Sunday 31 August 2014

Guess who?

Talking of Jon Donnison (were we?)...

Here's an 'amusing but true' tweet from our old friend D.B. tonight:
Please see the comments field linked to below for an explanation. (Oooh, a self-referential link!):

Iraq, Alevis in Turkey, Confucianism, domestic abuse, the Ordinariate, a 'super diocese', and Rotherham and Muslims

This week's edition of Radio 4's Sunday began with the subject of Iraq, launching it with the Archbishop of York's asylum calls for UK to grant asylum to Christians from Iraq

What followed, however, was an interview with Katie Harrison from the charity Tearfund. She has just returned from N Iraq and her testimony was a must-hear, which - just in case you didn't hear it - I'll partially transcribe, as what she was describing just beggars belief in 2014:
Many people were telling us of the horrors of sex-slave markets. So, apparently, what happens is that women are rounded up in a town and taken to the centre of the town. Married women go through this very enforced fast divorce from their husbands so that they become released for sale, and single women are examined by somebody who decides whether they are a virgin, and a virgin will command a higher price and there, in the town square, they're sold off to men who will buy them. They then go through this very quick compulsory marriage ceremony, which basically justifies the rape that will take place later that day, and for some women they will then stay with the person who has bought them, if he wants to keep them, or then, after he's raped them, he takes them back and sells them on again, for a cheaper price this time because they've been used.
Is that what some of those many hundreds of British Muslims who have gone to fight with Islamic State (those pious Muslim defenders of Islamic virtue) are up to? 

Edward Stourton asked Katie Harrison about the Archbishop's calls for them to be allowed to live in Britain. She replied that some do want safe havens away from Iraq but that others - especially the smaller faiths - would prefer to stay where they belong, in lands that are the cradle of their faith.

And talking of persecuted minorities, the next item examined another case of a majority Muslim population oppressing a religious minority. As the programme website's blurb puts it:
This week Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Turkey's 21st president. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul about the country's Alevi minority who claim they are being targeted by Erdogan and his supporters.
Sunday has been closely watching Turkey for some time (though less so in the past year). I used to feel that it was trying to 'understand' (in typical BBC fashion) the Islamist government of Mr Erdogan, but that 'understanding' has perceptibly soured over time, especially since the protests of last year.

The Alevi community is a minority Muslim group. They comprise some one-fifth of the Turkish population. 

Alevis differ from other Muslims in many regards. Men and women pray together through dance and music. They don't worship in mosques. They use pictures, especially of the Imam Ali (from whose name the word 'Alevi' derives - as, indeed, does 'Alawite' (President Assad's sect in Syria)). Sunnis see them as heretics, and many atrocities have been perpetrated against them over history, under both the Ottomans and the Turkish Republic. 

They tend, politically-speaking, to be secular and centre-left in orientation - and, thus, strongly opposed to Mr Erdogan's Islamist agenda. That has been noticed by Mr Erdogan, who has been accused of using sectarian language against them, describing them as "part of a plot" against him, and "terrorists". Alevi-dominated areas of Istanbul have been declared an "Earthquake risk", and Alevi houses could be destroyed en masse as a result. All of which feeds an existing hatred. Crosses have apparently been painted on Alevi doors, signifying death. 

To their credit, some Muslim leaders in Turkey have stood up to all this and denounced the "deep prejudices" held against the Alevis.

Now, what does all this make you think? It makes me think that the Alevis stand on a slippery slope, a continuum - a slope that slides perilously towards what's being done to other minorities in the region, culminating in the fanatical Sunni supremacism of Islamic State.

Sunday seems to have woken up to the dangers of Mr Erdogan's 'benign' Islamism.

Next came an interview with Martin Palmer examining the question, 'Is Confucianism experiencing a revival in China?'

The answer appears to be an emphatic, 'yes' - and Martin is in a position to judge as the Chinese government has just backed his new Confucian alliance. 

As you will doubtless be aware, Confucianism dates back to the 6th Century B.C. It believes in a moral, hierarchical order to the universe which is given by Heaven and which can be taken away by Heaven. 

As to whether it's a religion, Martin Palmer noted that, since 2006, 500 Confucianist temples have sprung up in China and that Confucius himself has been worshipped as a god for at least a thousand years. That said, he places greater weight on Confucianism as a moral code.

He made the striking statement that almost no one in China believes in Communism any more. They regard Marxism-Leninism as a busted flush. That said, they see the Communist system as having restored some order after the chaos of the warlord period of Chinese history. In other words, they see it in a Confucian way. 

Confucianism was attacked under Mao. For only the second time in its long history its books burned were burned, and its temples were either destroyed or taken over during the Cultural Revolution.

That's all changed now. The new Chinese president mentions Confucius in all his speeches, Martin Palmer said, and Confucian ideas back up his ideology. 

It helps, he added, that Confucianism is seen as less dangerous than Christianity (a foreign religion) - a factor that has helped Daoism revive too. 

Over 800 Confucianist institutions have been launched by the Chinese government across the world in recent years, 16 of them in the UK.

Sunday likes to back a good cause and so it threw its weight behind the Archbishop of Canterbury's backing of a new campaign which aims to draw attention to domestic violence within the church. Kevin Bocquet reported on the matter, and the campaign was duly publicised. Its web address is

We heard from a "Sally", a victim of domestic violence who felt unable to talk to the Church about it because she didn't feel they would want to know, in the sense that she felt the Church to be a haven for people from the cares of life and that she would be spoiling their happy refuge by telling them her story. 

Then we heard from the campaigners from Restored, founded four years ago to  provide detailed advice to churches on how to spot the signs and deal with the violence. Its co-founders, Mandy Marshall and Peter Grant, are starting to train clergy in the diocese of Salisbury next week. 

Both they and Davina James-Hanman from AVA (Again Violence and Abuse), another anti-domestic violence charity, pointed to the difference between traditional and progressive believers here. They regard traditional believers' belief in a woman's subservient, obedient position in marriage as a problem.

Were I not treading nervously around such an important topic I would probably tag Sunday's liberal, progressive worldview to that position and cry 'Bias!' [against traditionalist Christians] here.

Still, good luck to them.  

The next topic was more traditional Sunday territory:
The Ordinariate - an Anglican breakaway group that joined the Catholic Church in 2011 - is trying to attract more members in order to survive. We discuss what its role should be alongside the two Churches.
I once described myself as a would-be-Ordinariate atheist, so the fate of the Ordinariate - a gift from Pope Benedict - is of interest to me. I recall Damian Thompson getting particularly irate about Sunday's initial sniffiness about it, and heard some of that myself. 

Here, however, no such complaints could be made as Ruth Gledhill, former Times religious affairs correspondent turned writer for The Tablet and Christian Today, discussed it with Ed Stourton. Ruthie was delightfully upbeat about it, saying it's "doing well" and "surviving much better than some people thought it would". She also said that it's "something of a gift to the Catholic Church." Though still small, it now has 1000-2000 laity and 100 or so clergy - and those clergy are boosting Catholic numbers, recruitment-wise. 

She described them as "proper Catholics", but ones with elements of Anglican patrimony and liturgy and said that they fit in well with the modern world's "small is beautiful" ethic. 

Ed Stourton then interviewed The Ordinariate's Ordinary, Mgr Keith Newton. Ed pursued  the "neither fish nor foul", "betwixt or between" angle with him [i.e. 'you're neither Anglican nor Catholic really']. Mgr Keith mentioned the position of the Maronites and Ukrainian Catholics to show the diversity of the Catholic Church. 

Ed then pursued the topic of married clergy. Mgr Keith is married. Would he like to see that adopted more widely?, Ed pressed. Mgr Keith replied that there are also married priests in the eastern part of the Catholic Church and the Ordinariate's employment of married priests may be something the Church might look at but he doesn't think it's something they should be fighting for.

Then it was onto "an exclusive" (though whether Bishop Nick's latest invite from Sunday is a huge exclusive may be open to debate!):
In an exclusive for Sunday, Bishop Nick Baines, the man tasked to look after the Church of England's new 'super diocese' of West Yorkshire and the Dales has been keeping an audio diary account of his first few weeks in the job.
I won't dwell on this, but Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, is always engaging and for those will a taste for Anglican goings-on would have enjoyed this. 

His massive new diocese came into being this spring, and Sunday has followed its formation quite closely. It replaced the old dioceses of Bradford, Ripon, Leeds and Wakefield. It covers 2,500 square miles and serves more than 2.5 million people. It has four bishops, 500 clergy and 656 churches.

Finally came the question, "How should the community in Rotherham respond to this week's revelations of child sexual exploitation on a massive scale by men of predominantly Pakistani origin?" 

After hearing a brief selection of callers to the BBC's Asian Network (two of whom said that the Pakistani community has a problem and a third saying that women should be obedient to men), Edward Stourton interviewed Bradford councillor and imam Alyas Karmani [though Ed failed to mentioned that Mr Karmani is a councillor for the extremist Respect party] and BBC regular, community activist and Muslim convert Julie Siddiqi.

Mr Karmani mostly did what you would expect a Respect politician to do and said that inter-community sexual abuse is a matter for "any community" before blaming social conservatism and the "social construction of masculinity", "images", the "sexualisation of society" and "social media" #passingthebuck. Julie Siddiqi, less inclined to burrow her head in the sand, cited a Guardian article in which she'd been quoted, saying that "older male-dominated leadership" is a problem and that more women and young people should be engaged. Alyas Karmani responded by blaming "the agencies" and calling for a "multi-level" approach. Ed stuck with the issue of "empowering women", Julie said she wants cross-community dialogue beyond the gatekeepers and Alyas Karmani rounded the discussion off by saying that Muslims don't want special treatment, just fair treatment.

I'm not sure any of that got us very far at all, but then what did I expect?

Acceptance Speech

Sometimes I think there should be a reality show just for bloggers about BBC bias. Then we could all tell the world about our "journey". In lieu of that, I'll use this post instead to blah on about my "journey" with Radio 4's Sunday....

I've listened to every edition of the programme for well over three years now and, a couple of years back, finding it to be among the most reliably biased of all BBC programmes, thought it might make a great case study to launch a new experimental blog about BBC bias. 

I'd been led to that decision by my initial forays into analysing it, very snarkily, in the comments field at the Biased BBC blog over the preceding year or two. 

When I began this blog with Sue I was determined to analyse it in a more balanced, quasi-professorial manner than at Biased BBC and my early posts on the subject here seem to me, looking back, to be painstaking, spot-on and deadly dull. 

As often happens on blogs like this, I then simultaneously relaxed and radicalised myself, and the snarky tone returned - albeit, being Is the BBC biased?, in a rather more restrained fashion than before.

Then a strange thing began to happen. It began to dawn on me that I actually really liked Sunday, for all its faults and biases. Yes, it would irritate me sometimes, but it also intrigues and pleases me too. I like Ed, and William, and have always liked Samira. Some of its subject matter interests me a lot and, yes, Sunday can, on occasions, be very good indeed. My professorial side began to emerge again.

My pet project has, therefore, become something like a pet to me, and I'm finding myself wanting to stroke it more and more often. (Ed Stourton is purring on my lap at this very moment). But I'm still aware of the bias...

Take today's edition, for example - one of the least obviously biased for some time.

As someone who feels as if I know the programme like the back of my hand, I didn't surprise me in the least that it began with the calls from the Archbishop of York for the UK to grant asylum to Christians from Iraq. As regular readers of this blog will know, such calls from prominent clergyman have been leading the programme for weeks now and, as a result, I've been complaining for at least a month that the programme's one-sided coverage of those calls (in whatever numbers, and regardless of the UK population's concerns about mass immigration) has begun to give the impression of bias on the programme's part - a bias that is approaching campaigning for a particular position by dint of being so one-sided. I find that mildly irritating, but the feature on Iraq that followed today was a valuable piece of broadcasting and more than made up for it. 

Similarly, someone I have repeatedly called "Sunday's favourite bishop", that nice Bishop Nick Baines, made yet another appearance this week, giving us an audio diary. Bishop Nick was due to appear a couple of weeks ago to push for the "UK asylum for Iraqis" cause but, unusually for him, couldn't make it. That this nice liberal bishop is a programme favourite smacks of liberal bias, but his audio diary was interesting and he's a nice man, and I enjoyed his contribution today....

....and another Sunday favourite, Martin Palmer, was also on plugging his latest initiative - just as he's been allowed to plug his initiatives before on the programme, as I (a regular listener) know very well. Yet he was fascinating today on Confucianism and I was very glad to have heard him...

....and I've also noted before that Sunday has its favourite charities (Islamic Relief, Cafod and Tearfund) and here was a spokeswoman from Tearfund discussing Iraq, yet her contribution was one of the most powerful I've heard on the radio for some time and needed hearing....

.....and, yes, the programme's old liberal Catholic Tabletista concern about the Ordinariate is something I've touched on before, today's take was surprisingly sympathetic and enjoyable. 

My one niggle was with the closing discussion on Rotherham which was between a couple of 'BBC Muslims' [i.e. the kind of Muslims the BBC invites onto programmes like Sunday, often very familiar to seasoned BBC watchers] - a Respect councillor and a Muslim convert - and led to much tiptoeing around the heart of the matter. That bias is one the BBC seems to be finding particularly hard to break away from. 

So, you see, that's my "journey" with Radio 4's Sunday. I'd like to thank Sue, my family, God, Gwyneth Paltrow, et al, for making this all possible. I love you all. Thank you and good night.

Oh, and the usual review of today's Sunday will follow before the night is out. Bate your breaths!

Take your pick

So Rona Fairhead is set to replace Chris Patten as chair of the BBC Trust. 

Needless to say, plenty of people who know nothing about her are already scouring her biographical details and rushing to judgement rather than waiting to see how she gets on. 

I've seen her denounced as a lefty for being associated with the 'left-wing' Financial Times, "a safe Tory" for having a husband who served as a Conservative councillor, a fully-paid-up member of the hive, "Oxbridge", a "parasite", "another bloody woman", a "sleazy" banker, "one of the most accomplished political brown-nosers of her generation", etc...

To help you think up some smears of your own here's a quick run-down of some of things we already know about her. Fire away!

- She's a former chief executive of the Financial Times
- She's a former non-executive director of the Economist Group,
- She's a non-executive director of the bank HSBC 
- She's a non-executive director of the PepsiCo
- She worked at chemicals group ICI and engineering firm Bombardier
- She went to Cambridge University
- She has a master's degree from the Harvard Business School
- She started her career with Bain & Co and Morgan Stanley
- Her husband is a director of the private equity firm Campbell Lutyens and a former Tory councillor in Kensington and Chelsea
- She is one of the coalition government’s business ambassadors 
- She also a director at the Cabinet Office, advising the civil service minister Francis Maude
- She's a mother-of-three
- She enjoys skiing, scuba diving and flying

‘This does not go on’

There's a very revealing insight into (past?) BBC thinking in Guardian article from early this month (h/t Klingon at Biased BBC), especially in the light of this week's report on the Rotherham grooming scandal. 

It came in the course of an interview with Yorkshire-based award-winning writer, director and producer Kay Mellor (best known for Band of Gold):
One of her regrets, she says, is a drama she wrote about Asian men grooming and sexually abusing underage white girls (“I was watching it unfold”). But a changing of the executive guard at BBC1 in 2008 meant it never got made. “I don’t think people believed it. One very senior person said to me ‘this does not go on’.”
Isn't that an extraordinary thing for a senior BBC executive to have said? For those of us who have studied BBC bias for some time, it's sadly unsurprising though.

Wonder who that 'very senior person' was? 

2008 saw the arrival of Ben Stephenson as Controller of Drama Commissioning for BBC TV - the same Ben Stephenson who caused something of a stir by saying of BBC commissioning, “We need to foster peculiarity, idiosyncrasy, stubborn-mindedness, left-of-centre thinking.” Was it him? 

Another fake photo from Jon Donnison

Jon Donnison just can't help himself. He's only gone and tweeted another fake photo today:
Alas someone was on hand to set him straight:
Still, at least that's a little light relief - and it is a lovely fake photo. (His previous mistakes on Twitter have been far more serious.)

Anyhow, at least it shows that he can take a few minutes break from bashing Hadar at BBC Watch.

Does anyone else wonder what his BBC bosses are making of all this unseemly squabbling by one of their most high-profile reporters? Shouldn't they be telling him to calm down, dear?

Everyday Is Like Sunday

I always like it when blogs break away from their core mission to post some purely random piece of music one day a week. So, in that spirit, and as I'm Morecambe and it's Sunday, here's Every Day is Like Sunday by Morrissey. 

When Morrissey sings of "the coastal town/That they forgot to close down" where "Every day is silent and grey", he is, of course, talking about Blackpool.

Saturday 30 August 2014

Self, self, self!

Will Self used this week's A Point of View on Radio 4 to launch an attack on George Orwell. 

Yes, George Orwell. 

For Will, Orwell is the "supreme mediocrity", self-geared to serve the needs of large numbers of mediocre English people. He was also an elitist. (Square that if you can).  

Will Self entertained us with a snide impersonation of Orwell at one point, making him sound like a silly 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' type, which was surely intended to provoke, to grate and irritate. 

Will is nothing if not a showman. Even on radio his flair for out-Kenneth Williamsing Kenneth Williams in terms of facial contortions and nostril-stretching comes across loud and clear.

What was he up to in attempting to take down this most sacred of British cows? Being contrarian for sure. 

"What excites me is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions," he said of his own writing. "I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable" - such categories as presuming that George Orwell is a supreme genius whose ideas and novels have reverberated around the world to somewhat great effect than Will Self's. 

And, of course, Will was also surely being Selfish - dissing a writer greater than himself who happened (in one essay) to criticise ways of writing that Will himSelf has made essential facets of his own pleonastic style. 

You had to smile (though with gritted teeth) at his playing of the "Orwell was middle-class" card too - the supremely mediocre irony of a white, middle-aged, middle-class public-school-then-Oxford-educated novelist who turned political and went down and out (for a while) in London (and visiting Paris) before finding fame and working for the BBC proceeding to denounce another white, middle-aged, middle-class public-school-educated novelist who turned political before going down and out in London and Paris, finding fame and working for the BBC, without seeming to spot the obvious biographical similarities. 

What did he use to prove Orwell's 'mediocrity' then? The opening paragraph of a single essay which makes an indisputably duff point about language, giving Will the chance to out-think Orwell on that one point (and drop in some mentions of Chomsky and neuroscience for good measure). 

Now, reading that essay does show that George Orwell could get things very wrong. No great genius is perfect, nor needs to be. Some of the prescriptive passages in that essay do come across as deeply wrong-headed, but - and here's the bit Will Self didn't mention - there's also some highly acute stuff in there about the use of language for political purposes (deliberately dishonest or otherwise), and when it comes to political writing (as opposed to literary writing) I'd say that there's much truth in some of his general points about the need for clarity, concision and the avoidance of jargon and tired phrases. From the sinister abuses of language of tyrants to the robotic mouthings of half-emptied buzzwords from modern party politicians, this under-par essay still gives a lot of food for thought. 

As, for that matter, did Will Self's self-serving talk this week - as you can see.

The reaction on Twitter has been mixed, but mostly hostile, with made a plain English word used to describe Will Self himself by some of the medium's less elitist elements counterpointed by a smaller number of enthusiastic comments by people we should probably call 'Selfies.' A surprising number used the word "brilliant", like that character from The Fast Show. 


Disputed figures on Gaza casualties.

Petition to change the BBC's boilerplate "mostly civilians" phrase while the figures are inadequately verified.

Change BBC boilerplate on Gaza casualties to reflect disputed figures

Almost uniquely among news organisations the British Broadcasting Corporation has a duty to impartiality that is not just implied by the professional journalism they claim to practice but also legally by Royal Charter:"The BBC is required to deliver duly impartial news by the Royal Charter and Agreement and to treat controversial subjects with due impartiality"[BBC Trust Editorial Standards].

The full petition:Modify the BBC Gaza boilerplate "on the Palestinian side more than [whatever is their current claim] have been killed, the majority of them civilians" to "Hamas sources claim [whatever is their current claim] have been killed, the majority of them civilians. However Israeli sources strenuously contest this claim as to both the total number and the percentage of those killed who can be claimed to be civilian".

Who's really hit a nerve with Jon Donnison?

Someone is very sore about BBC Watch. You might also say #obsessed. 

Jon Donnison, though back in Oz (where his job is to report on Australian affairs), is still obsessively tweeting about Gaza at the moment. And about BBC Watch and CiF Watch. And, yet again, he's happily scrapping with an Israeli spokesman, this time Yiftah Curiel, Spokesperson of the Embassy of Israel in London.

Here's what's been happening so far:
Yiftah Curiel ‏@yiftahc  4h
@JonDonnison @BBCWatch you can surely appreciate the importance of media watchdogs, exposing bias, pointing to errors, fake photos etc...

  Duncan ‏@duncana_  4h
@JonDonnison that’s a bit harsh on Mr Palmer.

 Jon Donnison ‏@JonDonnison  4h
@yiftahc @BBCWatch No. They're (she is) embarrassing. Do/does Israel a disservice. #crywolf

 Jon Donnison ‏@JonDonnison  4h
“@duncana_: @JonDonnison that’s a bit harsh on Mr Palmer.

  BBC Watch ‏@BBCWatch  4h
. @JonDonnison Thanks so much once again for the free promotion. Really appreciated. @yiftahc

  e ‏@e606e  4h
I think @BBCWatch does an excellent job holding a mirror to the BBC. Not everyone likes what they see @JonDonnison #bias @yiftahc

  Jeff Gazzard ‏@JeffGazzard  4h
@JonDonnison @BBCWatch Unfair. CP was useless not barking

 Jon Donnison ‏@JonDonnison  4h
@yiftahc as an official representative of the Israeli govt, I am surprised you associate yourself with such a fridge, one trick pony group.

 Jon Benjamin ‏@JonBenja  3h
@yiftahc @JonDonnison @BBCWatch Quite right Yifta. If allegations r rebuttable, rebut away, but b prepared to face critics, b held to acct.

 Yiftah Curiel ‏@yiftahc  3h
@JonDonnison you obviously have deep personal issues with @BBCWatch, I'll leave you to it; be careful of the rocks and glass house though

  Jeff Gazzard ‏@JeffGazzard  3h
@JonDonnison @BBCWatch For clarity, elements of the Communist Party were too. Although not the underlying principles of Marxist/Leninism.

  Martina ‏@martina__1974  3h
@JonDonnison @yiftahc @BBCWatch She's embarrassing you, that's for sure. #Shame to bias reporting.

  Neil Turner ‏@NeilofWatford  3h
.@JonDonnison Methinks he protesteth too much. Apologies to Shakespeare, but not to Donnison. Must be great to be totally unaccountable.

  Jon Donnison ‏@JonDonnison  3h
@yiftahc I am sure they/she feel (s) reassured that as on official representative of The Israeli government they/she have/has your backing.

  Murray Freedman ‏@fcdesign_murray  3h
@JonDonnison @BBCWatch Sounds to me like BBC Watch has hit a nerve. Why else would you keep mentioning it?

 Yiftah Curiel ‏@yiftahc  3h
@JonDonnison don't put words in my mouth; all I'm saying is, you are well placed to appreciate the importance of media watchdogs, R we done?

 Yummy Sabich ‏@YummySabich  2h
@JonDonnison I have yet to see @BBCWatch be wrong, but you are wrong all the time. Your biased reporting does you a disservice.

 Paulie11 ‏@Pauliem11  2h
@JonDonnison @yiftahc @BBCWatch why a disservice?

Conflict – Emotion, Bias and Objectivity

Conflict – Emotion, Bias and Objectivity

That’s the heading to the promotional material for the event that was to have taken place at the Frontline Club next week. It was fully booked, but it has now been postponed, which must have been inconvenient for all concerned.

An event discussing media coverage of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict has been cancelled, following plans by the ZF to protest outside it. “Reporting the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict – Emotion, Bias and Objectivity,” organised by the Frontline Club, was scheduled to be held on Sept 3 at the Shaw Theatre.”

Perhaps the postponement (or cancellation?) had something to do with the line-up. 
The latest chapter in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has again highlighted the difficulties of covering this complex and deep-rooted conflict that provokes such a strong emotional response from the general public.The BBC has faced accusation that it is not critical enough of Israel’s actions and that its reporting is one-sided, where as Channel 4 News has been accused of crossing the line between journalism and campaigning. Is there a middle ground?In the face of such devastation should we expect correspondents to offer an objective view devoid of emotion? If we encourage correspondents to show more emotion do we risk compromising the credibility and standard of journalism in this country?Join us as we take a view of the coverage we have seen, talk to the journalists that have produced it and ask what we can learn.
The above blurb seems, on the face of it, reasonable enough. The BBC is “pro-Israel” and Channel Four pro-Palestinian. Surely this represents a balanced state of affairs? So, we co-opt a spokesperson for the BBC and pit him against one for Channel For. What, as they say on the interweb, could possibly go wrong?

(Apart from the fact that Jeremy (blind as a) Bowen’s reporting has been criticised for its overtly pro-Palestinian attitude, having attracted at least one censure from the BBC Trust, and Jon Snow has been accused of publicly disgracing Channel Four’s news department by turning it into a pro-Palestinian propaganda machine.) 

Oh, and didn’t someone say Owen Jones is on the panel? No, not this time. It was white suited Martin Bell, who complained about the BBC’s refusal to show the DEC appeal for Gaza in 2009, which he thought showed an unfortunate pro-Israel bias. 

So the event would be fine if they just dropped the last word from the title.

Conflict - Emotion and Bias. There, fixed it.



George Galloway provides conclusive proof of his own guilt.
Racially/religiously aggravated assault! That’s the charge we’re told the assailant will face.

It looks as though the ‘racist’ element of the above crime (racially aggravated assault) normally concerns the ‘victim’. If A hits B because B is black/foreign/ Jewish/ Muslim etc etc. then the assault is considered to be racially aggravated.

George Galloway is none of the above. Unless being a annoying, provocative, racist antisemite is a race. I suppose it could be a religion.

George was acting in a racially aggravated, provocative manner. He was in fact inciting violence. The proof is in the violence i.e. in the (suspected) broken jaw that was incited. Doesn't look very broken though, does it? 

If I were him (the assailant) I’d counter-sue for incitement.  

Farming Today

Following Prayer for the Day came Farming Today - another daily staple of the Radio 4 schedule. The BBC is sometimes accused of having a metropolitan, anti-farmer bias, so having this as a regular part of its day is an important gesture (even if it is scheduled at 5.45am). 

Does the programme itself, however, show a metropolitan, anti-farmer bias in its concerns? 

Well, there were four topics on this edition of the Tuesday 26th August edition of the programme.

The first subject was land access, specifically the tension between the public's rights over footpath use in the countryside and farmers' needs to protect their crops and livestock. This is an issue that matters to townies and countryfolk, of course. Presenter Caz Graham talked to Paul Johnson of the rural affairs quango Natural England, who said that there are well over 100,000 miles of footpaths and bridleways in England, plus over 2 million acres of open access land such as commons, heaths and downs where people can wander more widely. (The latter rights are more recent, while the former tend to be rooted in history.) Local authorities and the Highway Authority are responsible for maintaining the footpaths and bridleways in their area. Farmers' responsibilities are to avoid doing anything that will obstruct the path, such as ensuring that crops (such as overhanging trees) don't infringe upon them. Farmers are also responsible for the upkeep of styles, though they may receive help from the Highway Authority in that respect. As for the public, if they stick to the Countryside Code (keeping dogs under control, shutting gates after them, not parking in front of gates, etc) then little conflict should arise, he said.

The next item returned to a subject of the flooding in Somerset. Since March more than 100,000 tons of silt have been removed from two rivers in Somerset (the Tone and the Parrett) as part of the dredging work carried out after last winter's disastrous floods. The project is now over half complete. The silt has been used to fertilise fields and to reinforce floodbanks. A BBC Somerset reporter, Will Richards, went to watch the dredging in action and talked to the contractor, the aptly-named Bill Gush. Mr Gush said the company are working off 1960s profiles given to them by the Environment Agency which are programmed into a small computer screen inside their excavators, thus enabling them to remove the right amount of earth and silt. Then Caz Graham talked to a pro-dredging campaigner, Gavin Sadler, whose rare breeds poultry business was ruined by the floods, and who has been unable to live on his farm since last February. Mr Sadler said that they get weekly bulletins updating them on how well the dredging is going and that 31st October is the date the dredging is meant to be finished by. With still just under half of the work to go in just two months, he's a bit concerned, given that we will be entering flooding season again soon. He is impressed at the work being done though and feels happier going into this winter as a result.

Next ospreys (a move away from specific farming issues onto more general nature matters). Caz introduced this item by saying that the Victorians' passion for having stuffed ospreys in their drawing rooms was part of the reason why they became extinct as breeding birds in England from 1840. (That date, however, suggests to me that the Georgians were the real guilty party). Ospreys were re-introduced to England in 2001 and there are around a dozen breeding pairs in England now. Caz went to a reserve in south Cumbria where some chicks have hatched this year alongside another chap from Natural England, Rob Petley-Jones. Rob said that the parent birds are a young pair, and showed their inexperience last year by trying to a build a nest on top of an electricity pylon. ("That wasn't really a nest, more a bundle of sticks and it didn't last the winter.") Electricity North West funded the construction of an artificial platform on the nature reserve, which Natural England had up by the end of March. Within ten days, the ospreys starting building a nest on it. Mr Petley-Jones was eloquent about the birds: 
It's a very large bird of prey. It's basically brown on top but when you see it flying over it's got this wonderful patterned underwing, and they have this fantastic head pattern that almost looks like a bandit, as if they've got a Lone Ranger mask on. And they're very distinctive. All their patterns on their heads are unique, so we can tell individuals just from what they look like.
When you see an osprey fishing it's one of the most spectacular things in the world - an osprey dropping 30 metres out of the sky, feet-first, into the water and then struggling out of the water with this vast fish.
When birds come into the nest, it's a very dramatic approach. They'll come in behind and then swoop up and then do a little bit of a stall above the nest and then drop gently onto the nest. And when they've got a big fish in their talons it's really very spectacular. There's very little more dramatic in British wildlife I think than seeing an osprey coming to the nest with a fish.

Finally, it was back to farmers' concerns and research from Farmers Weekly showing that 2014 has been a particularly bad year for farm fires. The amount such fires are costing the farming industry has risen by £6 million over the last three years, standing at £50 million last year - which is more than rural crime costs farming businesses. Caz Graham interviewed the magazine's contents editor, Isabel Davies who said they'd spoken to 16 fire services across England who reported 300 farm incidents since 1st June this year. Shropshire, South Yorkshire and Kent have been worst effected. They range from crops being set on fire to machinery and buildings. Some are accidental, some deliberate (including arson). This year's dry July also seems to have been a factor. Quite startling stuff.

Actually, I think this edition of Farming Today was far from unsympathetic to farmers and didn't give any impression of metropolitan bias. Plus it was very interesting. 

Friday 29 August 2014

Prayer for the Day

That forensic review of BBC Radio 4's output on Tuesday 26 August, which I envisioned in the previous post, would have to have begun somewhere and, as the yearning Christian atheist in me would want me to begin the day with a prayer, I would surely have had to have started it with Prayer for the DayRadio 4's daily religious offering at 5.43am.

Thinking about it, Prayer for the Day is an intriguing BBC Radio 4 institution - as is Thought for the Day on the Today programme, the Daily Service (longwave only), Sunday Worship, and the ever-delightful Bells on Sunday

As it's overwhelming Christian in its guest selection (like Thought for the Day), I'm guessing that the Polly Toynbee-like secularists of this world would be deeply agitated by it. 

Yet still it persists in the Radio 4 schedule, and I'm glad about that. 

The prayer came from Rev Mike Starkey, and the Rev Mike began with an interesting fact:
Twenty years ago today some pioneering surgery was carried out in the UK. The world’s first ever battery operated heart was fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. Arthur Cornhill had only been given a few months to live. In a four-hour operation surgeons at Papworth fitted him with a ‘bionic’ heart pump made of titanium and plastic.
Channeling my inner Richard Dawkins, I thought, "That's interesting. Science and reason to the rescue!" (Actually, I didn't think any such thing. I've only just thought of that now. But I'm trying to think artfully, like a Thought for the Day speaker). 

Rev Mike, however, is no Prof Robert Winston and his factoid didn't lead to further scientific insights. Instead, it served as a hop to allow him to skip and jump into matters literary and metaphorical - my better angel said, "Just like George Herbert", while that pesky devil on my other shoulder whispered, "In true 'Rowan Atkinson-style Anglican vicar' fashion":
Down the centuries the heart has become one of our most powerful metaphors. It represents our hopes and dreams, our likes and loves, our values and priorities. I say ‘hand on heart’ when I want to convince you I’m telling the truth. If I’m helping somebody make decisions I’ll ask them what their heart’s telling them. A broken heart means an end to something that seemed to promise love and fulfillment. When Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco we know what that meant: something deep about emotions and identity. 
And, then also in 'Rowan' fashion (whether Atkinson or Williams), came the inevitable abrupt leap towards God:
Our love affair with the heart actually goes back thousands of years. In the Bible the heart represents our intellect, our feelings and our values, our innermost selves. The Bible writers encourage us to set our hearts on things that aren’t trivial or transient.
God is close to the brokenhearted. We’re told God wants to remove our hearts of stone and give us new hearts. And in 4th century north Africa, St Augustine wrote of our hearts being forever restless till they find their rest in God.
And finally came the prayer of the day itself: 
Heavenly Father, at the beginning of this new day, examine my heart. If it’s been broken, I pray for healing. If it’s become hard I pray for softening. If it’s restless I pray I will find my rest in you. Amen.
That's a prayer I can add a wishful 'Amen' to too. I'd skip all the 'ifs' though, and concentrate on the 'I pray's.

Excuses, excuses

What with having a full-time job, a family, and friends who persist in asking you to do things with them, it's a hard life being a blogger.

It really is, and, to be honest, I don't envy myself being one. In fact, it's so bad that I demand violins. (Are Hilary Hahn and Nicola Benedetti available?)  

As a blogger, you keep intending to post important pieces - pieces bound to resound around the blogosphere and beyond - and to conduct scorchingly incisive in-depth surveys into the BBC's output which, in some sort of other world to this one, might very well shake that wicked corporation to its fabulously wicked core, but you end up having to spend agreeable hours with your family or going for walks, meals or nights-out with your friends, or doing extra hours at a job you like, and then, after all that, ending up feeling too happy or too knackered to put finger to laptop....

...and, thus, a thousand illuminating masterpieces about what Ed Stourton said to bishop about the actress, or about why Marcus Brigstocke's comedy really isn't a laughing matter, melt into thin air and, like the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, etc, dissolve and leave not a pair of breasts behind.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.
I was intending to conduct a forensic examination of a single day's worth of Radio 4 broadcasting (this past Tuesday's output) but, despite having listened to quite a bit of it, I've arrived at Friday night and still have had no time to really work on it. Nor will this weekend allow me much space to get qwerty with it either. And, then, by next Tuesday, many of the programmes from last Tuesday will dissolve from the BBC i-Player. 

So, here I am of a Friday night, realising that I've no realistic chance of doing what I hoped to do on the beginning of the week. Do I regret that? Yes, a bit. But I'll be having fun not doing it too. So that's all right then.

I thought I'd share that with you, and then wish you a lovely weekend.

Thursday 28 August 2014

A good pair of ears

You’ll all be aware of the BBC’s hard-hitting series HardTalk. There’s a web page that states its aim. I think HARDtalk was originally conceived as a vehicle for the definitive, serious, intellectually honest examination of pressing issues of the day. 
A young-looking Stephen Sackur adorns the page, finger pointing incisively at an off-camera interviewee, who would no doubt be shaking in his boots. 

QUESTION: If you’re endlessly curious about what makes powerful people tick and you love to ask questions, what’s the best job in the world? ANSWER: Presenting HARDtalk

Hmm. What if it’s several years later and you’re  jaded, worn out and immersed in BBC groupthink? 

“A good interview starts with exhaustive research and ends with intense exchanges that can be a revelationStephen Sackur”

Whereas a poor interview doesn’t bother with all that exhaustive stuff and goes for the populist, superficial reiteration of the BBC’s predictable assumptions.

"We have the time to dig deeper with our guests. To take them to the territory where the tough questions lie. But it only works if we have done our homework.”
Quite right, and if we haven’t done our homework it’s a load of crap.
"A good interview starts with exhaustive research and ends with intense exchanges that can be a revelation. Having plenty of on-the-ground reporting experience from the world’s hotspots doesn’t do any harm either."
Sackur’s list of a HARDtalk presenter’s vital assets
  • A thick skin. (check)
  • Unquenchable curiosity (curiosity now quenched)
  • A good pair of ears (decorative)
  • Brilliant research from a crack production team (production team on crack?)

"HARDtalk isn’t about shouting, or point-scoring. It's about asking the intelligent questions our audience would be asking if they had the chance to sit in the HARDtalk chair.
Unfortunately the HARDtalk of today is all about shouting, not allowing full answers, rudeness and pandering to the ill-informed.
"As long as the privilege is mine, I’ll cherish it."

With reference to the episode shown late last night with Stephen Sackur and Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli minister of intelligence, characterised by rude interruptions and an unresponsive attitude towards answers to a somewhat crass line of questioning, this episode highlighted a disparity between HARDtalk’s stated aspirations and its present day incarnation.

After a comparatively gentle opening, Stephen Sackur established a pattern of putting a dumbed-down series of Hamas propaganda-driven questions about the current 'truce' and ignoring Mr. Steinitz’s answers.

Hamas has succeeded, posits Sackur. How? By getting Israel to “ease the blockade, for example”
Wrong! There never was a blockade of humanitarian aid and supplies. Only tunnel-constructing matter. Hamas has basically agreed to the status quo.

Stephen Sackur gurned his way through the lengthy emotive question in this clip:

“How close, and you can tell me now, because the ceasefire is in place, how close did the Netanyahu government come... to giving a green light to the full military reoccupation of Gaza, we know that you in the cabinet were briefed upon it by military commanders, how close did it come to that?”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with such a question if it was put in the spirit of the genuine curiosity of which the website boasts.

But it was not put in that spirit. The expression  of contempt on Sackur’s face told a different story. 
His delivery implied a widely held but mistaken assumption that Israel is an all-powerful military entity with malevolent expansionist aspirations. 

The BBC’s perception of a possible reoccupation of Gaza seems to be one of a trigger-happy jackbooted army marching in with the express intention of oppressing the people and terrifying the life out of them.

In fact if Israel does have to implement this last resort plan, Gaza may very well be freed from the tyranny and corruption of Hamas. 

The reconstruction would undoubtedly be speedier and more thorough and the  quality of life for the ordinary Palestinian in the street would improve dramatically.
Israel doesn’t desire it. It would be an unwanted strain on them. But lazy, Israel bashing types prefer to assume that the greedy Jews of Israel can’t wait get their hands on anything going.

Mr. Steinitz pointed out the disparity between the world’s condemnation of Israel for doing precisely what is accepted as par for the course in the case of every other country in war.

“I’m surprised that you are surprised by the international reaction when more than 2000 people have been killed, mostly civilians, when UNICEF says that more than four hundred and fifty children have been killed inside Gaza, and you are surprised that the international community has a problem with that?” said Sackur, with a furrowed brow and more animation than a souped-up Fiona Bruce.

“Look, we also have a problem with that. This is a terrible tragedy that Hamas brought upon itself and unfortunately also upon the people of Gaza, but I’m surprised, Stephen, that you think that it’s irrelevant that Hamas, in the past when it was possible for it, sent hundreds of suicide bombers to our streets killing more than one thousand Israeli civilians and only when it was pushed from the West Bank into Gaza they shifted the tactic because it’s impossible to rely on suicide bombing from Gaza and now they’re launching rockets from Gaza into Israel..”

SS: (interrupting)
“But are you prepared here and now to say to me now that it’s over..”

YS: (interrupting)

“Just a moment, let me complete that answer. The Hamas aim to destroy the state of Israel. the Hamas behaviour, to use the suicide bombing strategy against Israeli civilians, the Hamas future, ultimate goal, to bring total destruction to six million Jews and to the Jewish state, this is very relevant to our current fighting with Hamas and....”

SS: (interrupting
“I understand the point you’re making...”

YS: (interrupting)
“It’s also very relevant that Hamas has started the violence and refused so far eleven ceasefire proposals. Don’t forget Stephen, the ultimate commitment of any democratic government is to protect its citizens. Our citizens are under daily bombardment of hundreds of rockets from gaza on a daily basis...”

“I understand the point you’re making...”

YS: (interrupting)
“Luckily enough they caused less civilian casualties than the suicide bombing strategy because we have very strong rocket defences.”

Onwards and upwards; to the ‘deliberate’ bombing of UN facilities when “you knew” there were civilians sheltering therein - “Are you prepared to admit you got it wrong?”

“There is some hypocrisy in this criticism”

Yuval Steinitz reminded  the viewers that when the US and Britain found themselves in similar circumstances in Iraq or Afghanistan, and did their best to avoid civilian casualties, they were fighting against terrorism and we are fighting to defend our people against terrorism - . “I didn’t hear such criticism then.”

“Are you saying that that condemnation (Ban Ki-moon etc) “from your friends” means nothing to Israel?” gurned Sackur.

The good pair of ears were now well and truly switched to off position and the questioning turned to the UN enquiry, and “will you or won’t you” accept its findings.

From then on Sackur’s interruptions, deafness and facial expressions descended into parody. It’s as if he suddenly remembered that the anti-Israel majority would have to be placated and if he deigned to give Mr. Seinitz a fair hearing, the BBC would be bombarded with complaints from the ‘we are all Hamas now’ lobby.

Insider's Guide

Here is something for everyone interested in the coverage of the Israel/Hamas war.

I came across it, as you probably did, via a link on Harry’s Place, where one of Hadar’s excellent articles from BBC Watch is cross posted, and which you’ve undoubtedly already read. (If not, do it now.)

This essay entitled: An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth appeared in Tablet August 26th.
Matti Friedman writes as a former AP reporter but, this important essay equally begs questions of the BBC. 
In the light of widely disseminated testimonies of senior BBC reporters stating categorically that they saw little or no evidence of Hamas using ‘human shields’, firing rockets from schools hospitals and mosques (In fact they hardly appear to have come across any official Hamas operatives at all) and most surprisingly, that they were not intimidated, nor was their copy compromised, by Hamas. 

To summarise:
Perceived importance of a story indicated by comparative volume of press coverage.  (I read somewhere that there were more than 700 reporters dispatched to cover Gaza/ Israel in addition to the same number that were already there) I suppose that’s almost one reporter per casualty :-(
News organizations have nonetheless decided that this conflict is more important than, for example, the more than 1,600 women murdered in Pakistan last year (271 after being raped and 193 of them burned alive), the ongoing erasure of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party, the carnage in Congo (more than 5 million dead as of 2012) or the Central African Republic, and the drug wars in Mexico (death toll between 2006 and 2012: 60,000), let alone conflicts no one has ever heard of in obscure corners of India or Thailand. They believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close.
Superficial background analysis of Palestinian society, politics and aspirations.
The Hamas charter, for example, calls not just for Israel’s destruction but for the murder of Jews and blames Jews for engineering the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars; the charter was never mentioned in print when I was at the AP, though Hamas won a Palestinian national election and had become one of the region’s most important players. To draw the link with this summer’s events: An observer might think Hamas’ decision in recent years to construct a military infrastructure beneath Gaza’s civilian infrastructure would be deemed newsworthy, if only because of what it meant about the way the next conflict would be fought and the cost to innocent people. But that is not the case. The Hamas emplacements were not important in themselves, and were therefore ignored. What was important was the Israeli decision to attack them.

There has been much discussion recently of Hamas attempts to intimidate reporters. Any veteran of the press corps here knows the intimidation is real, and I saw it in action myself as an editor on the AP news desk. During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting I personally erased a key detail—that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll—because of a threat to our reporter in Gaza. (The policy was then, and remains, not to inform readers that the story is censored unless the censorship is Israeli. Earlier this month, the AP’s Jerusalem news editor reported and submitted a story on Hamas intimidation; the story was shunted into deep freeze by his superiors and has not been published.)
No coverage of Israeli politics or political history.
The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely mentioned.

Misleading framing
The “Israeli-Palestinian” framing allows the Jews, a tiny minority in the Middle East, to be depicted as the stronger party. It also includes the implicit assumption that if the Palestinian problem is somehow solved the conflict will be over, though no informed person today believes this to be true.

A knowledgeable observer of the Middle East cannot avoid the impression that the region is a volcano and that the lava is radical Islam, an ideology whose various incarnations are now shaping this part of the world. Israel is a tiny village on the slopes of the volcano. Hamas is the local representative of radical Islam and is openly dedicated to the eradication of the Jewish minority enclave in Israel, just as Hezbollah is the dominant representative of radical Islam in Lebanon, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and so forth.

Age-old antisemitic assumptions
When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers—whether they intend to or not—is that Jews are the worst people on earth.

Wider story
Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than to Hamas. Above all, it requires us to understand what is clear to nearly everyone in the Middle East: The ascendant force in our part of the world is not democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered strain of Islam that assumes different and sometimes conflicting forms, and that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the region under its control and confront the West. Those who grasp this fact will be able to look around and connect the dots.

My highly selective potted summary doesn’t do justice to this must-read essay. If you’re interested in the subject (in the title of this website) please read the essay in toto.