Tuesday 27 November 2012

Work in Progress

Here's a comment that appeared a couple of days ago on the Biased BBC website, quoting a comment on Guido's Order Order site.:

..this from Guido comment
Hang The B**tards says:
November 25, 2012 at 1:53 pm
ANDREW MARR this morning on reviewing the papers said
“The foster couple in Rotherham had extreemist political views”
You may ask yourself WTF is this adulterous man talking about ?
Answer: He’s connected to the Common Purpose Gestaop so obviously springs to the defence of F***wit-Thacker !

(Did you like the way I oh-so-delicately mod*rated it?)

That's a serious charge about Andrew Marr, accusing him of abandoning BBC impartiality to accuse the shamefully ill-treated UKIP-supporting foster parents of holding extremist political views. 

Have a watch of the programme and you find that what Andrew Marr actually said was:
"Some things change, however. I mean, one of the other big stories, Sarah, has been the treatment of this UKIP-supporting family who were told they couldn't foster or adopt some children because of their extreme political views." 
...which to any reasonable-minded viewer quite obviously mean't:
"Some things change, however. I mean, one of the other big stories, Sarah, has been the treatment of this UKIP-supporting family who were told they couldn't foster or adopt some children because of their "extreme political views"." 
This is a typical example of the problem on many a comments field where people expound on the issue of BBC bias - people mishearing, misquoting and misunderstanding or, maybe even, deliberately trying to mislead others for malicious reasons.

Then, of course, comes the ad hom, the conspiracy theory and the breaking of Godwin's Law. Bingo. 

This evening another comment on the Biased BBC site, from one of its most likeable commenters, showed something of the same thing in action - albeit far more well-put:

Oh *****, your faith in the BBC is touching…and not in the Savile sense I assure you!
Have a listen to the first section of P.M tonight( Tues 27/11/12…5pm onwards).
How long is spent going over the “welfare to work” disappointment , as framed by the BBC…how many names like Abbie does the reporter bring up to show how let down and abandoned the “plebs” are, in their search for work by a cold and heartless Coalition.
Takes the BBC ages-and then they ask Margaret Hodge..yes, Margaret Hodge from the P.A.C( and therefore “independent”, no doubt) to tell us all that Labour and Job Centre Plus…with more “investment” is the only solution to this crisis.
Hodge ought to know this-her last lot caused this, and let it get worse for years-so let her tell us all again, just HOW Labour will get it right “once again”…and this is 15/20 mins I `d guess!
Now ***** -do you ever keep tabs on WHO is getting to “discuss” the latest “scandal” at each and every “opportunity” on the “current affairs” slots throughout Radio 4, Do an analysis if you would-% Tory, % interruptions, % slime thrown over the debates, % analysis of what is said by the “BBC correspondent/editor”…and come back and tell us that the BBC are not biased lefty bastards on perpetual manoevres.
After Hodge we get Nadine Dorries-listen to the questions and insinuations of Carolyn Quinn as she pops at her Constituency Chairman for the 6pm soundbite…ever vigilant and in the hope that Dorries gets fired or whatever.
25 minutes all this-and then try to grab the 30 second soundbite/gloss over about Patten in Parliament.
You see ***** what`s the point on coming to the Biased BBC website to tell me that the BBC is not perennially creating, setting and forming its nasty little agenda…as if we don`t know the game!
Why don`t you *****, my son?

I had a listen to that first section of PM tonight. I will concentrate purely on that. 

The B-BBC commenter was quite correct in saying that the "welfare to work disappointment" took up 15-20 minutes of the programme. This might be seen as placing a 'bad news story for the Tory-led coalition' at the top of the programme and dwelling on it, but it is a key government policy and its success or lack of success matters. I don't think PM's decision to spend a quarter of an hour on it at the top of their programme is unreasonable, but you may feel otherwise. 

The first report by Michael Buchanan (beginning about 6 minutes in) certainly didn't underplay the negative and its first 'talking head', Paul Bivand from the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, added to the negative vibe about the scheme; however, the second 'talking head', Kirsty McHugh of Employment Related Services Association (ERSA) - the organisation representing the “welfare to work” groups running the programme - stressed the positive, as did the third 'talking head', the (Conservative) employment minister, Mark Hoban. So this report can't be characterised as wholly "framed" in terms of spreading a mood of "disappointment" about the scheme.

The Biased BBC commenter is also perfectly correct that the programme chose to invite a Labour MP, Margaret Hodge from the P.A.C. (about 10 minutes in), to discuss the issue, rather than a government minister/supporter. Bias? Perhaps, perhaps not. It would have been biased, to my mind, if presenter Carolyn Quinn had fed the Labour MP questions hostile to the government or helpful to her own party. She did not. I can prove this by transcribing her questions, most of which (very properly) put (Conservative-led) government 'talking points' to the Labour ex-minister:
"From your own government experience you know that some schemes do take time to bed in, don't they? So is it too early to raise concerns about the Welfare to Work programme?"
"But the DWP does say more than half of the job seekers who started on the programme last year have spent some time off benefits, 1 in 4 have been in some form of work, more than 200,000 have found employment since the scheme's launch. Now, they admit that the Work Programme is taking longer than expected but they do argue that the next set of figures will be better, give it time."
(interrupting) "You talk about the figures...sorry Margaret Hodge, let me just ask you about that because there are two sets of figures. There are today's figures on job outcomes and the government say they never said they'd be published quarterly. Because of the methodology it would be impossible to get them out every quarter and there is another set of figures about the number of people referred by job centres and they have been published quarterly up to now but they have been...it has been decided to publish them six monthly. So the government would say they're sticking to their plans."
"Talking about the taxpayer involvement though. Taxpayers aren't being penalised by the failure to meet the targets, are they, because the providers won't be paid unless they deliver results? This is, compared to previous schemes which paid out too much up front...erm...less taxing on the taxpayer?"
(interrupting) "It would cost money of course, wouldn't it, and...?"
"Let me just draw your thoughts back finally to Labour's Future New Deal programme because the government is saying that the cost of every job secured under their Work Programme is just under £2,000 compared with a cost of almost £7,500 under that Labour scheme because the contractors are only paid 60% of their fee once someone's in a sustainable job. So you're not saying that you'd like to return to the Future New Deal, are you?"
Now, the Biased BBC commenter appears to have failed to pick up on the good job of 'devil's advocate' interviewing being done by Carolyn Quinn, fixing instead on Margaret Hodge's failings (which has nothing to do with BBC bias, of course).  

Also, it would be unfair to imply, as the commenter did, that the programme presented Mrs. Hodge as being "independent". Presenter Carolyn Quinn in fact clearly introduced her as a "Labour MP" and, as you can see, some of the questions treated her as a Labour MP rather than as the chair of the Public Accounts Committee . 

The most serious charge against the programme made by the Biased BBC commenter is, of course. "how many names like Abbie does the reporter bring up to show how let down and abandoned the “plebs” are, in their search for work by a cold and heartless Coalition."

That refers to the interview which closed the segment where the BBC Home Affairs Editor Mark Easton gave Carolyn his view of how the scheme is going. Does what Mark Easton said bear out the charge of blatant party political bias being made against him by the Biased BBC commenter? 

See for yourselves from this transcription:
"It's interesting. I've spent the day in the West Midlands looking at a number of schemes in Birmingham  and in Burton-on-Trent and what you get is a very different view of what's actually required than from what you perhaps listening to voice from the Westminster bubble and SW1. I think...the thing you have to remember is that this scheme was conceived in a time when economic growth was expected to be 2-2.5% and it clearly hasn't been anything like that. So I think that to imagine that they were going to be able to hit the kind of targets that they had envisaged back in 2010-2011 was always going to be rather ambitious. 
(Carolyn Quinn interrupts to describe the figures as "stark").
"That's right. They are stark in that sense but I think what you have to understand is what the job is on the ground. So I met this girl, Amy, today. Now Amy is 21. Until very recently she had been out of work for years. She had no confidence. She really was...in no way would you describe her as 'job-ready'. Eventually she found herself onto the Work Programme; in fact, she was one of the first people on it. She joined almost Day One. I think, June 2011. And the Salvation Army were the secondary provider trying to get her into work. It was going to be a job to get Amy a job and they took, frankly, a year in terms of training, in terms of support and in terms of...the gave her vouchers to get clothing that she could wear to job interviews. It was as basic as that. Eventually she got some training, she got some job placements and then finally in July this year she got a job - a proper job as a receptionist and she's been doing that for the last six months. Now the reason I mention Amy's story is because Amy won't be on that list of successes. She's not among the 31,000 but actually you ask Amy...she says she is a success. She's an extraordinary story of a life turned around. And the next figures, when they come out - well maybe not the October ones, maybe the December ones - she will be on those figures for six months. So there is a long way to run..."
(Carolyn Quinn interrupts to ask about the providers having to change things round by April or risk losing their contracts). 
"Well, that is the name of the game. You know, we've moved the risk from the taxpayer onto in some cases private sector providers, in other cases they're from the voluntary or not-for-profit sector. I was in Burton-on-Trent working..it was a housing association there which is a secondary provider for the Work Programme and I met Sam who's been homeless only a matter of months ago, and then three or four weeks ago eventually the Work Programme, through this housing provider, found him a job...Gosh, what a job!...11.30 at night until 3 in the morning washing dishes in a distribution centre in Burton-on-Trent. That was his first job. This is a chap who's never really worked. He's 20 years old. He has, as I say, been homeless. But for him, I have to say, it was...he is an extraordinary, transformed figure who says, look, it's not just about numbers, it's not just about, you know, a job. It's actually about my life being turned around. And I think the ambition of the Work Programme - to do it without spending large amounts of taxpayers' money, doing it against the kind of backdrop of, sort of, growth and economic recession and sort of ..stable economy if you've got at the moment, it's very, very difficult to achieve it. You have to remember that there aren't new jobs for these people. They are fighting against people who have unemployed for a very short length of time, who haven't got many of the problems and challenges that they have. So for the Work Programme to succeed they have to take Sam the homeless boy or Amy who's been out of work for years and get them to the front of the queue ahead of people who, on paper at least, look a far better bet for an employer. It's not an easy thing to do. The word from Whitehall - and you've probably been hearing this too - is that when the next figures come out they're going to show a very big increase in the number of people who've been in work for more than six months and ministers are talking about the whole scheme being back on track. Iain Duncan Smith has told me that he thinks that the scheme will be hitting its targets by the end of the second year. You're right, the situation is not good at the moment but I think that it's far too early to write off the Work Programme." 

How does the charge"how many names like Abbie does the reporter bring up to show how let down and abandoned the “plebs” are, in their search for work by a cold and heartless Coalition" look now? 

As you can see, it could not be more wrong. 

Mark Easton's reporting used Amy and Sam's case to show how elated and cared for the "plebs" are in their search for work. Far from suggesting "a cold and heartless Coalition", the BBC reporter's anecdotes are surely a powerful recommendation for the Coalition's Work Programme - and a hearty slap in the face to the carping of Labour's Margaret Hodge. I can't imagine that any listening Labour Party partisans would have found this at all to their liking. Quite the opposite, I suspect. In contrast, any listening Coalition ministers would surely have been absolutely delighted by Mark Easton's reporting here. I doubt they could have hoped for more favourable coverage. 

Now, being very familiar with the B-BBC commenter in question, I have no doubt that he genuinely thought he was hearing biased, anti-government, pro-Labour BBC broadcasting at its worst here. What he was actually hearing was, as we've seen, very far from that. It was mostly balanced and, if anything, was tilted towards the Coalition.

How did he get it so wrong? 

The title of this blog is 'Is the BBC biased?' As you will have seen, I think the BBC can be biased, often seriously so and over long periods. I've devoted long periods myself (on and off) to proving it. I've blogged on two BBC bias-centred blogs without question marks. However, I've grown sceptical of my own biases as time has passed and more and more conscious of the fact that it's best not to take what other BBC bias hunters at face value either without checking it out for myself first. Time after time after time I've checked leads out from other blogs (principally Biased BBC) and found that they've been complete duds.  They mishear and I mishear. So this blog has a question mark at the end of it. 

To repeat then, how did he get it so wrong? How did the commenter on Guido get it so wrong? How do I know I'm still not getting it so wrong?

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