Sunday 19 January 2014

Newsnight: 13-15 January 2014

If Friday and Thursday's editions of Newsnight were brimming to the very top of the glass (plus added foam) with BBC bias, what of the remaining three days? Well, as the French president said  to the actress (as he invited her to join him on his moped), 'Continuez tout droit' and let us see.

Like Monet, I shall give my own impressions here. Minus the lilies. Oh, OK then, with lilies.

Wednesday night's edition was the edition which provided the subject for an earlier post - the one called 'Bang, bang'. (Did you read it?)

The first segment of the programme dealt with Labour's banking reform proposals. This was the second of the three editions which made much of Ed Miliband's upcoming speech - and he didn't even deliver it till Friday! (Talk about advanced publicity!!)

Emily Maitlis's report used Labour's Lord Myners (who praised Ed Miliband's "courage") and Jodie Ginsberg from the centre-left Demos think tank as her two 'talking heads'. The overall tone of Emily's report - and Jeremy Paxman's introduction - was sceptical of Labour's plans though, despite the left-leaning tilt of her 'experts'. The following studio interviewed featured another left-leaning voice, Labour's Lord McFall (aka John McFall), set against bank analyst Chris Wheeler. Lord McFall was on Labour's side (understandably), while Mr Wheeler was sceptical. promised...

The next package dealt with the fraught issue of teacher-pupil relationships. Around 950 teachers have been accused over the past year of having a relationship with a pupil, according to FoI requests. This was based on an investigation by The Independent. (Not an investigation by the BBC itself, natch).

The Newsnight report (by Anthony Baxter) featured two very different cases - that of a girl who'd been groomed by a teacher, and that of a teacher who'd been the victim of a false accusation of assault. The conflict between these two types of case was then discussed by Mary Bousted of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and John Brown of the NSPCC, who represented the two sides of the story - the one warning about malicious allegations by pupils, the other warning about neglecting of the problem of abusive teachers. A scrupulously balanced package, and one that left me feeling that 'something must be done' on two possibly contradictory fronts.

The closing package dealt with Lord Rennard and the Lib Dems, following his exoneration by the party over allegations of sexual harassment. Unfortunately for him, the leadership of the party doesn't think his exoneration has exonerated him at all. Newsnight interviewed Bridget Harris, former advisor to Nick Clegg - one of the women who accused Lord Rennard of harassment. She wasn't happy either.

The topics on Tuesday's edition were (a) Labour's banking reform proposals, (b) Syria, (c) President Hollande's affair, (d) inflation in the UK and (e) driverless cars. I may have mentioned that before.

As you can see, Labour's banking reform proposals led Newsnight's agenda, and Emily Maitlis (deputising as the programme's political editor during Allegra Stratton's maternity leave) ran through Ed Miliband's proposals in a straightforward, serious way, without even the faintest hint of Newsnight's usual ironic tone - which was a rather different to the way she outlined George Osborne's minimum wage proposals two days later. That said, Wednesday's Newsnight (see above) ploughed plenty of irony back into the issue, which redressed the balance somewhat.

I was going to post a photo of the devastation in Syria, but...

Jeremy Paxman welcomed the BBC's Lyse Doucet to the studio with the words, "It's a real treat tonight. Thank you Lyse". And he meant it. He was honoured to speak to her. Whether we viewers, many of whom are well used to hearing and seeing Lyse, felt quite as moved as Jeremy at the slight of her presence in the Newsnight studio...well, I'll let you be the judge of that!

Syria was the subject. The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister had dropped some heavy hints to her that Western governments (including our own) have been getting back on terms with President Assad's regime via its intelligence services, driven by a sense that the Assad side is now less of a concern than the myriad jihadists in the country (including large numbers of west Europeans). [What took them so long?]

Lyse painted a picture of devastation, ghost towns everywhere across the country, but then said there are "bubbles" of apparent normality - such as in central Damascus. The normality is, however, only "apparent". It remains a warzone, and life remains abnormal. We heard from a Syrian pianist, seen playing a Scarlatti sonata (beautifully) in Damascus's main opera house and trying to carry on regardless amid the horrors around him. He was Lyse's first 'unheard' voice. Her second was a young, pretty, female, Westernised pro-democracy activist, who took to the streets and talked to the BBC when the uprising first broke out [at the time when the BBC looked through dewy eyes at the Arab Spring and thought that such people were the future]. She's dejected, yet (in dewy-eyed fashion) still hopeful that it will turn out OK in five years time. (Hmm). A "wealthy industrialist with ties to the president" was up next. He emphasised that this is a war against terrorism and that everyone who wants to fight terrorism should be on his president's side. He got a much less sympathetic hearing from Lyse.

The subject of President Hollande's affair led to a report from Allan Little on why the French elite are so reluctant to discuss the private affairs of their randy presidents. It was a beautifully filmed report, making Paris look even more romantic than usual - and that's quite an achievement! Then came a delightful double interview with the Daily Telegraph's French expert Anne-Elisabeth Moutet and veteran foreign correspondent of France 2 Jean Marc Illouz. [Was the BBC's go-to-girl-for-anything-to-do-with-French-politics Agn├Ęs Poirier indisposed?] I've no complaints about this section whatsoever. Far from it.

Pres. Hollande's latest squeeze

The discussion on inflation was preceded by a report from the BBC's Andrew Verity, which concentrated on how people of a certain age apparently misremember the 1970s as an age of falling living standards. This is a point which divides political opinion, of course. Many on the Right remember the 1970s as being just that - an age of falling living standards - while many on the Left claim the 1970s was an age of rising living standards. Andrew Verity said the stats proved that living standards rose in the 1970s - unlike now, post-recession, when the cost of living is such an issue [especially for Labour]. He, therefore, sided with the Left's view. A balanced discussion followed between Newsnight regular David ('Danny') Blanchflower (for the Labour side) and Margaret Doyle of Deloitte UK (also a Conservative councillor).

Against the spirit of balance, let me say that I sniggered when Danny B. complained about people making rubbish economic predictions. He was very lucky that Jereissmy Paxman didn't pick him up on that. No economic commentator has a worse record of predicting economic trends than David Blanchflower. He even runs Channel 4's Paul Mason close for utter ineptitude (and lack of insight) on that front.

This edition of Newsnight ended with a report by David Grossman - former-Newsnight-political correspondent-turned-technology-corrrespondent-(for-some-reason)) - on driverless cars ('autonomous automobiles'). David reported on it as you would expect a political correspondent to report on it - without being very scientific. I wouldn't have been too surprised if he'd said 'Wow!' at some stage.

Finally, and ending up at the beginning, Monday's edition discussed (a) UK spending cuts, (b) obesity in the UK, (c) sexual abuse in NHS psychiatric hospitals, (d) Ariel Sharon and (e) Google's purchase of Nest - as I also may have mentioned before.

On the UK spending cuts issue, Emily Maitlis's report outlined the small state v big state argument, framing it as being about Tory ideology. To back that up Conservative MP Douglas Carswell criticised George Osborne (from the Right) for 'ersatz radicalism', failing to shrink the state anywhere near enough. Former Blair advisor John McTernan said government intervention can often be better than private enterprise at such things as, say, childcare. The Tories were firmly in the dock here.

...from the New Year's Resolution Foundation

The following studio discussion featured four people and, yes, it was a balanced panel with Allister Heath of City A.M. and former Conservative advisor Sean Worth from the centre-right Policy Exchange think tank on the Right and former Gordon Brown advisor Vidhya Alakeson of the centre-left Resolution Foundation think tank and Labour peer Maurice Glasman on the Left. The two sides made their case sparkily, with Jeremy Paxman holding back and letting the discussion flow - as it should be.

The warning over obesity was the next subject. Changing attitudes, raising awareness - that's the key, apparently. Or else. Or else...we're heading towards a "Doomsday scenario". Tam Fry from the Obesity Forum was on hand, in Tim Reed's report, to scare the bejesus out of us (even those of us you aren't "grossly fat", as Jeremy Paxman put it) and assert that namby-pambying (as he himself put it) is good for us and that the goverment's laissez-faire attitude is bad for us. Tim reviewed some of the past scary ads that governments have used, over such things as AIDS and smoking, but Deborah Arnott from the anti-smoking campaign group ASH then said that such shocking ads aren't enough. Legislation is needed, she said, to "frame" and "change" behaviour. Various undergraduate marketeers were asked how they'd change behaviour. Plenty of catchy slogans resulted. Tam Fry thought that shocking ads might be offputting at the start of a campaign over obesity. Hmm, that was a report entirely from the perspective (however nuanced) of various health campaigners. Critics of 'namby-pambyism' didn't get a look in.

And here's where Radio 4's More or Less comes in handy. I'd heard their take on this before watching this Newsnight piece so I knew that the Obesity Forum's terrifying projections for UK obesity in 2050 were deeply, deeply dubious. Tim Hartford of More or Less more or less forced Tam Fry to admit that the figures had no concrete basis in reality and were merely anecdotal. Tim even got Tam to admit that their projections were 'exaggerated in a good cause'. Exaggeration in a good cause is what lots of campaigners get up to, and it was admirable of More or Less to get a campaigner to 'fess up to that fact.

That, obviously, leaves open the question of why Newsnight didn't challenged the Obesity Forum, instead opting to yield themselves like a submissive lover to the health campaigners' cause.

Next came a shocking report into sexual abuse in NHS hospitals, centring on a woman whom, it is claimed, was raped some 50-60 times in an NHS psychiatric hospital in Kent by one of her care workers. (He's now been convicted of the offence). Victoria Derbyshire interviewed her, and it wasn't an easy watch. This is the sort of story Newsnight deserves credit for covering.

Ariel Sharon 

The burial of the "hugely controversial" Ariel Sharon - as Jeremy Paxman put it in his introduction - came next. Jeremy's introduction continued by saying that Mr Sharon has "a very mixed reputation" and the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse described him as "a man with two faces". His report's chosen talking heads were Prof. Eyal Winter of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Professor Yossi Mekelburg of Chatham House. Then Jeremy Paxman interviewed Daniel Taub, Israel's ambassador to the UK, and Mustafa Barghouti, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Mr Taub was charming. Mr Barghouti less so.

Google's purchase of Nest was the final subject. Former political editor David Grossman's new-found 'technological expertise' (scare marks probably needed) was put to the test. He blagged his way through well enough, I presume.

So that's the end of this week's Newsnight survey. It wasn't bias all the way by any means, but there was plenty of BBC bias in evidence throughout, I think. As ever, please form your own judgements. Mine could be wrong. 

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