Saturday 5 May 2018

Questions of Balance

Owen and Ian, after last night's discussion

Last night's Newsnight review of the local election results had a curious panel - two Labour-supporting panellists from opposite poles of the party (Owen Jones and Philip Collins), a Liberal Democrat supporter (Miranda Green) and a lone right-of-centre guest who said he'd voted Liberal Democrat in this election in protest at his Conservative council, Tunbridge Wells (Iain Dale).

Newsnight probably couldn't have guessed that Iain Dale voted Liberal Democrat (as a protest vote), even though he'd tweeted the fact before his appearance on Newsnight, so we'll let them off, but the overall balance of the panel was harder to understand.

Of course, 'complaints from both sides' are to be found:
@BBCNewsnight 3 Tories v 1 Labour, and you say your not bias,@UKLabour are well served with @OwenJones84 though.
Does this mean that both this chap from St. Paul's Cathedral and myself are both guilty of confirmation bias?

Obviously, the tweeter from St. Paul's Cathedral is defining everybody to the right of Owen Jones as "Tories", so he isn't being entirely reasonable there.

But am I?

What are the ways of seeing this panel (other than as 'three Tories versus Owen Jones!')?:

  • Two Labour, one Lib Dem, one Conservative? 
  • Two Labour, one Lib Dem, and one Conservative who told Emily he's not been a Conservative member for eight years and voted Lib Dem this time? 
  • Two Labour (one a Corbynista, one a Blairite), one Lib Dem, one right-of-centre?
  • Three left-leaning, one right-leaning?
  • Two left-leaning, one centre, one right-leaning?
  • One government supporter, three government critics?
  • One Corbyn supporter, three Corbyn critics?
  • Three anti-Brexit people versus one pro-Brexit person?
  • Two 'soggy centre-left' people against a mild right-winger and a hard leftist?
  • A panel of Newsnight regulars?

Personally, if I were Newsnight's editor, I'd have had three people who supported their respective parties/party leaderships here: a pro-Mrs May Conservative, a pro-Sir Vince Lib Dem and a pro-Mr Corbyn Labour supporter. I wouldn't have included Philip Collins (excellent as he is to watch and as lively as he is in sparring with Owen Jones).


Lib Dem Miranda and Blaritie Philip

Oddly though (well, for me anyhow), on reflection, maybe the Corbyn-supporting verger from St. Paul's Cathedral had a point after all. Having a Blairite critic of Mr Corbyn alongside a "noisy" cheerleader for Mr Corbyn wasn't helpful to Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, and Labour was the only party to receive that 'splits' treatment here.


[Obviously, the BBC - if anyone complained - would start by pointing out this was only one panel on one edition of one programme and that we should judge the BBC over time].


Weirder still, this night's Newsnight had two reports. One was a general report on the election results from Nick Watt, the other a report on one particular council result from David Grossman. 

As a seasoned BBC watcher, I'm very attuned to which council results BBC programmes focus on and was surprised that this one made the Conservative gain in Barnet its particular focus. 

I was personally very pleased that they did (thus highlighting the antisemitism issue), but - donning my 'fair-minded blogger' hat -, I can see why that would have infuriated the Corbynistas.

Continuing to try to be fair-minded, what can be said in Newsnight's defence here? 

Well, given that Labour antisemitism has been one of the massive stories of recent weeks and months, this particularly dramatic result is the most newsworthy result of the local elections and Newsnight was right to place it in particular under the spotlight. (As they say on exam papers: Discuss.)


The two political interviews that night were with the Conservatives' Jo Johnson (brother of Boris) and Labour's Lords leader Baroness Smith.

Emily and JoJo

Emily's questions/comments to Jo Johnson were:

  • ...and I began by asking him if he was worried by vote share projections that show Labour and the Tories neck and neck. 
  • Do you think then that Corbyn has stopped being a threat to the Conservatives? 
  • So he's not really a threat anymore to your party? 
  • So when you look at the UKIP vote which has now collapsed, that's mainly gone to you. John Curtice predicts that 70% of your voters are now Leavers. Essentially the harder wing of your party is now emboldened by these results. Jacob Rees-Mogg was quoting the John Curtice figure and saying, finally we can deliver the kind of Brexit that we, ie he, envisages. 
  • The Jacob Rees-Mogg's path for Brexit now is what he feels can happen. 
  • Yeah, but what does that mean? Because we saw talks break down last week over the Customs Union direction. We know that Brussels doesn't even like any of the things on the table. So once you've got this UKIP vote and you've got people like Jacob Rees-Mogg saying, "Yep, that's going to be a hard Brexit" and "We can do that now". Is that what we can expect? 
  • Jo Johnson, you are kidding yourself. Nobody came out of that polling booth saying, "I'm really pleased with the way Brexit negotiations are going". You cannot look yourself in the mirror and say what your government is doing now is absolutely great. Can you? They haven't got anything done. 
  • This is a result, this is an election that has told you there is stasis - that Corbyn isn't moving forward, that the Tories aren't moving forward. It is not an endorsement of anyone. It's a suggestion, if anything, that people are sick and don't know where to go to now. 

Emily and BaSm

And her questions/comments to Baroness Smith of Basildon were:

  • Remembering Sadiq Khan's words, there's no corner of London where labour can't win. Chris Williamson also said "the easiest period to campaign for Labour in my entire life". What went wrong? 
  • But ultimately it didn't. 
  • Jeremy Corbyn visited Grimsby, he visited Barnet,  he visited Thurrock, "This is a seat we can and will win". He didn't win any of them.
  • I don't understand whether you're saying don't extrapolate or we have made real gains and it is a sign that we are moving forward. You can't have it both ways. 
  • OK. But you're the opposition party. This should have been the easiest time ever. You have had a Windrush scandal, you have had Cabinet resignations, you've got Brexit chaos. She, the Prime Minister is in crisis.
  • No, but she has emerged completely unscathed. 
  • Because they don't know what Labour thinks about the customs union.
  • Momentum has been Labour's grass roots way of really reaching voters that other political parties or political methods couldn't reach. Do you feel that Momentum has now tipped into something that makes it harder for the party? They control the NEC, they talk of deselection, many centrist Labour MPs are quite scared of them. Are you worried that the hard left is now costing you a bigger vote? 
  • And Haringey, where there is a big Momentum presence, went backwards. You lost seats. 
  • So what do those areas tell you?
  • The point is though it's about direction of travel, isn't it? It is about whether people are playing to their own bandwidth. Jeremy Corbyn has never bent to the centre, that has been one of his great strengths, he seems to know what he stands for. But maybe this is, as has been asked of him today, peak Corbyn, maybe he can't reach the centre ground? 
  • He's had three lots of elections, maybe even four lots of election, to do that reaching out. 
  • But you're saying it's not high enough. 
  • You would agree, wouldn't you, that Barnet was a self-inflicted wound?

Particularly nteresting (from my point of view) to note here are Emily saying the following:
  1. ...people like Jacob Rees-Mogg saying, "Yep, that's going to be a hard Brexit"
  2. Nobody came out of that polling booth saying, "I'm really pleased with the way Brexit negotiations are going".
  3.'ve got Brexit chaos...
As anyone who looks at the question of BBC bias must consider: Do interviewer's questions express things in ways that sound biased because the interviewer is, dispassionately, asking devil's advocate questions contrary to her interviewee and posing things in provocative ways so as to solicit an interesting (or newsworthy) answer, or do such questions constitute hidden, biased statements of belief on the part of the interviewer?

Obviously, many of the questions listed were devil's advocate-style questions, but looking at my 3 highlighted comments, I'd say that there was something more:
(1) that Jacob Rees-Mogg would never say "hard Brexit", as that's a term mainly favoured by those unsympathetic towards Brexit (and Iain Dale picked up Emily later for using the term in a point to him - "Well, tell that to Boris Johnson, tell that to the Daily Mail. You saw the front cover, and you're very close to David Davis. He can push back for a very hard Brexit now. You're a good friend of his". He replied, "This is preposterous, what on earth has a so-called hard Brexit, which is actually just Brexit, got to do with any of the results from yesterday? These were local elections, I don't think they have any impact on the Brexit debate.")
(2) that Emily is wrong that "nobody" thinks the Brexit negotiations are going well, and
(3) that the term "Brexit chaos" (as put to a Remain-voting baroness) is a heavily negatively loaded (anti-Brexit) way of characterising the present situation. 
So, yes, I do detect bias - and on the Brexit issue here it's all coming from one direction..

What do you say?


  1. Monkey Brains5 May 2018 at 23:20

    Reading between the lines, Emily M wasn't really asking the most difficult questions of both sides, she was simply representing the traditional pro-EU soggy-left position. So what she wanted to know from both Johnson and the Baroness was why they weren't working harder and more effectively to undo the Brexit vote by at the very least binding us tightly to the EU, to make it easier for us to return at a later date. The limits of the BBC's pro-Corbynism were on display.

  2. Monkey Brains6 May 2018 at 02:11

    The contrast between Guido and BBC is instructive:

    The BBC studiously avoid giving the revised total number of local government seats on their website after this latest round of council elections. Why? Well maybe because Labour are still about 2500 seats behind the Conservatives and as Guido points out: "No opposition party in living memory has won a general election without first being the biggest party in local government…"

    I haven't heard that anywhere on the BBC, or indeed any of the MSM: "No opposition party in living memory has won a general election without first being the biggest party in local government…" It bears repeating.

    It might explain what otherwise appears as lazy complacency on the part of the Conservatives.

    I was definitely given the impression by a variety of BBC reporters that Labour had done stunningly well in previous council elections prior to 2017 and so we couldn't expect them to gain too many seats this time round, and so I imagined Labour must have been well in the lead of Tories in numbers of council seats. But I was being misled. All the time they were 2,500 BEHIND!

    This is how fake news works: they can safely assume a degree of ignorance on the part of the audience and then tailor their reports to create misleading impressions off the back of that ignorance. Why didn't BBC reporters in their items just simply state how many seats each party has? Well we know the answer, don't we? - it would be a demoralising message for Labour and that would conflict with the BBC narrative/objectives.

    1. Yes, and UKIP still have more councillors than the Greens is another point that I've not heard from the BBC.


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