Friday 12 April 2013

Question Time: The Mrs Thatcher edition......(Plus Eddie Mair)

Well, it comes to something when I actually find myself enjoying watching an episode of the BBC's Question Time.

Last night's edition was broadcast from Mrs Thatcher's former constituency of Finchley. The panel was well-chosen, consisting of Ken Clarke and Charles Moore from the Right and David Blunkett and Polly Toynbee from the Left. In the middle was Sir Ming Campbell - a man who has described himself as being "of the Centre-Left" but who is also a member of a party in coalition with the Conservatives and who gave several robust defences of Mrs Thatcher throughout this particular edition of Question Time. 

I'd call that a balanced panel. 

Not everyone agrees, of course. I spotted the usual sort of thing on Twitter in the build-up to the programme, with lefties calling David Blunkett 'right-wing' and righties claiming Charles Moore was the only right-winger on the panel (cos Ken's a lefty) and both sides shoving poor Sir Ming into their opponents' half of the field. One side slams it as "a right-wing panel", the other as "a left-wing one". That's not to say that either side isn't sometimes correct. Just not this time.

An engaging battle of opinions ensued. (I'll resist the urge to add "except for Polly Toynbee"!)

I see Con Coughlin of the Daily Telegraph agrees. Using the phrase of the moment, he describes last night's edition as "a pleasant surprise", singling out the composition of the panel for particular praise. (He didn't resist the urge to exempt Polly from that praise though!)

Charles Moore is Mrs T's official biographer. Ken Clarke was a cabinet minister throughout Margaret Thatcher's term of office. David Blunkett was the leader of Sheffield Council and a significant opponent of the Iron Lady at the time. Sir Ming Campbell entered parliament when she won her third election in 1987. Polly Toynbee was the BBC's home affairs editor in the final years of her premiership, doubtless offering us strictly impartial reporting. (Please imagine me winking mischievously there.) 

So much for the panel. What of the audience? Was it representative?

The constituency of Finchley had been Conservative since 1924 and stayed so until its abolition in 1997, when boundary changes saw the bulk of it reborn as the new constituency of Finchley and Golders Green. The new constituency is much more marginal. Labour took it in 1997 and held on to it until 2010, when the Conservatives comfortably regained the seat (with a 46% share of the vote). The audience seemed to reflect that balance to a certain degree. There was a good deal of applause for both sides of the argument and the people invited to make points did so from a fair spread of of perspectives. 

Not entirely though. A breakdown of the points made by audience members reveals a rather unrepresentative-seeming tilt towards the Left - albeit not a massive one:

Pro-Margaret Thatcher points - 7
Anti-Margaret Thatcher points - 9
Neither-one-nor-the-other points about Mrs Thatcher - 3
Pro-Labour points - 2

Is this, again, a case of the Left-side of the argument simply being more vociferous, as discussed in earlier posts? Or could it be the result of David Dimbleby's striking tendency to choose young people? His selection of speakers in that respect is most certainly not representative of the constituency of Finchley I would imagine! Why does he do it? (You may also have noticed that he does much the same with ethnic minorities too).

Still, David Dimbleby struck me as having maintained a fair hand on proceedings, not intervening more than he should (as he sometimes does) and putting contrary points to all three of the politicians - including challenging David Blunkett's assertion that Mrs Thatcher supported apartheid - something that commenters on a couple of right-leaning blogs I've been reading appear to have missed (somehow). 

I remain pleasantly surprised.

Some remain unpleasantly unsurprised, it appears -  both on the Left (cries that the panel were pro-Thatcher) and on the Right (cries that the panel were anti-Thatcher, except for Charles Moore). This doesn't necessarily mean that the BBC "got it about right", of course. It never necessarily means that. The BBC did get it about right though on this occasion. Or so I believe. You'll have to watch it yourselves to decide whether you agree or not. 

The topic of BBC bias arose on the programme itself. 

Charles Moore accused the media "and, very particularly, the BBC" of "promoting, day after day" the idea that people are "trashing [Baroness Thatcher's] reputation by celebrating it". "Very, very few people are," he said. It's a "tiny number of people who are actually being vile".

That strikes me as a thoroughly reasonable point (even those 20,000 or so people behind the sales of Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead remain a tiny fraction of the British population) - though I wouldn't say that the BBC seems too far ahead of other media outlets in "bigging it up", day after day. I can think of others. 

Mr Moore then criticised yesterday's PM (which I haven't listened to yet), describing that edition as "ludicrous". He said, 
"They're trying...basically the BBC's trying to get this Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead up to the top of the charts by going on and on and on about whether it should be banned. All this nonsense." 
That, of course, is quite an accusation. It follows Mr Moore's protest on the previous day's PM when, yes, Eddie Mair had brought up the issue with him while he was a guest on the programme. 

Are Eddie Mair and the PM team really deliberately trying to get the song to the top of the charts? That would be one heck of a thing for an impartial broadcaster to seek to do! I'll have to take a listen for myself. If they also mentioned it today and mention it again on this week's Saturday PM too then they may have a case to answer.

Unfortunately for Charles Moore, he then rather spoiled his attack on the BBC by making a joke about the Wizard of Oz that went down like a lead balloon; plus it's proving hard (I think) not to have some sympathy with what Sir Ming Campbell said in response:
Sir Ming Campbell: I mean, this notion of a conspiracy of the BBC to do down Mrs Thatcher...abso...
Charles Moore (interrupting): It's not a conspiracy. It comes naturally to them. They don't have to conspire. It's in their...
Sir Ming Campbell: ...It's a kind of persecution complex. If you look at the total coverage in the last, what, four or five days, it has almost universally been favourable to Mrs Thatcher. Now, can I say, I'm ashamed of people, for example in Glasgow, which is where I come from, dancing Scottish the main I think that's thoroughly distasteful and thoroughly unacceptable. But the idea that this is somehow part of a natural built-in revulsion fostered and encouraged by the BBC, frankly, is to exhibit a persecution complex which is quite unjustified.
Well, I wouldn't agree that the BBC's total coverage has "almost universally been favourable to Mrs Thatcher" - indeed, for that smallish part of it occupied by Radio 4, I think I've proven (to my satisfaction at least) that their coverage has been pretty balanced - but Charles Moore's idea that PM is actively trying to get Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead up to the top of the charts by going on and on and on about it is one I'm going to need a huge amount of convincing about before I'm prepared to swallow it. I may (like Sir Ming) be being naive there (after all, as the saying goes, just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me), but until the evidence comes my way I'm bringing out Occam's razor and slapping on the aftershave.

My next task must be to catch up with PM.


The relevant segment of PM begins at 45:43 here. It started by referring back to Eddie's encounter with Charles Moore the previous day, therefore suggesting that this segment was a direct response to that act of criticism of the BBC by Mr Moore. I think I can now understand why Charles took umbrage. He had, after all, been protesting against Eddie bringing up the subject of the song in the first place and yet - as a direct consequence of having done so, it seems! - here was the subject being brought up yet again on the following day's programme, and dwelt on at some length. It does feel as if a snook were being cocked at Mr Moore here.

Eddie then informed listeners about new DG Tony Hall's pronouncements on the song before a discussion was held on the subject between Conservative peer Baroness Buscombe and the Guardian's Dorian Lynskey, with Baroness Buscombe wanting the BBC to hold back from broadcasting the song and Dorian Lynskey wanting them to go ahead and broadcast it. There was strong disagreement between them, so the discussion was certainly balanced in terms of guest selection. Eddie wasn't so balanced though, twice interrupting Peta Buscombe and strongly challenging her position (adopting an incredulous tone on two occasions) whilst, by way of contrast, not challenging Dorian Lynskey's position at all, and then ending (as is his way) on a flippant note ("And from Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead to Madonna.") The song was the only Mrs Thatcher-related discussion on this edition of the show.

Oh dear. I've now listened to last night's edition. Eddie Mair's opening words? "The Ding Dong! song is almost gone from Radio 1." Yes, PM chose to lead on the story. Given that the controversy had begun being discussed at my place of work (in strong part thanks, as Charles Moore said on Question Time, to its extensive coverage on the BBC, perhaps?), it had clearly become newsworthy by this stage and the BBC's compromise decision to broadcast a short clip on the song on Sunday with a journalistic introduction explaining the controversy was doubtless worthy of comment, but should it have been made the lead story on PM? Did Charles Moore's attack on PM provoke Eddie and his team to deliberately make it so? Did it prompt the programme to go on "promoting" the song, "day after day" - or would it have done so anyway?

An interview with the Controller of Radio 1 Ben Cooper followed. Before listening to it (as I'm now about to do), I would hope and expect that Eddie would challenge him forcefully. Eddie usually does. I would also hope and expect him to challenge him on two fronts, given that there have been two sharply different critical responses to the BBC's decision - (a) one from supporters of Mrs Thatcher arguing that it's "disrespectful", a "cop out", that the BBC's allowing itself to be "manipulated by anarchists" in allowing it to be broadcast at all, that the corporation is still allowing the broadcast of a song which "projects hatred" and (b) the other from opponents of Mrs Thatcher arguing that the BBC has "caved in" to Mrs Thatcher's supporters and is engaging in unjustified censorship (a point some of the lady's supporters are also making). OK, time to listen to that interview with Ben Cooper.

Eddie Mair certainly challenged Ben Cooper, aggressively at times. He did so entirely from the second position outlined above. Ironically, despite saying "to come at this from the other point of view" at one point, he moved (at that very point) from one criticism based on the second standpoint (essentially suggesting that Mr Cooper was being disrespectful to a segment of his own audience by refusing the play the song in full) to another one based on precisely the same standpoint (the censorship point). The real "other point of view" wasn't a standpoint he put any questions from. Was that right? Wasn't that biased?

The closing review of listeners' reactions to the week's coverage on PM on that edition, however, was very scrupulously balanced between pro-Thatcher and anti-Thatcher views. That segment cannot be criticised.

We'll have to see about Saturday's PM and iPM


  1. I heard it last night...prepare to be annoyed.
    Mair is truly a nasty piece of work. Ben Cooper was fair throughout, but this is clearly not the BBCs road to take as far as Eddie Mair was concerned.
    A phoney a cliche.
    Witness his "they`re only young" bit when Cooper implies that kids who are glib on Facebook etc, and who weren`t there at the time probably don`t need to be patronised etc...just disregarded in this case.
    Mair was a disgrace-maybe some of us should write a musical about the death of his mum...and then scoff at him if he objects.
    Well we all know who the nasty party now is...and whish true "nasty piece of work" to gently probe Miliband at the Autumn Conference

  2. Hi there chrish - and thanks for all your kind words about me and Sue (here and at B-BBC). Much appreciated.
    Sometimes this bias-spotting isn't good for the blood pressure, is it?
    My moment this week was 'Any Questions'!
    Hope you check out the archive here - especially the posts under the labels 'Ed Stourton' and 'Sunday'.
    Best wishes,


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