Sunday 28 September 2014

Questions, Questions - 'Newsnight'

My old 2009-10 blog about BBC bias had a Unique Selling Point [not that it helped sell it much!] in the form of my thousand+ survey of all political interviews across a spectrum of BBC current affairs programmes over many months, counting the number of interruptions politicians received from BBC interviewers and then seeing if a pattern of bias emerged. (It did.

What was deliberately missed out of that survey was the content of the interviewer's questions. In order to avoid the dangers of subjectivity as much as possible, all interruptions were considered equal. The supposed motivation behind each interruption was ignored, as was the character of each question and the manner in which it was put. 

Is the BBC biased? has had no such U.S.P., but maybe it needs one, and one that looks at one of the thing my last one missed - namely the content of BBC interviewers' questions. 

After all, often on BBC-monitoring sites like this, or in the comments fields of online newspapers, commenters repeatedly claim that BBC interviewers ask biased questions, and that the bias of certain BBC interviewers shows itself in the questions they choose to ask. Monitoring all the questions asked by a range of interviewers over a set time might then either prove or disprove those charges of bias. Perhaps. 

Of course, that wouldn't pick up on tone, or raised eyebrows, or other such things that people who claim BBC bias pick up upon, but it would lay out for all to see exactly what questions were asked by a particular interviewer or a particular programme over a set period or regarding comparable interviewers over a number of programmes and, thereby, be open to scrutiny.

I thought I'd try it out of last week's Newsnight, writing down all the questions put by the programme's three presenters - Emily Maitlis, Laura Kuenssberg and Kirsty Wark - during the course of a whole week's worth of programmes. 

To make then comprehensible (without the replies), I've added some context [in brackets and italics] where a bit of context might be helpful. 

The main topics were, of course, military action against Islamic State and the Labour Party Conference, though there were interviews too about Scotland, artistic freedom and watching films on iPhones.

Please read them for yourselves with an open mind. See if you can see bias. I'll add my conclusions at the end (which will require a lot of scrolling if you can't be bothered to read all the questions!).

Right, here goes!:


Monday 22nd September

Laura Kuenssberg

On the Labour Party Conference:
To Allegra Stratton, BBC:
- What's he [Ed Miliband] going to say?
- It's still, though, talking about introducing new taxes - not always popular. Will this help?

On the Labour Party Conference:
To Tristram Hunt MP, Labour:
- This should be a very big moment - we're just seven months out from the election - but instead today we've had senior figures, people like John Denham, Ben Bradshaw, focus today on what appears to be a gap in the party's response to a very old problem.
- But what is also part of that conversation, loud and clear from these senior figures in the party, is that Labour must say...and must say now..."Do you know what? The situation where Scottish Labour MPs can vote on things that don't have anything to do with their constituents has to come to an end".
- Except, Tristram Hunt, there are already two-tier MPs. There are already some of your colleagues able to vote on questions that effect your constituents that don't effect their constituents. Now, why does the Labour leadership find it so difficult to say that, in simple terms, that's not fair?
- But lots of your own side are saying you at least have to acknowledge that this is an issue. Now, there are problems. There are a lot of people who might agree with your analysis that what David Cameron is trying to do is rushed, it's too quick, you have to do these things gradually, but on the point of principle rather than process surely it is time...Why is it so difficult for the leadership to acknowledge it's not fair?
- But if you make a promise about a public conversation that will last six years, as the party has suggested, aren't you just then laying the door wide open for UKIP and your opponents, the Conservatives, to make a very big play of saying that the Labour Party doesn't want to pay much attention to what English people want? A new poll tonight for ComRes suggests 65% of people think it is the time NOW for Scottish MPs to stop voting on English-only matters.
- [interrupting] But is it unpatriotic to say what Ben Bradshaw and John Denham are saying then, saying that you have to address this issue? That seems to be what you're suggesting.
- But again there, you see, you're talking about the overall process - it maybe needs to take a longer time, we need to have a wider look at the issues - but on a simple point for most members of the public you either think it's fair or it's unfair.
- As a historian maybe it's your view we just have to accept this is a misnomer of our unwritten constitution. Is that right? Your just have to accept it, it's a messy situation?
- Very briefly, would it be simpler then if we - once you've had your constitutional convention - if we wrote some of these things down and had a written constitution so that everybody knew where the stood?
- Well, let's move on. Beyond this tangle, there are two big challenges for Ed Miliband this week. One, the question of economic credibility and also of his own credibility. Now, four years ago, he won the leadership from his brother, here in this building. You didn't support him then four years ago. What has he done since then to convince you that he's the right leader?
- And  maybe some of those policies are cutting through, maybe some of your policies on schools are cutting through, because the party is pretty consistently, if narrowly, ahead in the polls. But, again, consistently Ed Miliband himself is way behind in his own ratings. Why is that, do you think?
- Except popularity ratings do determine whether or not people can actually win elections. I mean, I think we can have a look...and you can have a look at this...It's some of the previous ratings. This is the position of leaders of the opposition one year before an election. Cameron, Blair, Thatcher, all way ahead. Ed Miliband, down there, is only just ahead of Michael Foot. Less popular that Michael Howard was before 2005. Less popular than Neil Kinnock in 1986 and 1991. Less popular than William Hague when he was trying to be elected. Now, this matters because those leaders didn't win.
- [interrupting] That would be a record too! [getting back into office after one term]
- [interrupting] You're not bothered?
- But you can sit there this week and say, as a frontbencher who hopes to become Education Secretary, or any other job that might be bestowed on you if Labour won, that it doesn't bother you that Ed Miliband is less popular than Nick Clegg? Less popular than Nigel Farage? It's very easy to sit and say, 'Oh, it doesn't matter". But it does if it means you won't win the election.
- And we'll come onto that in just a second, but do you think that people haven't understood Ed Miliband then? You've sat there and made a very good argument for him. Have they misunderstood him?
- [interrupting] Lots of your colleagues are! ["interested in this debate"]
- He has to show, as you've indicated, that he can be trusted to run the economy. Now Ed Balls made a promise today on child benefit that would save, by Labour's own estimation, only about £400 million. It sounds like a lot, but in the context of what you have to do it's small beer. And, again, in the economic polling, the party's way behind. Isn't it the truth that you're still very far back on the journey to show that Labour could be trusted with the economy again?
- [interrupting] Well, they've done more to restore the public finances than...[after TH had accused the present government of having "shot to pieces our public finances"]
- [interrupting] But in terms of what would happen after the next general election, right now they would deal with the deficit to a tune of £37 billion, that they'd either have to cut in tax...cut from public spending or raise in tax...and you're looking only at the equivalent of about £9 billion. Now, there's a clear difference in the pace with which you deal with the deficit.
- But on a brief point there, will your brief - the education budget - be ringfenced?
- [interrupting] So you don't know if it is?
- [interrupting] So it sounds as if you're hopeful of a ringfence but you don't have one yet. Just briefly...
...He [Ed Balls] knows where all the money is for that department. Just finally, isn't part of this problem...and when you speak to the people in this hall... they know that when they go out on the doorsteps people don't really trust Labour on the economy again yet. They know that. Isn't part of the problem that there's never been a real moment when, since the last election, when the party looked the electorate in the eye said, 'We were part of the problem. We spent too much'? David Miliband, who you wanted to be the leader, planned to say that if he'd won. Wouldn't it have been better if that had been said?

On the Labour Party Conference:
To a panel consisting of Rachel Sylvester, The Times; Lionel Barber, the FT; and Kate Pickett, author of The Spirit Level: 
- Rachel, you've been very scathing about Ed Miliband in the past...also about David Cameron...but Ed Miliband in the past. What do you think he has to do this week? What can he do this week?
- To go back to the centre ground. Lionel Barber, they also have to work on that economic credibility. Now, you're imbued with the City, you talk to people in business all the time. How far is the Labour Party on that journey back to restoring trust on the economy?
- But they [Labour] are already having to unpick some of the things they've done before. Kate, part of that though is what you've seen Ed Balls' policy on child benefit, for example, but that surely doesn't sit very well with people as part of the core vote, people on the left of the Labour Party, or even traditional Labour?
- But, Rachel, here's the difficulty though, right here, all three of you are saying he's got to do three different things. You're saying he's got to reach out to the centre ground, people not traditional Labour, Lionel says he's got to...
- And is it possible, Kate, to do both of those things then an appeal....shore up the traditional Labour votes?
- Rachel?
- Lionel Barber?
- Has he then had such a rap on the knuckles from the business community about the energy price freeze that he promised last year, the predator idea had that kind of pressure got to him, do you think?
- Does that actually look like though, Rachel Sylvester...well, you say he's got to reach out to win in England...but with what?
- But if he just talks about the NHS doesn't that look like he's just reverting to core votes? The unions always want there to be...
- Lionel, briefly. The FT supported Labour actually for quite a long period...I think from 1992 up until the 2010 election, when they then backed the Conservatives...Can you see the paper supporting a Labour Party with Ed Miliband as the leader?
- It was worth a try! [as Lionel refuses to say!]
- Very briefly Kate.

On fighting Islamic State: 
To Jack Straw, former Labour Foreign Secretary:
- You've been watching all of this very closely, I know. The President has said that every country on earth must do something in this battle. Are we doing enough?
- But we are now seeing the French already undertaking airstrikes while we, the holder of the Special Relationship, haven't acted in that way. Don't we look like we're dragging our feet?
- But do you think this week that David Cameron ought to...will he be talking to the Iranians on the sidelines, do you think?
- But it's also not a monoculture, politically, here. Now, how do you think the mood of the Labour Party would be if Ed Miliband were to says, yes, we have to get involved here, yes, even perhaps - as Tony Blair has suggested - not ruling out ground troops?
- [interrupting] But in terms of ruling out boots on the ground your former colleague [Tony Blair] has been very clear: Isis...dealing with Isis requires ground troops and Britain ought not to rule that out, even though it's more ideal for the regional neighbours to do it.
- [interrupting] But you're clear that would be politically impossible?
- Very briefly, very briefly. How different would Labour's foreign policy be under Ed Miliband, if in seven months time he does become prime minister?
- Compared with you?

Tuesday 23nd September

Emily Maitlis

On air strikes against Islamic State in Syria
To Mark Urban, BBC:
Do the Americans, Mark, have permission to do this?
And where do you think that leaves the UK? Interesting to hear Michael Clarke saying he thinks David Cameron will find it hard to refuse.
- Looking at the timetable then, how much appetite do you think there would be from a British parliament for any action...any intervention now?

On air strikes against Islamic State in Syria
To the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa:
- What has Bahrain done so far? What do you understand has been achieved?
- When you say "part of" does it seem America is taking the lead, or does that seem to be the Arab peninsula? How does the coalition work?
- Do you you agree with the guest on our programme who said there has been previously too much reluctance from the Arab powers to support the Baghdad government before now?
- Just help us to understand now, on a practical level, what level of coordination do you have now with Syria to make sure they don't shoot you down?
- So there has been no contact between your coalition and the Syrian government? Assad?
- Are you concerned that if this is a success as you hope it will help Assad?
- And when you look at the new relations that this is creating now, you find yourself on the same side as Iran. Now, for Bahrain that must be very odd?
- Sorry to interrupting, but what you be your message to Britain tonight as it considers whether to be in or not? Is Britain important to this?
- Does that mean military intervention? Do you want to see it fighting?

On air strikes against Islamic State in Syria
To Adam Holloway MP, Conservative {who opposes intervention} and Geoffrey Robertson, former UN appeal judge {who supports intervention}:
- Does it feel to you, Adam Holloway, like we're heading to war, that we are vital?
- [to AH] So what are you saying? Don't go in?
- [to AH, interrupting] But what about Syria? Should we be bombing there?
- Geoffrey Robertson, first question is: Is it legal?
- [interrupting] Adam Holloway, as a military man, if you don't go in to stop genocide when do you deploy your forces?
- [to AH, interrupting] And if they can't? [ie the locals getting rid of Islamic State themselves]
- Geoffrey Robertson, why do Labour talk about the need to seek a resolution?
- [interrupting, to AH] Geoffrey has got...that is right. The feel of this is very different for the British public, isn't it? I mean, I don't know amongst your Conservative peers how many of them would agree with your position right now. What do you think?
- [interrupting, to GR] And the funding [for IS] is another big question.

Laura Kuenssberg

On Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Conference
To Liz Kendall MP, Labour:
- Liz, first of all, can we be clear: Did Ed Miliband actually forget to mention the deficit?
- Even if, as might be understandable in such a long speech, trying to do it without notes, he just happened to forget a particular passage, which is now available for all to see on the Labour website, isn't it very telling that that issue is not at the forefront of his mind?
- But Liz Kendall, there was not any of that [talk of living within our means] in the speech. Surely to reestablish economic credibility, which everyone agrees Ed Miliband has to do for the Labour Party, there had to be language about hard choices? And if you read what he meant to say about the deficit it was a matter of three or four lines just saying "I promise we'll get on with it".
- [interrupting] He talked about a new tax to put more money in! [into the NHS]
- But hasn't he just given the Conservatives all the ammunition they need for the next six months? They can say Ed Miliband forgot the deficit.
- In the hall, however, the huge rounds of applause - which were pretty few and far between - were for those attacks on bankers or for the support for the NHS. Isn't it really the case that speech was about the core votes? It was about about the 35%?
-  I use the NHS, but I'm not sure we should all be making assumptions about anyone else! [in response to LK asking, "I take it you're a middle class person. Do you use the NHS?"]
- In terms though of those messages about know, you've written for the pressure group Progress about the importance of having that message of aspiration. Where was that in his speech?

On Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Conference
To Phil Collins, The Times and Jenni Russell, Evening Standard:
- Now, Liz Kendall, in a sense she's got to sound upbeat, Phil Collins, you used to write these for a living. You wrote some of Tony Blair's speeches. What did you make of it?
- [to PC] Maybe she should have been on the platform! [after PC said Liz Kendall had done a much better job just now than Ed Miliband at explaining Labour's position on the deficit]
- Jenni, what do you make of that? Do you agree? [that not mentioning the deficit was a big mistake]. Is it the new Liam Byrne note saying, "Sorry, there's no money left"?
- Is it then, Phil Collins, the 35% strategy? You shore up the core and that gets you through the door of Number 10?
- Jenni?
- And, perhaps though, I mean, the scepticism in this conference hall afterwards was pretty high, to be honest with it, the chat had been quite flat, it didn't really do that much to alter things for him, except that people have underestimated Ed Miliband before, nobody really thought he was going to beat his brother and Labour's still ahead in the polls?
- Very briefly, because we're almost out of time, didn't anything happen on the stage today that actually shifts the dial in terms of the election?

Emily Maitlis

On Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Conference

To Gareth, a software developer mentioned in Ed Miliband's speech after Ed met him on Hampstead Heath. Shown the speech he says it's the first conference speech he's ever seen and hope it will also be the last!:
- Do you mean you are not a convert?
- When met him on the heath a few weeks and then they told you you were going to be in the speech?
- Did you tell people you were going to be mentioned?
- Did he convince you, I mean, on a personal level?
- Leaving the secrecy of the ballot box aside for one second, would it make you...would that meeting actually turn your mind. Would you even vote Labour?
- And fame awaits, presumably?

Wednesday 24th September

Emily Maitlis

On airstrikes against Islamic State

To Allegra Stratton, BBC:
- And it feels from that language [of David Cameron] that it's a done deal? [the upcoming parliamentary vote]
- So are we expecting any rebellion on this? Is it limited, isn't it? It's just limited to Iraq?

On airstrikes against Islamic State
To Mark Urban, BBC:
- And Mark, first of all, how important is this question of legality to the British government?
- Now, I called Obama's speech 'a call to war' earlier today. How big does he think this coalition could get?

On airstrikes against Islamic State
To Lord Malloch-Brown, Labour and Rory Stewart MP, Conservative:
- And, Rory Stewart, I'm wondering if you heard "a confidence assertion of American leadership" - that phrase Mark used from Obama's speech?
- [to RS] He has got the regional powers involved though. It looks like he's got the UK too. You would expect the UK to follow suit presumably and agree to strikes, would you?
- Mark Malloch-Brown, on a UN level now, what is the process? Does this go round in circles looking for resolution, like last time or...?
- [to MM-B, interrupting] Are we wrong to separate the one from the other then? [ie IS in Syria and IS in Iraq]
- [to MM-B] What about the whole question of the UN Security Council then, China and Russia traditionally opposing what the Western powers do? That's not going to happen here? It's not even going to go to council?
- [to RS] And do you think the defeat of ISIS is possible?
- [to RS]  It's always tempting to look backwards and try and see the place where this could have been solved but, when you're looking at the political problems that Obama now faces, was he wrong to pull out of the surge when he came to power? Does that seem to you to be fundamental to the problem that's growing up now? [RS thinks Obama made the right move.]
- [to RS, interrupting] But it's a mess now.
- [to MM-B] The diplomacy element of this between the US and the UK. Clearly America will be happy to have us on board, as far as that goes tonight, but we're just a minor player, aren't we, and we've already put caveats on? How useful are we?

On a British jihadi killed in an airstrike on Islamic State
To Secunder Kermani, BBC:
- Sec, a French hostage was killed by a group also linked to ISIL. What more do we know about that today?

On airstrikes against Islamic State
To Marie Harf, US State Department
- Your response to Britain's position tonight? Can you fight ISIS in Iraq and not in Syria?
- It seems extraordinary that in 2009 Obama came with this new chapter in US international relations and the language tonight is pretty much the call of war. Is there acceptance now that the only way to fight terror is militarily?
- And yet this was the man who defied the words of John McCain when he was running for president, stopped the surge, pulled those soldiers out at a time when they could have stopped the mess that we're in now. Isn't that the legacy?
- Well, it's very interesting when you talk about targetted military operations because I don't know if you heard our correspondent just then who said, look, the US has targetted ISIS but it's also targetted groups like Jabhat al-Nusra who were fighting ISIS. You have to decide if you're prepared to push two opposing groups closer together to create a greater ISIS force.
- And realistically - and we know that President Obama has said this is just the beginning - this will amount to boots on the ground in some form, won't it?
- [interrupting] Never?

On airstrikes against Islamic State
To Dominic Grieve MP, Conservative {on comparisons to this campaign with the Iraq War, legal-wise}:
- It's much more straightforward this time, wouldn't you agree?
- But why then would you rule out Syria from what you've just said?
- I mean, just to make that clear: If we don't follow up action in Syria, what we're essentially doing is an operation to get ISIS out of Iraq and nothing more, right?
- [interrupting] But militarily very ineffective?
- [interrupting] OK, so when you talk about criteria, that's what you're saying. You're saying you wouldn't do Syria without going through the whole chapter literally and the resolution is passed?
- [interrupting] You're not? [ie saying there has to be a full UN resolution]
- I mean, if America is already in Syria, what does that say about the legality? Are they doing something illegal that we're not following? Or is it OK for them but not for us? I'm...what?
- Is is your gut feeling though, from a moral interventionist perspective, that David Cameron would want to go into Syria, and that we probably will?
- All right, let's leave the morality aside. Do you think we could go into Syria?

Kirsty Wark

On Scottish post-referendum politics

To Nicola Sturgeon MSP, SNP:
Nicola Sturgeon, barring a thunderbolt you will be First Minister of Scotland.
- I think it's fair to say that on the night you thought you'd won the vote?
- And were you already preparing negotiations?
- But it is interesting that right up to, you know, the first poll that came out after the vote closed you thought you'd won?
- You said this morning that you would take a different approach from Alex Salmond. What does that actually mean?
- [interrupting] Do you think that's partly because Alex was quite pugnacious?
- Do you accept that the majority of people in Scotland, as of now, do not want independence?
- Do you think though, as Alex Salmond seems to think, that this issue is over for a generation?
- So you're not planning a referendum soon, but you're not ruling it out, for example, in the next five years?
- You've said that what Gordon Brown and Co. promised on behalf of, your know, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, was 'home rule towards federalism'. What do you actually mean by that?
- What are you actually going to ask for?
- Do you think, as one of your MSPs, Pete Wishart's, been blogging that you should go into the general election on a Devo Max ticket? Now, by that I mean everything devolved bar foreign affairs, defence and macroeconomics?
- This scenario was talked about a lot during the referendum campaign: That there is an incoming Conservative government who are committed to a referendum on Europe and in the course of that referendum England votes to leave and Scotland votes to stay. Do you think that would be seen as a UK-wide single return as it were, or do you think there would be grounds then for going after a referendum in that event?
- In your opinion, do you think people in Scotland would want to leave Europe?
- SNP MPs don't vote on English legislation. Should Labour MPs be doing the same?
- Do you believe that you'll be First Minister of an independent Scotland one day?

Thursday 25th September

Kirsty Wark

On the arrest of Anjem Choudary and other Muslim extremists
To Richard Watson, BBC:
- Richard Watson, first of all, what do you know about any networks that Anjem Choudary was involved with?
- So why arrest them now?
- You talked about hostages, the FBI say today that actually they have identified the man...the so-called 'Jihadi John', the man who's been responsible for the deaths of Western hostages.

On airstrikes against Islamic State
To General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO Deputy Supreme Commander, 2010-14
- It is very likely that parliament will pass this motion tomorrow and, therefore, British warplanes will fly alongside others in this coalition...this so-called coalition of the willing. Will airstrikes defeat IS?
- [interrupting] Which is exactly what Ambassador Crocker says we've done [ruling things out].
- And part of that is certainly going to be done, but when you look at what's up tomorrow - ruling out going over the Iraqi border, ruling out any combat troops on the ground, and ruling out, as it were, a grand strategy - why do you think there is this reluctance?
- If we look like Johnny-come-latelies though, is it partly say after Iraq and that actually the mood of the British people if not to get involved in the long haul and not, you know, to see British casualties?
- So, I mean, you were, you know, a senior commander in Southern Iraq and, as you say, the experience of Iraq particularly was not a happy one in terms of that intervention. If we need to train and so forth, how do we need to approach this, as a bigger problem, in order to solve the problem of IS? Who needs to be involved?
- Well, you're talking about the Iraqi army. We saw what happened with the Iraqi army in Mosul, who literally ran away in the face of IS. Now, if you're talking about shoring up the Iraqi army that's not going to happen in three months?
- [interruptingCan it be done? You were there!
- If necessary you have to fight together, and the key thing: You cannot rule out British forces fighting?

On airstrikes against Islamic State
To Mark Urban, BBC:
- Mark, what have you been hearing about plans for the coalition in terms of any kind of ground operation?
- And in your assessment, where do the Iranians position themselves? Are they in this coalition or not?

On Iran's position vis a vis the action against Islamic State
To Professor Mohammad Marandi, University of Tehran and Monzer Akbik, Syrian National Coalition 
- Professor Marandi, just picking up what Mark Urban was saying there, on Newsnight last week we reported a very senior Iranian commander in Iraq helping the Iraqi army. Is Iran likely to be, as it were, even an unofficial member of the coalition fighting IS?
- [to MM] However, as Mark Urban also said, you can see a situation now, Professor, that actually you could see America and Iran as allies in fighting IS?
- [interrupting] Let me bring our guest here in London...Let me just ask you, Monzer Akbik, which is your biggest enemy? Is it Assad or is it IS?
- [to MA] But, as we heard from Nick Hopkins, the FSA is in disarray, the leadership has been disbanded, you've retreated from Homs, you know, in Aleppo you're fighting to the bitter end. You need help, and you've got the Iranians calling you part of the terrorist problem.
- [interrupting, to MA] But you are now going to get half a billion dollars from the Americans, aren't you, for arms, to train you and so forth?
- [interrupting, to MA] But you're not, to be fair though, it would be fair to say at the moment you are not up to the job and yet what the coalition is really doing is putting its faith in you to take on IS in Syria. Is that realistic?
- [to MM] Professor Marandi, very quickly, can I just ask you whether you think that supporting the FSA will be an aid to defeating IS in Syria?

On airstrikes against Islamic State
To Alistair Burt MP, Conservative:
- Alistair Burt, I take it you're behind the motion tomorrow?
- It is illogical, isn't doesn't really look like a plan? You'll have heard Sir Richard Shirreff earlier saying that actually to join in airstrikes with other members of the coalition and to limit them to the Iraqi border. not to put troops on the ground, isn't a strategy?
- But it is extraordinary exactly how much change there has been in a year, because you were disappointed because you couldn't get support...very disappointed because you couldn't get support to hit President Assad last year and now Britain seems to be suggesting that you can't actually have airstrikes over Syria because President Assad hasn't exactly let you in. But the Americans don't seem to have had any qualms about that. The others don't seem to have why on earth should Britain?
- One final point. What Sir Richard also said is that the best way to sort this out in Iraq is to work again with the Iraqi army, shore them up, give them the capability. That will mean British forces training them, perhaps even fighting alongside them. Will the British, will the government wear that? Will the British public wear that?

On limits to artistic freedom
To Kandy Rohmann, actress, Exhibit B  and Sara Myers, Boycott the Human Zoo campaign, following the pulling of an exhibition on slavery featuring 'human zoo' exhibits of Black Africans:
- First of all, Kandy, what was the value to you of this exhibition?
- [to SM] Why did you want an exhibition like this shut down?
- [to SM, interrupting] Withdrawn? Withdrawn, shut down?
- [to SM] Do you think there should be limits to artistic freedom? Shouldn't it be up to artists, in a way, to break taboos?
- [to SM, interrupting] Like what?
- [to SM, interrupting] But if it happened before presumably you'd have felt that you actually wanted to alter the artist's vision in some way, that you...
- [to SM] No? So you might have been happy to see the exhibition stand as it is?
- [to SM, interrupting] Let's take one example, let's take one example - that a French colonial military man used to tie up African women and rape them and in that way they'd get money to feed their children. So, therefore, the dilemma for them [was if they didn't] want their children [to] starve they [would] put up with this. Are you saying that what you want to do on that example was to have a white representation there of...?
- [to KR] Would that be too literal, or not?
- [to SM] Do you think there is any relevance in your critique of this that the artist is white? That he is a privileged South African?
- [to SM, interrupting] Does that make a difference to you?
- [to KR] Do you accept that for some people it might be offensive for this portrayal to...?

Friday 26th September

Kirsty Wark

On British military action against Islamic State

To Michael Fallon MP, Conservative, Defence Secretary:
- How soon will British bombs be falling in Iraq?
- Syrian strikes, airstrikes, were expressly ruled out. Would you rather that you were able to have the ability to drop British bombs on Syria?
- Do you accept what Ming Campbell said...a lawyer and former Liberal Democrat leader, that actually there's no legal bar to you dropping bombs on Syria, that there's no legal bar to you doing it just now?
- But you're not, in a sense, going into Syria to do anything about overturning the state. You're going in to help, if you were going in, the Iraqi government deal with ISIL?
- Could you imagine a situation where something really terrible was happening and you had to send British warplanes from Iraq into Syria?
- The FBI said yesterday that they know who 'Jihadi John' is. Do you now know who he is?
- At what point might the British government release his name though?
- Do you accept that the passing of this motion today puts Alan Henning and John Cantle in possibly greater danger?
- Finally, at the moment IS controls a quarter of Iraq. What does success look like? What is, as it were, the endgame in all this?
- [interrupting] On existing borders?

On British military action against Islamic State
To Patrick Cockburn, The Independent; former Labour MP Clare Short; and Labour MP John Woodcock:
- First of all, John Woodcock, I mean, you voted for the motion today, but evidence there from Gabriel Gatehouse that, despite heavy US bombing, IS is pushing on. I mean, we've got six tornadoes operating in Iraq. It's not going to make that much difference, is it?
- [to JW] You've called the threat "a twisted ideology as bad as the Nazis".
- [to JW] But we're only fighting, as I say, with one hand tied behind our backs if we don't strike in Syria. Is that the case?
- Clare Short, how would you have voted today?
- Patrick Cockburn, I assume you agree we can solve this by just bombing? But what is the big strategic story, and where does President Assad play his part in this?
- [to PC, interrupting] But they're all fighting them separately?
- [to PC] So this is a chimera? The whole thing's a kind of chimera the way that we're aatually approaching this?
- [to PC] So, if originally President Assad was, as it were, encouraging IS in order to make the case against the FSA, are you saying now that we should just have to set aside our differences in Britain with President Assad and get President Assad to recognise there has to be a joining up to fight IS in Syria, that's the best way in dealing with this?
- [to JW] What are we going to do about Assad?
- Well, let me bring Clare Short in on this. The problems of 2003 were such that you felt you had to resign because actually you didn't believe...everything was being moved along so fast. Do you now accept that, at least in the conversations we've been having here, is we're being led through this piece by piece and that actually parliament isn't being bounced into doing things they don't want to do?
- Well, John Woodcock, if there is a question of taking a vote on airstrikes on Syria, what is Ed Miliband's position actually going to be if he doesn't get comfort, as it were, from the UN? Do you see a situation where you would actually have to go against your leader?
- [to JW, interrupting] Well, he [ie Ed Miliband] hasn't left much room for manoeuvre, has he?
- [to JW, interrupting] Oh, come on! It's never going to get passed. [A UN resolution mooted by Ed Miliband].

On watching movies on a phone
To Ruben Kazantsev, iPhone Film Festival
- Rubin, first, I'm going to throw at you the names of some classic films: Dr Zhivago, The Mission, Dances with Wolves. Would you be happy to have the experience of watching these films on an iPhone?
- But you don't get the panoramic know, that idea of being in widescreen in the cinema, having it filling the space in front of you. All you're doing, surely, is looking down at a very reduced screen?
- It's interesting then that there's nothing about the communal experience of being in a cinema with a load of other people and seeing some fantastic film unfold in front of your eyes together that is actually something that's worth doing?
- [interrupting] But...we're so short of time I'll have to put to you Al Pacino's point. He says, "The nuances of the way that actors deliver their lines, you know, even a vague expression, a tiny expression, is completely lost by screwing your eyes and looking into an iPhone.


My conclusions

From the questions asked over the course of the week Newsnight's coverage of the Labour Party conference, including Ed Miliband's speech, couldn't be accused of spinning it for for Labour - far from it.

Laura K's interview with Tristram Hunt concentrated on (a)  Labour's evasiveness and embarrassment over 'English votes for English votes', (b) Ed Miliband's almost record unpopularity with voters and (c) the public's ongoing lack of trust in Labour's economic policies and the party's failure to refuse for over-spending while in office - all subjects dear to a right-wing viewer's heart!

Her interview with Liz Kendall focused on Ed Miliband's much-attacked failure to mention the deficit during his leader's speech, even down to pointing out that what he had meant to say (from the draft of the speech) hardly amounted to much anyway (just three to four lines making a vague promise about doing something about it).

This wasn't favourable coverage for the Labour Party, and - even though three of them were, in some way, connected to Labour - four out of five of the non-politician guests invited on to discuss the conference and Ed Miliband's speech were highly critical and uncomplimentary about it. Even former TUC guy Duncan Weldon's report on their mansion tax suggested it was riddled with potential unfairnesses and wouldn't raise that much money.

On the issue of military action against Islamic State, I was struck whilst transcribing all the questions, that not one of the Newsnight interviewers ever referred to the organisation as 'Islamic State'. They called it IS, ISIS or ISIL but never Islamic State. This seems too consistent to be coincidental. Have they been told not to say 'Islamic State'?

I was quite taken aback by how uncritical - indeed slightly gung-ho - some of the questions about military action were, often 'urging' further British military action. Emily Maitlis (and, to a lesser extent Kirsty Wark) kept asking 'moral interventionist' questions - to those supportive and those unsupportive of military strikes against IS - querying the wisdom of the UK's refusal to expand its mission to embrace strikes on Syria.

If you read through their questions of that theme you will see that this was an abiding theme of the questioning, as if the programme was advancing an editorial line in favour of expanding action against Islamic State into Syria. Was it advancing such a line (a line the government might well approve of, and the Obama administration would certainly approve of) or just asking the same obvious question to all and sundry?

I was expecting the programme, when looking back, to do a bit of Bush-bashing over the present plight in Iraq but it didn't. Emily Maitlis, instead, put the same point to both Rory Stewart and Marie Harf that the Obama administration has 'messed things up' there by ignoring John McCain's warnings against pulling out and by stopping the surge. I didn't see that coming. (It was appropriate to put that to Ms Harf, but also putting it to Rory Stewart was unusual, don't you think?)

Kirsty Wark's interview with Nicola Sturgeon was OK (and revealing) but she was emphatically - and unquestionably - biased over the issue of artistic freedom, taking very much against the campaigner who had caused an art exhibition to be withdrawn, as you can see that from the sheer number of questions and interruptions the campaigner against the artwork received from her. And rightly so in my biased opinion. She didn't seem to struck on watching films on iPhones either!

Well, that's my take. Reading through all the questions (rather than cherry-picking, or ignoring them completely), do you reach any different conclusions?


  1. Stellar, journeyman work here, Craig. Thanks for your time and effort. I haven't been able to read all of it - too much in depth for one sitting, need to clear the eyeballs first before finishing - but I did read everything about the Labour conference and some of the Iraq content.

    I understand why you saw it as not spinning for Labour. But I think it's because of a phenomenon I've seen many times before: they're not so much criticizing as trying desperately to help steer them in the right direction. Kuenssberg seems to be picking up that baton and running with it, when it comes to the Labour conference. With ISIL, this is another attitude spread across the spectrum of BBC broadcasting: When The Obamessiah says jump, Britain must ask how high. One mitigating factor might be a note of cynicism I think I detect about the legality of bombing in Syria as well. I guess since the Beeboids have bought into the narrative that there will be no Western Crusader boots on the ground in Mohammedan lands (no "invading force", as Cameron put it), it's all okay. Marr let Cameron drone on about the same dream scenario this morning, not a word of challenge. Not a single question about how Western intervention is the root of all Islamic terrorism from the Newsnight ladies? My, my, how things have changed.

    Kirsty Wark seemed to give away the reason for that change, though. She got the obligatory dig in at Cameron for not getting the vote to bomb Assad, and then pointed out how now everyone wants to bomb those messing around in his country. Just like Rod Liddle blogged in the Spectator a couple weeks ago that we owe Assad an apology for wanting to bomb him last year. He's still one of them on most issues.

    They'll go along with the war on righteous human rights grounds, but are enjoying making Cameron look as bad as possible along the way.

  2. PS: When would David Cameron ever going to get the softest of rides from Andrew Marr? When he comes in after a hostile interview with Nigel Farage and a Conservative MP has defected to the hated UKIP on the eve of Cameron's party conference. After five minutes promoting the dream scenario of bombing ISIS, Marr could have simply asked, "Prime Minister, another wrong 'un has defected to UKIP. What would you like to tell the British public," and the result would have been exactly the same.

  3. Thanks David.

    Funny you should mention Andrew Marr. I've done something similar with three of his interviews and will post them soon.

    The one with Nigel Farage was certainly a much more hostile interview than that with David Cameron, though the one with Ed Miliband last week was even less hostile than that with David Cameron.

    I hope this sort of thing does prove valuable. It certainly interests me, so that's one guaranteed satisfied customer!

  4. We used to joke that the BBC had Farage on all the time because they knew he'd eventually split the Tory vote. They were hostile to him and UKIP because of their anti-EU and anti-mass immigration stance, but what about now? One would expect the Beeboids to relax that a little and encourage UKIP so they could have Labour back in power. But this continued hostility makes me wonder if there isn't some truth after all to Farage's hints at a Labour defection and claim that UKIP can take Labour voters as well.


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