Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The BBC and the Gutter Press - not that different, really

My old employer, BBC TV News, has been cheerleading on behalf of the Public Sector strikers all day, whizzing around the country in search of signs of overwhelming support for these deluded wretches – and not coming up with any. Let’s face it, there’s very little sympathy among private sector workers who are being asked  to meet public sector pension promises in perpetuity while their own standards of living and pension entitlements evaporate.

Appearing before the official inquiry into Media Ethics the other day, former TV star Ann Diamond made the point – forcefully – that our broadcasters didn’t go in for any of the grubby tactics employed by the gutter press. And she’s right. At no time during the 12 years I worked for BBC News was I ever once asked to do anything shoddy or dishonest – and the thought of prying into people’s private lives would never have occurred to any of us. We were all issued with (expensively) printed  Producer Guidelines which specifically forbade any such behaviour, and I’m sure any contravention would have resulted in dismissal – or being shunted to some obscure backwater until the humiliation became too much to bear and the transgressor slunk off.

The downside, of course, was that BBC News rarely broke any stories, and relied almost entirely on newspaper scoops: corporation journalists who actually nosed out a fresh story often suffered the frustration of waiting until the Guardian or the Mirror published it before their bosses would dare to cover it. I know, because I got into TV news as a “researcher” (a new post at the time) charged with winkling out new stories for the flagship Nine O’Clock News’s specialist correspondent. Never happened. Not once. I pinched every story we ever covered from the newspapers: and that was fine, because I was a lousy investigative journalist.

So part of the reason that BBC News – and ITV News – can be so high and mighty about journalistic ethics is that neither organisation covers stories in a way that might tempt anyone to hack mobile phones or search through dustbins or blackmail celebrities to get them to co-operate. Besides, the people who run News at our major broadcasters are, on the whole, terribly decent: and there really isn’t any point in behaving badly if it doesn’t bring kudos or reward.

Having said all that, where the BBC practices dishonesty on a massive scale every day is in the way it covers major ongoing news stories (rather than celebrity flim-flam). In a recent post I mentioned a number of press articles pointing out that the BBC is wholly – and disgracefully - in thrall to the Holy Rollers of the Anthropocentric Global Warming conspiracy. The anti-Israeli bias of its Middle East coverage has been quite scandalous for years. The habitually negative coverage of America’s right-wing politicians – and the Tea Party movement in particular – should have resulted in a string of sackings. The treatment of the Tory Party and Ulster Unionists has been shameful. Its fawning attitude to the EU has been nauseating - and wholly wrong.

As for its treatment of any issue involving the Catholic Church, well, it's practically beyond belief.

There’s a particularly interesting chapter in former Today reporter, Robin Aitken’s 2007 book, Can We Trust the BBC? about a 2003 Panorama programme which basically accused the Vatican of helping to spread AIDS in Africa. Aitken draws on a report by an Assistant Newsnight Editor, David Kerr, written during a sabbatical at Oxford, in which he forensically destroys the tenth-rate journalism underpinning this piece of naked anti-Catholic propaganda, describing it as amounting to “polemical prosecution” – even I, who have always regarded the  Panorama production team as a communist cell, was shocked.

The BBC’s current, ludicrously one-sided, coverage of public sector “cuts” should have resulted in a clear-out of senior editorial figures, a public apology, and an extra, punitive cut to the licence fee. (The current two-part series on how our money is spent, by one of the Corporation’s few Tories, Political Editor Nick Robinson, is, one suspects, a timely fig-leaf, designed to allow News to claim a spurious even-handedness – better, of course, if those points were made on the main news bulletins rather than in the relatively obscure confines of BBC 2.)

If you think I’m over-stating the case, read this from today’s Telegraph and this follow-up on the Biased-BBC website. Paul Mason is Newsnight’s Economics Editor. He has no academic or journalistic background in economics (his training is musical) and he is evidently a screaming leftie. Just look at the photograph at the top of this blog, which shows Mason holding a placard during last year's BBC strike. The sign reads "Strike! to stop the pensions robbery". God, he looks pleased with himself! How are we supposed to believe that anything this man tells us isn't politically motivated?

Broadcasters may not go through celebrities’ dust-bins, and they certainly don’t try to get at their targets through their children, and they do their very best not to make up scurrilous stories which they know to be wholly untrue – but their politically-blinkered, nakedly biased reporting of many of the major events of our time represents a far more serious betrayal of public trust than anything the gutter press gets up to.

The BBC produces so much of worth - BBC 4, Radio 3 and Radio 4 Extra would justify the license fee on their own - that it's a crying shame it lets us all down so badly by flouting fairness when it comes to so much of its news coverage. 

Doesn't anyone in a position of authority over there in W12 think it's time to clean out the stables?


  1. An informative and interesting post. Thank you.

    Putting the question of "nakedly biased reporting " to one side there is the question of the relentless "branding" of BBC TV News which I presume is part of the ratings war. Apart from the endless sequences of reporters walking along waving their arms about and trying to deliver lapidary statements and the fussy use of computer-generated visual aids to illustrate the simplest of points [is there a Presenter's Guide-Line manual to go with the Producer's?] which is irritating and gets in the way and slows everything to a crawl. There are three specific areas where TV News must clean up its act. Very briefly:

    1. Wars are there to be reported. They are not excuses for intrepid reporters to dress up in full battle kit and to be shot "going in harm's way" on camera. Leave the heroics to Ross Kemp. RIP Brian Barron.

    2. Tragedies. Sitting with victims' families in their living rooms holding the obligatory photograph and asking them questions in a creepy, funereal voice is bad taste and intrusive. Ditto endless shots of floral tributes "at the site" and their toe-curling messages ["Dwayne is sleeping with the angels."]. The greatest example of this was after the Beslan Massacre when a BBC reporter turned to camera and intoned: "The family has personally invited the BBC to attend the funeral of their four massacred daughters." Heh?

    3. No news programme is complete without some spurious science/medical story. NASA and that bloody Swiss collider provided wonderful fodder. And it also provides an excuse to shoot new footage of lab technicians peering at their test tubes before sticking them into a cauldron - again and again. Last night there a long sequence about Stephen Lawrence and a jacket and blood and saliva and a laboratory and ...It's meaningless to the ordinary Jo Blow. We don't want to know. Knock it on the head.

    Well, it will all be solved soon. The Olympics are upon us and Sue Barker and her little army of squeaky goodie-goodies must be vibrating like lemmings. Recession. What recession?

  2. Talk about synchronicity, News Hound! I was watching the BBC One O'Clock News today when the latest Stephen Lawrence murder re-trial item came on - and began shouting at the screen when they went in for a close-up of that jacket with that blood-stain on it. What i said was "This means nothing to me. Sort it out, then come back and tell me what's been decided!"

    Agreed about the victims of tragedies - also the use of the "real" person when discussing the impact of government policy on ordinary people - I never feel the need to heard Mrs. Ethel Quotts of Nuneaton telling me that losing £2.50 a week will mean she has to eat her children. It's a silly convention.

    The problem with science stories on TV News is that 2'30" (sometimes less) simply isn't enough time to meaningfully explain their significance (if any). It always comes across as news for simpletons. (Mind you, the newspapers are just as bad - it is now de rigeur to feature a statins story once a month, pro ant or neutral: how is that sort of approach meant to help???)

    It's been a long time since I worked in news, and I can't actually sit through a whole bulletin these days - none of the conventions appears to have changed since my day, except that there are more reporters doing live two-ways, waving, as you point out, their arms around as if they're signalling racing odds. To be fair, the graphics sequences are ever so slightly less silly than when I used to do them (my cheeks flame when I think of some of the nonsense I was responsible for!).

    War reporting seriously needs to be revisited - especially as it has become more and more dangerous, and sheds less and less light. The ridiculous thing about it is that when reporters are there on the ground, it's almost impossible to find out what the hell's going on around you.

  3. The problem with science stories on TV News is that 2'30" (sometimes less) simply isn't enough time to meaningfully explain their significance (if any)

    Jogged my memory.

    21 November 2007, 10:57, Susan Watts, Science Editor of Newsnight contacts me to talk about biometrics.

    I ring her and we talk about how flaky the technology is and the way the public is being ripped off, to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds every year – the Home Office love biometrics and keep spending money on ePassports and (back then) ID cards and (still) biometric visas (see Brodie Clark) and face recognition equipment at airports and mobile fingerprinting equipment for policemen as a result.

    Stand by to appear on the programme, she says.

    In the event, nothing happens.

    I send an email every now and again in the ensuing years. Sorry, too busy on the UN conference on climate change, she says, 22 September 2009, 10:54. Otherwise she doesn't answer. No public interest, I suppose. Who's interested in the Home Office wasting our money? Not Newsnight, apparently.

    She'll do biometrics in the end ...

  4. Paul Mason is Newsnight’s Economics Editor. He has no academic or journalistic background in economics ...

    That is an issue. But then it's an issue for most Chancellors of the Exchequer as well.

    And it's not as though the corps of academic economists have done very well over the past few years.

    Jeremy Paxman has complained on occasion at how difficult it is to get Mr Mason to put a tie on. I think that's getting closer to the nub of the problem.

    Simon Jenkins (Greatest Living Welshman?) always makes the point that it's politics which is supreme, not economics. And he is, after all, Simon Jenkins, the Chairman of the National Trust – a title any politician would give his eye teeth for (or, more likely, our eye teeth).

    No, it's the cut of Mason's political jib which is the problem, not his academic background.

  5. Re the non-appearance of the Biometrics story - I guarantee that Susan Watts couldn't interest any Newsnight programme editors in doing it: the subject editors/correspondents have no control over what gets chosen and what doesn't, and science - apart from cloning and AGW and children's vaccinations doesn't interest them in the least. They can't even be bothered to properly report the waste of money on government IT projects. Too many English and Sociology graduates.

    As for Mason... I concede. I once had to work with Peter Jay when he was BBC Economics Editor, and he certainly had an academic background in the subject. And that was just as big a problem, because there was nobody to argue with him inside the Beeb: he just kept declaring that the earth was flat, and that was that. He was (like most of his BBC colleagues) forever stuck in the 1970s, and therefore wrong about absolutely everything.

    The problem is that, as Mason obviously wasn't chosen for his expertise in Economics - why did he get the job? Because he'd bveen involved with a few business mags (so what? his field is supposed to be Economics)? Or because he's a standard issue, chippy, gobby lefty with a regional accent and the usual set of prejudices? " Far more likely.