 for "Israel". If you assume the figure to be 5 million dead in the DRC over that period and compare it to the figure (14,500) given by Wikipedia for deaths in the Israel-Palestinian conflict since 1948 (i.e. over a far longer period) you find that the recent wars in the Congo have killed some 370 times more people - in other words, VASTLY more. The BBC, of course, has been far from alone in under-reporting the plight of the Congolese and massively over-reporting the 'plight' of the Palestinians. Still, a myriad numbers of wrongs doesn't make a right. That is all a preamble to saying 'Well done!' to The World Tonight for giving up under five minutes of Monday's edition to the story. That said, they spent 16 minutes on Israel-Gaza (over 3 times as long). 

The programme ended with a report from the BBC's Guy De Launey on the growing friendship between a U.S. stealth fighter pilot (Dale Zelko) and the Serb artillery operator (Zoltan Dani) who shot him down in 1999 - the subject of a documentary called 'The Second Meeting'.  We heard from the two men and the director. Interesting. 


As well as the women bishops and the Gaza sections (reviewed in earlier posts), Tuesday's edition discussed Afghanistan. Paddy Ashdown says Western nation-building has failed in the country (said host Ritula Shah). There have been failures galore, but there has been some good the European Union. Paul Moss reported on the EU's involvement in training the ill-reputed Afghan police force. The Afghan people are grateful. The EU trainers are pleased with their work. The EU's top man in this field is pleased too. Where the US and Britain have failed, the EU is succeeding it seems. That was one of the messages of that report, I think. It's very rare to hear a positive report about Western intervention in Afghanistan. Interesting that it reflects so well on the European Union, isn't it?

Next up came MP John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP who is proposing a job-share proposal in parliament, prompted by issues around disability rights. He thinks it could allow more disabled people to enter parliament. Ritula asked him a few questions that are likely to have occurred to listeners, and Mr. McDonnell sighed and huffed at being questioned - even though he wasn't exactly being grilled. The MPs would get half a vote each. (Presumably they would also get half a normal MP's salary each too)? The BBC and the Morning Star seem to be the only media organisations to have reported this (according to a Google search).

After Gaza was discussed again (that interview with Mustafa Barghouti), it was back to Eastern Congo and the Tutsi rebel seizure of Goma in Eastern Congo (DRC), which occurred that very day. This was the final item in the programme.  Gabriel Gatehouse reported on the M23 movement's entry into the city, as the UN and the Congolese Army stood back and allowed it to happen. Again, kudos for The World Tonight for reporting to this. A spokesman for the U.N. in the DRC briefly explained why they did what they did (or didn't). One of the programme's most regular guests, Richard Dowden of the Royal Africa Society (I remember him as the Independent's Africa correspondent), then talked to Ritula about the background to the day's events. Mr. Dowden made the following point, with some force - and it tallies with one I prepared earlier:
The worst war of the century. I mean, this is...5 million people have already died and, you know, I just notice it's the bottom of your news schedule. This is the worst war in the world. It gets very little coverage. And it's absolutely appalling what's going on there. 


After a 12-minute section on Israel-Gaza, The World Tonight returned to Goma and the Congo (DRC)  Gabriel Gatehouse reported on the rebels' address to the crowds in a stadium in the city. Again, more kudos to them for spending 5 minutes on this and shoving it a bit higher up the news schedule.

Afghanistan again followed. Paul Moss was in Kabul, and this time it wasn't to plug an EU mission (if that's a fair assessment of his last piece). How reliant is the country's economy on NATO? What will happen after 2014? Business leaders are not optimistic about the the future, after NATO leaves. Security, and all that, is part of the problem. Some others are pessimistic, some are optimistic. A range of views was on offer. Paul Moss can (on occasions) be a fine reporter, and this was a fine report. You were left to your own conclusion as to whether the 2014 pull-out is going to be a good thing or not. Thoughts were provoked.

A bit of praise, a bit of criticism. When it comes to the European Union, I remain deeply unconvinced that the BBC finds it easy to report impartially. Too often you get reports that feature a loaded BBC commentary, a pro-European politician as one 'talking head', a pro-European expert (usually not announced as such) as a second 'talking head' and a very short clip from Nigel Farage of UKIP "for balance." (There was a classic from Newsnight this very week). In anticipation of the EU budget summit, Robin invited an expert along, someone I've heard on many a BBC programme...Jacki Davis, "the EU analyst" (as Robin described her). Jacki is a leading light in the pro-EU European Policy Centre, a think tank "committed to making European integration work." Her commentary seemed pretty sound to me, but why do BBC programmes so often draw on experts from certain think tanks and why, in the context of very regular accusations of pro-EU bias, do they so often draw on experts from pro-EU think tanks on European issues? I'll leave that question hanging in the air for a minute or two...!

A group of female political activists complaining that undercover police officers engaged them in sexual relations brought an invitation to the campaigning left-wing solicitor Harriet Wistrich, legal partner of the highly controversial (especially with those on the Right) Gareth Peirce. The grievances of her clients were duly aired and then. A former undercover police officer, James Bannan (sp?), then told Robin about his experiences and defended undercover police work.


That problem with bias regarding the European Union rose again strongly on this edition of the programme. BBC Europe correspondent Chris Morris talked to presenter David Eades as the EU budget summit began. We then heard from the President of the European Parliament, the German socialist Martin Schulz, (as ever) defending  the EU. Next come a report from Spain whose message can be summed up in David Eades's introduction:
"Of course, as Chris was pointing out, the vast majority of member states get more out of the budget than they put in, and for some of them that money is not a nice little bonus on the side it's a necessity in the fight against steepening economic decline. Spain is one such case. Our reporter Beth McLeod went to speak to people in a small farming community two hours east of Seville, where the EU's assistance is their lifeline".
I really don't need to describe what followed from Beth, do I? You can surely guess it without hearing it. Suffice to say it tugged at the emotions and may have left (susceptible) listeners thinking that those poor people need and deserve their EU money and shame on those countries (like Cameron's Britain) who are putting their "lifeline" at risk.

OK, that wasn't good. Worse was to follow.

Next came a discussion on the European Union - and British euroscepticism. Besides presenter David Eades, there were two guests. The first was Olaf Boehnke, introduced as "Olaf Boehnke, of the European Council on Foreign Relations." The second was Timothy Garton Ash, introduced as "the writer Timothy Garton Ash."

We're back to the problem identified on yesterday's edition. What is the European Council on Foreign Relations? It's another pro-European think tank whose aim is "the development of a coherent and effective European values-based foreign policy." There are the likes of Emma Bonino, Joschka Fischer and former EU foreign affairs supremo Javier Solana on its board.

Now it's perfectly acceptable to invite a pro-EU think tank expert like Mr. Boehnke onto the programme. What is far less acceptable, I think, is to pair him with a well-known British 'pro-European' like Timothy Garton Ash, who also just happens to sit on the board of the self-same European Council on Foreign Relations.

Yep, that's two people from the pro-EU ECFR in the same discussion (not that Mr Garton Ash was introduced as such). Not good, is it? Surely an invite should have gone out to a British eurosceptic to balance Olaf Boehnke? Is that really too much to ask?

They did have some differences of outlook, but Mr. Boehnke wanted a more "common policy" and Mr. Garton Ash understood why people on the Continent might feel that the British Conservatives "have taken leave of their senses." They both want Britain to be in Europe and stop being so (as TGA put it) "foolish". That's bias in action, I believe.

The advance of the rebels in Syria was the next subject. Another of the BBC's most regular experts, RUSI's Shashank Joshi, was David's guest. He believes the Syrian rebels have just made a significant step forward and thinks it's "very possible" that the last couple of weeks have been a "tipping point".  Mr Joshi's predictions aren't always stop-on. Check out his BBC article from 3 Feb 2011 where he criticises others for leaping to conclusions that Mubarak was about to be "imminently" removed from days before Mubarak was removed from power. He argued that Mubarak was actually pursuing an "exemplary" strategy for remaining in office. Oops! Just after the fall of Mubarak (12 Feb 2011) he posted another BBC article predicting the likelihood of Field Marshall Tantawi (remember him?) rebuilding the autocracy and thwarting the revolution. Oops! In the same piece he complained about "the ill-informed alarmism about the Muslim Brotherhood". (Yep, nothing dangerous about them. No chance they'd win an election and their president declare himself an autocrat). In a further BBC article (1 May 2011) Mr. Joshi was predicting that the death of Saif Al-Arab Gaddafi might backfire for Nato, calling it a "grievous strategic error". It would, he confidently predicted, anger Germany into diplomatic opposition. Germany recognised Libya rebels as the sole government soon after. Oops! (That's a warning, of course, never to make predictions...until after they've come true.)

After Israel-Gaza was discussed again, the toe-curling goings-on in the "troubled" centre-right UMP in France were discussed. Jonas Haddad from the UMP's youth movement talked (briefly) to David Eades (who talked up the possibility of long-lasting chaos on the French Right, divisions, court cases of leading French conservatives, the lip-licking of the Front National, etc).

Finally, loneliness. Mike, a retired 75-year-old Londoner who suffers from feelings of loneliness, talked to David Eades.


This final edition of the week began by debating the power grab in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood's President Mursi. We heard briefly from the man many at the BBC seemed to have hoped would become president (or so I thought at the time), the Israel-unfriendly Mohamed ElBaradei. It seems so natural that The World Tonight turned first to him. Then we (equally briefly) heard from Pakinam El-Sharkawi, political advisor to Mursi, who defended her boss's move. They were mere warm-ups to the BBC's own Jon Leyne, who said that Egypt was now dangerously divided, and the Egyptian novelist, Ahdaf Soueif, who was most unhappy at the turn of events. Ahdaf wrote an article for the BBC News website during the Egyptian revolution that seems to me to epitomise the spirit not just of people like her in Egypt but of the BBC's coverage of the early months of the Arab Spring. It was all so positive: Muslims and Christians together teaching the world to sing, liberal lambs lying down with the Muslim Brotherhood lions, 80 million people all behind Ahdaf's left-liberal optimism, 'Be with us'. No wonder she's not a happy novelist now. Neither she - nor the BBC - saw it coming.

A frequent complaint on the Biased BBC blog is that the BBC has taken a position on fracking (hydraulic fracturing) - the extraction technique used to harness underground natural gas reserves which has already revolutionised the energy sector in the U.S.A. Ritula Shah's introduction talked of "the fury" of environmentalists and the government "placing faith" in gas. There then came a report from Paul Moss (who certainly gets about). We heard from a variety of people about Britain's energy problems and possible solutions. More food for thought. Unfortunately, when the report reached the issue of fracking, we heard from two people in the energy business who thought "a dash to gas" would be a "mistake". They were followed by a spokesman for Friend Of The Earth, who also disagreed with the government's "dash for gas". So three voices in a row opposing fracking. I was waiting for someone, anyone, to speak up in favour of a determined push for shale gas. No one did. Not good. As someone once said, Paul Moss can be a fine reporter. Here, as with the EU-in-Afghanistan piece, I have concerns about the seepage of bias into his reporting. Why didn't he seek out a pro-gas 'talking head' to counter the three critics of gas?

The programme ended with a long segment from Catalonia. Robin Lustig was there (lucky man!), reporting in advance of what could be highly significant elections there this weekend. Pro-independence parties could win and the break-up of Spain could begin. Possibly. It was the sort of thing Robin Lustig does well. I've no complaints about it.


In many ways The World Tonight remains the best of the daily current affairs programmes on BBC Radio 4. It covers a far broader range of topics and provides deeper coverage. It can often get the brain cells working far more than, say, Newsnight. As with any such programme, looking at a week's worth of editions will uncover much that is not biased. Besides the serious bias over the Israel-Gaza conflict outlined in the last post, this trawl uncovered evidence of pro-EU bias and, possibly, anti-fracking bias. The BBC is regularly criticised for biased reporting of these three subjects people who criticise the BBC. It's surely for The World Tonight to seek to show that such charges have no foundation. The evidence of this past week is that they do have some foundation.

[Sue: It seems the conclusion of your second instalment is more favourable to the BBC. It’s really the Israel/Gaza topic that illustrates the BBC’s bias most clearly, in these samples at least. I imagine the BBC would say that they concentrate on it more than, say Africa or Syria, because it’s what interests the listeners most. But is that interest a true reflection of public opinion, or something the BBC has whipped up because of their their own obsession?]

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