Tuesday 7 January 2014

'Newsnight': A tsunami of bias

Arbitrary as it might be (and despite the reservations of psychologists), New Year always feels like a good time to begin a new project. 

As this blog focuses (mainly) on the issue of BBC bias, this is probably the time to begin a new, year-long BBC bias-monitoring project. (Well, time for me to start it anyhow. Sue has much less time on her hands!!) 

So all that's needed then is to select the right project. 

Maybe choose a prestigious BBC current affairs programme and monitor it for an entire year? 

Sounds reasonable to me (if a bit overfacing). But which one?  

Well, Today is far too long, with 17 hours of broadcasting each week. (I might manage that if I were retired and had absolutely no life.) The Daily/Sunday Politics is also too big a challenge (nearly 7 hours of broadcasting each week). The World at One is too domestically-orientated while The World Tonight is too world-orientated. And I've already done PM. 

So that only leaves boring, snoring Newsnight - the BBC's old, tired, tattered, scandal-ridden flagship, now under new, ex-Guardian management (Ian Katz) and presently attempting to bring itself back to life (like a career-orientated zombie.)

So let's begin at the beginning with last night's edition (the first of 2014). 

The stories selected were (1) benefit cuts and electioneering politicians, (2) the al-Qaeda takeover of Fallujah in Iraq, (3) Michael Gove's views on World War One, (4) Romanian immigration to Britain and (5) '12 Years a Slave', a film about slavery in the U.S. 

Let's take them in order. 

The benefit cuts and electioneering politicians segment was framed in this way by the programme's introduction:
Hello. Happy New Year - unless electioneering politicians get on your nerves, in which case you have sixteen months of irritation to look forward too. The Chancellor is keen for us to know that there are plenty more cuts on the way and that those on benefits can take a lot more pain. I'll be asking this Treasury minister why he wants to pick on the most vulnerable people in society.
Charles Moore suggested two ways to assess media bias: (1) "What's the story?" and (2) "Who's in the dock?". 

Well, the story was the "electioneering" Tory Chancellor and his 'picking on' "the most vulnerable people in society". 

Those two themes continued throughout Emily Maitlis's report and Jeremy's interview with Conservative Sajid Javid and Labour's Chris Leslie. (A balanced guest selection).

Emily's report concentrated on the benefit cuts proposal and emphasised Nick Clegg's rejection of them (flirty Nick, flirty Emily at the press conference). Jeremy's interview sprang an Ian Katz-shaped surprise on Mr Javid - a video ambush featuring a 'vulnerable' female benefits claimant complaining about the dire straits she was in and her fears for the future. 

As a result, I don't think it's unreasonable to state that Mr Javid (and George Osborne) were the ones "in the dock". 

So far, so anti-Tory then.

Now, yes, Jeremy Paxman certainly gave Mr Javid a severe grilling. But Labour's Chris Leslie was also given a grilling by Jeremy. It wasn't as severe a grilling though. (I could do 'interruption coefficients' to prove that). 

Still, both sounded (or were made to sound) like typical floundering politicians, desperately flapping their rhetorical arms in front on some pretty obvious lines of questioning from Paxo. (Why do most politicians sound so slimy in the face of Jeremy Paxman's questioning? And is Jeremy really so wrong to be cynical about them? I'm not sure he is.)

A 'pundits panel' then joined the debate: Danny 'The Fink' Finkelstein for the Tories, John McTernan for Labour and Linda Jack for the Lib Dems. 

Where's the bias there? 

Well, there's various ways of looking at that question. 

The first way is to say that the panel consisted of supporters of two governing parties (Tories and Lib Dems) but only one opposition party (Labour). That suggests a pro-government bias. 

The second way, however, is to note that only Danny is pro-government (and on the Right) while both John and (dissident Lib Dem) Linda are government critics (and on the Left), thus suggesting an anti-government bias (and, most definitely, an anti-Right bias). 

A third way of looking at it is to note that Danny is a Cameroon Conservative (on the left of his party), John is a Blairite (on the right of his party) and that Linda is on the Lib Dem left (being a member of Liberal Left). That places all three in what, I suspect, quite a few people will see as the soggy centre/centre-left of mainstream UK politics. There was lively enough debate between them though.

Aha! - and with that Alan at Biased BBC's citing of Chomsky sprang to mind. (Dear God, me and Alan quoting Chomsky!):
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
[Alan also cited another Chomsky quote which I strongly warmed to: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”]

Next up was the al-Qaeda takeover of Fallujah in Iraq story. 

I've always felt that the BBC was deeply antagonistic to the Iraq War, (a) despite its commitment to be impartial on matters of controversy and (b) despite the claims of certain far-Left sites (like Media Lens) that the BBC was pro-Iraq War (to my mind always a bizarre claim). 

So how did Newsnight frame this story?:
Now the prime minister of Iraq was begging the people of Fallujah today to drive out the forces which have captured the town. Well he might. But to lose control of the town which was won at the cost of such intense fighting and so many American lifes, and to lose it to an al-Qaeda affliliate, risks raising the question of what the whole war was for.
That's the question my bias-attuned ears have been hearing the BBC asking over and over again since 2003. (It's the same question Media Lens keeps asking). And they are - as you can see - still asking it. 

(It may, of course, be a good question to ask.) 

The Michael Gove's views on World War One segment began with the inevitable BBC dig at the 'Daily Mail, as we were told that Mr Gove "added his tuppence worth in, inevitably, 'The Daily Mail'." 

Jeremy's introductory reports wasn't particularly sympathetic to Mr Gove's point of view, being overlaid with irony. His quoting of Labour's Tristam Hunt, in contrast, was delivered in a sombre voice, as if he were quoting the truth. (Jeremy has form here). 

The following studio discussion featured two academic historians, both of whom criticised Michael Gove's views on WW1. (Yes, let me repeat that, both of them.) 

They were Prof. Margaret MacMillan of Oxford University and Michael Gove's main target for promoting "left-wing orthodoxy" about the war, Sir Richard Evans of Cambridge University. Sir Richard said Mr Gove is "usually wrong". Prof MacMillan wanted more nuance. 

Of the next item, the Romanian immigration to Britain item, well, Sue summed it up neatly as "bizarre", and I'll requote her here as she is spot on:
An ongoing filmed report, designed to reassure anxious viewers that the forthcoming invasion of Romanians is nothing to worry about. Newsnight is going to follow some prospective Romanians who are about to invade the UK. 
Contrary to rumours circulating within the underbelly of right wingers and Daily Mail readers, Romanians are not  pick-pocketing Romany-type beggars, blaggards and thieves, but charming professional ladies whose English accents are more cultured than your average Brit's. They plan to come over and work, shoot and leave.
The report's introduction was classic BBC with its sarcastic talk of "the prophecised tsunami of migrants and benefit scroungers" and suggestions that it's all "a figment of Nigel Farage's imagination". 

The two Romanians chosen were indeed (as Sue says) charming, pretty, educated Romanian women, with excellent English skills. Who could be against them coming to the UK? Very few people (men especially). 

If the BBC really were propagandists seeking to throw a burka of deceit over the issue of immigration, these women would undoubtedly be the kind of people they would choose to represent the good side of Romanian immigration; indeed, such propagandists couldn't have chosen two better women to follow over the coming months. They even echoed the comments of numerous BBC reporters in criticising the UK mass media for their reporting on the Romanian immigration story. 

Finally came the '12 Years a Slave', a film about slavery in the U.S. story. Kirsty Wark talked to the film's director, Steve McQueen. The "finest film" about slavery, Jeremy's introduction said it had been called. Kirsty puffed it up massively, using words like "fantastic" about it.  Steve McQueen has also directed a film about IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands, and the wickedness of the "British establishment". Grrrr.

Just two newspapers front pages to finish with - one from The Times saying that Tory MPs are "fed up" with George Osborne and his benefit cuts and The Guardian saying the same thing. 

Well, that was a tsunami of bias. And that's only the first edition of the year. 

Will it continue? Well, stay tuned (and if you disagree with my reading of this edition please say!)

1 comment:

  1. The quality of Newsnight is comfortably surpassed by the intelligence and entertainment value of your analysis & tracking. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this, whereas Newsnight is perennially disappointing. Chomsky is marvellous food for thought as usual, so much to take from his wisdom, but what has delighted me more is the light you throw on this daily broadcast, your trenchant stocktaking. Thank you for introducing me to Sue in this, wonderful. I used always to watch Newsnight but once the bias & campaigning started to jump out at me, my respect for the programme collapsed and I started to find the evening had often gone by without Newsnight. Now that I have found you, I might be a more frequent viewer, so as to get the most from your work. Thank you! (By the way, I am a Margaret MacMillan,( & Ann MacMillan) fan going far, far back, Paris 1919 is really good & yes, she has a great way with nuance.)


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