Sunday 9 December 2012

Broadcasting Grouse

On an old blog of mine, some time ago, when I was younger and less grey-haired, I used to post almost weekly assaults on what I then regarded as the strong left-wing bias being pumped out by Paddy O'Connell's Sunday morning show on Radio 4, Broadcasting House. (You can read all my old pieces - from 2009 and 2010 - here). I dipped into it from time to time thereafter but, by not listening week in and week out, lost my focus and then pretty much gave up. 

Has the programme changed? 

Well, I listened last week and enjoyed the programme. They were navel-gazing somewhat, marking the programme's departure - along with all the other main Radio 4 current affairs staples - from their old studio in Broadcasting House. John Humprhys gave us his reflections on that interview with George Entwistle and Jim Naughtie shared his memories of that slip-of-the-tongue/Freudian slip over the name of the last Hulture, Culture Secretary. All interesting stuff. 

The only bit that struck me as offering evidence of bias came during the paper review when Paddy brought the discussion with his three guests to a temporary halt to bring us some 'breaking news' - the Hacked Off petition calling for the government to implement the recommendations of the Leveson Report in full had passed a particular landmark total of signatures (around 850,000, if I recall correctly). This struck me at the time as being an unusual thing for a BBC presenter to do, especially as the running total had already been updated in the programme's news bulletin earlier. 

I wonder if Peter Hitchens heard that intervention too, as he writes:
Plugging this petition is proof of BBC bias
Last weekend, almost every BBC radio bulletin I listened to, over several days, mentioned a petition calling for full implementation of the Leveson Report into the press, and said that the number of signatures was rising.
Unless they can show that they have ever  done this with any other comparable petition,  I believe this is objective evidence of BBC bias on a matter of public controversy. Will the BBC  Trust act?
Have they ever done this with any other comparable petition? Dunno.

Time perhaps to start re-checking what Broadcasting House is up to these days in earnest again, albeit in my new spirit of openness to the danger of falling into the trap of confirmation bias. (Watch me fall, folks!)

The programme's first interview was with Conservative MP Nick Herbert - one of those Conservative MPs who have just launched a group campaigning for a change in the law to allow gay marriage in places of worship (when those places of worship want it). There was no balancing MP against the proposal, but the questioning was unobjectionable. The questions with the strongest flavour were:
Flag riots in Northern Ireland, triple dip risks, the prime minister of Italy's just resigned...What are you all up to?
OK, so you're going to have a sort-of pick-and-mix situation where churches that don't want to have a gay marriage in their hallowed precincts do not...will not be forced by the state to do so?
Yes, there sounded to be a measure of sarcasm in that "in their hallowed precincts", perhaps suggesting where our Paddy's sympathies lie (for understandable if not excusable reasons). 

One of the things I used to complain about regarding Broadcasting House was the way that, over the course of the nine or so months that I monitored it very closely, there were several audio essay-type features on topical issues and most of them where from left-wingers (sometimes far-left-wingers) without the balance of any such pieces from right-wingers. My eyes, therefore, rolled anew when the next topic came up...I'm sure you'll be able to see why.

Paddy's introduction to this item, laden with irony [and some added comments from yours truly], ran as follows:
"Not for the first time the Matt cartoon on the front of today's Sunday Telegraph captures a row of the week. It shows two Starbucks executives clutching mugs of coffee. One says to the other, "I have to be very careful with tax. Too much makes me feel shaky and panicky." We'll predict the next tax target for the public [doesn't he mean "for campaigners"?] now after Starbucks said it would cough up £20 million [here comes the sarcasm!] discovered down the back of a sofa. The coffee company acted in the teeth of those protests, which continued this weekend.  
Standing by live for B.H. is Margaret Hodge, who'll tell us if this is down to a more muscular public mood and if she'll be lifting her own personal [Oooh, is he going to ask her about the tax affairs of her own family company, Stemcor?] boycott? First to the barricades with this people power manifesto from [and if you read my Background Checks post from yesterday prepare to be gobsmacked by what comes next...] Prem Sikka, Professor of Accountancy at the University of Essex."

Yes, really! Prem Sikka, senior advisor to the left-wing campaign group, the Tax Justice Network, himself! Note, again, that his involvement with this influential pressure group was not mentioned. Once more, he was merely a "Professor of Accountancy". However (perhaps naively refusing to underestimate peoples' intelligence), as he gave - as Paddy promised - his "people power manifesto" against the multi-nationals and their shareholders (deeper crisis of British and Western capitalism, short-termism, speculators, robbing the public purse, etc) listeners would surely have been able to put two and two together and work out that he was no mere disinterested academic. 

Still, it's as if I've never taken a break from Broadcasting House. Still the same old thing going on. Alas.

Now, when Margaret Hodge (who it was presumed listeners would know was a Labour MP - given that Paddy didn't mention that fact) appeared, she did have Patrick Stevens, President of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, for company and he provided the necessary counter-balance to her position (which lies close to Dr. Sikka's). Yes, the balance had already been sharply tilted to one side by having Prem Sikka give his Marxist manifesto in advance (and, yes, he really is a Marxist), but at least there was a view from the other side being heard on the programme. That's something, I suppose.

All that was required now was for Paddy O'Connell to be a fair, neutral umpire during the discussion between Mrs. Hodge and Mr. Stevens. The Paddy-Of-Old would probably not have been. He would most likely have seemed partial to Mrs. Hodge's (multinational-bashing) side of the argument. What about the 2012 upgraded version of Paddy O'Connell?

After some preliminary joking about what she was drinking, and a few questions about whether Margaret Hodge is giving up her boycott or not, the discussion got down to business, with both guests putting across their contrasting points with force and clarity. The test for Paddy is to see whether he took sides in the kind of questions he put and whether he asked equivalent types of questions. Here they are (in order of asking). Please take a look at them and see what you think:
To Margaret Hodge: "Margaret Hodge, are you going to drop your boycott, can I ask you straight away?"
"So you were going to stop going to Starbucks? Are you going...?
"But they've given you 20 million quid!"
"No, they're going to give it to George Osborne"
"All right, fine."
To Patrick Stevens: "Patrick, do you support what Margaret Hodge has done? She's trying to shame the corporations, not really using the tax code, using a sort of public muscle."
"I take your tax man and I raise you, Patrick Stevens...Here's The Observer talking about the top tax expert at the OECD. This is bigger even than you. He says, "Guest what? The location of economic activities is in higher tax jurisdictions but the location of the profits is in lower tax jurisdictions". They're moving them around, these corporations, like pieces on the chess-board, whether or not we know the full amount. We know what they're up to. It smells bad and it doesn't smell like coffee."
[interrupting Mr. Stevens, forcefully] "This is the law! These..." [producing a lot of yellow books, apparently]
[quickly interrupting Mr. Stevens again]
"1,2,3,4...[counting the yellow books, apparently] please do!" [the last bit answering a request from Margaret Hodge to "come in"].
[Mrs. Hodge talks, then Mr. Stevens responds, criticising Mrs. Hodge and her fellow MPs]
To Patrick Stevens[interrupting Mr. Stevens again] "Right now...can I just?...Let's not go into much more of terms of the tax policy. Can I just bring it back to the public? Do you agree, Patrick, there is a more muscular mood and that, ultimately, morality as much as this tax code that I've bored you to death with here, that is going to become a story on the radio. We're going to hear more about it?"
To Margaret Hodge: "And, Margaret Hodge, are you...will you concede Patrick's point that it's a bit hypocritical to have a law in parliament which is being followed and then complain that it isn't good enough? You should change the law."
As far as I'm concerned, that quite clearly shows Paddy O'Connell taking the side of Margaret Hodge and Prem Sikka. He seems to me to have acted as the third man in the debate against Patrick Stevens and his point of view. Oh Paddy!!

Does it seem as blatantly biased to you as it seems to me?

Anyhow, an interview with historian Christopher Lee followed where he was encouraged to re-imagine the history of England from the premise that first-born girls had always been allowed to accede to the throne (the proposal to allow which is now making its doubtless slow progress towards fruition). I do like counter-factual history and this segment was both entertaining and interesting.

The winter vomiting bug was up next, generalised into the question of how you should ward off winter ailments. A pair of microbiologists gave us their advice. Another interesting segment, with a slight difference of emphasis from both guests.

From a man who gave every impression (to me) of being greatly enthused by the Arab Spring and, later, went on to try (by Twitter and on B.H.) to spread the meme 'Financial Spring' (he may even have created the term himself) to describe the then-growing Occupy movement, Paddy was never averse to using the phrase 'Arab Spring' without its now common "so-called" prefix. So it's telling that even he appears to have completely lost faith now:
"Use of the term 'Arab Spring' has died out as we approach the end of 2012. In its place has come a harsh winter. Egypt, as we've just heard, is mired by the competing claims of democracy and theocracy....."
The famous Jeremy Bowen then turned up to talk about Syria and give us a potted history lesson of the Assad regime. There were clips of Jeremy at old Hafaz's funeral. Apparently, fears that the dynastic nature of Syria's regime was about to be replicated in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia was a significant factor in their uprisings. That was argued by the BBC's Middle East editorialiser.

Paddy, as BBC interviewers/reporters tend to do, tried to implicate "the West" in the Assad regime - even though I always thought the Assads were much more in the Russian/Iranian/Chinese camp:
"When he took over, Bashar al-Assad, the Western leaders - including our own - flocked to meet him and would say how optimistic they felt."
A clip of Jeremy (unchallengingly) interviewing Baby Assad then followed. I remember that interview. Tough it wasn't.

Plenty of people genuinely believed in Bashar when the uprising started, according to Jeremy - even those who disliked his regime. If Bashar had agreed with the criticisms at the start, he'd have been OK. He didn't. He took "the old Assad way" and..."the rest is history."  Such a shame, eh, Jeremy?

The paper review featured a Conservative peer, Baroness Buscombe (former 'chair' of the Press Complaints Council); Colm Tóibín, Irish novelist; and Absolute Radio presenter Geoff Lloyd. It was an apolitical affair. They discussed the Prank Call story, the possibility of Anna Wintour of Vogue becoming the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., beards, Wilbur Smith. binge drinking and Rupert Murdoch's mum. Paddy rightly kept his opinions to himself (except for coming to the defence of Wilbur Smith!).

The programme ended with a bit of jazz. Is jazz dying out? A couple of keen jazzers said 'no way, man!' This feature was prompted by the death of the much-appreciated Dave 'Take Five' Brubeck.

I enjoyed listening to this edition of Broadcasting House, even though my heckles were raised by the open bias I felt was displayed during the tax section.

Back to it then. I know either Paddy or someone on his team at Broadcasting House used to read my less-than-supportive posts. Cheers to them then! Here's to this time!!

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