Monday 24 February 2014

"As fruitful as arguing that a prawn should be a giraffe"

Newsnight's one redeeming feature - poor, worn-out, disenchanted, utterly-bored-to-tears Jeremy Paxman - has written an article for the Grauniad laying into philosopher Alain de Botton and his much-plugged views on the news. (We even plugged A de B here at "Is".) 

It's hardly a profound piece, but it certainly made me laugh. 

Of course, some people will pick up on the perfect translation of Paxo's trademark arched eyebrow and sneer into prose in this passage: 
Thanks be, Alain de Botton has come among us again, as he does so often when we're perplexed. Anxious about whether you understand art? Do you appreciate sex properly? What's religion about? How can you be happy? Fear not, De Botton can tell you, quickly and easily. Not since Moses went up a mountain and came down carrying a couple of slabs of granite reducing life to 10 commandments has anyone been able to reduce the complex enigmas of existence down to simple injunctions. The man has a solution for everything.
Or this delicious turn of phrase (perfectly capturing former BBC Head of News turned Professor of Media Studies at Cardiff University, Richard Sambrook, perhaps?):
Reporters in rehab (now often posing as professors of media studies)...
The Daily Mail has also been quick to spot and blow up a passing dig at the Newsnight presenter's BBC colleague Huw Edwards...
Admittedly Huw Edwards can come across like some evangelical preacher on a wet Sunday morning in Merthyr Tydfil
...turning it into "an extraordinary attack" and "a bizarre feud". Which calls for this image:

But Jeremy Paxman had some interesting things to say about the news as well. 

His article begins, with plenty of the the studious cynicism for which he's known:
What is news? To judge from the daily newspapers and TV bulletins we can discard my favourite definition – that it is something that someone somewhere doesn't want us to know.
Jeremy's conspiratorial definition of the news (which he then dismisses) is something which will resonate with many of the BBC's critics (and critics of Newsnight). 

For those of us on the mainstream Right (as we see ourselves) - the Biased BBC/Daily Mail/Is the BBC biased?/Daily Telegraph/Not a Sheep/The Commentator tendency - that's a definition which finds itself crossing our minds, from time to time, to varying degrees, probably without us even being aware of it having done so.

For example, from Quentin Letts at the Daily Mail and Damian Thompson at the Telegraph, through to many commenters at Biased BBC - and, well away from the mainstream Right, Roy Greenslade at the Guardian too - many people have been aghast (if not exactly surprised) that the BBC has (at least until this afternoon) resolutely avoided reporting the Harriet Harman-Jack Dromey-Tessa Jowell PIE/NCCL paedophile allegations being made by the Mail - a story the Mail has been making hay with for several days now (and which other papers have subsequently taken up). 

Except for Prof. Greenslade of the Graun, all the above have seen that refusal to cover the story by the BBC as clear evidence of pro-Labour bias on the BBC's part - and a case of "something that someone somewhere [the BBC and the Labour Party] doesn't want us to know". 

What's changed today that finally provoked the BBC to break cover (keeping with this way of thinking), is that Harriet Harman and her husband have now denounced the Mail's investigation as a "smear". The BBC, so it seems, now feel safe to leap into action in response. Clicking its heels, so to speak, at Hattie's command.

I doubt that example was in Paxo's mind though.

His main point seems to be that the news just isn't interesting enough these days, that the news needs to be perpetually new and surprising:
Astonishing events that burst into our consciousness with the impact of the attack on the Twin Towers are very rare indeed. Most of the rest is just regurgitated announcement, speech or advertisement. Sometimes, the press release has scarcely been rewritten. Maybe that's why so many people don't seem to be paying much attention any more.

That's far too world-weary (and wrong-headed) for me. There's plenty going on, and novel excitements aren't everything (or anything much). 

Just because Jeremy is bored and just because Ian Katz's Newsnight isn't interested in covering the lurch into leftist authoritarian - and the reactive protests - in post-Chavez Venezuela, for example, doesn't mean that it's not a story of importance for our times, telling us important things about radical chic regimes and their way of degenerating into Gadaffiesque strangeness (or, in Maduro's case, extreme mediocrity) and cruelty.

Still, I've got to concede that there is some truth in this:
Technology has eliminated time-delay and now enables us to be virtually present at any event, almost anywhere. Enjoying lives of greater comfort and safety than ever before, we can be regaled in our own sitting rooms with mayhem or misery from most corners of the globe. But the more news there is, the less anyone really needs it. The result, too often, is paralysis – information overload. What are we to do with it all?
And, in a dig that I think applies to many a BBC editor (Newsnight's Ian Katz included), I rather liked this:
When it comes to it, news is just some things that have happened, as chosen by some not-very-interesting people running newspapers and television.
These people have rather predictable tastes and rather obvious blindspots. 
Don't they just! (See our coverage of Newsnight and Sunday for evidence of that). 

The most exciting bit for me involved that old chestnut - one which gets me and Sue playing conkers with each other from time to time: the question of impartiality v advocacy for the 'best kinds of bias'. Paxo is on my side here:
De Botton's cure for the indifference that afflicts so many of us when confronted with tidings of some awful human tragedy far away is for the news to be less preoccupied with accuracy and more with advocacy. Fine if De Botton is the advocate-in-chief. But just supposing that George Galloway, David Icke or Abu Hamza got the job?

Anyhow, in the spirit of Newsnight's David Bowie tribute act, I think the last word is best left to the Thin White Duke himself:
All the young dudes/Carry the news/Boogaloo dudes/Carry the news. 
I can imagine Newsnight editor Ian Katz sagely nodding his head at that (like it actually means anything).


  1. “De Botton's cure for the indifference that afflicts so many of us when confronted with tidings of some awful human tragedy far away is for the news to be less preoccupied with accuracy and more with advocacy. Fine if De Botton is the advocate-in-chief. But just supposing that George Galloway, David Icke or Abu Hamza got the job?”

    You think that places Paxo on your side? I beg to differ. My contention is that the people who’ve already ‘got the job’ at the BBC are advocates of the kind he cites, albeit to a lesser degree.
    The kind of advocacy I commend would uphold basic ‘Judeo-Christian’ values, which the left-leaning honchos at the BBC clearly do not. Their preoccupation with accuracy leads them to apply moral equivalence between Judeo-Christian values and assorted unJudeo-Christian values, which in effect throws baby accuracy out with the bathwater.

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  2. I don't disagree that the BBC's idea of impartiality aims at a sort of disinterested relativism, an equality of opinions, at least in theory, while in practice, it very often betrays that commitment and adopts a very particular outlook - generally a left-liberal outlook (an outlook so many of its staff share) - and that (as you say) this is pretty much inevitable, given that we're all biased.

    The BBC's outlook (generally-speaking), which is widely reflected in academia, other left-wing media and a significant segment of society, treats the very concept of Judeo-Christian values with either deep scepticism or outright disdain. That edition of 'Sunday' where every guest rounded on David Cameron for saying that British values were grounded in Judeo-Christian values is evidence of that.

    If the BBC were to start upholding basic Judeo-Christian values again, it wouldn't be the BBC we have today, and left-wing anti-BBC-bias blogs would probably start popping up all over the place in response, demanding secular, liberal, multi-cultural values. The situation we have now would, in effect, be reversed, wouldn't it? And the present situation is a bad one that shouldn't continue.

    The horror Paxo envisions - a world of Galloways, Ickes and Hamzas being in editorial control - is a horror lots of other BBC types would share, though for them it would be the likes of Melanie Phillips, Christian evangelicals, UKIP, Douglas Murray, etc, who give them nightmares.

    If we were to have a BBC that upheld Judeo-Christian values (and, personally, I'd love such a broadcaster), it would surely have to be non-licence fee funded one and - hopefully - face a second, rival non-licence fee-funded organisation which offered the alternative left-liberal view (the one we get now) - a sort of UK Fox v a kind of UK MSNBC perhaps (minus their respective faults). That would be a good thing.

    Maybe we should move to that situation, as the present situation is an unhealthy one.

    If we want to keep a single licence-fee funded BBC, I'd still stick to the idea that it should give up its pretence of impartiality and start FAIRLY balancing all manner of non-impartial voices - i.e. lots of opinions, representing all shades of opinions, balanced out by fair-minded editors. That, of course, would entail a massive injection of right-wing people into the BBC so as to balance out the present left-wing bias - which wouldn't be an easy task at all.

    Well, that's my latest try at getting my head round all this.

  3. “De Botton's cure for the indifference that afflicts so many of us when confronted with tidings of some awful human tragedy far away is for the news to be less preoccupied with accuracy and more with advocacy. Fine if De Botton is the advocate-in-chief. But just supposing that George Galloway, David Icke or Abu Hamza got the job?”

    An argument I put forward to my lefty friends (and I have far too many of them) is that Adolf Hitler did nothing illegal. This is a quote attributed to Martin Luther King. Now... forget the Death Camps for one minute, under the constitution, as was, Hitler made a small minority of people into Untermensch, via the law. The willful persecution lasted years before any camps for extermination existed. In any decent society, government power has to be curtailed.

    The left love governmental power, they yearn for it, because they know, in their hearts, that once they have power, utopia will come. There are some on the right who know that power corrupts, but not all; but hey, they are there. I guess that makes me a righty, tho I am uninclined to be arsed much.

    Let me put this another way: The BBC regularly refer to the American President as "the most powerful man on the planet". He isn't and has never been. The POTUS has always had to answer to congress, unlike other powerful men, like Stalin or Mao, or Pol Pot. The Law, and this is our English Rule of Law malarkey here, is supreme. Tough.

    At the end of the day: I agree with paxo's point. The solution is to end the BBC. Personally I would go further, and end the Government too, but I would be happy if we put heavy restrictions on it's powers.

  4. Look at us! An actual debate on “Is!”
    But we’re dancing on the head of a pin. I don’t think there’s much of a disagreement here. None at all in fact.

    Look at this comment by Lamia over at H/P. It’s on a thread about Venezuela, where things have gone spectacularly wrong.

    “Even so, decent journalists are thin on the ground there now. Around the turn of the century, they were still in the majority and clowns like Pilger and psychopaths like Milne were the indulged minority. That was very careless. The Milneites and Pilgerites have ruled for about the past ten years.
    The generation of Hugo Young and co is barely a memory. The young, passionate and intensely clueless Pennyites were just children when the Guardian was last a half-decent newspaper. In fairness, all of the broadsheets have declined in quality since the 90s, but the Guardian has slid far further than the others.
    So I think it's fair enough to bash the Guardian fairly enthusiastically now. It does far more harm than good."

    It’s just as fair to bash the BBC as it is to bash the Guardian. Although the BBC might not have slid as far as the Graun, it has ‘obligations’, and it certainly does/could do more harm than good.

    In other words, if we agree that humans are inherently biased (not being inanimate) then your concept of impartiality is really a readjustment of the pendulum i.e. back to the centre and I’m all for that.

    1. Bashing the Guradian is fun, but not a duty.

      But hey, I actually pay for the BBC; I would say that's more fair.

      A friend of mine, I've know for nigh-on 30 years... well we've argued this toss for a few years now. On friday he popped round for a beer or six, and we got onto the BBC, and he didn't understand why I didn't moan about ITV bias. I mean, for one, I don't watch much TV; two, I own a fkn TV, so have to pay for it, but neither of these arguments cut aany mustard with him. The BBC, he declared, is Good Thing. It Is A Social Good. Which is why, even tho he is single and earns 40k a year, and I am a single parent (with a daft kid who can tell you everything about minecraft and Star Wars but takes twenty minutes putting his shoes on) who gets tio subsidise his enjoyment of his telly. I love the guy, but fk... he has a 2:1 in Electronics. (Mind you, it was from a former Polytechnic)

      "In other words, if we agree that humans are inherently biased (not being inanimate) then your concept of impartiality is really a readjustment of the pendulum i.e. back to the centre and I’m all for that."

      But Sue, there is no centre. that is a left wing myth. There is only Freedom.


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