Unsatisfaction: Newsbeat and the BNP

The first formal response in any complaints procedure is the “disappointing brush-off”. My brush-off from Newsbeat arrived yesterday. Understandably, it’s a form email designed to cover all the objections received to the BNP interviews. Less understandably, the reply only refers to the radio version of the story: my complaint was specifically addressed to the online transcript.

On the 853 blog, Daryl points out that this shows a failure to understand the difference between radio and internet journalism:

what Rod McKenzie and his team at Newsbeat need to realise that while radio is a wonderful, intimate medium, it is transient. That lovingly-crafted audio piece will be forgotten next week. But that lazily slapped-up Q&A with the two “young BNP members” will still be there next week. And the week after. And next year. And it carries the BBC logo, so people around the world will think this is quality journalism – slurring the many excellent reporters I worked with in my decade there.

853, “BBC’s website cosies up to bigots”

Furthermore, my complaint was about two specific instances in which the BNP’s false and bigoted reasoning was allowed to stand as fact: the false analogy between species and race, and the untruth about Ashley Cole’s birthplace. It wasn’t a blanket objection to coverage of the BNP. But Rod McKenzie’s reply doesn’t address those issues, it only asserts that Newsbeat has a duty to cover the BNP – which is puzzling, given that I never claimed otherwise.

It’s confounding to be presented with an editor who seems unable to acknowledge that, as well as deciding whether or not to cover an issue, his journalists have the capacity to cover something well or (as in this case) very badly indeed. McKenzie presents editing in this email as a matter of inclusion or omission, not quality control.

Underlining the slightly patronising tone is McKenzie’s expectation that those who complain about the piece would be shocked to discover that the BNP has support: “This may surprise you, but a great many texts we received yesterday – were broadly supportive of the BNP.” (It’s the dash he slips in to anticipate my astonished pause that really aggravates me here.) Whereas it’s that kind of positive reaction to the propagandising Newsbeat interview that many of the complainants will have anticipated, and feared.

After the jump: McKenzie’s reply in full Continue reading


Newsbeat BNP grabBBC journalism often excels its commercial rivals. For detail, depth and balance, it’s easily my preferred source on many stories. Within a year, we’re very likely to have a Conservative government which has already declared itself hostile to the BBC; as Johann Hari points out, it’s probably more important than ever that the BBC’s supporters proclaim its strengths as often as they can.

It’s also more important than ever for the BBC to display those strengths. But this Newsbeat interview with two BNP activists shows that the corporation is as capable of slack, sloppy, damaging journalism as any other organisation. Roy Greenslade goes over the major flaws in his media column for the Guardian, but it comes down to a willingness to accept and republish BNP beliefs on their own terms, rather than do the dirty work of challenging them.

When the two activists compare white British people with endangered species such as the giant panda, interviewer Debbie Randle timorously suggests, “But we’re the same species which makes it a bit different, doesn’t it?” The BNP supporters reply with:

You could say that but if all of a sudden there weren’t any sparrows and there were only crows, I’d still be sad there weren’t any sparrows.

This not only fails to address Randle’s wholly accurate comment about species, it also repeats the fallacy by using two different species to represent white people in opposition to people of all other races (who are the crows here, presumably because BNP voters think Dumbo is a good treatment of racial politics). Randle doesn’t ask what would happen if the crows and the sparrows were able to mate and breed, or how the crows are going to kill the pandas. The reiterated statement is allowed to pass, and then published unchallenged on the BBC website.

According to the bit.ly link, this article was originally titled “Young BNP members explain beliefs”. It now appears as “BNP members challenged on beliefs” – suggesting that someone in the editorial process realised that inviting the BNP to “explain” their racism really wasn’t going to pass as a probing piece of journalism.

debbie randle status

However, the journalist responsible seems to consider her work acceptable – on the left is a screengrab of a Twitter update, in which she suggests that it’s unfair to judge the interview on the basis of the edited version on the website.

And her editor, Rod McKenzie, is just as clueless: in a post on The Editors (the internal watchdog of BBC news), he argues that the fact that Newsbeat received texts and emails supportive of the BNP shows he was right to publicise their views in this way.

This shrugging off of journalistic responsibility sits badly with my inclination to admire and cherish BBC news. Richard Sambrook, director of BBC Global News, takes the name of his personal blog from the CP Scott dictum, “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Randle and McKenzie have allowed the BNP’s comment to suffocate facts here: white people aren’t endangered, white and non-white are not different species, Ashley Cole was born in the UK, and so endlessly on.

The Newsbeat interview might be helpful as evidence that the BBC isn’t a fulminating hive of left-wingery; as evidence of the corporation’s newsgathering and reporting prowess, it’s devastatingly poor. Complain to the BBC at this link.

Related: Pickled Politics, “The BBC continues pandering to the BNP”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Post title by Louise Johnson.

Jeremy Hunt and the BBC: your ballot or your job

Jeremy Hunt

The BBC should be more right-wing, says shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. And to counter what he sees as the organisation’s “innate liberal bias” he wants the BBC to start actively recruiting Tories:

“I wish they would go and actively look for some Conservatives to be part of their newsgathering team, because they have acknowledged that one of their problems is that people who want to work at the BBC tend to be from the centre-left.

“That’s why they have this issue with what Andrew Marr called an innate liberal bias. I think the important thing with the BBC is that it belongs to all of us.”

Press Gazette, “Jeremy Hunt: BBC News needs more Tories”

Let’s skip over the obviously questionable assumptions in Hunt’s comments – like, what constitutes a “liberal bias”, and how does he know the BBC has one? (Personally, I think there’s merit in Medhi Hassan’s contention of right-wing bias in the corporation, while Greg Philo’s statistical analysis of the BBC’s Israel-Palestine coverage has shown the Beeb to be strikingly distant from any supposed liberal consensus on the Middle East. But then, perhaps any interest in or adherence to external evidence would be interpreted as a genuflection to reality’s well-known liberal bias.)

Leaving all that aside, we can look directly to what Hunt is asking for – a quota system based, not on externally visible risk factors for discrimination like gender and race, but on the internal and private quality of political affiliation. When Cameron moved to introduce the priority list system, with the intention of engineering an increase in the number of female Conservative MPs, the grass-roots party was hostile; presumably, Hunt has calculated that positive discrimination in favour of media Tories will be welcomed more sympathetically.

There are some cases where membership of a particular political party is genuinely counter to someone’s suitability for a job. I’m supportive of the ban on police and prison officers joining the BNP, because the BNP is a party with openly racist beliefs that would plausibly compromise an individual’s fitness for those roles.

But Hunt is suggesting something else: he’s asking for a cobbled-together parody of proportional representation, in which the publicly-funded broadcaster is forced to become a constitutional mirror of a parliament which is itself a grossly distorted representation of the electorate. It’s absurd, it’s impractical (what if an employee was recruited as a Conservative only to become a late-blooming advocate of Marx?) and – what should make the Toriest of Tories despise it – it’s a supremely state-meddling approach.

But logical failings probably can’t hold back ascendant political will: choose the bits of the BBC you love, and get ready to fight for them when the next government comes in.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Conserving ignorance

Is it ever worth responding to a Peter Hitchens piece? The New Statesman invited him to provide the counterpoint to Medhi Hassan’s “actually, the BBC is right-wing” argument. Hassan’s feature is – I think – a tightly argued piece of journalism, drawing on verifiable details about the careers of high-profile BBC personnel and analysis of the corporation’s new content. It strongly makes the case that the BBC has no case to answer in terms of left-wing bias.

How does Hitchens reply? By saying that party bias is not the issue (even though the Hassan piece focused more on policy bias) and arguing cultural bias instead. Quantifiable cultural bias, no less – although Hitchens, as ever, has trouble telling the difference between something that is capable of being quantified, and something that already has been:

Were I a multibillionaire, I could commission the proper research into nuance, tone of voice, who gets the last word, presenters’ backgrounds, running order, drama, soap operas and cultural coverage, that would demonstrate beyond any doubt that the BBC is on the side of the cultural and social revolution that I and many other licence-fee payers oppose with all our hearts.

New Statesman, “They hoped I’d be pro-torture”

Actually, you don’t have to be a multibillionaire to commission this sort of study. You could be jobbing journalist like Nick Davies, or even (at the time) a jobbing comedian like Al Franken, and recruit a group of research students to your project. Hitchens could access the sort of information he is hoping for, but his interest in knowledge ends long before it could have any influence over his opinions – his feelings about the BBC (like his feelings about drugs, families and the monarchy) come from his gut, and he emits them with the same thoughtfulness you’d give to any other stomach contents.

Abort the antichrist! (BBC drama does pro-life)
They’re coming to stick pins in your children (more of P Hitchens failing with numbers)

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Abort the antichrist!

Steven Glover, floundering under reality’s famed left-wing bias, posits this scenario:

Imagine that you were a brilliant young playwright who had conceived a play about the destructive psychological effects which abortion can have on women. Mr Stephenson or his sidekicks would not clap you on the back. You would be shown the door, if you had ever been let through it.

Steven Glover, “Our cultural elite rejects middle-class values and censors debate”

I’m not sure what would happen in the case of a “brilliant young playwright” but I do know that there are opportunities for the mass-market drama hack  to get their woman-hating thing on at the BBC.  I never thought I’d get to boast that I watch more primetime telly than Steven Glover, because I watch almost no primetime telly at all. But on 4 December, I know from my notebook that I was babysitting and watching “some shit with Judge John Deed in a dogcollar stomping all over an abortion clinic.”


The show was Martin Shaw vehicle Apparitions, with Shaw as authority-figure-gone-edgy Father Jacob, hunting demons – which this episode, happened to be resident in an abortion clinic. The show breezily accepted that Father Jacob was entitled to stalk the waiting rooms and the operating theatres in search of demons to cast out, offered up the chirpy irony of a nurse from the clinic having her brain sucked out her skull in imitation of late-term abortion, and then had Shaw conduct the climactic exorcism in the consulting room to the chorussing cries of the million, million unborn.

Vindictive towards abortion providers, emotively pushing the child-killing line, breezily installing an old celibate as the arbiter of fertility in the fictional clinic – although I suppose it was marginally left of Catholic doctrine, in that it did accept the necessity of abortion in the case of demonic possession. Someone at the BBC really should have seen about getting a review copy over to the Daily Mail.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Stephen Glover on NOTW phone hacking: lay off, we’re dying

Den and Angie

A painfully constant theme of journalists talking about their trade is the wail that things are hard enough for them already and papers shouldn’t make things harder by criticising their own industry. You get it from Dacre, you get it from Wade, and this morning, you get it from Stephen Glover in the Independent.

Glover indentifies a conspiracy between the BBC and the Guardian to push the NOTW phone hack story. If I was looking for the ingredients of a conspiracy in this business, I’d probably be looking at the organisation that’s been paying off the victims of its own criminal actions. Not Glover:

Most of this story was old. We already knew eight-tenths of it, though we had probably forgotten we did. Nonetheless, it was imaginatively repackaged by those symbiotic organisations, The Guardian and the BBC, and sold as new. The Corporation had been put on red alert by the newspaper at a senior level well before the story broke.

In the next paragraph, he dismissively mentions the part of the story that was new – the vast pay-offs – and instead accuses the BBC of being vindictively anti-Murdoch. Has it been? The BBC routinely runs heavily on critical media stories about its own actions. During the Brand/Ross farrago, most bulletins led on the outrage; when the BBC executives’ expenses were released, a large chunk of PM was devoted to picking them over. The BBC is an imperfect organisation and there’s plenty that it should be criticised for, but the best I can say without having a breakdown of broadcast-minutes-per-story is that the BBC has given no more prominence to the phone hack story than to any of those (probably much less important) stories. In contrast, News International has barely acknowledged that it’s under discussion.

But Glover is distressed to see the press’ failings exposed, as his ad hom attack on Nick Davies shows. First he silkily denigrates the investigative work of Flat Earth News by calling it “a book which suggests that the press is wildly dysfunctional” (my emphasis), and then, having failed to represent Davies’ ideas fairly, he goes on to give a poisonous description of his personality:

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, but he seems to me a misanthropic, apocalyptic sort of fellow – the sort of journalist who can find a scandal in a jar of tadpoles.

What Glover doesn’t mention – and this is curious given how aghast he was a few paragraphs ago at Newsnight’s failure to reveal a perceived conflict of interest in Peter Wilby’s commentary – is that his own employers (along with every other Fleet Street institution) were substantially and specifically criticised in Flat Earth News. Glover is also a columnist for the Daily Mail. Apparently that’s not relevent to his views on Davies, though. Nor, seemingly, is the fact the Indy and its parent company have their own reasons to be displeased with the Guardian’s media coverage.

Still, it’s not as though Glover approves of the dark arts. It’s just that his “guess is that most newspapers have cleaned up their act”, and anyway, newspapers have more important things to think about than the quality or legality of their investigations:

Naturally I do not condone newspapers listening into the private conversations of celebrities, though I would have no problem in the case of a minister who was on the fiddle or betraying his country. I do know that the national press is weaker than it has been for more than a century, with most titles losing money, and I regret that, at such a time, The Guardian and the BBC should use largely old information to weaken it further

When pundits speaking for the press adopt this line, they sound like nothing so much as Angie Watts weedling Dirty Den to take her back by pretending she only had six months to live. There’s no other organisation from which newspapers would allow such claims: MPs who complained that the heavy reporting of the expenses scandal was undermining public respect for parliament were, rightly, ridiculed. The idea that newspapers’ problems come from an excess of self-examination is – as this indulgent, incoherent and partial article inadvertently shows – equally absurd.

© Sarah Ditum 2009



Newswipe, episode 2 on iPlayer (until 8 April 2009)

This week, Charlie Brooker found something interesting to say about a topic I’d given up: I was as sad about Jade Goody as I would be about anyone I was peripherally aware of going through something agonisingly tragic, I wasn’t perplexed by the coverage (she invited it, it sold), and while it made me a bit uncomfortable, it didn’t send me into giddy horrors at the unimaginable depravity of everyone else.

Brooker, obviously, goes a bit better than my dillentante blogging:

Throughout the depressing blanket coverage, Jade was repeatedly referred to as a “star of reality TV”, which she was – although it’s more accurate to say she was a star of reality TV and news. After all, in her final weeks, taken accumulatively, she made far more appearances on the front pages and in news broadcasts than on her Living TV specials. […] In the end, Jade Goody died on the biggest reality show going: not Big Brother or some Living TV special, but the news. After all, with its jaunty titles and its easy hate figures, its selective storytelling and its stupid viewer votes, it’s a hairsbreadth from being a multi-platform I’m A Celebrity spin-off.

Brooker’s always been sharp on the idea that reality TV viewers (including him) are responding to the editing and not the actual people. But the with factual TV adopting the narrative and editorial structures of reality TV’s semi-fiction, viewers respond to real events – like the death of a young mother-of-two – as if they were the fabrications of the editing suite. Which they sort of are.

A story like the Jade one is a grotesque feedback loop: the editors follow the story because they presume the readers are interested, the publicity drives interest and becomes a story in itself, and viewers and readers respond with extremes of emotion, from vomitously sympathetic to gorily inhumane, while interest in analysis or investigation is driven out by the perpetual gush of feeling. And that’s how the news gets made.