Saturday 31 October 2015

That would be an EU matter

The more I think about it the more daunting it becomes thinking about seriously monitoring the BBC's galaxy-sized output, especially when seeking to explore how impartially the corporation covers the EU referendum debate. 

The BBC is far too huge for any small number of people to keep track of. Covering just Radio 4 would be more than enough for any one person. Covering Radio 5 would, I suspect, be even worse. And then there's Newsnight,  Victoria Derbyshire and The Daily Politics on BBC Two. And the BBC One News bulletins, plus Andrew Marr, BBC Breakfast, The One Show etc. Oh, and the vast empire of the BBC News Channel and the even vaster empire of the BBC News website. And the worldwide empire of the BBC World Service. And doubtless Newsbeat on Radio 1. Plus the local news lot. And Twitter. And all the light entertainment stuff across the BBC (especially the topical comedy shows). And all the dramas. And all the one-off documentaries across the BBC networks, from BBC Four to Panorama. And who knows about CBeebies?

That's why it's probably best to focus, pace News-watchon flagship BBC programmes and/or to fix on one programme in particular, such as Radio 4's influential Today. 

In the spare bit of time I had earlier in the week I thought I'd follow in News-watch's footsteps and listen to Today's EU-related coverage

The chosen news angle on Wednesday was that David Cameron, travelling to non-EU Norway and Iceland, was going to lay into Eurosceptic arguments in favour of following the example of Norway, vis a vis the EU. 

I tried to stand back, in the original spirit of this blog, to see how fair it was. The result? I didn't think it was very balanced at all. 

The programme's coverage focused on the PM's criticisms of Eurosceptic arguments regarding Norway. Again and again the PM's criticisms were outlined in detail by Today presenters and reporters without the BBC presenters and reporters offering detailed counter-arguments (such as might be used by 'Leave' supporters). And no one else was invited on to give the counter-argument either. 'Norway', the straw man, was set up and duly knocked down by the PM, and Today did as little as humanly possible to dissent from it.

Though BBC reporter Ben Wright (in the 6.30 spot) appeared to be winging it somewhat, using the word "his" in relation to the Norwegian prime minister when the Norwegian PM is actually a woman (and not of the transgender kind either), his list of negatives for Norway didn't go quite as far as James Naughtie at 7.10, [Maybe that training for all BBC journalists to bring them up to speed with EU-related matters is urgently needed]. Ben said that Norway had no voting rights at EU meetings; Jim said Norway has "no voice" at all, which isn't true. Pro-EU voices appeared in clips from Norway, even though support from EU membership there is at a very low level (so people must be happy enough about their present non-membership of the EU after all).

Later came a strikingly gentle interview between Justin Webb and Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission. At the recent House of Commons ESC session on the BBC's coverage of the EU, Kate Hoey MP worried about the BBC having lots of European Union commissioners from other countries speaking on the EU. I think this sort 'grilling' was just the kind of thing she had in mind. (If the BBC ever introduced a mirror image programme to its 'HARDtalk', this interview might make a fine template. Obviously, it would have to be called 'SOFTtalk'.)

The BBC doesn't often give David Cameron a free pass, but he certainly seemed to get one here.

On Thursday's edition, in contrast, the chosen news angle went very much against David Cameron, with the focus being on how various Nordic/Baltic leaders had told the BBC that Mr Cameron hadn't said anything concrete about what he actually wanted. 

Curiously the bit with Laura K, prior to the interview with Nick Clegg before the 8 o'clock news, where we actually got to hear directly from the two leaders cited, didn't sound anywhere near so damning to me as the BBC had been making out.

There were two James Naughtie interviews with UK politicians about the EU on that edition - one with pro-EU Nick Clegg, one with anti-EU Kate Hoey.

Even though I've been mostly out of action this week regarding BBC bias, even I spotted lots of complaints that the two interviews differed greatly, with Nick Clegg being said to have got a free run just before 8 o'clock, plus lots of time, and Kate Hoey being said to have got significantly less time, getting relegated to the 'dead zone' and having to repeatedly ask James Naughtie to let her finish.

Checking this for myself - and applying my trusty stopwatch - Mr Clegg got to speak on the EU for 228 seconds (he got an extra bit on tax credits too above and beyond this) while Ms Hoey got just 152 seconds. (Both of those totals come after deducting James Naughtie's contributions from each interview.) So that's well over a minute more.

Ms Hoey did have to ask Jim Naughtie twice to let her answer after he attempted to interrupt her - his first attempt being made only 8 seconds into her first answer. Mr Clegg's first answer ran for 75 seconds, uninterrupted. However, in fairness to ol' Jim, Kate Hoey won out and she did get to give the answer to his final question uninterrupted. (For stats fans that final question of Jim's lasted 57 seconds - classic Jim Naughtie!)

All such things add up. So far the 'Stay' side was clearly 'winning' the battle for Today coverage, thanks to Today.

Friday and Saturday's Today haven't been EU-focused, so that's as far as this goes this week.

As you may be aware, James Naughtie is leaving his presenting role on Today soon. He's becoming a roving correspondent for the BBC. The UK's EU referendum is one of the main subject areas he's going to be focusing on, apparently.

Oh dear.

"Home to Britain"

On a similar theme, last night's Newsnight added to the growing "ticket tape parade return" for Shaker Aamer. 

Here's how Emily Maitlis first introduced the subject:
He spent a third of his life in a cell in Guantanamo Bay, now Shaker Aamer is released home to Britain without charge. What purpose has Guantanamo served and what do its practices say about our governments?
The main focus on Newsnight's coverage was a discussion between Moazzam Begg (inevitably)in the studio and former US government advisor David Rivkin on a video link - i.e. a verbal brawl between an Islamist and a strong supporter of Guantanamo Bay. 

Fair enough, you might say, but Emily didn't go on to pursue both guests fairly. She mounted her high horse instead and charged after Mr Rivkin, asking him question after question after question, and repeatedly interrupting him and contradicting him. 

That might also have been fair enough if she'd have pursued Moazzam Begg too. She did no such thing though. He was asked a mere two questions and not challenged once. And his questions weren't even tough ones (unlike those put to David Rivkin):
Moazzam Begg, you've been in touch with Shaker Aamer's family today. What kind of response have they had?
I want to ask Moazzam Begg, when you got home and now looking at Shaker's position within society, do you feel like an innocent man or do've heard this opinion (with a wave of her arm towards Mr Rivkin) from an advocate of Guantanamo Bay, do you feel that you are vindicated? 
(Incidentally, what's going on with Emily Maitlis calling Shaker Aamer "Shaker" here?)
Emily seemed to be letting her anger at Mr Rivkin's attacks on Shaker Aamer and his strong defence of Guantanamo get the better of her. After Mr Rivkin butted in to give himself the last word, her displeasure was something to behold - as the following screenshots (second by second) might suggest:

"Back on British soil..."

"Back on British soil, the last UK resident held at Guantanamo Bay is released...."
The early stages of Shaker Aamer's "homecoming parade" led BBC One's News at Six last night. 

The coverage, from BBC special correspondent Lucy Manning, included the reactions of his supporters, presenting us with his father-in-law, his lawyer (Clive Stafford-Smith) and his friend (Moazzam Begg). 

His father in law was delighted, his lawyer praised Mr Aamer as wonderful family man and his Islamist friend says he been held so long only because of what he 'has' on the US and UK government. 

They got 18 seconds, 18 seconds and 10 seconds respectively. 

The only dissenting note came from Robin Simcox of the Henry Jackson Society who got an abruptly cut-off 9 seconds.

BBC impartiality in action, it seems.

Howard Jacobson on free speech

On a related subject, I must just recommend a superb article in the Independent by Howard Jacobson.

The attacks on Germaine Greer over her dismissal of 'transgenderism' and on Martin Amis over his dismissal of Jeremy Corbyn are its pegs, but the piece is essentially a plea for the benefits of free speech, especially to those who don't like what they're hearing - and we can't get enough of those at the moment:
It isn’t only in the name of free speech that the views of an itchy polemicist should be tolerated – and I say itchy polemicist promoting thought, not itchy ideologue promoting violence – but because provocation is indispensable to the workings of a sound, creative culture. The loser, when silencers have their way, is not the provocateur but the provoked. To be easily offended is to be shut off from the invigoration of that argumentative give-and-take we call liberty; not to understand the poetics of provocation is to miss out on the joys of living in a literate and robust society that excels at satire and burlesque. 
We hear too much of “phobia”. Attach “phobia” to any cause you care for and you have ring-fenced it against the words of the critic and the devious antics of the clown alike. Nothing is to be mocked; everything – except the act of critical dissent itself – is sacrosanct. Thus have we created for ourselves an impoverished world of touchy fools who understand no mode of address other than the internet’s yes/no, like/dislike, thumbs up/thumbs down discourse of the dumb.

Tara's Theme

I didn't really want to go anywhere near this one, but as it seems like a clear example of BBC bias here goes after all...

Another story featured on yesterday's BBC One News at Six concerned the transgender prisoner Tara Hudson's legal bid to be moved to an all-female prison. Tara (previously Aaron) Hudson had been jailed for headbutting a barman in Bristol. 

It's a story that's been widely reported and widely discussed, and one interesting element is that pretty much all of the mainstream UK media, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian and the BBC,  is now entirely in tune with one of the key demands of transgender campaigners: that transgender people should be accepted as belonging to the sex (gender) they believe themselves to belong to and that reporting about them should reflect that.

On yesterday evening's BBC news bulletin, both Clive Myrie and Duncan Kennedy showed themselves to be fully on board with this. Both the BBC newsreader and BBC reporter used exclusively female pronouns and possessive adjectives in relation to Tara Hudson - thus suggesting to me that the BBC has recently issued editorial guidance on the issue:
..."has been granted her wish", "has lived as a woman all her adult life", "she lost an appeal", "has lived as a woman all her life", "She's gone through 6 years of gender reconstruction", "For the past week she's been in an all-male prison", "She's been subject she says to hours of abuse", "Speaking before her conviction for assault, she told the BBC...", "tried to get her sentence changed...", etc.
Though I'm thoroughly liberal (and libertarian) on this this matter myself, I know there are plenty of people - from Germaine Greer to Kathy Gyngell - who do not accept that 'transgenderism' is real or that its promotion is desirable - and they refuse to be browbeaten into using words like 'she' and 'her' in relation to someone born as a man, however much that infuriates the easily-infuriated on Twitter or on university campuses.

On the above evidence, the licence-fee-funded BBC quite clearly does not agree with them. It has taken the campaigners' side (as I shall also do in what follows).

On this particular story the issue is whether a young transgender woman, convicted of a violent crime, should be housed in an all-male prison or an all-female prison. Her birth certificate and passport say she's a male but she believes herself to be a female, looks like a female and, unquestionably, would be very likely to have a particularly uncomfortable time in an all-male prison.

The question I expected Duncan Kennedy's report to raise was, 'What's the right thing to do?', and then for contrasting point of views to be aired.

That's not what happened though. The whole thrust of his report tended towards the position that Tara Hudson should be moved to an all-female prison. All of the people who appeared in his report supported that position - including her mum and one of her transgender friends. The other person who appeared was Tara herself.

And then came the really odd thing. Duncan Kennedy called Tara Hudson "Tara" in his BBC report.

That's very unusual in a news report about someone imprisoned for committing a violent crime, isn't it? Violent criminals are usually referred to by their surnames. So why call this violent criminal "Tara" here? [Even the Guardian calls her "Hudson" in its reporting of the story.]

I think the answer to that is that Duncan was obviously on her side, and seeking to put us on her side too.

His whole report felt far too much like campaigning I think. And there's far too much of that going on the BBC at the moment.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Holding post

Duncan Weldon, Kirsty Wark, Emily Maitlis

Sorry again for the lack of posts in recent days. 

Though something a little more substantial might arrive soon, and in anticipation of Halloween (where Newsnight presenters prowl the streets of Salford, hungry for EU referendum 'Leave' supporters' blood)...'s a joke from the brother of a famous BBC journalist/presenter (so, therefore, on topic):
I was stealing things in the supermarket today while balanced on the shoulders of vampires. I was charged with shoplifting on three counts.

Sunday 25 October 2015

An unusual 'Point of View' for the BBC

I've read many a comment today at Biased BBC (the blog, not the biased BBC itself) praising Roger Scruton's A Point of View in defence of free speech on Radio 4, and I want to praise it too. 

It is a superb piece - as you'd expect from Prof. Scruton. (You can also read it on the BBC website here.)

It begins with John Stuart Mill and ends with these words:
Of course, we have moved on a bit from the Middle Ages. It is not the man who is assassinated now, but only his character. But the effect is the same. Free discussion is being everywhere shut down, so that we will never know who is right - the heretics, or those who try to silence them.
Moving from the historical and the immediate to the lastingly profound, it's one of the finest things I've heard on Radio 4 for quite a while, so please give it a listen. 

Roger Scruton's take on the 'Islamophobia' ruse might well be particularly worth dwelling on by Radio 4 listeners unaccustomed to hearing such a point of view - though there are lessons for all of us in what he had to say. 

Here's just one paragraph:
That is what has happened in the case of Islamophobia. Muslims in our society are often victims of prejudice, abuse and assault, and this is a distressing situation that the law strives to remedy. But when people invent a phobia to explain all criticism of Islam it is not that kind of abuse that they have in mind. They wish to hide the truth, to shout "lies!" in the face of criticism and to silence any attempt at discussion. In my view, however, it is time to bring the truth into the open, including the truth about the Holy Book itself.

Prof. Scruton's appearance on A Point of View also gives me the opportunity to update my list of presenters of that programme. 

Roger remains pretty much the only right-leaning contributor to the series - a series absolutely dominated by left-leaning contributors.

The notable new exception to that rule is A Point of View's addition of a right-leaning U.S. contributor, the ever-delightful PJ O'Rourke, to the rota. (I've got a surprising number of PJ's books on my bookshelf). He's had two one-offs over the past year. (Woo-hoo!) 

His left-leaning semi-compatriot, Adam Gopnik, has had many, many more though. (Mr Gopnik, however, is a wonderful writer and I usually love his A Point of View pieces). 

And left-wing Will Self, who is granted lonnnggg, lonnnggg runs, remains the preferred 'point of view' for Radio 4's A Point of View.

Anyhow, here's the updated list of APOV contributors. Enjoy!:

Roger Scruton (23 Oct 2015-   )  
Will Self (18 Sep-16 Oct 2015)
PJ O'Rourke (11 Sep 2015)
John Gray (14 Aug-4 Sep 2015)
Adam Gopnik (31 Jul-7 Aug 2015) 
Peter Aspden (24 Jul 2015)
Adam Gopnik (19 Jun-17 Jul 2015)
AL Kennedy (22 May-12 Jun 2015)
David Cannadine (15 May 2015)
PJ O'Rourke (8 May 2015)
David Cannadine (24 Apr-1 May 2015)
Howard Jacobson (3 Apr-17 Apr 2015)
Tom Shakespeare (13 Mar-27 Mar 2015)
Will Self (30 Jan-6 Mar 2015)
AL Kennedy (16 Jan-23 Jan 2015)
Adam Gopnik (9 Jan 2015)
AL Kennedy (2 Jan 2015)
David Cannadine (25 Dec 2014)
Roger Scruton (5 Dec-19 Dec 2014)
John Gray (7 Nov-28 Nov 2014) 
Adam Gopnik (3 Oct-31 Oct 2014)
Lisa Jardine (5 Sep-26 Sep 2014)
Will Self (25 Jul-29 Aug 2014)
John Gray (11 Jul-18 Jul 2014)
AL Kennedy (13 Jun-4 Jul 2014)
Tom Shakespeare (23 May-6 Jun 2014)
Mary Beard (25 Apr-16 May 2014)
William Dalrymple (4 Apr-18 Apr 2014)
Sarah Dunant (14 Mar-28 Mar 2014)
Roger Scruton (21 Feb-7 Mar 2014)
Adam Gopnik (17 Jan-14 Feb 2014)
John Gray (27 Dec 2013-10-Jan 2014)
William Dalrymple (20 Dec 2013)
John Gray (13 Dec 2013)
Will Self (1 Nov-6 Dec 2013)
Lisa Jardine (4 Oct-25 Oct 2013)
AL Kennedy (6 Sep-27 Sep 2013)
Roger Scruton (9 Aug-30 Aug 2013)
Sarah Dunant (5 Jul-2 Aug 2013)
Tom Shakespeare (7 Jun-28 June 2013)
John Gray (26 Apr-31 May 2013)
Adam Gopnik (22 Mar-19 Apr 2013)
Lisa Jardine (22 Feb-15 Mar 2013)
David Cannadine (25 Jan-15 Feb 2013)
Will Self (14 Dec 2012-18 Jan 2013)
Onora O'Neill (7 Dec 2012)
Mary Beard (11 Nov-30 Nov 2012)
Martin Jacques (12 Oct-4 Nov 2012)
Sarah Dunant   (7 Sep-5 Oct 2012)
John Gray (13 Jul-31 Aug 2012)
Adam Gopnik (1 Jun-6 Jul 2012)
Will Self (20 Apr-25 May 2012)
David Cannadine (10 Feb-13 Apr 2012)
Lisa Jardine (30 Dec 2011-3 Feb 2012)
Simon Schama (29 Dec 2011)
Will Self (28 Dec 2011)
Sarah Dunant (27 Dec 2011)
John Gray  (26 Dec 2011)
Lisa Jardine (2 Dec-25 Dec 2011)
Mary Beard (4 Nov-25 Nov 2011)
Will Self  (30 Sep-28 Oct 2011)
John Gray  (19 Aug-23 Sep 2011
Alain de Botton  (8 Jul-12 Aug 2011)

(The programme took a break for over four months for David Attenborough's Life Stories)

Alain de Botton (5 Jan-11 Feb 2011)
Joan Bakewell  (19 Nov-31 Dec 2010)
Sarah Dunant  (8 Oct-12 Nov 2010)
Lisa Jardine  (30 Jul-1 Oct 2010)
David Cannadine  (21 May-23 Jul 2010)
Simon Schama  (12 Mar-14 May 2010)
Lisa Jardine  (1 Jan-5 Mar 2010)

Thou shalt commit adultery, and the arrows that did affright the air at Agincourt

All course Radio 4's Sunday had some good things too, and I want to celebrate them (for once).

One feature focused on "one of the most famous printing errors in the history of publishing" - the story of 'The Wicked Bible' of 1631, which is (for some reason) is being sold next month. Prof. Gordon Campbell of Leicester University was the guest expert (and very good he was too).

'The Wicked Bible' was a reprinting of the King James Bible. It rendered the 7th Commandment as "Thou shalt commit adultery". (Hence it's other nickname, 'The Adulterer's Bible').

What I didn't know about this story is what happened to the printer. Well, the authorities took him to court. A fine was imposed but then commuted into an order to buy some Greek typefaces for the press. ("This was a very learned time!", observed Prof. Campbell). In time, however, the printer went bankrupt and died in a debtor's prison some years later. He was never released.

Prof. Campbell believes the poor man was the victim of a conspiracy. Why? Well one of his colleagues checked the court records and found there was a second misprint in Deuteronomy 5:24 where the line "The Lord our God has showed us his glory and his greatness" became "The Lord our God has showed us his glory and his great ass".

Here, disappointingly, the professor reminded Radio 4 listeners that 'ass' meant 'donkey' back then, not 'buttocks' but, he said, "it still verges on blasphemy to talk about God's donkey". 

(The unfortunate bible, as you'll see from the image above, didn't get the other 'ass'-related commandment wrong - the one about coueting thy nighboars affe).

Prof. Campbell's reasoning behind his conspiracy claims are that: "One of these misprints could be a coincidence but two of them can't be a coincidence. So if you put the two together it's quite clear that someone is torpedoing the edition".

Now, William Crawley was obviously thinking what I was thinking at that point: Surely just two mistakes in the printing of the entire Bible doesn't add up to much.

Indeed, replied the professor, there were hundreds of insignificant misprints - 'and' was spelled 'aud' on 28 occasions, for example "but nobody cares" about them and "these are two are fairly central verses."

I'm not a lifelong expert on the King James Bible (hard as you may find that to believe) but I'm still not entirely convinced about this though. Yes, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is a certainly a central verse, but is "The Lord our God has showed us his glory and his greatness" anywhere near as central? I don't think it is.

Still, it was all very interesting - and there was more to come. Other classic Bible misprints include one from 1795 which turned "Jesus said, Let the children first be filled" (i.e. fed) into "Jesus said, Let the children first be killed" and, rather funnier, an early print of Psalm 119 which turned "Princes have persecuted me without cause" into "Printers have persecuted me without cause" - one I can believe was deliberate mischief!

There was more history later - a piece from historian Juliet Barker marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, where we English famously gave Francois Hollande, Marine le Pen, Gérard Depardieu, Inspector Clouseau, Johnny Hallyday, Asterix, Eric Cantona, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Jean-Paul Sartre's boys one hell of a beating. 

Juliet Barker focused on the topic of Henry V as a deeply religious king, specifically his "peculiar piety".

(It appears, from what she said, that Hal really lost his sense of humour after dropping Falstaff, Shakespeare was right about that). 

Her report began with the Agincourt Carol.

She said it was peculiar that both the words and music survived. (Is it really?) It might possibly have been written by chaplain at the Chapel Royal who accompanied him in daily life and also went on campaign with him. Henry took 15 chaplains and 14 monks with him to France to serve his religious needs.

He also went on regular pilgrimages to shrines and heard three masses at the beginning of every day before going about his public duties (which makes three shredded wheat for breakfast sound positively wimpish). He was also devoted to lots of saints, many of whose banners he carried with him on the Agincourt campaign. 

At the gates of Harfleur, after victory there, he took off his shoes and walked barefoot to the church of St Martin's in the centre of the port where he gave thanks to God on his knees. He gave God the credit for his victory at Agincourt too. "It's proof victory doesn't depend on a multitude of people but on the power of God" was apparently one of his favourite sayings. Henry saw it as a moral victory proving him to be the true king of England as God would never have have let him win that battle otherwise. It wiped out his father's stain of usurpation.

Juliet Barker said that there are unusually large number of chronicles about the battle and many eye-witnesses. The chronicles tend to comment on how pious the English were, kneeling down and praying before the battle.

And, according to Juliet, criminal records of the time give this further credence: Some months after the battle two Welshmen were arrested for causing an affray in East Anglia. Their indictment says there they were there on pilgrimage in fulfilment of vows they'd made on the battlefield, thus proving the truth of the chronicles' claims of English piety - well, sort of (if you ignore the affray part of the story).


Oddly, I expected the BBC to be quivering with Guardianista qualms about Agincourt, accusing Henry of war crimes and UKIP-like Little Englander xenophobia. Unless I've missed it, it doesn't seem to have happened. 

And odder still, the only example I've read of just that kind of denunciation of Henry V comes from a writer I associate with doughty defence of conservative takes on British culture and history - Ed West. His Catholic Herald piece is an onslaught against Henry. It's a compelling onslaught too and well worth a read - tomorrow!


Incidentally, a very beautiful service to mark the Agincourt victory followed. It came from the Chapel Royal. Well worth a listen, if you're into that sort of thing - or if you enjoy gorgeous English choral music. 

All that's missing from this post (besides any mention of BBC bias) is Brian Blessed. If only he were here now to bellow out the line, Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' As he isn't, you'll just have to imagine him doing so instead. 

That would be an ecumenical matter

Fans of Radio 4's Sunday will have expected it to discuss the Vatican's Synod on the Family this morning, and indeed it did.

Did it live up to Damian Thompson's widely-quoted statement (well, by me at least!) that "Radio 4's Sunday programme offers perhaps the most undiluted liberal bias to be found anywhere on the BBC"?

The language used by presenter William Crawley struck me as quite revealing. He could have begun by saying:
After weeks of tense and, apparently, intense deliberations the Vatican's Synod on the Family has spoken. There may be changes to Church policy towards some divorced and re-married Catholics who are currently excluded from communion but no change to the Church's stance on homosexuality. Have the bishops in effect voted for business as usual?
...but what he actually said was:
After weeks of tense and, apparently, intense deliberations the Vatican's Synod on the Family has spoken. There's new hope for some divorced and re-married Catholics who are currently excluded from communion but no softening of the Church's stance on homosexuality. Have the bishops in effect voted for business as usual?
And later came:
Still to come this morning - After the Vatican's Synod on the Family is a new kind of Catholic Church emerging? Or will it be more of the same?
In the end the Synod Fathers have agreed a document that largely restates the Church's current teaching on many of the sensitive issues it was considering. It resisted the opportunity to use more welcoming language of gay and lesbian Christians but they have opened the door to a possible return to full communion for some divorced and re-married Catholics.
Such language - in this case "inclusive" - was also being used by the programme's Twitter feed, as someone else pointed out:

The programme also featured a report from senior BBC journalist Helen Grady, who was in Rome for the Synod. Does her contribution offer further evidence of "liberal bias" on the part of Radio 4's Sunday

Well, here's how she concluded her report:
For me personally, the biggest surprise has been my own answer to the question that brought me here in the first place: Why on earth would Pope Francis ask for advice on the family from 300 celibate men? On Friday I was let into the Synod aula to observe the morning prayers and I still couldn't help but feel shocked by the total absence of women voting in the Synod. Even so, talking to bishops in the past few weeks, what I've found is that from dating apps to sperm donation, from housing costs to polygamy, they're really not as clueless as I expected
I think we'll have to answer that with a 'yes'! 

The closing discussion, however, featured two Catholics with differing perspectives - Father Alexander Lucie-Smith of the Catholic Herald and commentator John Thavis - so that can be considered balanced. 

I did note though that William's questions weren't always as 'helpful' to Father Alexander than they were to Mr Thavis:
WC to Fr A L-S: Father Alexander, just picking up on that point again. You, a few week's ago, used the expression 'ferrets fighting in a sack' to describe the cardinals and the rumoured infighting. Any reasons now to moderate that judgement? [Fr Alexander apologised profusely for it in response].
WC to JT: John, do you think the Synod will also be remembered for the exclusion of women's voices from the voting processes on family issues that matter greatly to women across the world, especially given that there was a lay person, a male lay person, who was among those who was actually able to cast a vote?

Talking of which, the programme began by discussing the arrival of the first Church of England woman bishop on the Lords Spiritual benches of the House of Lords. Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, will take her place tomorrow. 

William marked the occasion with the avowedly liberal retired Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries (of Thought For The Day fame), asking if "diversity" could be further enhanced by giving some of the Lords Spiritual places to people of other faiths.

A rum do

This morning's Marr Show was a bit rum. ("A bit rum" is the sort of thing Andrew Marr himself might say, so I thought I'd use it here in his honour).

One of the rum things was Andrew Marr's treatment of one of his paper viewers - the former Time journalist Catherine Mayer.

She's the founder of the Women's Equality Party (along with Sandi Toksvig). I first came across her because she's a long-time Dateline London guest. She's also been a fairly regular paper reviewer on the Marr show (7 times in the past 3 years).

The last time she was on the show, just after the election, she got to plug her new party (the Women's Equality Party was only formed in March) and I remember thinking that was a bit rum at the time...

...and yet here she was again, sitting on the sofa and being given absolutely free reign by Andrew to plug her new party again.

Bear in mind that this was the Marr paper review and that St. Matthew d'Ancona had just been reviewing a tax credit cuts story in the papers when, inviting Catherine Mayer into the paper review, our Andy said:
Now Catherine, I introduced you at the beginning of the show as one of the leaders of Britain's newest party. Explain.
And explain...or shamelessly plug...she did - even down to spelling out the party's web address! ("Very good, very good", said Andrew jovially).

Ah, the perks of being a favoured MSM insider! And of pushing a nice PC cause that no BBC insider could resist!

What other start-up political party would get such a boost from the BBC?


The second rum thing was Andrew Marr's extraordinary interview with Labour (far-left) shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. It was unbelievably gentle.

Yes, towards the end he asked a question about Seumas Milne (yes, a question) and teased him about how nice he was coming across and whether he was hiding his real views, but most of the interview was taken up with a series of very soft - one might say helpful questions. There was barely an interruption in sight. He even began questioning the far-left Mr McDonnell from the far-left at one point:
I mean you were elected as a radical shadow chancellor or chosen as a radical shadow chancellor. We are now in a situation, there’s a big new book out on class just this week which shows that inherited wealth in this country is one of the biggest drivers of inequality, it’s massively important. So I wonder whether you are thinking about a really big change to inherited wealth – some kind of wealth tax, some kind of revised inheritance tax because if you don’t do that then these divisions are going to carry on? 
But you’re not really about reviews. You need a wealth tax, don’t you? 
When it comes to the whole … the whole taxation system, you said in your speech to the party conference you want to get a lot of money from the big companies – the Starbucks’ and so forth, the Amazons – not paying their full taxes. But you know politicians have said this for years and years and years. They have very, very clever accountants. Capital is mobile and international. It’s much … This is slippery money to get your hands on, very difficult.
Very rum indeed.

The Conservatives' Nicky Morgan fared very differently. She got a proper grilling and the interruptions flew at her like English arrows at the French army at Agincourt. They almost affrighted the air (though not Nicky Morgan).

What was all that about?


Oh and, of course, 'the arty bit'- an interview with poet Simon Armitage about his dramatisation of the Odyssey - was as political as ever. Odysseus's plight, migrating across the Mediterranean, was related to the present migrant crisis.

As Andrew Marr put it, his Zeus seems like a kind of "Eurosceptic prime minister" (part Cameron, part Blair, he suggested. [Are either Cameron or Blair really Eurosceptic?]). Simon Armitage agreed, saying he's "looking more and more like a Conservative prime minister".

The 'arty bit' is almost guaranteed to be a lefty spot these days. (Plus ça change).

Still, as I had the pleasure of watching a jay at fairly close range last week, here's an 'arty bit' from Is the BBC biased? - Simon Armitage's The Jay:
I was pegging out your lime-green dress;
you were hoping the last of the sun
might sip the last few beads of drip-dry water
from its lime-green hem.
I had a blister-stigmata the size of an eye
in the palm of my hand
from twisting the point of a screw
into the meat of the house. Those days. Those times.
The bird was crossing the gravel path
in the style of a rowing boat crossing dry land.
Struck with terror when I held it tight
in the gardening-gloves of humankind, we saw for ourselves
the mouse-fur face and black moustache,
the squab of breastmeat under its throat,
the buff-brown coat and blue lapels,
the painted inside of its mouth,
the raw, umbilical flute of its tongue
sucking hard at the sky for the taste of air.
Setting it free, it managed no more than a butterfly stroke
to the shade of the unnamed tree, where we let it be.
They say now that the basis of life
in the form of essential carbon deposits
could have fallen to earth as a meteorite, or comet,
and that lightning strikes from banks of static
delivered the spark that set life spinning. It's a beginning.
But the three-letter bird was death, death thrown in from above,
death as a crash-brained, bone-smashed, cross-feathered bullet,
so we could neither kill it nor love it.

The smoking gun

The row over EU funding for the BBC rolls on.

This week's European Scrutiny Committee questioning of the BBC's Tony Hall, James Harding and David Jordan contained several mentions of the BBC's Media Action unit, such as this from the BBC's head of editorial policy and standards (Mr Jordan):
The BBC, as a public service broadcaster, does not take money from the EU. The organisation to which you were referring that takes money from the EU is an organisation called Media Action, and that is an independent part of the BBC, with independent trustees, whose job is to do something very different from broadcasting to the UK. The job of Media Action—it is engaged in a number of current projects funded through the EU—is, for example, in Afghanistan, to work with the Afghan media sector to develop its news and other programme-making skills, including the adoption of public service broadcasting values. In Bangladesh, it is to work on disaster preparedness. In Syria, it is to build on the achievements of an FCO-funded socially responsible media platforms programme, which has successfully established a web-based training facility for journalists and bloggers. In Iraq, it is to help to contribute to the development of an open media environment through improving legal and regulatory freedoms, and then it has a project on governance, which is about holding decision makers and media leaders to account in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Tunisia. You would probably agree that those sorts of projects are desperately needed in those countries. That is very separate from making programmes for the BBC.
Today's Sunday Telegraph, however, claims that the BBC's Media Action isn't just a democracy-spreading, pro-media freedom charity working in the Arab World and South Asia, uninfluenced by its EU funding (and, therefore, also uninfluenced by the EU's contractual demands on those who receive funding from it that it won't say or do anything to harm the interests of the EU). 

The Telegraph makes the explosive-sounding charge that BBC Media Action was "paid to deliver key parts of the EU’s political strategy in countries on the fringes of Europe":
BBC Media Action received £9.3million between 2011 and 2014, much of it to deliver the EU’s “European Neighbourhood Policy”. European Union officials have described this as “a broad political strategy” designed to strengthen the “prosperity, stability and security of Europe’s neighbourhood in order to avoid any dividing lines between the enlarged EU and its direct neighbours”. 
As part of this work, BBC Media Action led the consortium of media companies that delivered a three-year project called Media Neighbourhood, which provided training for hundreds of journalists in 17 countries on the outskirts of Europe.
Reporters taking part in the scheme attended “study tours to the EU in Brussels” during which they were able to interview “top EU policy makers” in the European Commission and the European Parliament. 
I have to say that I still found that puzzling. The article is a bit too vague and lacks a smoking gun.

The second paragraph there sounds as if Media Neighbourhood is merely the application of the unit's usual democracy-spreading media action, just as David Jordan was saying - albeit in countries closer to the EU than Mr Jordan was suggesting. Is it really seeking to enhance the EU's cause too, as the Telegraph alleges?

Checking out the BBC's Media Neighbourhood website, those countries are: Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Palestine (sic), The Russian Federation, Syria, Tunisia and Ukraine. 

It is interesting that David Jordan's list to MPs - which appears from his description to relate to this specific project - only consisted of "Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Tunisia". He omitted to mention Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, The Russian Federation and Ukraine. Wonder why he did that? 

The BBC Media Action/EU joint project has two stated aims, according to its website. The first is the one that David Jordan was happy to acknowledge to parliament:
To strengthen the professional capacity of journalists across the ENPI region, particularly in the areas of media independence and online media.
The second, however, is something he most definitely did not mention:
To enable the public in the ENPI countries to have a more informed and objective understanding of EU social, economic and political issues and cooperation with the ENPI beneficiary countries.
So, yes, the BBC Media Action project does have an explicit role in promoting the EU's cause, doesn't it? 

It's not just about helping journalists (public broadcasters, bloggers, etc) in various countries after all, apparently. It's also about "enabling the public" in those countries "to have a more informed and objective understanding" of the EU and their countries' relationship with the EU...

...a form of words I can't say inspires me with confidence about its impartiality.

Now - unless I'm missing something - that really does seem like a smoking gun. 

What on earth is this BBC-owned project doing helping the EU to influence public opinion towards the EU in 17 countries close to the EU's borders - especially in those that used to belong to the Soviet empire (like Ukraine)? 

Maybe a few letters to MPs on the European Scrutiny Committee are needed, asking them to try to get to the bottom of this. (Rona Fairhead is due to appear before them soon. Maybe they could ask her.)

Saturday 24 October 2015

"Rich Nations of Europe 2: Wretched of the Earth 3"

Talking about talking about From Our Own Correspondent...

Jon Don's award-friendly piece from the Philippines was preceded by the latest FOOC pieces by BBC Central Europe correspondent Nick Thorpe - another blog favourite (and now a regular on FOOC). His fine writing - and even finer BBC bias (advocating the refugee {migrant} cause) - has been outlined here quite a few times recently.  

His piece today focused on the plight of refugees (migrants) passing through Slovenia, and Nick Thorpe has to be given his due here. Of all the recent reporting pushing a wholly sympathetic view of the refugees (migrants) this was the most compelling because it was so well-written and so intelligently put. Even I was drawn in. 

Unlike Fergal Keane's pieces, it avoided obvious mawkishness whilst achieving the same effects as obvious mawkishness - making you feel for the refugees (migrants) and all people with missing families (mothers, children, fathers and grandparents). 

Of course, it wasn't impartial. It was on the side of the refugees (migrants) facing the cold of the approaching European winter and a turn in the European mood against them. 

As a sampler, please just try this quote from the piece:
This whole refugee crisis sometimes seems to me like a football match. Rich Nations of Europe 2: Wretched of the Earth 3.
Now that's hardly an unloaded way of putting it, is it? 

None of the report was unloaded really.

Award-winning journalism from Jon

Talking about From Our Own Correspondent...

(hmm, it's becoming a bit of a habit of mine to start posts with the words "Talking about....". I suppose I should stop doing so, but...)

Er, talking about From Our Own Correspondent...

Today's edition contained one piece that really ought to be given an award for fine writing. (A cynic might say it was too obviously aiming at such an award, but I'm no cynic.)

It came from the heart of the typhoon-struck Philippines, and tugged at this listener's heart.

The tale of a plucky fisherman braving the "wild and wet weather" was both its starting and finishing point.

"Kids of the chubby-cheeked cherubic kind" grace this feisty fisherman's home, we were told, touchingly.

Along with loads more of this sort of lip-licking alliteration came sluices of juicy assonance and mouth-watering chains of extended imagery:  
Like most Filipinos Marlon is something of a pocket rocket, the build of a bantamweight but the chin and the resilience of a heavyweight. A hard man to knock down. Typhoon Koppu, on the other hand, has lumbered across the Philippines this past week with the slow-moving mass and menace of a sumo wrestler.
And on went the alliteration and assonance: "rooftop rescues", "landslips, mudslides, lives and livelihoods lost", "Filipinos, people who paradoxically", "see the sunny side", "gripe and grumble", "skilfully skippering his skiff" (my favourite), "risking life and limb to make a living", etc.

The report ended with the hope that Marlon will be braving the seas again soon, whatever the weather, come typhoon Amen.

The BBC reporter knows though, whatever, that he's "sure" to be (given an award for this report) "greeted by the same smiling faces, kindness and character", which is nice, whatever the "extreme weather event".

Step forward Mr Jon Donnison and please collect your award for fine writing and even finer feeling.

As W.H. Auden once wrote: Round the rampant rugged rocks/Rude and ragged rascals run. 

Jon might want to bear that in might next time he sees some more chubby-cheeked cherubic children cheerfully playing on the beach somewhere award-winning, but on this evidence he clearly doesn't need any such advice. 

Bibi-bashing from the BBC

Blogs are personal, We write about what interests us. You don't have to pay a licence fee to us. If some things obsess us more than others, you're not put out of pocket by that fact.

That thought sprung to mind again today because both From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 and Dateline London on the BBC News Channel (broadcast concurrently) focused on Israel and the Palestinians yet again. (FOOC even led with it, for the second week running). 

It's clearly what interests/obsesses them, as it does us. You, however, have to pay your licence fee to them though - and that's one big difference. Our obsession comes free; theirs doesn't.

Plus, they are mean't (and charter-bound) to be impartial, and we aren't - which is the other big difference. 

It's only a week or so ago that I was moaning that both FOOC and Dateline were obsessing again about Israel - and yet, one week (or so) on, here were are again, repeating that point.

Today's Dateline certainly wasn't exactly a beacon of impartiality on the issue (to use British understatement).

Its central discussion focused on Benjamin Netanyahu's remarks about the Palestinian pro-Nazi Grand Mufti, Amin al-Husseini - remarks that have brought down a huge amount on bile on the Israeli prime minister.

According to Dateline's account, Mr Netanyahu's original remarks seemed to suggest that Hitler was merely thinking of expelling the Jews from Europe until the Palestinian leader met him and told him to 'burn' them instead. In other words, the Holocaust was provoked by the Palestinian Grand Mufti.

All the Dateline guests (Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Stephanie Baker, Thomas Kielinger, Diane Wei Liang) piled in to criticise the Israeli PM, accusing him of all manner of wickedness. Presenter Gavin Esler didn't just not counter them, he actively joined them in their tut-tutting, not once playing 'devil's advocate' in Bibi's defence.

(Please watch it and you'll see for yourself that I'm not exaggerating much).

Now I'm no expert in this field (to put it mildly), but I've read quite a bit about this over the past few days. I've read plenty of articles, blogposts and comments denouncing Benjamin Netanyahu. I've also read some articles, blogposts and comments defending Benjamin Netanyahu. I've been torn between them. Some of the condemnation has come from surprising places (places I trust) and some of the defences have seemed rather too slippery. As a result I've arrived at my own conclusions, not favourable (in this instance) to the Israeli prime minister.

However, Dateline viewers would have no such opportunity to form their own opinions. Only one opinion was on offer. No defender of Mr Netanyahu was on hand. Everyone damned him.

I think that's a shame, and I can't see how that conforms to BBC notions of impartiality. (I don't even think the rare absence of Abdel Bari Atwan helped here.)

The one completely surprising thing was that Yasmin AB, halfway through her usual drivel, said:
A lot of Palestinians, a lot of Arabs are indeed anti-Semitic. I know because they even tell me. 
That's quite something from Yasmin (who can occasionally surprise the viewer).

Can you guess what her next word was though? I bet you can. (Clue: It starts with the letter 'B' and rhymes with 'gut'). 

Infamous Seumas and 'Newsnight'

I was curious to see how Newsnight would tackle one of the biggest UK party political talking points of the week - the highly controversial appointment of the Guardian's Seumas Milne to be Jeremy Corbyn's chief strategist.

Newsnight's editor Ian Katz was, of course, a long-time colleague of Infamous Seumas at the Guardian, so would it be kid gloves' treatment for the story as a result?

Would the controversy be the focus of a entire Newsnight segment? Or would it be ignored? 

Well neither, it turned out. On Wednesday's edition Labour MP Lisa Nandy was asked a single question about it. She answered (or rather waffled) and then the interview ended with no follow-up question.

For me, that felt like a token gesture to show that the programme had tackled the subject (a spot of watertight oversight).

Judge for yourselves though. This was Kirsty Wark's question:
One of the main developments has been the very critical appointment to the future of the Jeremy Corbyn term, which is the head of strategy, and that is Seumas Milne. Now, people have been looking at his whole back catalogue and he's got some very strong opinions, expressed in a number of articles. I'm just going to put a couple to you. Milosevic shouldn't have been tried at the Hague. That was one of them. The murder of Lee Rigby wasn't terrorism in the normal sense, as an indiscriminate attack on civilians. And as far as he's written about Ukraine, "There certainly has been military expansionism but it's overwhelmingly come from NATO and not from Moscow". Now, he is going to be involved in strategy for the next five years. Do you agree with these statements?
Now, given the wealth of quotes that have been reported already (and they keep on coming) - about 9/11, 7/7, our soldiers in Iraq, Hamas, the victims of Stalin, etc - a few follow-ups might have been expected, Paxman-style, mightn't they? They never came.

Still, in fairness to the increasing crazy world we live in, I have to note that the massed ranks of Corbynistas on Newsnight found even this one question too much: It was a pointless question. Newsnight was 'apeing tabloids again'. There were 'shades of McCarthyism' here. It was 'shameless anti Jeremy Corbyn bias'.

Why the BBC doesn't monitor itself for bias

One of the less-reported things about the European Scrutiny Committee's encounter with the three top BBC bosses was that it discussed something close to our hearts: monitoring bias. 

What I took away from it was that after the Wilson Report into the BBC's (pro-) EU coverage, the BBC had pledged to put some form of monitoring into place but that, having tried doing so, has now abandoned monitoring again and won't be re-introducing it in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Sir Bill Cash, repeatedly citing News-watch's close monitoring of the BBC's EU coverage, argued that the BBC ought to be carrying out such monitoring and making its finding publicly available for people to check. He wants a Hansard-style logging system, comparable to News-watch's extensive archive of transcriptions, and, given its huge budget and sheer size, wanted to know why the BBC isn't doing so?  

The most concise statement of the BBC's position came from David Jordan, the BBC's head of editorial policy and standards:
I think we gave up the monitoring that the chairman is talking about at the time because we found it to be actually very unhelpful and not helpful at all in even deciding and defining whether we were impartial. 
And I think in the context of other appearances and elections we've discovered the same thing. For example, if you're covering an election how do you define somebody who's on a particular party but it opposing something that party is doing at the time they were appearing on the radio? Are they, as it were, in that party's column or are they in another column that tells you what they were doing? It becomes very, very confusing and doesn't necessarily sum up the nuances and differences that exist in election campaigns in our experience. 
So that was the reason I think why we gave it up. 
It was also very, very expensive and time-consuming too. 
And we thought that allowing editors to be essentially responsible for impartiality in their output and having an overall view which we get through a series of meetings and discussions which take place in the BBC, were a better way to ensure we achieved impartiality that through simple number-counting.
I have to say I laughed when he said that such monitoring had proved to be "actually very unhelpful and not helpful at all". Cynically, I thought, "I bet it wasn't - especially if it came up with the 'wrong' results" (a bit like the Balen report?)

I didn't buy his example either. For me, it's hardly rocket science to, say, note in one column that Kate Hoey is a Labour Party representative and in another column to note that she's anti-EU. I can't see why that would be "very, very confusing". 

Also, I don't buy the it's "very, very expensive and time-consuming too" argument either. If a small number of people at News-watch can monitor and transcribe every EU-related interview on major BBC programmes over many, many years then surely an organisation of the size and resources of the BBC can run something similar for its major news bulletins and flagship programmes too. It's not that difficult. I work full-time and still managed to monitor every political interview on all the BBC's main current affairs programmes for nine months (in 2009-10) - and at no expense whatsoever! 

Also, if you simply rely on editorial judgement - on both the small and large scales (in individual programmes and at senior editorial meetings) - then many individual biases could result and multiply. In an organisation containing so many like-minded people as the BBC, those biases would doubtless head in the same direction and become self-reinforcing. Therefore, they probably won't be spotted as biases at all - merely sensible, impartial BBC thinking. Who then would be able to point out that it isn't being impartial after all?

Given that many people think that this kind of groupthink the problem and that, as a result, the BBC are blind to their own biases, asking us to trust the judgements of BBC editors en masse isn't likely to reassure us....

....which is where what David Jordan derisively calls "number-crunching" comes in. 

If over a year of, say, Newsnight there are 60 editions that deal with the UK-EU relationship in some way. Say 55 of those editions featured a pro-Stay guest but only 35 featured a pro-Leave guest, then number-crunching surely would surely raise a serious question about the programme's impartiality? 

If, say, 9 of those pro-Leave guests came from UKIP and the other 26 came from the Conservatives but no pro-Leave Labour or Green guests appeared then that would also surely indicate a serious bias?

Is it really beyond the ability of programme editors to count and record such figures - and to then make them publicly available?

If their figures show exceptional impartiality (45 pro-Stay, 45 pro-Leave guests), then they will surely win more people over, wouldn't they? 

What would they have to lose?

Update: The full transcript of the committee meeting is now available (h/t David Keighley).