Sunday 22 January 2017

The appliance of science

Earlier in the week the Times reported that the newly-appointed BBC chairman Sir David Clementi will be asking for "scientific" monitoring of BBC impartiality. including into the corporation's post-EU referendum coverage. 

I suspect the phrase 'scientific research' will have rung loud alarm bells with senior BBC editors. They've vigorously rejected that idea for years now, often being at pains to tell MPs or Newswatch viewers that such a thing isn't suitable for the BBC - eg. the BBC’s chief political adviser Ric Bailey:
I’m a really strong believer that you don’t achieve due impartiality by maths and by stopwatches. That’s what used to happen years ago. It’s no longer the case. It’s not the whole picture. You’ve got to achieve a consistency of approach, a similar level of scrutiny across the different parties over time of which airtime is only one small part.
A flavour of this likely negative BBC reaction can perhaps be gathered from the old presenter of BBC One's NewsWatch Raymond Snoddy, who is not at all happy about Sir David's call for 'scientific monitoring' of BBC impartiality. In this passage, you can hear clear echoes of BBC disdain, past and present, for such an idea:
Scientific research would be a fine thing indeed - if such a thing existed.
One of the gaps in Sir David's knowledge may be the history of such attempts, usually by right-wingers trying to use stop-watches to prove the BBC was hopelessly left-wing.
Then there is the science of textual analysis, never mind the philosophy of trying to work out whether impartiality is a useful concept or even whether such a thing can ever possibly exist.
We can only look forward to Sir David's first scientific report on impartiality - something that almost always depends on subjective judgement - with warm-hearted anticipation.
The sarcasm of that last sentence is typical of the piece as a whole. In the same spirit then: Yes, perish the thought that using stopwatches or counting things and discovering that there's an extreme lack of BBC impartiality should ever be encouraged again! 

Incidentally, as for where Ray Snoddy is coming from, well, here's what comes next:
The new chairman also wants a report into the Corporation's post-referendum coverage as he puts "impartiality, independence and accuracy" at the top of his agenda. Yes indeed, but at the same time, and more centrally, he might also call for a report - scientific or otherwise - into the BBC's pre-referendum coverage, which many think adhered too dogmatically to an inadequate definition of impartiality. It was the sort of impartiality which in news bulletins balanced up the considered views of dozens of Nobel prize winners with the dismissive piffle emerging from Boris Johnson.
Yes, it's the old John Simpson line that the BBC could have changed the result of the referendum (i.e. brought about a Remain win) if it had been more active in giving "clear guidance" to its viewers and listeners, and that the BBC should have given them such "clear guidance".

Sir David Clementi may have his work cut out. 

My worry about this proposed 'scientific research' into BBC impartiality, however, is that it will be farmed out, yet again, to the team at Cardiff University - a media department so full of far-left academics, former BBC bosses and others intimately connected with the BBC that its previous reports have seemed far removed from both rigour and reality (such as claiming that the BBC is anti-EU). 

If they get chosen to carry out the research for this BBC report then Sir David might as well call the whole thing off, as it will say - as sure as night follows day - that the BBC did OK but that Ray Snoddy and John Simpson are right and that the corporation's only major fault was that it should have been a lot more biased against the Brexiteers and their 'piffle'.


  1. S'Ok. Samira will be totes cool on it all.

    I think they will getitaboutright.

    Or not. One of the two.

  2. I was at the in laws yesterday, phone battery had ran out, so i decided to read the Radio Times on the coffe table.

    I counted at least 5 anti Brexit and anti Trump comments whilst skimming through, and none pro the opposite.

    However what got me was an article discussing the various ways of watching online content, Netflix, Amazon Prime, IPlayer etc etc.

    They all had the monthly costs shown and yet IPlayer was shown as free! Somebody ought to point out to them that the laws changed and you now need a licence for IPlayer and it therefore costs the BBC license fee......

  3. No need. We'll just check out the BBC employees' tweets. When we know they're 52% pro Brexit and 48% against, we'll know the BBC have "got it about right". Of course we will have to deal with the phenomenon of hell freezing over owing to climate change, when that does eventuate.

  4. I happened to tune in to the BBC Parliament channel at some unearthly hour following the inauguration only to find the select committee interviewing him for the post. I watched fascinated and grimly amused, thinking how nothing is ever going to change, when he said that Hall has done a good job and, when challenged about several particular instances: "That's editorial." He had clearly been doing thorough preparation, watching and listening to all sorts from the referendum campaign coverage to Bake Off (which he said had reached a peak with Nadia Hussein (!)) to Today, Strictly and This Week. He cited Portillo and Abbott as an example of where the BBC (Andrew Neil) held the ring quite well between them by which I took it he meant between opposing political sides. Not sure that wholly works as intended, though. Portillo has said often enough over several years that he is no longer a Conservative or a politician. Abbott definitely is. How about that ex Labour Cabinet Minister who is now head of radio and strategy and goodness knows what else at the BBC? Will he also regard him as still a politician and a party man, as it appears he does Portillo? Or will that be somehow different?

    The one glimmer of hope and insight was when he said it wasn't good enough to say the old threadbare line, familiar to people here: We get complaints from both sides so we must be doing it right.

    All in all, I thought him well meaning, earnest and will serve the institution as well as all the others but it will continue to be essentially the same old and nothing of reality or substance will be much affected.

  5. They're aware of what they do, aren't they? And they're nervous. The example Clockworkorange points out above is a classic example of why this noise about numbers and stopwatches is a false choice.

    It's one thing if the complaints are generally about how a 55/45 split, or an extra minute or two of airtime is proof of systemic bias. But that's not what is at all. The differences are enormous, as your numbers alone have proven over and over. With all the other evidence out there, well, no wonder the Beeboids are circling the wagons.


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