Saturday 1 December 2012


One of the things about monitoring a particular BBC programme over a long period is that you can see how a story develops over time - and how the BBC adapted to those developments. 

An example of this is how BBC Radio 4's Sunday covered the Occupy protests. Do you remember them? They were 'big news' a year ago. They brought about the collapse of the capitalist system  a couple of resignations at St. Paul's Cathedral. Sunday provided extensive coverage at the time and, I believe, showed themselves to be sympathetic to the Occupiers' (somewhat nebulous) cause. 

It all started in America and the BBC was quick off the blocks in reporting the Occupy Wall Street protests - which it did in very great detail. (For a flavour of that coverage please have a read of David Preiser's coverage at Biased BBC). Sunday was somewhat late to the party but soon made up for it.

It all began for Sunday on 23rd October 2011, with Edward Stourton introducing a report from BBC reporter Matt Wells with these words: 
"Now, the protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street has gone viral, as they say. As it enters its second month, it's spread to cities around the world. It doesn't have a clear manifesto as yet but in New York, where it began, a group of religious leaders who'd been part of the protest met this week to coordinate their contribution."
Matt Wells' report was not unlike many of his other reports from the U.S. He can be an insightful reporter but his own positions are often not hard to discern. I wouldn't say that this was necessarily the case here but the report lacked alternative perspectives and can still be classed as being biased. We heard from Rev. Michael Ellick, a prominent figure in Occupy, as well as three young female "protest chaplains", a Buddhist monk and a lad called Tyler - all Occupy protesters, all saying 'Occupy'-type things. Not a whiff of scepticism or criticism of the movement was heard from any talking heads. 

The focus of Sunday, however, tended from then on to focus almost exclusively on the protests in the United Kingdom. In the same edition of the programme Ed interviewed the PR man at St. Paul's, Rev. Rob Marshall (familiar to many Radio 4 listeners from his large number of appearances on Thought For The Day.) Ed's criticisms of the authorities at St. Paul's were to get ever stronger as time passed, but even at this stage he seems to have been pushing an angle that he would continue to push:
"And it really isn't safe? I mean, it's difficult to believe that, but it really isn't?"
"Do you think the cathedral has slightly shot itself in the foot on this, because in the early stages the cathedral and its clergy seemed rather keen to see the protesters and rather sympathetic to work they are doing?"
"How much money was the cathedral losing every day?"
"So Mammon is a factor in all this?"
For pretty much the one and only time during the whole of the programme's coverage of the Occupy protests, Ed then read out an e-mail from a listener unsympathetic to the Occupiers:
"Let me finally put to you an e-mail we've just had suggesting this: 'Perhaps St. Paul's Cathedral authorities could proclaim their sympathy with the protesters by having the loudest and longest peals of bells throughout the days and nights until the protesters leave?'" 
By the following week, the 30th October 2011 edition, Sunday had got fully into its stride over the story. Jane Little's introduction contained what, at the time, seemed to me to be an example of 'framing the debate':  
"Was St. Paul's right or was its popular canon-chancellor right?"   
That "popular" canon-chancellor was, of course, Giles Fraser (also very familiar to Radio 4 listeners from his numerous appearances on Thought For The Day, among other BBC programmes).

When the segment on #Occupy SPC got under way Jane began, "When the set up camp in the City of London to protest the greed and excess of the bankers...". When I first heard that I thought it was a pretty loaded way of putting it and that it would have been better if she had said, "When the set up camp in the City of London to protest what they see as the greed and excess of bankers". What do you make of that? And what do you make of what followed - a report by Trevor Barnes?

Trevor talked of the protesters' "euphoria and sense of commitment to the cause" (even the ones going home at night?). We heard from one of the protesters, Bryn Phillips, calling for the democratisation of the City, then from another protester talking about "the impoverished" and "the 99%". Any criticism of the protesters? Well, Trevor's next sentence began, "In the eyes of critics, the occupation, though good-humoured and peaceful, presented the Cathedral with a missed opportunity to discuss social issues..." The Cathedral's precentor, Michael Hampel, "defends their [the Cathedral's] actions", and says that though he wants the protesters to move on, he "wants their message to stay here." He was the only voice defending the Cathedral authorities, and even he was saying he supported the issues the protesters' were raising. BBC favourite Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia agreed with the protests and advanced the anti-capitalist argument and then Christina Weller of the charity, Cafod, joined in to praise the protests. Two vox pops briefly appeared, one denouncing "capitalism gone mad" and inequality, the other - the only voice sceptical about the protests in the entire report! - said, though they were "well-meaning", it's "a fruitless effort" as all systems produce inequality and injustice. Then it was back to Christina Weller of Cafod. The precentor said that Jesus would "sure be part of the encampment", but he'd be everywhere else too. Trevor Barnes did then concede [with an "it's argued"] that the camp is "an eye-sore" and that an ongoing protest in a modern city could be "invasive of other peoples' rights", but this was a report that was weighted in favour of the protesters.  

Who did Jane Little talk to after this report? Guardian writer Stephen Bates. He was strongly critical of the St. Paul's authorities, accusing them of siding with the bankers and saying they "handled it very badly indeed". It would be a "great shame", he added, if Giles Fraser's report on these same sorts of themes was kicked into the long grass by St. Paul's. All it all, "pathetic" behaviour by the St. Paul's authorities, according to Stephen. Jane wasn't much of a counterbalance. She even read out a single e-mail from a listener, also attacking the authorities. A robust counter-view would not have gone amiss here.

Ed Stourton was missing from this edition but he popped up during Broadcasting House (later the same morning on Radio 4) to preview his own programme, The World This Weekend. He talked to one of the "peaceful", happy campers, Dan, who complained about "monetary servitude". All very chummy. Are you sleepy? What are you going to say to the dean? Do you want a bigger debate too? Are you in for the long haul? Dan called the camp a "workshop" for ideas. Ed didn't think to ask him what his job was, and why wasn't he going to "money servitude" - i.e. work - tomorrow. I, his listener, would have liked to have heard that asked.

Incidentally, Jane Little quoted an unnamed journalist to Stephen Bates saying that the St. Paul's authorities were "overgrown public schoolboys". A hour or so later, Broadcasting House's presenter Paddy O'Connell put on a silly posh voice ("Get orff!") to mock them.

By 6th November 2011, Sunday was devoting roughly half of the programme to the St. Paul's protests. Ed Stourton opened proceedings thus: 
"The Labour leader Ed Miliband has joined the chorus of warnings that we should take heed of the St. Paul's protest...We shall devote a substantial section of this programme to asking whether there's such a thing as a moral market".  
There was a section devoted to which song would best capture the anti-capitalist message, introduced by Ed Stourton with these words:
"The American Civil War gave us 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'; the French Revolution gave us the 'Marseillaise'; and the Labour Party adopted 'The Red Flag' as its anthem at its founding. We thought the protesters at St. Paul's should have a song of their own too..."
The chosen suggestions from the various vox pops all chimed with the sentiments of the protesters (including "Opportunities {Let's Make Lots of Money}", "Money can't buy me love", "The lunatics have taken over the asylum" by Fun Boy Three) and every passer-by seemed to agree with their cause. That is suspiciously unlikely.

Ed was soon reading from Archbishop Sentamu's attack (in the Yorkshire Post) on excessive incomes and private wealth.

Then came another report from Trevor Barnes:
"Our reporter Trevor Barnes takes a journey into the City with Alex Brummer, [formerly of the Guardian, now City Editor of the Daily Mail and a New Statesman columnist], to see how the bankers view the protesters and their claims that the industry lacks morality." [website]
Mr. Brummer says the "market is a very moral instrument" and "capitalism itself creates wealth and it enables people to improve their living standards", but "I think we've built on top of capitalism a super-structure which has no relation to the underlying purposes". Then came the helpfully-named Spencer Crooks, a Director of Tradings. He disagreed that the City has lost its moral compass. David Jones, IG Group strategist, said that speculation isn't a dirty word. Trevor talked of the "rarified world" of the bankers and Alex Brummer said, "I don't think that they understand ordinary people. I think they've got themselves into a position where all they care about is that they get the best deal, they create the best transaction and they are out-performing their fellow investment bankers. They're disconnected." Other City talking heads were heard from briefly, rejecting criticisms of City morality, before Mr. Brummer continued, "I'm not anti-capitalist at all. I believe fervently in free markets, in private enterprises, in creating business, in creating wealth through business. My problem is with the way in which markets have detached themselves and it's the way that people who run large corporations and large banks have given themselves their own value system, their own micro economic climate which is divorced from ordinary people."

This was a better report than either of the preceding reports in its balance of voices, but it does seem to me nonetheless like another example of the programme taking up Occupy's agenda and challenging the City from their perspective without the counter-balance of reports challenging the Occupiers' not universally shared world-view.

Next, Ed quoted Ken Costa's in the Sunday Telegraph saying that "the market has managed to slip its moral moorings".

The programme ended with a classic Sunday three-way discussion with a fund manager (who professed some sympathy with what the Occupiers were saying), a liberal Radio 2-friendly bishop and a 'blue socialist' academic - a typical bit of BBC panel-stacking? -, namely Eric Lonergan, a fund manager; the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Rev Nick Baines; and John Millbank, Professor of Religion, Ethics and Politics at Nottingham University, the 'blue socialist' academic.

Was Ed Stourton a neutral umpire here? I would say that his questions were almost entirely put from a stance that the Occupy movement might have felt happy with and that Ed's lack of sympathy with business seems quite clear, but I'll let you decide whether you agree or not with that:
"John Millbank, I suspect some people will listen to what Ken Costa has said about the markets slipping their moral moorings and ask whether they ever had any. I don't ask that in a facetious way but what there really ever a time, do you think, when the operation of markets was driven by some kind of moral code?"
"Well, Nick Baines, let's pick up the Church's role in the process which we've just heard described. It's very interesting to read what John Sentamu, your neighbour the Archbishop of York, has said when he compares our attitudes to making money to our attitudes to things like racism and homophobia and says we need to undergo a similar change in attitudes. Those are things on which there's a consensus, which you can condemn from a Christian perspective and indeed from a secular moral perspective. There isn't the same sort of consensus, is there, in our attitudes to money?"
"And is it..the impression one gets from the Archbishop of York's writing - and if I've got it wrong I apologise to him - but is that he is effectively saying that the accumulation of very large amounts of money is wrong, is morally wrong. Is that going to be the Church's position?"
"Well, let me ask Eric Lonergan if he recognises the picture that we've had drawn to us of the way the markets work, both what Nick Baines has just said but also John Millbank's suggestion that there has been a deterioration in what you might call the moral element in the managing of markets."
"Well, actually I'd like to pick you up on that precise point, if I may, because there's a report coming out tomorrow which St. Paul's in fact commissioned and we understand, the newspapers this morning suggest, that one of the things it's going to say is that the City's reliance on technology has dehumanised its values. Now you can see how a group of investors like the board that supervises ethical investments in the Church of England can sit down and say that this company is a good one and we should put money into it. If you're a hedge fund, trading very, very fast and indeed sometimes automatically, it's almost impossible to make moral judgements in those circumstances, isn't it?"
 "Let me bring John Millbank in on this point. Do you think that the process that you described to us - the sucking out, if you like, of morality from markets - is in part driven by the speed of technology and just by the maths, if you like. That it's not people deciding not to take moral judgements, it's just that they can't?"

"I tell you what, I want to interrupt..Can I bring in Nick Baines at this point because the question that seems to arise from this discussion is the degree to which you can make markets behave in a moral as opposed to a legal way, isn't it? Codes can do things like lay down the law but they can't lay down morals?"
"But technology is neutral, isn't it?"
"I'd like to put that to Nick Baines because it's a very interesting point. By talking about people making large amounts of money in the way the Archbishop of York has done we're actually distracted, is the suggestion, from the really important moral issues that are at stake here."
"Well, John Millbank, what about your response to what Eric Lonergan was suggesting, which is that we're being distracted by perfectly natural envy and resentment about the large amounts of money that people seem to be making? We are actually looking at the wrong moral questions, partly because we don't really understand how markets work, a lot of us?"
Sunday hadn't done with the story yet. On the Remembrance Sunday edition, the programme briefly interviewed General Lord Dannatt but, amazingly, a significant amount (about a quarter) of this interview was given over to the Occupy 'protests', after Ed drew a parallel between the general's views on the army's moral dimension and the moral demands of the protesters at St. Paul's:
"Well, let me ask you about a current issue in the light of that, since you mention the idea of companies putting up core values, because it's reported in some of the newspapers this morning that a group of ex-service personnel have joined the protesters at St. Paul's Cathedral, who are making, in their way, a very similar point and the veterans - who are photographed in the papers, some of them wearing their medals this morning - are partly making a moral point but also complaining about the way that they've been treated. What's your thought about that?"  
As if that wasn't enough, this was followed by an audio diary from ever-popular (on Sunday) Giles Fraser. Ed's introduction ran as follows:
"What do you do after a high-profile resignation? Go on pilgrimage and think about it of course! Giles Fraser, who resigned from his post as Canon-Chancellor at St. Paul's over the cathedral's policy towards the protesters we've just been discussing, has just been to the Holy Land. Here are his reflections."
Inevitably, Giles got round to Occupy and give it his fully blessing in true Thought For The Day fashion:
"I really do love the space, the Church of the Nativity, but we can't have these holy spaces that are sanitised and set apart from the reality of our lives. And, yes, I do think that if Jesus was born, if we have to recreate that again, he would be born somewhere like a tent on a protest march rather than in some pristine holy space, as in a church. I guess I value what the Occupy protest has brought to St. Paul's. It's brought something of that fraught political reality and that the Church must relate to that. The Church is able to set the whole issue of protest within a much wider historical, theological, moral context and the Occupy protest is able to give the Church's cry of justice some real content. The two have a lot to teach each other." 
The programme's sympathy for the movement was, I think, by now very clear indeed...and it hadn't finished yet. On the 27th November 2011 edition, Ed Stourton introduced us to another supporter of Occupy:
"The influential American Christian writer and political activist Jim Wallis has been on a tour of the Occupy protest camp outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London. He was taken round by Giles Fraser, former canon-chancellor of the cathedral who resigned over plans to evict the protesters and came away fired with enthusiasm for what he saw. He told me why".
Were I being blunt I'd say that this proves a point: "Basically, what Giles Fraser thinks about Occupy, Ed Stourton and Sunday think too - and vice versa."

Ed then interviewed the Dean of Sheffield, the Very Rev Peter Bradley, whose own cathedral had the the somewhat dubious pleasure of an Occupy encampment too. Rev. Bradley was clearly not overly happy about the fact, but chose his words very diplomatically. 

"And what do you make of the ideas we've just heard from Jim Wallis," Ed enquired, "particularly the idea of embracing the protesters and perhaps, for example, holding the Eucharist on the cathedral steps every day for them?" Later, he asked "Are you at all touched by the enthusiasm we've just heard from Jim Wallis? A much broader idea that there's something important at work here and the Church's duty is to respond to it?" When Rev. Bradley tried to counter Ed's simple enthusiasm by bring up the involvement of "established political movements like the Socialist Workers Party, who have their own platform...", Ed interrupted and brought that little heard line of thought to an abrupt halt; instead setting the topic back on more 'positive' ground: "All right. What about the role of the cathedral? Do you not have a little bit of perhaps excitement even about the fact that this has put the cathedral very much at the centre of the city's life? It's again a focal point for debate if nothing else."

On the 4th December 2011 edition, Ed read out a couple of e-mails from listeners, reacting to this interview with the Extremely Rev Peter Bradley:
"First, a couple of e-mails provoked by last week's interview with the Dean of Sheffield about the Occupy protesters camped out on his cathedral grounds. Hugh Allford thinks that the attitude of the church has seemed to be a wish for the protesters to go away and little wish to share and learn the Good News with/from them and from Tony Davies in Worcestershire, 'The C of E is being presented with a challenge on the most obvious issue of morality and it's trying to walk away with its nose in the air. When I hear such evasive answers to challenging questions of where people in important positions stand I am reminded of those white clergymen in South Africa who flinched from confronting their congregations with controversial issues about apartheid.'" 
Do you believe that those were the only e-mails on the subject? Weren't there any from the opposing point of view? Surely there were, so why didn't Ed quote any of them? The necessarily selective use of e-mails raises all manner of questions.

And on the programme went...The 11 December 2011 edition there was a discussion on the theme of 'selfish individualism' where presenter Samira Ahmed put this question to her guests:
"Isn't one of the big concerns now, and if you look at, say, the Occupy protests outside places like St. Paul's, this concern that, you know, the 99% may be giving from a relatively small amount of money, they're paying their taxes, but that the Super-Rich, you know, the equivalent of the, are not doing their share, if we are talking about doing it privately rather than through the state. They're not giving enough, compared to their're not paying their taxes either." 
Her guests were Julian Baggini (from the Left) and Jamie Whyte (from the Right). This was a balanced package, with Jamie Whyte supplying a rare voice of criticism of #Occupy.

The January 1st 2012 edition of Sunday was quite an edition of the programme and has earned itself a forthcoming post all to itself given the high levels of bias I feel were involved in it. There were four main guests throughout - Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, Inayat Bunglawala of Muslims UK, Rosemary Hollis of RUSI and...Giles Fraser. Occupy was only discussed tangentially,  though Giles hoped "that we'll rethink our, sort of, banking financial services industry" this year. The final report, however, really took the biscuit. It was about a Mayan prophecy which foresees the end of the world on 21st December. (Damn it. That will teach me to buy Christmas presents early this year. Wasting my money like that when the flipping world's going to end before Christmas). As the programme's website put it:
"The latest Hollywood blockbuster, 2012, is based on a Mayan prophecy that this is the year when the world will come to an end, we get the thoughts of David Wilkinson, Professor of Theology and Shaman practitioner Manda Scott." 
Guess what the shaman predicted?:
"2012 is going to be a year, potentially, of revolution. And I would imagine we're going to hit a conflict between what we might 'the forces of reaction', the 1%, the people whose greatest interest is in keeping power and money in the hands of the 1%".
Yep, the shaman was an Occupy supporter!!!

Unfortunately for her, her prediction didn't come true. Occupy itself soon fizzled out. The 22nd January 2012 edition marked the moment. As William Crawley's introduction had it:
"The Occupy movement has succeeded in drawing worldwide attention to the issues they want to see debated since setting up their camp near the cathedral in mid-October. The Cathedral's reputation has fared less well as a consequence."
Banker, church adviser and Occupy sympathiser Ken Costa was invited on for interview. "Shouldn't the cathedral be inviting protesters inside to make their case inside the cathedral rather than seeking to have them removed?", William asked him. "To what extent, Ken, do you personally agree with some of the points being made by the Occupy campaign?", William also asked him. ("To a large extent," he replied. "There's something seriously wrong with the moral foundations of capitalism, as we've seen it practised during the last 10 years".) William persisted, "And the Gospels famously record Jesus saying 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.' Doesn't that suggest that he might have more in common with the Occupy protesters outside St. Paul's than with the investment bankers round the corner?" (Mr. Costa replied by quoting, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible".)

Of course, the Occupy protests may have fizzled out but that didn't stop Sunday from trying to keep the dying camp fires alive. 

The 26th February 2012 edition had on Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, and George Pitcher, former advisor to Rowan Williams. "We did our best to find someone from St. Paul's to join this discussion but to no avail", said Ed. So, instead of finding someone sceptical of #Occupy, Ed just went ahead and interviewed his two pro-Occupy guests regardless. Again, can you see any scepticism about Occupy in any of Ed's questions?
"Alan Wilson, you were very critical of the way St. Paul's conducted themselves, right at the beginning of this episode, weren't you?"
"And what was wrong with what they did?"
"It is extraordinary, George Pitcher, when one looks back how at a time when bankers are uniquely unpopular the demonstration that was aimed at the bankers and the financial institutions somehow turned into something which targeted the Church - or at least the Church let itself we seen in that way."
"Alan Wilson, just looking at the way this is ending up. You were critical of what happened at the beginning. Towards the end of this saga, is it fair to say that St. Paul's has somewhat hidden behind the City of London because they've let them do the dirty work of going to court and getting eviction orders?" 
"Well, what have you learned in the light of this?"
"Well, George Pitcher, what do you make of that question of being, as the bishop put it, Olympian and establishment, because lurking in the background of this debate is surely the whole question of the Church's role in the nation's life and its place as very much in the literal sense the establishment?"
"But what about the fundamental link between the Church and the established institutions of this country, whether it's the city, whether it's parliament, whatever it is, do you think that these are called into question by this?"
"Nevertheless Bishop Alan, you are part of the institutional part of the church, you're a bishop, what do you make of that general accusation?"
"But is that because the Church of England IS such an establishment institution, partly what you call the rabbit-in-the-headlights stuff?"
"In two sentences, George Pitcher, will the lessons be learned?"
With the appointment of a new dean at St. Paul's, the 11th March 2012 edition had no choice but to discuss Occupy with him when it interviewed him. Ed Stourton, of course, did that with some gusto. His very first question to David Ison was, "When your predecessor resigned, a lot of people were asking 'What would Jesus do?' What would you have done?"

On the 24th June 2012 edition, there was an audio diary from Dr. Ison about his time at St. Paul's and mentions of the Occupy movement from William Crawley and then Trevor Barnes went to the City of London to hear "why hard pressed workers are being urged to take lunch their local church." He talked to festival organiser, Ian Ritchie and asked him questions about Occupy.

And finally...on the 1st July 2012 came what seems in many ways to be the most open expression of the programme's support for #Occupy. How's this for a biased introduction from Edward Stourton?:
"Remember the Occupy Movement. There was a widespread view in the mainstream press that while many of those who set up camps at St. Paul's and other cathedrals around the country were perhaps onto something they were also a bit muddled in their thinking. Should we perhaps revise that judgement in the light of the rate-fixing scandal? Perhaps outrage is the only proper response to what goes on in the City and the reverend Dr. Giles Fraser resigned from his job at St. Paul's over its approach to the Occupy protesters and he's on the line. Do you feel like saying "I told you so!", Giles Fraser?"
This followed on from these words from the programme's introduction:
"Were we all too quick to dismiss the case made by the Occupy protesters? We'll ask the man who gave up his job because of the way the church dealt with them."
Yes, that's Ed Stourton latching onto a new banking scandal seemingly to push the Occupy agenda and inviting just one guest - Giles Fraser of all people! - to help him. I'll transcribe the rest of what Ed said, with paraphrases of what Giles said in parentheses. See what you think:
"And it is striking to hear the governor of the Bank of England, the chairman of the FSA use moral language, talking about deceitfulness, cynicism and so forth?"
"And do you think that language is part of the problem, that's there a tendency - particularly these very sophisticated words [like "inappropriate" to describe the bankers behaviour, the use of which Giles had just condemned] talking in this particular case about the Libor rate that as things have technical terms there's a tendency to shy away from good old-fashioned straight talking [Giles had just talked of "fraud"] when you're actually stealing from people?"
["That'exactly right", said Giles, before attacking the City].
"You had a good deal to do with the City during your time at St. Paul's and, as I understand it, part of your job actually was to talk to the City, in its collective sense of the term, about these sorts [sic] of issue. Did you get a sense that they understood what you were talking about?"
[Giles says some good people, but a lot of people do NOT get it. "Fancies houses..gated cars"]
"We all wring our hands about such things and this particular scandal has be notable for the way really everybody, from politicians to business people to people like yourself have been wringing their hands. What usefully can a priest like you bring do you think? What is the way forward?"
[Giles replies money doesn't satisfy the heart & the church should get involved in technical things, reject "casino banking.."]
"Well, Giles Fraser, we'll come back to you I think very often. Thanks very much for talking to us."
Talk about a meeting of minds! I don't doubt they will come back to Giles Fraser very often. However, they haven't done so for some four or five months now...Has #Occupy finally died in the hearts of Ed and the rest of the Sunday team?

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