Independent | I’m not surprised that the BBC chastised Jenni Murray over her transgender comments – this is what institutional sexism looks like


Impartiality is the necessary fiction that allows the BBC to exist. A public service broadcaster that didn’t attempt to hold its head above bias would be untenable, and this is why the BBC’s editorial guidelines make it clear that news and current affairs presenters are not to publish their personal views on “controversial subjects”.

But what do you do when the controversy comes for you? When, however much you’d rather not be the object of dispute, you become the frontier in an ideological war? When what you are – and how you name yourself – slips from neutral to contentious, without you doing anything?

Jenni Murray has presented the BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for 30 years, and she’s been a woman for even longer than that. At the weekend, the Sunday Times published an article by her titled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”. Under that headline, Murray criticised some claims of trans activism (and she was careful to say she was talking about the extreme of the debate): that anyone who identifies as a woman has “always been a woman” no matter the age at which they transition, and that references to the female body should be censored in the interests of inclusion.

Read the full post at the Independent

Newsbeat and the BNP: complaint partially upheld

Darryl Chamberlain of the 853 blog reports that his editorial complaint over BBC Newsbeat’s presentation of the BNP has been partially upheld. BBC head of editorial Fraser Steel agrees that the report on the website was at fault, both for repeating unchallenged the assertion that Stepney-born Ashley Cole was “not British”, and for only linking to the BNP’s website.

However, Steel maintains that – despite these defects – Debbie Randle’s interview was appropriately challenging. This is where Chamberlain feels the BBC’s editorial policy shows serious strain, and I agree:

On a journalistic level, the BNP is a news story on stilts, because it represents danger to most people – a political refuge for the ignored and misled which also threatens the safety of our fellow British citizens. In crude news terms, the frisson of violence associated with the party makes it interesting in a way, say, the Liberal Democrats aren’t. Even this summer, its leader on Epping Forest council said the party could not have been behind an alleged firebomb attack on a man’s home because: “Firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure.” As a journalist, why wouldn’t you quiz a BNP member about why they’ve joined a party which has officials spouting that stuff?

This is not a normal political party. To treat it as such is not only cowardice, but a basic journalistic failing. The BBC acknowledged this when it invited Nick Griffin onto Question Time – and the vast majority of the programme was dedicated to his being there, with host David Dimbleby turning master interrogator as well as benign chairman.

853, “Newsbeat meets the BNP: Complaint partially upheld”

Will the BBC decide that “political balance” is no longer an acceptable substitute for rigorous journalism as a result of all this? I hope so, because while I agree that the BBC must avoid adhering to any political party, there is no justification for the neutral presentation of those who endorse hate, harassment and violence.


The Media Show on reporting the BNP


Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Did Griffin’s Question Time change anything?

A survey (PDF) by YouGov for the Daily Telegraph polled 1,314 adults after Griffin’s Question Time appearance and compared the results with a survey taken during the summer. (The figures in the left-hand column are from 29 May to 4 June; those in the right-hand column from 22-23 October.) The results show such tiny shifts that it seems fair to say that the programme caused no change in voting intentions or political sympathies.

YouGov The BNP’s “total positive” score fell by two points, its “total negative” score fell by one, and its “ambivalent” score increased by two – so far, Question Time seems to have been neither a devastating exposure of the BNP viewpoint, or a crossing-over into the mainstream. But over on page two of the PDF, there’s a more depressing figure: 22% of those surveyed reported that they “would or might consider voting BNP”. Considering that only 3% say that they intend to vote BNP, that’s a whole chunk of people who don’t identify with the BNP yet don’t see their politics as off-limits – presumably including people who read and believe headlines like these.

It’s regularly asserted that we need “debate” about immigration. But immigration is constantly being debated, and as Alex Massie points out, the terms of that debate are almost entirely in agreement with the BNP. Immigration is presented as a problem which must be controlled, culture is offered as an internally consistent entity that will be destroyed by change – and we saw on Question Time that none of the three major parties is willing to step away from this strikingly illiberal line. The authoritarian, isolationist tendency is already at home in UK p0litics. It’s never really gone away.

**Edit ** LibCon highlights possible efforts by the BNP to bias YouGov polls in their favour. If that’s true, and this is still the best showing they could manage, they’re not doing it very well.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

It’s like thinking but it’s not thinking

LightbulbClive Jame has something to say about scepticism. It’s a “light-hearted” something, says the strap, which is a handy because you might otherwise have thought it was “emptily provocative” or “quite stupid”. Clive James wants you to know that he’s a sceptic, and not one of your fairweather sceptics who’ll research something and then come to a provisional conclusion: “What remained constant was my scepticism, which is surely, as a human attitude, more valuable than gullibility.” That sounds about right, doesn’t it? Question everything! Stick it to the gulls, CJ!

But these are hard times for the sceptic, continues James:

Since [the time of Montaigne], a sceptical attitude has been less likely to get you burned at the stake, but it’s notable how the issue of man-made global warming has lately been giving rise to a use of language hard to distinguish from heresy-hunting in the fine old style by which the cost of voicing a doubt was to fry in your own fat.

Whether or not you believe that the earth might have been getting warmer lately, if you are sceptical about whether mankind is the cause of it, the scepticism can be enough to get you called a denialist.

It’s a nasty word to be called, denialist, because it calls up the spectacle of a fanatic denying the Holocaust.

Holo-what-now? I thought we were being light-hearted. Now we’re accusing people who agree with the scientific consensus on global warming of secretly wanting to set fire to those who differ from them. But what is the consensus anyway? Maybe we’ve been mislead by our media, and the existence of climate change (and its cause, if it does exist) is more disputed than we realise:

I still can’t see that there is a scientific consensus. There are those for, and those against. Either side might well be right, but I think that if you have a division on that scale, you can’t call it a consensus.

But Clive, you haven’t told us what the scale of the disagreement is! Just the existence of an unspecified, unnamed number of dissenters with unknown evidence is enough to undermine a consensus. Perhaps by now you’re thinking that James’ approach is a bit empty, that he doesn’t seem to be familiar with any research of any kind, and he’s being just a tiny bit flippant about a potential global catastrophe. Well, you would be wrong to do so, because James cares more than you will ever know, with your craven preference for “data” and “analysis”:

Sceptics, say the believers, don’t care about the future of the human race. But being sceptical has always been one of the best ways of caring about the future of the human race. For example, it was from scepticism that modern medicine emerged, questioning the common belief that diseases were caused by magic, or could be cured by it.

So, to recap: if you accept that climate change is both ongoing and caused by humans, then you’re a gullible person with a taste for immolating your enemies, and you probably think the squinty-eyed lady up the road is trying to kill you with her mind. If you disagree with the widely-held opinion of climate scientists, then you’re going to save the human race with the power of pure thought. QED. Now go and turn all the lights on so you can illuminate this darkening world with your exquisite scepticism.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by beana_cheese, used under Creative Commons.

Nick Griffin’s day out

QT grabNick Griffin’s Question Time appearance was spectacularly bad. Previously on Paperhouse, I’ve said that I don’t think the QT format is equipped for challenging debate. I agree with Nelson’s reasons for not wanting the BNP on there at all. But I reckoned on the QT panel’s usual dynamic being in place: instead, three career politicians and one media professional all turned up, determined to tax Griffin hard on his obnoxious history and flimsy justifications for racism.

He looked abysmal – partly because there is no good answer to a question like, “Haven’t I seen you sharing a stage with a Ku Klux Klan leader?” (And if there is a good answer, it isn’t to say that the KKK were “largely non-violent.”) Partly, as well, because he’s got a set of ticks that howl unpleasantness. He spent the entire show hand-rubbing, leering and clapping himself with mock jollity every time a blow landed on him.

The other panellists were well-prepared and adequate, apart from Bonnie Greer, who was well-prepared and splendid. And, not being a career politician, Greer didn’t drop into the infinite recursion of immigration policy when the panel were asked about its alleged “failures”. She was able to say that immigration is constant and inevitable. Warsi, Huhne and Straw are committed to the rhetoric of toughness – and when no representative of the three major parties is willing to say that the problem with immigration might be more perceived than actual, you could wonder where, exactly, they draw the philosophical lines that separate them from the BNP.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

[Guest post] Having my say: Griffin on QT

This is a guest post by Nelson of spEak You’re bRanes.

Do you think I don’t understand what my friend, the Professor, long ago called The Hydrostatic Paradox of Controversy?

Don’t know what that means? – Well, I will tell you. You know that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would
stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way, – And the fools know it.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Image by Beau Bo d'Or (click for link)Like any thoughtful person, I think the BBC’s “Have Your Say” (HYS) is fucking rubbish. It’s not entirely down to the inherent futility of arguing on the internet, and it’s not just because the BNP appear to be actively targeting it, creating the perception that public opinion is skewed towards hate and stupidity. It’s down to the concept of “balance” which, in BBC world at least, appears to involve treating every opinion equally, no matter how idiotic or dangerous it might be.

Unlike the Guardian site or the Daily Mail site, the BBC don’t often allow all comments (with occasional moderation, of course) but rather tend to hold everything in a moderation queue before making editorial decisions about which to publish. This is apparently done in an effort to keep things “balanced”. Frankly, it does my nut that, somewhere at the Beeb, there are otherwise intelligent people who subscribe to the idea that choosing what to publish and what to suppress is somehow going to make things more representative of public opinion. Presumably these people are so ludicrously impartial, so supremely capable of stepping outside their own frame of reference that they are able to divine the mood of the nation better than the nation itself.

As a result of this highly-educated lunacy, HYS is worse than “Comment is Free” at the Guardian and it’s worse than the Daily Mail, where everything gets published but people can at least vote comments down as well as up.

Everyone knows HYS is shit. It’s why I created the Speak You’re Branes blog and it’s why people read it. We all share this bemusement and a kind of grumbling baseline level of anger that the BBC are wasting our money nurturing the awfulness. But this is not why I’m having my say now. I’m always a bit angry about the BBC (BBC news specifically) whether it’s their refusal to broadcast a charity appeal when Palestinians are being murdered or the remarkable deference and credulity they extend to powers who’ve been caught lying and cheating over and over again. Today, however, I’m very angry at the BBC. Angry enough that I finally have to say something serious about their craven behaviour.

Tonight the BBC will host an episode of Question Time on which they have invited the ex-National Front, holocaust-denying, criminal, racist Nick Griffin to appear. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not bang up to date with the fucking news but as I understand it Peter Hain tried to mount a legal challenge to this and has sadly failed. I’m very much behind the idea that, as a criminal “whites only” organisation, the BNP shouldn’t be accorded the same status as other political parties but what if, as seems likely, they change their rules to fit within the law? Much as I’d love to see every last brown-skinned person in this country join the BNP and destroy it from within, I doubt that will happen. We cannot oppose the BNP on legal grounds alone.

I think the BBC is presenting two, equally facile, arguments here. Firstly, let’s get the free speech thing out the way. The issue is not free speech. Free speech is what I’m doing right now. It doesn’t entitle me to get on Question Time. In fact, the kind of language I use would be deemed too offensive. Unlike that revolting wanksock Nick fucking Griffin. By preventing Griffin from appearing on Question Time they would be making the same class of decision as when they decide not to invite Gok Wan on. It’s an editorial decision. The BBC trust are mostly fairly clear on this themselves, but when the point is pressed, Mark Thompson starts to talk about democracy, censorship and free speech. Free speech does not mean providing a platform, on Question Time, for anyone that would like one.

The second problem is the idea that, just because the BNP exist and are a political party, they are somehow entitled to be listened to. This is all down to the BBC’s retarded idea of “balance”, only now it’s not funny. It’s moved from creating a comically stupid comments board to legitimising a bunch of far-right racists and, almost certainly, contributing to their future electoral success. As Wikipedia puts it:

Because voters have to predict in advance who the top two candidates will be, this can cause significant perturbation to the system:

* Substantial power is given to the media. Some voters will tend to believe the media’s assertions as to who the leading contenders are likely to be in the election. Even voters who distrust the media will know that other voters do believe the media, and therefore those candidates who receive the most media attention will nonetheless be the most popular and thus most likely to be in one of the top two.


* If enough voters use this tactic, the first-past-the-post system becomes, effectively, runoff voting – a completely different system – where the first round is held in the court of public opinion.

You may even be agreeing with everything here but think that the BNP should still be allowed to appear, in which case I’d ask you to have a think about where you would draw a line. Would you allow a platform to a party that wanted to bring back slavery? A party that wanted to take away the right of women to vote? A party that wanted to lower the age of consent to 14? What about 10? 5? 2? I’m hoping we’d all draw the line somewhere. My point is simply that we can’t pretend there’s some kind of universal accepted threshold, written on a stone tablet by an omniscient moral arbiter. We have to decide, as a society, what is and isn’t acceptable and draw the line at that point. Everyone I know would agree that all humans, regardless of nationality or skin colour, are equal. Yet the BBC, by allowing the BNP a platform on Question Time, have drawn that line in such a way as to make racism appear acceptable. It’s not a forced move, they’ve made a disgusting, cowardly choice. Fuck everyone involved.

Text © Nelson, 2009. Image © Beau Bo d’Or, 2009.

Dispatches filmaker criticises Newsbeat

The director of the Young, Nazi And Proud documentary has commented on BBC Newsbeat’s handling of the BNP. David Modell met Mark Collett in 2002 and recorded him expressing admiration for Hitler and the Nazis, hatred of black people, and “twisted homicidal fantasies”. Modell is severely critical of the level of preparation and standard of questioning shown by the BBC’s journalists:

“Mark and Joey” would have loved the broadcast interview. Their roles in the party were never explained to the listener, so they were able to appear simply as representative party members. Collett’s confession of Nazi sympathies was never even referred to.

The interview was typical of the sometimes flawed reporting of the BNP when the BBC engages its representatives in mainstream broadcasts. The BNPs heritage of neo-nazism and position in the “white supremacist” movement is often not understood by poorly briefed reporters, who conduct interviews in a format designed for credible politicians.

In the case of the Newsbeat interview the lack of depth is even more inexcusable as this was clearly prerecorded and edited, so there should have been time for proper research and scrutiny.

I would never argue that we should not allow the BNP airtime. But reporting the organisation has to be done with great care because of the distress and damage it has the potential (and the will) to cause. Failure to do so risks collaborating in the dissemination of a destructive hatred.

Channel 4 News, “Dispatches: Young, Nazi and Proud”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

More pressure on the BBC over Newsbeat BNP feature

Newsbeat BNP grabNewsbeat’s dereliction of editorial responsibility in reporting the BNP has become a story in its own right. Both Welsh secretary Peter Hain and shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt have criticised the BBC, and the Mail On Sunday made it their front page yesterday. (Roy Greenslade gives more background on the development of the story on his blog.)

So far, the BBC has failed totally to offer an acceptable response to this lapse. Both the editor of Newsbeat and the BBC’s chief politics adviser have defended a piece of journalism so weak it amounted to little more than handing the airwaves to senior BNP members for them to expound fallacious and hateful opinions. Clearly, this is inadequate journalism, and it demonstrates a serious flaw in the way BBC News has interpreted its commitment to truth and accuracy.

The BBC Trust has just opened a public consultation on the corporation’s editorial guidelines. That means the Trust is waiting to hear from viewers and listeners about issues like Newsbeat’s lousy interviewing – if you fill out the questionnaire, I’d recommend paying special attention to section one on “Accuracy and Impartiality”. If you love the Beeb like Charlie Brooker and would do “anything to keep it running”, this is probably better than mass murder as a way of addressing one of those “dumb things” the corporation sometimes does.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

The Media Show on reporting the BNP

Newsbeat BNP grabRadio 4’s Media Show took on the issue of how the BNP should be reported, with debate between Mehdi Hassan of the New Statesman and Ric Bailey, chief adviser on politics for the BBC. (Listen again link on this page, starts around 7:50, the listener’s email came from me, and that’s not how you say my name…)

The conversation was sharply focussed, and Hassan effectively undermined Bailey’s defence of the Newsbeat broadcast: the point about “Joey and Mark” being senior BNP activists (rather than just  “young supporters” as Newsbeat identified them as) was well made, and so was the explanation of NUJ guidelines on covering the BNP.

What disappointed, though, was how impervious Bailey appeared to be to criticism. When Hassan points out that the interviewees claimed Ashley Cole wasn’t born here, Bailey retorts:

I don’t think he did say that

– which is true in the very narrow sense that neither interviewee used that exact phrase, and otherwise completely false. In the transcript, Smith says,

If he [Ashley Cole] wants to come to this country and he wants to live by our laws, pay into society, that’s fine

clearly (and wrongly) implying that Ashley Cole was born outside the UK.

Bailey stuck grimly to the ideas that “the listeners can make up their own minds” and “the BBC cannot make judgements about the BNP in a way that is inconsistent with the way it treat other parties”. Neither of which in any way diminishes the corporations’s responsibility to challenge misleading statements, or excuses the broadcast of hate-feeding listener comments in response to the interview.

Ultimately, Bailey largely repeated what was fallacious in Rod McKenzie’s answer: he defended the need to report on the BNP, without acknowledging the ways in which a specific instance of that reporting can be flawed. Like Hassan, I’m not an advocate of “no platform”. The BNP, their policies and their member’s activities should all be challenged and debated in public. But the default assumption in much of the media seems to be that any platform can be acceptable journalism – even one as feeble and cosseting as the Newsbeat item.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009