Saturday 8 December 2012

Background Checks

The Commentator features an interesting article by the Conservative MP Steve Baker. 

Mr. Baker had complained to the BBC after reading "a provocative piece by Martin Jacques, ‘an economist’, extolling the virtues of China’s communist regime and suggesting it was more legitimate than western democracies" on the BBC website - a write-up of one of Mr. Jacques's A Point of View talks for BBC Radio 4. 

Mr. Baker regards Martin Jacques's piece as a sickening apologia for an oppressive Communist dictatorship with a very bloody history, His main beef, however, is with the "unprofessional journalism" of the BBC for failing to provide "a proper introduction" - that is, for neglecting to give BBC readers (and listeners) what he considers to be vital background information on Mr. Jacques. For Mr. Baker, Martin Jacques is "not merely a disinterested “economist” or an objective observer", he is "a Communist propagandist". As proof of this, Mr. Baker cites the man's long involvement with the Communist Party and his editorship of Marxism Today from 1977 to 1991:
Without being made aware of this affinity, it is impossible for the reader to assess the true provenance and credibility of the points he makes in praise of the Chinese Communist regime.
Anyone who has ever complained to the BBC will probably give a wry smile at what happened next:
The BBC refused to accept my point.
Yes, Steve, they usually do! The BBC News website wrote back:
Thank you for taking the time to write to us.
You are obviously right about Martin Jacques’ history but we’re afraid we can’t agree that we needed to explain it.
As you point out, it has been 20 years since Jacques edited Marxism Today and in those intervening decades he has developed a mainstream career in journalism, writing for publications like The Sunday Times, The Economist and The Independent, and of course developing the interest and expertise on China for which he is now best known.
We are really not sure it’s particularly helpful to the listener to preface everything he now says with reference to his earlier career. To do so would clearly imply that we think he is – as you suggest –a communist writing in support of a communist regime, which we don’t believe is the case.
His pieces ranged over 2000 years of Chinese history, contained criticisms of the government and, frankly, could not obviously be associated with any prior position on the merits or otherwise of communism. We would also emphasise that A Point of View is, of course, just that – our contributors are able to develop an argument, and we wouldn’t expect (nor indeed want) listeners to agree with everything they hear.
There are a number of points that arise from this. For starters, being an MP is no guarantee that you won't get the usual confident brush-off treatment from the BBC Complaints department! Moreover, it's quite amusing that the BBC respondents themselves feel the need to go back in time to cite "publications like The Sunday Times, The Economist and The Independent" (two of them right-leaning publications) without citing the main sources of Mr. Jacques's present journalistic income - the left-leaning Guardian, The Observer and The New Statesman. Wonder why they did that, eh? (Please imagine me winking at you, conspiratorially!)

Now, I have to say that I think the BBC's main point is, in this case, a correct one. It is a good twenty years since Martin Jacques was involved in the Communist Party of Great Britain (which he had helped steer into a Eurocommunist position, distancing them from their formerly slavish attitude towards the Soviet Union) and I think that Steve Baker's characterisation of him is unfair. Martin Jacques has moved on. For the BBC to have gone all the way back to 1991 in its introduction to say something like "...says Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today and a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain..." would have been a bit silly. As others have pointed out (at Biased BBC, for example), it would be just as daft as introducing the BBC's Political Editor Nick Robinson as "..Nick Robinson, former chairman of the Young Conservatives..." - a post he held in 1986! Some people, defending the BBC against charges of left-wing bias, do keep bringing that up - as if it remains relevant or as if Nick Robinson's views couldn't possibly have changed since his youthful dabblings in politics.

What is relevant, I think, is to describe a speaker's recent relevant background - in Mr. Jacques's case, for example, his co-founding of the centre-left think tank Demos, his present career with The Guardian, his academic experience in China...Some of that should probably have been included on the BBC News website article, though perhaps not on the Radio 4 broadcast.

The problem for the BBC with regards to this piece is the one I outlined in an earlier post. A Point of View has failed to invited a right-leaning speaker to present the programme for some three years now. It has, however, invited several regular speakers from the Left. It's a shame Mr. Baker didn't complain about that. Freezing out one whole side of the political spectrum from a major weekly BBC series is hardly impartial BBC broadcasting.

If the BBC were to describe the background of their choice of A Point of View speaker in each introduction, would it have to mention, say, Mary Beard's controversial statements on 9/11 for example when introducing her, or Lisa Jardine and Simon Schama's support for the Labour Party - especially if they are making points about political issues during their Points of View? Surely both would be unreasonable demands. In the case of the latter, Lisa Jardine and Simon Schama are historians not politicians, even though they hold political views, and describing their views in advance is unnecessary.

No, all that's needed is for the programme to offer a broad range of opinions from people from across the political spectrum - something that is not presently happening.

It would be nice to say, "Just let the listener listen and the reader read and let them judge the argument on its merits for themselves." If Martin Jacques's lauding of China over Western democracy is wrong, then let that be debated rather that going for him personally over certain biographical details. (Play the ball not the man!) A brilliant example of someone doing just that comes from C. Custer on the magnificent ChinaGeeks blog - an informed and riveting critique of Martin Jacques's article that leaves it in tatters.

However, Mr. Baker's general point that the BBC should make its listeners and readers aware of a speaker's affinities, whenever relevant, is surely valid. It is much better to inform the reader or listener of such things, whenever relevant, and thus help them to assess the true provenance and credibility of the points being made for any speaker/writer. If the speaker has a party political affiliation and is speaking on a party-politically-charged issue (if they are politicians or people linked to political parties through, say, their job) then that party political affiliation is surely best mentioned. Allowing readers/listeners to assume them to be 'independent' would be poor journalism. Similarly, think tanks should be labelled 'right-leaning' or 'left-leaning', 'pro-Labour' or 'pro-Conservative', accordingly. Allowing readers/listeners to assume speakers speaking on their behalf to be 'independent' or 'non-aligned' or 'neutral' would also be poor journalism. Moreover, people affiliated with particular political campaign groups should, whenever relevant, be introduced as such, rather than allowing the reader/listener to assume them to be 'independent experts'. It would be poor journalism not to do so.

So, though I disagree with Steve Baker's specific charge, I agree with him on the general principle; indeed, I've made a fair few complaints to the BBC myself over the years charging them with failing to provide the necessary, relevant background information to a particular 'talking head' in a documentary or report - and achieving similar brush-offs in reply.

Here's part of one I sent earlier this year, concerning a Panorama hatchet job on the top Tory donor Lord Ashcroft:

Why did the ‘Panorama’ report on Lord Ashcroft use such a partisan figure as Kevin Maguire of the Mirror as one of its main talking heads? His closeness to Labour is not a secret but no mention of this was made by the reporter.
Another talking head, Prem Sikka, was described by Declan Lawn as an “expert” and simply labelled as a “Professor of Accountancy”. This suggests he’s an authority and a disinterested academic. Why didn’t the reporter mention that Prof. Sikka is also a far-Left ‘Guardian’ columnist and a long-term critic of Lord Ashcroft?
The other expert was Nicholas Shaxson, merely described by Panorama as a “financial journalist”. Mr. Shaxson is not just a “financial journalist”. He’s also a campaigner with the campaign group Tax Justice Network. Surely it was wrong for the programme not to have mentioned this highly relevant piece of background information?
I feel that the programme left a lot to be desired in terms of being straight about the background of its ‘experts’ and gave the impression of being biased against the Conservative Party.
Incidentally, what I failed to spot before sending that complaint is that Prof. Sikka is, like Mr. Shaxson,  also a senior advisor to the left-wing campaign group the Tax Justice Network. So that's two people associated with that campaign group presented as 'independent experts' on a politically-charged BBC documentary. 

The BBC's reply ran as follows:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us about ‘Secrets of the Tory Billionaire: Panorama’ broadcast on the 30 January.
Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we are sorry you have had to wait on this occasion.
We understand you felt the programme was unbalanced.
We forwarded your complaint to the programme team and they explained in relation to your concerns about how Kevin McGuire was presented on the programme that:
“Mr McGuire’s potential political orientation was made clear. He was captioned as political editor at the Mirror, a paper well known for its left leaning sympathies. After an extensive search, that included approaching leading Conservative commentators, Mr McGuire was the only political journalist with any substantial knowledge of Lord Ashcroft who was prepared to talk about him for our programme.”
In relation to Professor Prem Sikka they explained:
“Professor Sikka is a professor of accountancy at the University of Essex who regularly writes and appears in the media (not only The Guardian). He is also one of the few individuals to have looked into Lord Ashcroft’s corporate affairs and thus is in a position to comment with authority on Lord Ashcroft’s offshore arrangements and their transparency. The script made clear that he had examined Lord Ashcroft’s offshore corporate structures. He is also entitled to comment personally on our evidence that Lord Ashcroft has misled the City, the Lords and the public.”
With regards to Nicholas Shaxson they explained:
“Mr Shaxson is a journalist and leading expert on tax havens, as well as an Associate Fellow of Chatham House (the Royal Institute of African Affairs in London). Mr Shaxson was interviewed as a tax haven expert and not about tax avoidance or as a representative of the Tax Justice Network.”
We’d like to assure you that we’ve registered your complaint on our audience log. This is an internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily and is available for viewing by all our staff. This includes all programme makers and presenters, along with our senior management. It ensures that your points, along with all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.
Thank you again for contacting us with your views.
Hmm, OK, so Kevin Maguire was all they could get and every audience member will automatically know his links to the Labour Party? Hmm. No problem with the use of a Marxist ‘accountant’ who has, as the BBC itself admits, been looking into Ashcroft’s affairs for some time – for some mysterious reason - and whom the programme presumably knew was a senior advisor to the campaign group, the Tax Justice Network? Hmm. Not worth mentioning that “leading expert” Mr. Shaxson is also a member of the same left-wing campaign group on tax issues & that it’s supposed to be just fine and dandy for the BBC to present him as a disinterested expert? Hmm.

Presenting an "expert" as merely an expert can hardly fail to mislead listeners/readers into taking that 'talking head' to be nothing more than a disinterested academic able to give an impartial assessment of the issue at hand.

This concern arose again on yesterday's Today, where Evan Davis merely introduced Prem Sikka as "a professor of accountancy at Essex University" in another discussion about tax.

Yes, the interview was balanced in terms of guest selection (Prof. Sikka was up against Conservative MP John Redwood) and, yes, you could tell where Prof. Sikka was coming from by listening to what he said; however, the listener (unaware of Prem Sikka's role in a campaign group) might have been initially listening to him as a disinterested academic. Evan Davis's choice of words surely couldn't help but colour how they listened to the professor of accountancy from Essex University.

Umbongo at Biased BBC lays out the argument:
Evan chose not to tell the listeners that Sikka is a member of a pressure group closely involved on one side of this whole contrived issue of tax avoidance. OTOH most listeners would know that Redwood is a Conservative MP so would know – more or less – why he takes the position that he does.
Sikka was introduced as an academic; someone, in the absence of any other knowledge about him, who would be expected to give a disinterested assessment of the Starbucks kerfuffle.
Sikka, in fact, has a large dog in the fight, being associated with the Tax Justice Network and a writer of TJN-inspired agit-prop in the Guardian.
Sikka was not on Today as a disinterested expert on the mechanics of tax; he was on as an advocate of the policies the TJN espouses. Why would Evan choose not to disclose Sikka’s lobbying background? It’s hardly irrelevant. Doesn’t the failure to give such information concerning Sikka strike you as odd behaviour by an outfit claiming to be “impartial” in such matters.
Fair points, surely?

Now, I have to say that Prem Sikka's role in that Panorama programme was more potentially misleading because of how his credentials were boosted. After Evan's short introduction, Prof. Sikka's campaigning zeal could hardly have fooled anyone into believing that he wasn't a campaigner on the issue.

Still, can you excuse Today's failure to take the precaution of telling their listener's that Prem Sikka is affiliated to the left-wing campaign group the Tax Justice Network?

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