Saturday 22 December 2012

BBC Correspondents Look Back...In Embarrassment

A long-standing BBC Radio 4 New Year tradition has been the annual BBC Correspondents Look Ahead special, where a handful of the corporation's star news reporters get together to predict what they think is going to happen over the following twelve months. 

One of its fun features is the initial run-through of what they foretold the previous time and how correctly - or spectacularly incorrectly - they foretold it! The presenter usually makes them blush a bit then points to some of their successful predictions, thus proving that BBC correspondents are shrewd commentators after all. However, as a devoted year-in-year-out listener to BBC Correspondents Look Ahead, I have noticed a certain tendency not to remember some of the most embarrassing predictions from the previous year, so it might be interesting (he says optimistically) to look back at the last edition of the programme in advance of this year's edition and mark the BBC reporters' scorecard for them (thus saving the presenter a job). It's nearly Christmas, so such an act of charity is surely just what's needed.

The presenter last time round was Owen Bennett Jones. His team were the BBC's North America editor (has he ever reported from Canada?) Mark Mardell, Newsnight economics editor Leon Trotsky Paul Mason, roving Everywhere correspondent Lyse Doucet and BBC diplomatic editor Kate James Robbins. My favourite was Paul Mason, whose ability to get his predictions and analysis wrong puts even Karl Marx to shame. 

I'll ignore the initial recap of the previous year's prediction, except to note that OBJ's recall of Mark Mardell's somewhat awry 'name to watch', Mitch Daniels - the Republican Mark tipped in the race to be selected as the GOP's candidate to lose to Barack Obama - drew the ever-so-(not)-impartial comment from Paul Mason:
"Mark, you're being too polite here. 'He wasn't crazy enough' is the answer." 
That's perhaps what a few fair BBC listeners might have been thinking but, by my understanding of BBC impartiality guidelines, Paul's intervention there was a revolutionary-exile's-air-miles-to-Mexico away from being an impartial BBC comment! 

The first topic up for discussion was the likely fate of Bashar Assad of Assyria. Owen Bennett Jones predicted that he was safe and that the danger had passed for him. James Robbins thought that OBJ was wrong and that by the end of 2012 Bashar's people would be starting to desert him. Now that's looking like a good prediction to me. Lyse predicted he wouldn't "survive the entire year." Well, she's still got a few days to go to spare her blushes! Still, pretty sensible stuff...until Paul Mason entered the debate, that is.

Newsnight's clueless Wolfie Smith impersonator gave BBC listeners this inspired insight about the Syrian conflict:
"There is this other elemental force, isn't there? People power!"
OK, Paul. "People power!" being the explanation of the Syrian civil war? Hmm, best stick to tweeting Laurie Penny perhaps?

Predicting "social unrest" in Russia and Iran throughout 2012, Paul ended with the question, "So where do the sources of support come from from a regime like Assad any more?" Well, throughout almost the entirety of this year, from Russian and (socially restful) Iran...and China...and significant sections of his own people.

James Robbins thought it was "possible" that the revolutions in the Middle East would spread to Central Asia. Er, no.

Lyse Doucet informed listeners that it wasn't just an Arab Spring it was also an African Spring and posited the possibility of the nine very long leaders left in sub-Saharan Africa being swept away too. She was cautious in her predictions though. She specified Uganda (wrong) and Senegal (correct, but in democratic elections which the outgoing President Wade conceded with grace).

Paul Mason then gatecrashed the discussion is his way...bring up the Occupy protests and predict "the urban poor" moving against the system in the United States. Er, no, Paul. Didn't happen. Dream on!

Mark Mardell worried about what would happen "if Obama loses". A lot of people would feel "disenfranchised by the media, by the corporations", he said. "The system...doesn't work any more", he added, agreeing with Paul Mason. "Hmm," someone else added.

What of that U.S. election? Mark predicted that Obama would "win, very narrowly". James Robbins agreed. Lyse hmmed her agreement too, though she regretted the lack of the "excitement" and "magic" that made the 2008 elections so special.

They all got the outcome correct, though it was only fairly "narrowly" in the end. Owen Bennett Jones then quoted the bookies' prediction: A 51% win for Obama. Well done, bookies!! Mark then predicted an "ugly mood" if the "very, very hardline" Right lost the election. Well, that hasn't really happened, has it?

France? The bookies gave Sarkozy only a 39% chance of winning. Did any of the panel think he could win? "Nope", came the reply. Correct, but....not one of them foresaw just how close Sarkozy came to proving them all wrong. His losing margin was smaller than that between Obama and Romney. Paul Mason crowed that Sarko was actually at 32% in the polls, "which is surprisingly high", and predicted a Hollande-Le Pen run-off. Er, no, Paul. "I'll go out on a limb on that", he said. Shouldn't have done, Paul, really shouldn't have done! (At least Lyse Doucet noted that there wasn't a great well of enthusiasm for M. Hollande.)

Onto Russian. Lyse, would Putin win or lose? "Win. Narrowly", replied Lyse. Result? Putin 63%, his nearest rival? 17%. So, that's "Win. By a Tolstoy-novel-page-count" and another "Er, no" for a BBC correspondent. James Robbins sounded much surer that it would be a win for Putin, given...well...that it's a Russian election. Narrow wins don't tend to happen in Russia, Lyse.

China next. "Remarkably little coverage" was predicted by Owen Bennett Jones for this year's leadership change. That's something for a BBC presenter to say - as, presumably, he also meant it about the BBC. There was, it turned out, quite a bit of coverage after all this year. Hu's now the leader of China (on first base, so to speak?). Er, no, it's...that chap with's Wikipedia when I need it? ..... Xi Jinping, of course. Owen Bennett Jones said that everyone (in the world) said it would be him. It was him. Everyone was correct. No prizes to anyone there then.

OBJ gave us a quick profile of Mr. Xi. "He's not Berlusconi anyway", chipped in Paul Mason.

Talking of whom (Paul Mason, that is)...the ever-inaccurate predictions of Paul Mason continued. He "could see" lots of countries becoming protectionist against China, especially if a major incident sparked something off. No major incident, Paul, and no great wave of anti-Chinese protectionism either - yet. So, that's yet another "Er, no" for the Newsnight economics guru then.

The others complained about us in the West (do we ever get anything right in the eyes of BBC reporters?) overemphasising things from our own perspective (tut, tut!), such as going on about the lack of freedom of the internet in China (which, ironically, Paul Mason was doing on Newsnight this very week!!). They then piled in with their other thoughts, such as that the Chinese people might follow the Tunisian example and start losing their fear of/start "taking it out on" the government in Beijing. Er, not yet, O wise BBC reporters.

North Korea. James Robbins predicted "that the regime will try to do very little...and not risk throwing the furniture around" in 2012. "There has been a lot of belligerent talk of the possibility of military exercises, of deliberate sabre-rattling, but I think that will be quite restrained."


North Korea defies warnings in rocket launch success

The news of the rocket launch was announced on state TV

Oh well, can't get 'em all right!...or, indeed, most of 'em right!!

Talking of which (again), Paul Mason was unfraternal in floating the idea that communist North Korea might find in 2012 that "durable authoritarianism is probably not that sound". Er, no, Paul. The Great Successor is proving a great success. All hail the Great Successor! - as Lyse Doucet (far shrewder than Paul Mason) pointed out, the Kim Dynasty ain't going anywhere....yet. (Fingers crossed though).

Europe in 2012? Cue Paul Mason. "I think the Greeks will default". Another very confident, very wrong prediction from the master of very wrong predictions.

Fiscal union by the end of 2012? "That's the direction they're going in", said Mark Mardell, hedging his bets wisely. There's "a higher possibility" that Greece will be ejected from the euro, he added, not so wisely. Fiscal union is needed, they all agreed.

Names to watch? Amusingly, when this topic came up OBJ did recall Paul Mason's prediction for 2011 - a German central banker - Axel Webber -, who promptly "disappeared from the scene." Paul really shouldn't go on BBC Correspondents Look Ahead.

Actually, this has just prompted me to seek out his 2011 predictions - which also included his prediction that Sarah Palin's momentum to become the U.S. Republican candidate would keep on growing (er.....), that Ed Balls would begin rousing the rabble against Ed Miliband in 2012 (er.....) and that "there is a new zeitgeist within protest movements in Europe (on the left) and the US (on the right) - new ways of online organising and a new plebeian individualism. I am keen to see what happens." (Er.....)

If you wan't to go back even further, to his 2010 predictions (for 2011)..the fall of the Lib-Con coalition in the UK, the stalling of Sarah Palin's momentum (!!), Greece being driven out of the euro, etc,...well, feel free to click the link above and have a good laugh!

Anyhow, that's enough fun with Paul Mason for a while. What of their names to watch for 2012?

Mark Mardell nominated the "charismatic" Bo Xilai - the man who was reinventing Maoism - for a key role in the Chinese politburo. Well, Bo was certainly someone to watch. Instead of winning a high place in the politburo, he actually plunged headlong from grace following the scandal around the death of Neil Heywood. He was expelled from the Communist Party and his wife convicted for murder. I'm not sure that can count as a point on the Mark Mardell scorecard.

Paul Mason nominated Ron Paul, the U.S. libertarian Republican candidate. "I think he's going to do very well. That's my prediction". Well, "very well" was a considerable overestimate. Mr. Mason specified the Iowa caucus as Mr. Paul's potential breakthrough moment. Mr. Paul came third behind Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney. So, er, no, Paul...and Mr. Paul.

Lyse Doucet nominated the Emir of Qatar. Again, Lyse proved herself the BBC reporter to watch on this programme. Yes, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has, indeed, played a big role in pushing a game-changing agenda in the Middle East throughout 2012. Full marks for her.

James Robbins nominated President Santos of Colombia, predicting major economic strides for his country in 2012. I've no idea whether this prediction came true or not (not being an expert on Colombia's economy), so it's time to google...."Colombia economy 2012". Click 'search'.........

Colombia posts weakest quarterly growth in 3 yearsThe Andean country's gross domestic product grew just 2.1 percent in the third quarter from the year-ago period - its slowest pace since the third quarter of 2009 - and well below analysts' expectations.
The result was also much slower than the 7.5 percent expansion recorded in the same quarter last year.

Dear Lord, can't these BBC reporters predict anything right? (Ha, ha!) Well, that's as nothing compared to James's next prediction:
"....Hugo Chavez, who I think stands stands to lose the presidential election in 2012."
Wrong again!! Chavez won. All hail Hugo Chavez!

Owen Bennett Jones nominated Bilawal Bhutto, son of the late, lamented Benazir and the current leader of Pakistan, President Zardari. He predicted that Bilawal would be "pushed forward" this year as his father sank into ever greater political difficulty. A quick google suggests that 2012 hasn't brought about much of a change at the top of the Pakistani political tree and that Bilawal hasn't progressed much beyond where he was at the end of 2011.

Lyse turned to Afghanistan and Pakistan too and feared that things would get even worse in 2012. Worse than 2011? Better? The same? I can't say.

James Robbins came in to predict "I don't think President Zardari will survive in office", which which can notch up as yet another prediction that went somewhat astray, given that President Zardari most certainly did survive in office. (There are about nine days still to go though, so fingers crossed, eh, James!!)

OBJ predicted that Imran Khan would, if Mr. Zardari fell, become his successor (in power terms if not as president). Not yet, Owen, not yet. (Hopefully, not ever, not ever.)

Paul Mason brought in Iran and predicted that "the unrest of a generation" would result in something giving at some point there. Not in 2012 it didn't, Paul. And you're sound like a stuck record now. Power to the people! It's kicking off everywhere! Occupy, occupy, occupy!

As for a Israeli or U.S. airstrike against Iran, James Robbins said the U.S. would prevent military strikes against Iran in 2012. Mark agreed. Paul Mason talked about the "uprising youth" of Iran again - as is his way. Stuck record.

Israel-Palestinian peace process? Lyse quoted Gramsci. James Robbins predicted nothing would happen until after the U.S. elections. Paul Mason (by this stage of the programme fast becoming a parody of himself, as well as a stuck record) talked of the "street protest movement" in Israel (remember them?), and said "But it's not over". (Er, well, it actually was, Paul, pretty much).

Good news stories for 2012? Well, James Robbins talked of "signs of real progress" in Ivory Coast and "the countries that have been the beneficiaries of the Arab Spring." I can't comment on the Ivory Coast but James's "beneficiaries of the Arab Spring" (now known as the Arab Winter) can hardly be said to be "good news" any more, and its beneficiaries don't feel like beneficiaries any more either. Egypt until Morsi? Tunisia under Ennahda? Oh, happy days - not!

Paul predicted a bottoming-out of economic graphs in America (such as the house price graph), which seems essentially correct. Wow, he sort-of got one right! He then predicted the continuing relentless rise of the BRICS. Well, that was a bit of a no-brainer and a very easy prediction to get right. Strangely enough, he didn't quite get it right, failing to foresee the recent widely remarked economic slowdowns in Brazil, Russia, India and China. They will probably start spurting forwards again, but nothing is guaranteed - and Paul Mason failed to foresee that their "relentless rise" might not be quite as "relentless" by the third quarter of 2012 as everyone (everyone?) was assuming.

Lyse's heart was warmed by "the young people" of the world. "They are the future". (Someone should write a pop tune about that). She also likes the internet and social media. "I want to celebrate that," she said. Amen, sister.

Mark Mardell's heart-cockles were warmed by Burma.

The next section was "WILD PREDICTIONS!" - as if most of what had gone before hadn't been full of wild predictions!

Mark's wild predictions: The Republican field would look so grim that Jeb Bush would be forced to come in and will win & that Einsteinian physics would be overturned by the Large Hadron Collider.

James's wild predictions: Britain will top the Olympics medal table for a few hours by winning the first gold. First hypothermia death at a health spa (something to do with snow showers).

Paul's wild prediction: "Prime minister Berlusconi" makes a comeback. The technocrats fall. (I don't think he was being serious. Oddly, this looks like his best prediction - as it could be about to come true!!)

Lyse's wild prediction: The Taleban will stop their assassinations & come to the negotiation table.

Owen's wild prediction: Hamza Bin Laden could become the new leader of global jihad.

Finally, "things we haven't dealt with." The war on drugs. "The people think it's a nonsense", said Mark Mardell of the American people. Lyse is dismayed.  Climate change? No one took that up. Boko Haram in Nigeria mentioned but no predictions made.

So, there you have it - an absolute deluge of dismally inaccurate predictions from the sage analysts of the BBC!

I'm really looking forward to this years BBC Correspondents Look Ahead to hear the presenter list all these many, many wrong predictions made the corporation's BBC's star reporters last time round. Lyse Doucet did OK, but poor, poor, poor Paul Mason is going to be blushing redder than the flag of a communist youth movement by the end of it, surely?

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