Farewell, Aarowatch

Aaronovitch Watch claims to have watched its last Aaro:

the Times is going to go paywall at the end of this month, and that seems to us like a natural point to bring “Aaronovitch Watch” to a close. Whatever the ease or otherwise of getting Aaro’s weekly column on the down-low, the fact is that with his disappearance behind the paywall he’s going to be a less influential and less important columnist – with the passing of New Labour as well, this was always going to be the case anyway.

In the wider “World of Decency”, I also feel that a historical moment has largely passed by. There are still imperial wars out there, of course, still ludicrous double standards on human rights and even the New Labour project is not 100% dead yet. And Harry’s Place and Normblog and all will presumably continue to be as ghastly as they ever were, while Nick Cohen is unlikely to shut up as he is to ever write a readable column again. And all of these baleful social phenomena will still have their crowd of cheerleaders from a soi-Decent Left perspective, with willyoucondemnathons and all. But, well, do you care as much as you did five years ago? I know I don’t. If we carry this thing on beyond its natural life, it’s almost certain to end up as another site about bloody Israel.

Aaronovitch Watch, 20 May 2010, “Closing down sale”

(Prescient, because a week and a half later, the flotilla happened and even the most reluctant blogs threatened to become “another site about bloody Israel”.) I can’t remember exactly how I first found Aaronovitch Watch – probably by googling some combination of the words “Nick Cohen” and “is wrong” – but it’s been one of the best things in my RSS feeds ever since I subscribed to it.

As well as rustling up well-informed analyses (not just of Aaro, but of pretty much any rhetoric from the bizarro world of liberal beligerance that huddled under the tag of Decency), Aaro Watch has always been pleasingly provisional. Loads of blogs are written on the premise that the author knows a Great Deal about something and you have come to imbibe their worldview; the writers of Aaro Watch say things like, “It’s perverse, but I like being wrong. If I’m not wrong at lot of the time, I know I’m not trying hard enough.”

And, probably because the blog has always been written in explicitly discursive style, a strong and interesting community of discussion has gathered around it. I’ve only ever been an irregular commenter on there, but the threads are always worth reading: long without turning cyclical, smart and usually funny too. I’m going to miss that part of the blog maybe even more than I’m going to miss it as a centralised location for Nick Cohen abuse.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Maternity grief

Lucy Cavendish visited an online forum for mothers, and was amazed to find them discussing motherhood – sometimes quite heatedly! While I dislike the tone of her article, the premise is pretty robust. Motherhood is a sensitive issue, many mothers become entrenched in their parenting choices and defend them bitterly, going to work when you have small children can be a difficult and guilt-wracked decision. This is all true enough. (Though there’s less of the difficulty and guilt if work is a financial necessity rather than a little paid hobby done to benefit your sense of self. I’m just saying.)

I don’t really believe her claim that things for mothers now are more spectacularly traumatic than ever, though. There are some things that probably do diminish our confidence in our own abilities, but weirdly, while she’s slinging blame at “target culture” and “having-it-all”, she doesn’t mention the thing that I’d reckon was the most likely sources of anxiety: separation from extended families. I hadn’t held a baby for longer than ten minutes until I had my own, because I never lived near enough to my aunts, uncles and cousins to get much time with a practice infant. And because my home was a 90-minute drive from my parents, I wasn’t able to just pop round and get some advice from my Mum. A long-term fall in fertility rates feels like a better explanation for maternal anxiety that a lot of specious psychologising about how, once women have learnt to be careerist, we can’t possibly go back to being properly nurturing or something.

That’s if there is more maternal anxiety, of course, which I’m not totally convinced you can decide based on a rummage through Mumsnet and a look at the parenting section in Waterstone’s. I’ll tell you what did make me feel guilty and anxious, though – reading this in the middle of the article:

Recently, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released the results of a study of children born in the 1970s. It found that those with mothers who worked up to 18 months during their preschool years had only a 64% chance of passing an A-level. This fell to a 52% chance of success if the mother worked for an additional year. Furthermore, the children of these working mothers faced a greater risk of unemployment (up from 6% to 9%) and psychological stress (up from 23% to 28%) in adulthood.

These statistics were presented in the press as further “proof” that working mums damage kids. Other headline-creating studies include: “Working mothers have fatter children”; “Working mothers harm children’s A-level chances”; “Children of working mothers have less healthy lifestyle”. The Institute of Child Health studied more than 12,500 five-year-olds and found those with working mothers ate more snacks and watched more TV, regardless of the mother’s education or salary. (Working mothers typically counter these statistics by saying there is always another study that says the opposite, and that research from the 1970s will not be so relevant now.)

Is that really the best that Cavendish expects working mothers to come up with? Maybe working mothers could check out the findings of the JRF for themselves, which come with their own reassuring caveat:

There was strong evidence of a trade-off for mothers who were employed full-time when their children were under five. Although full-time work increased family income, less time for mothers to interact with their families tended to reduce children’s later educational attainments (the analysis controlled for family income).

JRF, “The effect of parents’ employment on outcomes for children”

That sounds problematic to me: if the analysis is controlled for income, then it seems to me that it’s going to filter out the potential positive effects of the increased wealth that comes from having a working mother. It’s not binary, and the study’s findings aren’t presented in quite the definitive way that Cavendish found them in the headlines.

But what she offers in response isn’t a cautious weighing up of the credits and debits of working motherhood. It’s just a portrait of unhappiness, with an implicit line of aggression against the mothers who make her feel bad – the ones whose children “play more sports than mine, […] are academically more competent, […] read books all the time, […] are constantly on playdates, […] are popular, witty, funny.” I’m not sure that a criticism of an article criticising parenting advice is the right place to start handing out parenting advice of my own, but I have some anyway: how about not writing in a national newspaper about your children’s perceived shortcomings and the way they reflect on you? I’m not a psychologist or anything, but I’m fairly sure that for a child to read that about him or herself could be almost nearly as harmful as the fact that mummy has a job.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

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

Death Ray and Filmstar fold

Blackfish logoDeath Ray and Filmstar magazines have closed, as Blackfish Publishing splits from their parent company Rebellion. According to a press release issued by managing director Matt Bielby, the current issues of both magazines (Death Ray issue 21, and Filmstar issue 5) will be their last.

I liked Blackfish’s magazines, and I wrote for Filmstar: even among strong competition, I felt that Filmstar was an impressive title, and it’s more than self-interest that makes me sad to see it go. The editors I worked with were great, and I’m proud of the pieces I wrote for them (I’ll be adding all my film reviews to the Paperhouse archive over the next few weeks).  There are plenty of reasons why a publishing venture might not work out, but for Blackfish, it definitely wasn’t a failure of quality. Over the fold, the press release in full: Continue reading

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.