Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Media and the Middle East (continued)

Following on from Sue's post - and in anticipation of Hadar at BBC Watch and Alan at Biased BBC's takes on John Lloyd's Archive on 4 - I'd like to present my own precis of the historical portion of that particular programme.

Before doing so I'd like to say that I found it an interesting programme. Parts of it were genuinely thought-provoking - so thought-provoking that I intend to expand on some of its points over the coming days (time permitting). 

I'd also like to register the point that any programme about media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which places some emphasis on the issue of media bias inevitably open itself up to allegations of bias too.

Presenter John Lloyd of the FT (whose work I'd admired for many a year) is extremely unlikely not to have realised that his own biases (however unconscious) are bound to be questioned by bloggers like me, Sue, Hadar and Alan; indeed, his closing comments affirmed that we are right to do so. So here goes!

As Sue keeps telling me (and she's quite right), we're all biased. John Lloyd may try to be impartial in presenting a programme about media bias, and I may try to be just as impartial in providing a precis of part of his programme, but, in truth, neither of us are likely to be dispassionate on this particular issue and our biases will out.

That said I will try to provide a fair and accurate summary of the historical portion of this programme. Like John Lloyd's narrative, however, my narrative will inevitably betray its own biases - and so be it.

[My biases, of course, are 'good biases' in that they are factually correct and beyond reproach!]


All narratives have selective starting points and John Lloyd chose the British media's reporting of "the terror tactics of bombs and assassinations" deployed by armed Jewish guerrilla groups against a British army "deployed to keep the peace in Palestine" in the years leading up to Israel becoming a state. The British media at the time unambiguously described the likes of the Stern Gang and the Irgun as "criminals", "terrorists" and "desperadoes" and the programme's first archive report focused on the bombing of the King David Hotel and compared the results of that "dastardly crime" to the Blitz at its worst.  

"But the media mood soon changed when Israeli statehood was declared in 1948," said John. "The event was seen by the Western media as a triumph - the young men seen as pioneers, the terror gangs swiftly forgotten".  

"They didn't come to an empty land", continued John Lloyd, noting that Arabs greatly outnumbered Jews at the start of the "tragic 20th Century". He then cited liberal Israeli journalist Ari Shavit writing about his grandfather, a British Jew coming to Palestine for the first time in 1897, who "did not see that there is another people occupying the land of his ancestors...They were hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman. He simply cannot see non-whites as equals". 

The next chosen archive clip heard the BBC narrator of the time describing how "nearly a million harmless Arab villagers have been made homeless a result of war in the Holy Land" and saying that it is "of the same kind" as "the refugee crisis of Hitler's Europe". 

The Western media in the late 1940s and 1950s, John continued, presented Israel as "a new, thrusting, ambitious land with European values and systems brought by the settlers" but "the Arabs, conquered and driven out, are at least the potential enemy".

British historian David Cesarani, a liberal Jewish supporter of the Israel peace movement, said that the tone of the reporting mirrored the geo-politics of the time. British reporting was "over-determined by the threat of Arab Nationalism", he said, culminating in the collusion between Britain, France and Israel during the Suez Crisis:
And the fact that Britain got a bloody nose in the Suez Affair in some ways reinforced the admiration for Israel. Israel became a strategic partner in the region for Britain and France, so it's no surprise that during that period there was very little attention paid to Palestinian Arabs. 
John Lloyd then introduced his second 'talking head', Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who "sees the same blindness to Palestinians, and the Palestinians themselves, as Cesarani does." Daoud described what coverage there was as "colonial" and "paternalistic": 
There was not any kind of attempt to show equality of that there is an indigenous Palestinian national movement that was desiring to have its own state.
John Lloyd's next archive clip was a 1954 BBC report full of "admiring sympathy" for the farmer-soldiers guarding Israel's borders, "without explanation of the reasons for their weapons". Such commentaries, he said, were "one-sided" but "not wrong", as "the Israelis did bring a revolution to the land in scientifically-planned agriculture...and technologies unseen on the land before, in raising a standard of living not just for the Jews but for the Arabs who remained as well". "The coverage often reached into the Bible for phrases to adequately describe this transformation," he said, before introducing a Pathe News clip: 
The film and broadcast coverage gave a steadily upbeat account of brave endeavour bolstered by modern science and technology transforming a barren land never, it seemed from the commentary, cultivated before.
For British broadcasters, the Palestinians "were a threat, or victims of an unexplained tragedy", John said, before reintroducing Daoud Kuttab. Daoud said the Palestinians were "voiceless, faceless" in their coverage, repeating his earlier complaint about their being a failure to mention the existence of an indigenous Palestinian national movement that was desiring to have its own state. 

John Lloyd continued:
The climax of this style of [pro-Israeli] reporting, close to propaganda, was during and after the Six Day War in 1967...It was a feat of arms which drew forth a journalism which, whatever its protestations, didn't try to be objective. 
The 1973 War marked the "important break point", according to John's narrative. [We heard a clip of the young Martin Bell reporting for the BBC at this point, questioning an Israeli officer about who broke a particular ceasefire and the fate of the trapped Egyptian army.] David Cesarani said:
Well, I think that from 1948 until the Yom Yippur War in 1973 the template was 'Small plucky Israel, David versus the Arab Goliath' and I don't think the media really appreciated the extent to which, after 1967, Israel was a regional superpower.
John Lloyd reinforced the point, describing 1973 as the moment when "plucky little Israel suffered a shift in perception from little to large, from plucky to oppressive" before both he and David Cesarani described another shift at that time, when a new generation of Palestinians [led by Yasser Arafat and the PLO] "found their voice" and began to "fashion their narrative" for themselves and the Western media "by a combination of terrorism that grabbed the headlines and by savvy media efforts" and finding a receptive audience. 

The 1973 War was preceded by the Palestinian abduction of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The "bungled" rescue operation resulted in eleven Israeli deaths. "Western reporters were in no doubt", said John Lloyd. "The Palestinians were terrorists".

The programme's third 'talking head' - Anton La Guardia of The Economist [who sees himself as dispassionate and impartial] - said that Palestinians, as a result, burst into Western people's lives, but were seen as "a problem, an uncomfortable problem that many people disliked" - as people who disrupted their lives and who made travelling by plane seem unsafe.

Munich and the Yom Kippur War also changed Israeli politics, John said. It became "polarised", "tougher", and the right-wing Likud broke Labor's hegemony and then began encouraging settlement on the West Bank, "settlements which became and remained a major element in critical media coverage" - a point immediately amplified by Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab (appearing for the third time) talking of another narrative-changer: The Israelis "digging in deeper" and their "occupation becoming more permanent".

As a sign of the shift, the next archive clip was of a 1978 BBC report interviewing a female Palestinian activist. "She isn't merely a victim, but a person in her own right", says John Lloyd. [She denounces the settlers and Israeli occupation]. John Lloyd continued:
Israel's actions were no longer given a free pass.
Next up was Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the coverage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre by a Lebanese Christian militia while the Israeli army "stood by". "This too was a major break", said John before introducing his fourth 'talking head' -  Lisa Goldman of 972 Magazine [the kind of progressive magazine that is happy to accuse Israel of "apartheid" policies], an ultra-liberal Jewish voice [to 'balance' the liberal Jewish voice of David Cesarani]. Lisa said that Israel's bombardment of West Beirut started "the more critical coverage...in the European and English language media".

"The coverage, simply by being factual, was damning," said John Lloyd.

We then heard another archive BBC clip, this time an interview between presenter Gordon Clough and then-BBC reporter Tim Llewellyn. Tim Llewellyn told Gordon that he was setting out "the facts", and those facts (about Sabra and Shatila) showed that the Israelis "must have" known what was going on and "they did nothing" for a long period of time. "I know", said Tim Llewellyn, that Israeli tanks were positioned very close and yet...He then quoted a diplomat damning Israel.  

John Lloyd added:
Tim Llewellyn, no longer a BBC correspondent, is now an outspoken critic of his old employer, believing it to be influenced by what he terms 'the Jewish lobby' - the corporation refusing to understand that Israel is an occupier and the Palestinians its victims.
David Cesarani then echoed Lisa Goldman is seeing 1982 as "a watershed in media coverage":
The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the siege of Beirut that went on and on and on was also covered intensively by the media and was on television every night. Israeli jets bombing Palestinian refugee camps. The protracted nature of that coverage, the powerful images, the apparent one-sidedness of the conflict, was, I think, a turning point in media coverage because it created a new template. We went from Israel, the plucky little state, David v Goliath, to the bullying regional superpower crushing, relentlessly, the Palestinian people, dispossessed refugees, turning all the might of a modern military force on people who could barely fight back. And I think for a generation of people who watched those images Israel was never the same again.
Then came the 1987 First Intifada, and the BBC's Margaret Gilmore (archived) reporting on one of the clashes, reporting Palestinians being killed by Israeli security forces [without context]. 

John Lloyd marked this as a time "when greater balance began to be built into the coverage". [In contrast, I believe his is the time when pro-Israeli people began noticing an anti-Israel bias. I began being interested in politics and became pro-Israel at that very time. Even in my late teens/even twenties I felt the BBC was not being balanced about Israel, but was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.] Still, Daoud Kuttab (appearing for the fourth time) complained about the impotence of the Palestinians, media-wise, at the time, complaining that (in the 1980s), Palestinian victims of violence were merely reported as, say, crying women, "faceless people", while Israeli victims of violence were given a "big feature", a "human interest story". 

[The next 'talking head' was the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen. I'll return to his contribution and the surrounding discussion in a later post (as it deserves its own post).]

1993. A peace deal in Oslo. A handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. An archive clip of the BBC's Alex Brodie [who now, were you wondering, brews ale in Cumbria] "grasped and trumpeted the significance of the gesture", doubting Israeli sceptics' claims that they won't be watching that handshake with the man "they've been led to believe is their bogeyman".  

A following clip, featuring Stephen Sackur, introduced Hamas. Hamas supporters stoned pro-PLO, pro-peace demonstators, putting Stephen Sackur himself at considerable risk. He called Hamas a "rejectionalist, fundamentalist group".

The assassination of Mr Rabin by a Jewish extremist brought an interview by Stephen Sackur with a West Bank settler, "an early appearance by a West Bank settler, a figure [John Lloyd said] to loom larger in subsequent reporting". Stephen's (archive) report said that terrorism was previously thought to be Arab-on-Jew now it was Jews doing the terrorism against Jews. The settler featured didn't condone the assassination of Mr Rabin but gave a "warning" to acting PM Shimon Peres not to push the minority's point of view at the expense of the majority's view. 

The coverage "much of its supportive of the peace process" went "dark, once more".

[Jeremy Bowen appeared again at this point - as mentioned by Sue - but his contribution again deserves a separate post, as it's somewhat aslant to this particular post.]

A BBC new clip [George Aligiah? and Hilary Andersson] introduced the Second Intifada, stating that the clashes were "sparked" by "the right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon" after he "visited one of Islam's holiest sites in Jerusalem". John Lloyd's narration put it thus:
As the century turned the Second Intifada broke out and by now Palestinians were able to argue that they were the underdogs. 'David and Goliath' had been Israel as David, the Palestinians with their tens of millions [and the rest!] of Arab supporters the Goliath. 
Chris Doyle of the pro-Palestinian Caabu (the Council for Arab-British Understanding) was the next 'talking head' amplified this point, stating that the media's 'framing' argument lacks the necessary point that "Israel is the occupying power", that Israel has a brilliant media strategy and huge resources while the "fragmented" Palestinians lack such resources. 

[The programme then moved on beyond historical matters to other matters which need further posts and gave us a final 'talking head', Toby Greene of the pro-Israel organisation Bicom, who was then counterpointed with Chris Doyle on various issues - again which demand further posts (as they are of great interest in their own right).]


I'm quite sure that people with more much intimate knowledge of this subject than me (like Hadar at BBC Watch) will be able to do as Sue hopes she will do and fill in all the evasions and gaps in John Lloyd's account.

All I can say is, given the limited resources which comprise my brain, that John Lloyd's historical journey presented a restricted view - a view whose sympathies very clearly inclined more towards the ill-done-by Palestinians than to the Israelis. In other words, a biased view - and a view biased in the way that pro-Israel critics of the BBC say it's biased.

My evidence for that - other than everything I've just written?

Well, just look at the choice of 'talking heads' to amplify the chosen narrative: Two liberal Jewish voices from outside of the Israeli mainstream (one of them ultra-liberal, and way off it), a Palestinian voice and an Economist journalist (who doesn't even claim to be a pro-Israel voice), plus the BBC's Jeremy Bowen (who isn't a pro-Israel voice either) - not one of them putting the case that most pro-Israeli listeners would want to hear. [Toby Greene's contribution lay apart from this historical aspect of the programme and wasn't part of that central narrative, so can't be taken as counter-evidence].

John Lloyd's narrative, boiled down to its essence, presented the image of a Western media - and a BBC - presenting propaganda for Israel until 1973 then 'becoming balanced' by no longer giving Israel 'a free pass' and giving voice to the Palestinians. It was a justification of/defence of the modern BBC's reporting.

It also, to my mind, gave a decidedly jaundiced take on Israel and a somewhat bleeding heart take on the Palestinians - though there were nuances too.

But I'm biased, of course - though not necessarily wrong.


As an aside, there's been little Twitter coverage of this programme. The few enthusiastic comments I've seen have come from pro-Palestinians (including a PSC group). The only critic I've seen was someone wondering why on earth the programme failed to mention the Balen Report. 

That suggests something, doesn't it?


It is interesting that the programme didn't mention the Balen Report, isn't it?


The best bits of the programme lay around this skewed historical survey. I think I'm on stronger ground in reviewing them in some detail, so will try to do so in the coming days.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Media and the Middle East and Other Mysteries

We waited for  this programme with bated breath.   BBC Watch marked it as one to listen out for, as did we at “Is the BBC Biased?”

John Lloyd has written about the Middle East before and he has an authoritative manner,
but I’m afraid this programme disappointingly turned out to be just more of the same.

I’m waiting for Hadar’s critique, which I’m sure will soon be with us, packed with specific examples of the ‘omissions and subversions of fact’ that commenter ‘amie’ refers to here.  I hope she won’t mind if I steal a chunk out of her comment:
“Ceserani’s narrative, whether intended or not, came across as: Israel managed somehow to pull the wool over the world media’s eyes for the first 2 decades, until it could no longer conceal its true colours. The impression that it was the events themselves which brought opprobrium onto Israel, without mentioning the deliberate Soviet media strategy of branding Zionism as racism, which Durban took still further. The proud story of how they resisted Arafat’s legal threats, but none about the abject failure through fear of journalists in the most recent war to publish Hamas’ use of civilian launchposts. Etc.” 

The opener featured Jon Snow who has stated that his aim is ‘bearing witness’ rather than achieving objectivity or balance. Which is 'unusual' for someone in such a responsible and influential position. Before he went to Gaza he “never knew that the average age in Gaza is 17”, which is quite odd, is it not,  because it’s no secret. I mean did he go there without doing any research? Does he not even use Mr. Google?
Snow says: “if you know any children you’ll realise how difficult it is to ‘know where they are’ all the time, and in a densely packed urban area, if you decide to throw  missiles, shells and the rest, then undoubtedly you will kill children.” 
Guess what. He was referring to the Israelis. He thinks it was the Israelis who “decided’ to throw missiles, shells and the rest, into (not from) a densely packed urban area. That’s what ‘bearing witness’ does for you.

Liberal sprinklings of archive newsreel interspersed with John Lloyd’s authoritative sounding commentary gave the impression he was summarising the media’s past record impartially and factually, albeit with, to the eagle-eared, the usual omissions, but it all fell into the familiar pattern when David Cesarini and a Palestinian professor of journalism spoke, as per amie's comment above.

All prospect of impartiality evaporated as soon as Jeremy Bowen was wheeled in to elaborate on the difficulties a poor Middle East journalist must endure, what with the passions of all those wretched pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel lobbyists. 
Bowen recounted two examples of complaints from diametrically opposed agitators. I think the implication was that they cancel each other out, and his intention was to hammer home the BBC’s disingenuous theory that ‘we get complaints from both sides so we must be getting it about right’.
The pro Israel complainant was described disparagingly as a ‘retired doctor’, too old and stupid to realise that he had inadvertently left the ‘hasbara’ instructions on the end of his e-mail. His complaint came ‘pro-forma’, requiring the complainant to insert appropriate words into blanks.  This showed that the Jewish lobby was well organised and sinister, and pro-Israel complainants were a) useful idiots or b) salaried hasbara reps. 
 The Palestinian complainant, on the other hand was a straightforward  fanatic or lunatic. (A perversion of / not the real Islam?) With one fell swoop Bowen was killing two birds with one stone  and dismissing all complainants out of hand. Lobbyists and lunatics.

The minute Bowen was brought in to this programme to opine rather than to face his many critics, you knew the whole programme was a lost cause. 
Most of the examples used to illustrate or characterise M.E. reporting seemed years out of date. It’s as though this programme had been made several decades ago and kept in storage till all the material had gone stale and become irrelevant. Operation Protective edge was never dealt with. It might never have happened.

John Lloyd was like the crusty old judge who hadn’t heard of the Beatles. I mean no doubt he is very knowledgable on certain matters, but seriously lagging behind on contemporary events and the fast-changing politics of the here and now.

I haven’t time to go into more detail but I hope others will do so in good time, and now there‘s a mystery over the much postponed Panorama about the tunnels. At the time of writing it’s been dumped for the Scottish referendum, something which seems to have taken the Panorama team by surprise, investigative journalists that they are. 

Jane Corbin was attacked from all sides when she made “A Walk in the Park” 

and then the one about the Mavi Marmara "Death in the Med."  (The BBC gives credibility to Ken O’Keefe?)
If Jane can switch from the ridiculous to the sublime at the drop of a hat, she must be getting something wrong. 

Apparently this “Tunnels” programme is being shown on BBC Arabic. Maybe the Arabs aren’t so bothered about the Scottish issue as we are in the UK or Europe, or maybe it’s something more complicated?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Some thoughts on Scottish independence and BBC bias

Given that both Sue and myself have - in our own different ways - had an absolutely crazy, hectic, unforgettable week this past week (massed cellos, new-born twins, overtime, exhibitions, Edinburgh...oh, yes, new-born twins!...), it's not surprising that Is the BBC biased? has been very quiet over the last few days (for which, apologies)...and might very well be just as quiet next week too (for which further apologies...but, fear not, our vast legions of readers, we will burst out with renewed vigour and purpose next month)...

As I've a spare few hours I intended to write about so much tonight, especially given the stomach-turning news from Syria, but instead I've got stuck [given time restraints] on the issue which is presently obsessing me...the potential break-up of my country within the next week. 


I see that the article Scottish independence: Crowd protests against 'BBC bias' has been kept well away from the main headlines of the BBC News website home page this evening. It even took a wee while to spot it on the site's Scotland page.

The article is initially just as coy about exactly which side is protesting and what they are protesting about:
A large crowd gathered outside BBC Scotland's Glasgow HQ to protest about coverage of the referendum.
Police said up to 1,000 people took part although other observers suggested a much higher figure for the crowd.
Only in the third paragraph is it made clear:
The protesters said BBC coverage had been biased against independence.
This is only the latest protest in an ongoing series of anti-BBC demonstrations from pro-independence supporters. As far as I am aware, there have been no such sizeable anti-BBC demonstrations from 'No' supporters. 

Similarly, Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere are full of 'Yes' supporters facebooking, tweeting and blogging en masse about BBC bias against Scottish independence. 

The 'cybernats' have pretty much succeeded in  monopolising the social media debate over BBC bias, and blogs like Newsnet Scotland and that of former BBC presenter Derek Bateman have been highly effective [and in my Mr Bateman's case very amusing] at amplifying those complaints against the BBC from the 'Yes' side. 

Now, there have been occasional stray unionists (like Lord George Foulkes, Alan Cochrane or David Vance) claiming bias in the opposite direction - and one-off media upswells like the second Salmond-Darling debate [the one hosted by the BBC] which saw more pro-independence questions/heckling from the audience than otherwise - but the complaints of Scottish politicians, commentators , activists and (apparently) ordinary folk criticising the BBC for bias have come Overwhelmingly [capital  letter deliberate] from the pro-independence side (including Jim Sillars and Alex Salmond in recent days). 

There's even been a widely-aired study from Professor John Robertson claiming clear evidence of such bias. 

This huge imbalance suggests that one side really thinks it has a case against the BBC while the other side sees little problem with the BBC. This indeed appears to be the case. 

Some might, therefore, take that as evidence that there is bias against Scottish independence at the BBC. 

That, of course, is to fall into the trap of thinking that just because the 'Yes' side are so vociferous and numerous with their complaints that those complaints are in any way justified. It could be merely because they are loud, numerous - and wrong. After all, the large demonstrations against BBC bias over Gaza came from just one side (the pro-Palestinian side), and were completely without substance.  

All of these 'Yes' supporter complaints could all be (as the BBC says they are) completely false charges of bias. Professor Robertson could be no better than Greg Philo and his colleague Mike Berry at Cardiff University - an activist in academic's clothing. (I don't think he is though. Even though he is open in being pro-independence himself, his methodology and results look much stronger than theirs. They certainly rattled the BBC.)


I never really looked into it myself, regrettably, other than dipping a little toe in from time to time. 

All I can say I what I see, and I began by examining James Naughtie's Today interviews with politicians from both sides and found - in the early stages - that, for example, the ones with Alistair Darling were noticeably gentler and less-interruption-ridden than those with Nicola Sturgeon.

However, that was early on and I failed to follow up on it. I've heard a lot of James Naughtie pieces since then though and, as time has passed, I've rather come to agree with Rod Liddle that "Jim Naughtie’s stuff from north of the border has been admirably meticulous and even-handed". 

Yesterday's Today (minus Jim) couldn't have been more scrupulous, despite Sarah Montague's scrap with Jim Sillars [which was at least as much down to him as to her], with Justin Webb's interview with the three elderly voters an exemplary piece of interviewing. [I can imagine some 'Yes' people quibbling that Justin did adopt a surprised tone and also ask one slightly tougher question to the pro-'Yes' lady than to the 'No' man and the 'Undecided' man, but that really would be quibbling].

This week's PM saw Eddie Mair interviewing both Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond on one day. Both interviews had tough passages and both had somewhat more relaxed passages of interviewing. Eddie did get much more personal with Mr Salmond than with Mr Darling, doggedly questioning his personal honesty (though not quite going so far as to call him "a nasty piece of work", as he did with Boris), though he then eased off somewhat. Mr Darling was probed more quietly (though there was a passing dig at his poor performance in the second TV debate), but Eddie put plenty of pointed questions to him and interrupted him more often. [Eddie managed to sneak in more digs at Boris though, oddly]. 

I analysed the reaction to these interviews on Twitter and was intrigued at how varied and contrasting the reactions were. Some pro-'Yes' people denounced Eddie Mair, some praised him. Some pro-'No' people denounced Eddie Mair, some praised him. There was no strong trend of denunciation or praise either way, just lots of differing, strongly-held opinions.  

Criticism and praise from both sides? BBC getting it about right? In Eddie Mair's case there, I'd say yes. 

The much-derided new-look, touchy-feely Newsnight of Ian Katz has also been on good form, with far-from-touchy-feely interviews with politicians from both sides of the Scottish independence issue. 

Those complaining (elsewhere) that having 'orrible lefty Ken Loach and pretentious lefty Ekow Eshun on to discuss Britishness in the light of the referendum is proof of BBC bias ignore the fact that other Newsnight discussions this past week (on similar themes) featured counterbalancing right-wing pro-British guests (including Niall Ferguson and Fraser Nelson), and that out-of-Scotland unionists and English reactions were also spotlighted. By dipping in so randomly and them shouting 'Bias!' such people risk making fools of themselves (and their/our cause) as the BBC has them absolutely banged to rights. 

On a sort-of-related matter, a highly-rated comment at another blog ['The Other Place'] includes the charge that 
"...the BBC’s activists...have...for some considerable time been further to the left than even Miliband’s Labour Party...and it’s no surprise that was reflected in the ‘Scotland Decides’ debate last night with an unbalanced panel of:
  • The Scottish Green Convener Patrick Harvie (impeccable left wing CV)
  • Sturgeon (Left wing SNP)
  • Galloway (Left wing – from some party or other)
  • Ruth Davidson (Tory)"

That comment has 33 'likes'. Another comment from last night, responding to the above and linking to Harry's Place, has 0 'likes'. It says:
The answer, unfortunately, had nothing to do with BBC as the ever reliable Harry’s Place testifies. The Better Together mob chose him as one of their 2 spokespersons.
Indeed. Harry's Place says:
Last night the BBC carried a major debate on the referendum from Glasgow – with the audience specifically Scotland’s youngest voters. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ were allowed to nominate two people for the debate.
The SNP and Green party represented the Yes campaign. The ‘No’ ( Better Together) chose the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party and incredibly George Galloway leader of the tiny far-left Respect Party. Just let that sink in for a minute. To defend the union – they chose not a representative of the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats but a man who has shown nothing but contempt for the British state they seek to maintain.
One lesson here? Bloggers and commenters about BBC bias beware: Always check before you make serious charges of bias against the BBC lest your assertions are based on quicksand and you end up looking silly as the incoming tide draws near. The other lesson here? People who agree with you on blogs (your 'tribe'] will keep 'liking' you regardless...which is nice.

From dipped toes to Toenails...

What to make though of the Nick Robinson affair? 

The anti-BBC protestors outside Pacific Quay are calling for his sacking. Why? Well, follow the link here to Russia Today and watch both videos and (once you get over the deep, deep irony of Russia Today complaining about media bias from another state broadcaster!) you'll see for yourselves. Nick Robinson is being accused of lying about Alex Salmond, by claiming that Mr Salmond didn't answer his question, and the BBC is being accused of editing that report to make it look, indeed, as if Mr Salmond didn't answer Nick Robinson's question. A non-BBC video shows the whole exchange and shows Mr Salmond answering Nick Robinson at considerable length. Further exchanges, which Alex Salmond later described as 'heckling' from Nick, have also caused controversy. (The BBC is, of course, standing behind Nick 100%.)

I've got my fair hat on today, so I will say that the BBC's defence that Alex Salmond didn't answer that part of the question featured in Nick's highly-edited report - the one about why politicians should be believed over businessmen -  has some truth to it. Mr Salmond didn't directly answer that one (though his whole answer can be read as an indirect answer to it.) 

However, that part of the question was only one part of Nick Robinson's initial question to Alex Salmond and Mr Salmond did answer all the other parts of it and - keeping my fair hat on - probably felt he was addressing the serious parts of Nick's question. Nick Robinson's "He didn't answer", therefore, made it sound as if Alex Salmond ignored his whole question, which is far from the truth, and the report's editing [which ignored the other parts of Nick's question] strongly reinforced this false impression. 

Well, that's my take on it, and I think the BBC should 'fess up and admit that the editing of this report, at least, could have been much, much better.

By chance, I myself went to Edinburgh this week and found something curious - which I'm passing on just for the sake of it, as bloggers do...

I saw very little visible evidence that there was that a dramatic and highly historic referendum campaign going on there. 

I will admit that I was expecting to find the campaign hard to miss, but in all the time I was there I saw just four buildings across the whole of central Edinburgh with campaign posters up (three 'Yes', one 'No') and a 'Yes' sticker on a statue of Adam Smith [as if he were wearing it proudly]. Two small groups of 'No' campaigners were handing out leaflets to the vast hordes of shoppers and strollers on Princes Street (few of whom seemed very keen to take them, or to talk to the campaigners). A 'Yes' protest banner (denouncing Trident) was manned by two people at the foot of Arthur's Seat, just round the corner from the Scottish parliament, but was studiously ignored by everyone else - all of whom appeared intent on enjoying a lovely sunny afternoon in the scenic parkland and countryside into which Edinburgh opens at Holyrood. People were obviously chatting amongst themselves about it, at home and in pubs, rather than flooding the streets of the Scottish capital for political reasons during weekdays. 

Of course, they could have been talking about it whilst shopping or lying around in Holyrood Park or climbing Arthur's Seat and Carlton Hill...

Incidentally, it did strike me whilst exploring the area around the striking Scottish parliament building that Scottish parliamentarians couldn't have a better place to work. They step outside and there's Holyrood Palace directly in front of them, they go a couple of minutes round the corner and they are at the foot of Arthur's Seat, they walk a minute on and a lovely park unfolds before them. Wander in the other direction and you're at the bottom of Carlton Hill in about fifteen minutes, climb it in ten. Take along a fine whisky kickback and, wow, the world's your oyster! [Watch out for the BBC cameramen though. They are always up there.]

Ostriches, sand, heads and beheadings

Did you know that ostriches, the world's largest bird, have three stomachs and that, unlike all other living birds, they secrete urine separately from faeces? Or that they run so fast in part because they have just two toes on each foot (most birds have four), with the large nail on the larger, inner toe resembling a hoof? Or that their famously large eggs are the largest of any living bird and weigh as much as two dozen chicken eggs, though they are actually the smallest eggs relative to the size of the adult bird? Or that they don't bury their heads in the sand when in danger? 

Well, you probably already knew the latter, didn't you? That's a myth that's been exploded long ago.

I, however, have been sorely tempted to walk down to the few remaining sandy parts of Morecambe's beaches with a spade, dig a small hole, place my head in it and then scrape the surrounding sand around my head in order to avoid thinking about the murder of David Haines, the British aid worker, killed (it seems) by a British Muslim. 

[My sister, staying with us, ordered me to turn off Broadcasting House this morning because they were talking about it. It was too much for her to take. Her daughter has just had twins].

Mr Haines sounds like he was a good man, and that photo with his baby...well, I'm sure you're feeling much the same about that as I am. 

It's all rather too painful to face up to, and frankly I'm not willing to face up to it myself quite yet.

I also read this week (in major online Arabic newspapers) of British women (of the Muslim persuasion) being the worst of the worst when it comes to keeping order among Islamic State's sex-slaves. That's something too.

Few here in Britain seem to be panicking though. There isn't any panic on the streets of London, or panic on the streets of Birmingham. Even though I wonder to myself, 'Could life ever be the same again?, others seem to be making for the sand and taking their little spades with them, ignoring the music in their heads singing, 'Hang the blessed kuffir!'

Yes, that's good. Doing a Chris Packham there, sticking in sly references to Smiths songs, like he did on Springwatch. Chris would like my ostrich facts. Yes, let's joke and talk about ostriches. I can do that, joke and talk about ostriches.

Someone who can run at 40 mph at Biased BBC was complaining this morning that some expert on BBC Breakfast (namely Paul Rogers, that Peace Studies chap from Bradford who the BBC keeps inviting onto its programmes) had asserted that Islamic State [the Sunni Salafist Islamist organisation which has announced the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate and is pursuing vicious pogroms against non-Muslims, Muslim 'heretics' (such as Shiites) and Sunnis who aren't 'Sunni' enough for its Islamic tastes] have nothing to do with Islam.

Hmm. I didn't see that interview with Paul Rogers but I can well imagine him saying that. When I think of him I always think of him with his big eyes, long neck, black feathers and long legs (which makes him quite the celebrity in Bradford). I've rarely seen his big eyes though, given that they've been buried in sand almost every time I've seen him on TV.

As I say though, I didn't see him today. I had my own head in the sand at the time. 

Keep on joking, Craig.

I'd pulled my own head out of the sand long enough, however, to listen to this morning's Sunday on Radio 4, just long enough in fact to hear U.A.E.-funded L.S.E. Chair of Middle Eastern Studies Professor Fawaz Gerges - Sunday's favourite expert on Middle Eastern affairs [numerically their favourite expert - no really, I've been counting!] - speaking in a muffled voice and saying that Islamic State (peace be upon it) is a "social movement" with "no theology", "an intellectual wasteland" with "no sustenance...no ideas"...and nothing, yes NOTHING, to do with Islam. 

Why was Fawaz's voice muffled? Oh yes, that bloody sand again!

I joke of course, but that joke isn't funny any more. It's too close to home and it's too near the bone: British-born Muslims flocking out to butcher in the name of Islamic State (and, apparently, being even more brutal than the rest), beheadings in Britain, rekindling anti-Semitism, and all the rest (need I remind you?)...

It doesn't make me smile. I wish I could laugh. I've seen this happen in other people's lives and now it's happening in ours....

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Middle East Myths and the Media

Whenever you find yourself arguing about the Middle East, you’ll probably have the luck to be up against a fan of Ilan Pappé or Noam Chomsky. That is a major stumbling block.

Venerated historians can reference archival material till the cows come home, but documentary evidence seems not to figure in Israel-hating arguments, which are usually emotional and often inexplicable.
The media’s focus is permanently fixed upon Israel’s imperfections (which bear an uncanny similarity to ours) while no-one seems remotely uncomfortable about the seismic imperfections of her enemies. 

How easily we cherry-pick whatever suits our preconceived fancies and how nonchalantly we disregard the rest. Facts only get in the way.
Denis MacEoin’s piece for Gatestone “Will Facts Ever Displace Anti-Israel Fiction? tackles one specific example, which stands for all the rest.
Batting for the Palestinians, we have the Irish. 

The IRA  has connections with the PSC, and the Irish do tend to support the Palestinians. Perhaps they still can’t forgive the Jews for killing Christ, even though Pope Benedict XVl said he has done so personally, (most generous) but that’s not what Denis MacEoin was addressing. He was infuriated by an op-ed piece in a widely read newspaper, the Irish Examiner. He describes the piece, written by  a little-known journalist named Victoria White, as “an uncompromising diatribe, a spittle-flecked assault on Israel that dragged out the usual false claims of “ethnic cleansing” during Israel’s war of independence in 1947 and 1948.” 

It is certainly most upsetting to come across factually inaccurate and slanderous material in a setting (or out of the mouth of a person) from whom one is entitled to expect better, and it’s typical of what happens when we get embroiled in un-winnable arguments with people who believe what they want to believe, fact or fantasy. Such people always seem suspicious of Jews and want to think the worst of them. The ascribe all manner of malevolent motives to Jews, and have persuaded themselves to doubt the legitimacy of Israel. 

We don’t know why so many people are antisemitic or emotionally pro-Palestinian. It could simply be because they’ve been educated, informed and entertained by the BBC.
Or the Guardian. 

Denis MacEoin considers that Pappé’s infamous book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” is so one-sided that it is in effect fraudulent. 

Despite the fact that Pappé’s interpretation of historical events has been discredited and debunked by serious historians who substantiate the counter narrative with carefully researched documentary evidence, the Israel-hostile theses of Pappé and Chomsky satisfy the anti-Zionists by reaching the parts that other views don’t reach. Israel-negative interpretations fulfill a role and therefore have been highly influential. Revisionist historians supply fiction that replaces facts rather than temporarily displacing them.

With the help of the media, several specific myths have taken hold in a big way, from the mythical “ethnic cleansing“ of Palestinians in 1848, the so-called “genocides” that are supposed to have taken place from time-to-time ever since, the imaginary apartheid, the “siege” of Gaza, and the general vilification of Israel and all who sail in her. All these myths are neatly encompassed in the phrase ”What Israel is doing.” Those four words, frequently uttered by Jenny Tonge and others, elicit knowing looks from people who actually know nothing. 

From Pappé’s book Victoria White has chosen one of the most significant ahistorical misunderstandings: “The campaign to ethnically cleanse the city of Haifa of Palestinians.”  MacEoin explains in detail that this did not happen - in fact the opposite is the case. There was no campaign, other than that of the Arabs to exterminate the Jews. “The Exodus of 1947-1948”, was an Arab-led exodus, engineered by Arabs, for the sole purpose of facilitating a planned annihilation (of Jews), which, as we know, failed. 

Pro-Palestinian activists have this myth in their top ten. It is a myth, but one that underpins the whole victimhood strategy, which gets the pro-Palestinian juices running.
BBC Watch critiques a programme called “Agree to Differ” that was recently broadcast on radio 4. 
Hosted by Matthew Taylor, formerly chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair, this very myth was was alluded to by one of the participants, and left unchallenged. Rafeef Ziadah was introduced as a “Palestinian performance poet and human rights activist.” As an introduction, that might sound commendable to the uninitiated, but it should perhaps have included the strap-line “...and leading anti-Israel campaigner”.
If Matthew Taylor’s grasp of the history is representative of the average government adviser on political strategy, is it any wonder we’re in the middle of an Islam-related crisis that no-one seems to know how to resolve.

There are far too many slapdash and poorly-prepared BBC interviewers and chairpersons publicly mishandling important discourse. They fail to challenge or correct errors, and their ignorant or partisan attitudes infuriate the better-informed audience and mislead the gullible, the vulnerable or the emotionally incontinent.  

If they don’t know something, please don’t let them pretend they do.
A programme currently being trailed is to be aired on Saturday at 20:00 on Radio 4. It’s an episode of Archive on 4, called Media and the Middle East. Here’s the blurb: 
 “The rockets and missiles fly, from Israel into Gaza, from Gaza into Israel. It's the latest iteration of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours which has flared since the very founding of the Jewish state in 1948.
Accompanying the conflict has been an unprecedented level of media coverage. And almost nothing is uncontested. Every sentence, every word of a news report is parsed for signs of bias by individuals and organisations dedicated to ensuring a fair deal for their point of view. Coverage is measured in minutes and seconds of airtime. Media organisations stand accused, by both sides, of prejudice, systemic bias and deliberate distortion.Why does this particular conflict, above all others, attract the attention it does? And why does it create such strong emotion, even among those with no connection to the region?John Lloyd, a contributing editor at the Financial Times, examines the evolution of coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the founding of Israel to the present day.With contributions from journalists and those who monitor them, Lloyd asks why there is such focus both on the conflict itself and on those who report it. He traces the way reporting has developed from the early television age, through the introduction of 24-hour news channels to the inception of social media. And he examines the challenges of reporting fairly and accurately on a conflict in which every assertion is contested.”
The very first sentence gives an example of the last/first syndrome, so it doesn’t look promising. 
Are “the media” feeling sorry for themselves because we’re scrutinizing every sentence for the smallest scintilla of bias? They wonder why there is such a disproportionate focus on the region, when they might ask themselves whether their own disproportionate obsession with the subject has anything to do with it. 
Who is John Lloyd? Is he a covert anti-Israel zealot or just a common or garden mildly anti-Zionist media boffin? Or a Jew? 
Woops! He’s a communist. Oh no, it says here that “Lloyd is a former communist who became a critic of the left’s anti-imperialism, and a proponent of military aggression by the United States and its allies.”  He wrote about Bias and the BBC in the Guardian in 2007. (A long time ago.)

Whenever the BBC tackles something like this and promises to lay bare the myths once and for all, it usually manages to make things even worse.  If the programme makers don’t even understand the very complicated history, or they learn the mythical version from each other, how can they make a fair assessment of possible bias? Even if they did make an effort to look further than Chomsky they’d be conscious of the Palestinian Solidarity campaigners looking disapprovingly over their shoulder. 

There was a symposium the other day, the panel were all vigorous anti-Israel campaigners who, after mutually reinforcing a few of their favourite myths, agreed to get up and ‘do something’.   They’re all much more pro-Palestinian than Hamas. If all the Palestinians came to their senses and realised that they’d benefit from accepting Israel and getting on with building a positive, neighbourly, shared future, that lot would be furious.

For some reason YouTube won't let me upload this video, but I might tempt you to look at it (Two parts) with these grabs instead.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Thoughts on Scottish independence and the BBC

What would Scottish independence mean for the BBC (an organisation famously founded by a Scot)?

I will admit that, until I was prompted to think about it, the fate of the BBC was pretty low down my priorities when it comes to thinking about the possibility of Scotland becoming independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. 

Though English, I'm roughly one-thirds Scottish (a Scottish granddad from Glasgow, plus more distant Scots on other ancestral branches), and we holiday in Scotland more than anywhere else, my childhood dog was a tim'rous West Highland called Robbie, I buy a Scottish Sunday newspaper every week ('The Sunday Post', if you're wondering) and, I feel I must add as a sand grown 'un, the braw seaside town of Morecambe has long been a home-from-home (work-wise and holiday-wise) for lots of Scots - and long may it continue. So the thought of Scotland divorcing from the rest of the UK and leaving me semi-orphaned should, I think, make Alex and Nicola feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. (Should I ask some grubby UK lawyer - Michael Mansfield? - to sue them for emotional abuse then?)

The present Scottish government's cunning plan appears to be to transform what is now BBC Scotland (lock, stock and several smoking barrels) into a brand new broadcaster called the Scottish Broadcasting Service. This includes retaining BBC Scotland's existing staff and being given all of their assets. This new entity would continue to be funded by means of the license fee, albeit a brand-spanking-new Scottish version of the license fee. 

Sounds easy doesn't it?

Well, presently Scottish license payers account for some 9% of the total, contributing around £350 million to the BBC's coffers. That sum of money would make me happy if I won it on the lottery but (as numerate types will know) it's not a huge amount of money to run an ambitious national public broadcaster - as can be seen if you compare it to, say, the cost of BBC Two along (some £545 million). The SBS might well struggle to punch above its weight then, and adverting and/or state funding (i.e. direct taxation) would probably eventually prove irresistible for any post-independence Scottish government (especially an SNP one) seeking to boost the new national broadcaster's prestige (and, maybe, such things might very well work). 

That £350 million is obviously money that would be lost to the rump BBC in the remaining parts of the United Kingdom, but that rump BBC would still be a very large rump, with 91% of UK license payers remaining to fund its services - and rather fewer services at that (goodbye Gaelic language stations, for example). It would also continue to hold the vast bulk of the corporation's existing assets. 

There's bound to be some squabbling if an independent Scotland seeks a parting share of BBC Worldwide's massive profits from commercial sales but, even if they got it - given  that they would be setting up a breakaway broadcaster - it would surely be a minor windfall that could be enjoyed but once and ne'er again, and BBC Worldwide's profits would, thereafter, be only at the disposal of the continuing (non-Scottish) BBC. (Wouldn't they?)...Or would there be years of further squabbling to try to get a share of that overwhelmingly non-Scottish media equivalent of North Sea oil (over the profits gained from sales of ex-BBC-Scotland programmes, for example)? 

Looking at it, it seems as if the BBC south of the border, across the other border into Wales, and across the Irish Sea (to Northern Ireland) would pull through pretty much in tact financially - unless the government of the day at Charter Renewal proved surprisingly tough. The new Scottish Broadcasting Service would, therefore, have to be either very bold and imaginative - or stubborn (stupid) and statist - to avoid being a mere minnow swimming alongside a (red, white and) blue whale of international repute. 

What would that Scottish Broadcasting Service be able to offer? A Scottish Radio 4? A Scottish Radio 3? A Scottish Radio 5 Live? Who would get custody of James Naughtie, Nicky Campbell, Ken Bruce and Eddie Mair? 

The SNP government argues, in the modern world, with its plethora of easily available digital channels, that the beyond-the-Scottish-borders BBC would still be easily available to Scottish viewers and listeners. Plus there's the internet and the i-Player. Thus Radio 4, Radio 3, Doctor Who and Strictly would still be there at the click of something or other to Scottish viewers. Or so they say (and they could very well be right).

Scotland, however, would then be a foreign country, and wouldn't it be subject to the same charges and blocks that other foreign countries are subject to (as far as I am aware)? Would the rump UK want to allow an independent Scotland unfettered access to its BBC without them paying a penny towards it? Why should they have free access to what would become our license-fee-funded delights, like Doctor Who and The Big Questions

Do the Scots even want rid of the BBC though? If you believe Twitter, Newsnet Scotland and Biased BBC, you'd be mad not to want rid of the biased BBC (though Twitter and Newsnet Scotland see the nature of bias very differently from Biased BBC), but - as per the Guardian - a fairly recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 61% of Scottish viewers wanted to keep the BBC and saw no need for a new Scottish broadcaster and a mere 11% opted for the replacement of the BBC with an independent Scottish broadcasting service. 25% said they’d be happy to have both the BBC and an independent public broadcaster. That survey pre-dated the recent, long referendum campaign and views may well have shifted dramatically - but it's hard to believe they've shifted that dramatically.

Lots of people (most people?) are, of course, full of conflicting, contradictory thoughts most of the time - I know I am, and wouldn't have it any other way - and, thus, all such polls are best treated as only partially reliable guides. Still, I'd say the evidence strongly suggests that the new Scottish Broadcasting Service won't be greeted with unalloyed joy even among those who voted for independence (if the result goes that way) - but, if people in Scotland vote 'yes', that's probably what they'll get.

It's a curious thing but, in the small part of the blogosphere that I inhabit (the 'Biased BBC' part), the idea of scrapping the BBC is a very popular idea. It's not one either Sue or myself have ever been keen on (though I would do some drastic things with the BBC's funding and stamp on its monopolising tendencies), so we're apparently with the bulk of Scottish opinion there (and, therefore, ranged against the cybernats and B-BBCers.) I'd personally like to see the BBC radically transformed throughout the UK - a UK that includes Scotland - but I don't want to see the BBC broken up. Or the UK broken up for that matter. 

I've been drinking a fine single malt whisky tonight, so if the thread of this post is beginning to lose its focus, then it be os it...

...but I'm drinking to the friendship of Scottish, English, Welsh and Ulster license payers, and long may we continue to celebrate together as a nation whilst listening to Barry Cryer's laugh on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue

And here's an Englishman on Orkney to pipe us to bed. Goodnight...

If it weren’t for the black feather on the floor, I would have thought he was a mirage.

Robert Fisk knows who this is. Do you?

Oh dear God! I am appalled, absolutely appalled, that Karl Sharro (subject of a recent 'Is' post) has just been re-tweeted, approvingly, by the BBC's Jon Donnison (subject of more than 600 recent 'Is' posts). ['Is', of course, standing for 'Is the BBC biased?' rather than 'Islamic State'.]

Still, the re-tweet in question...
...takes us a brilliant spoof of the Independent's Robert Fisk that only fails to fully hit the spot because of its failure to blame Israel for everything. 

So, in the spirit of shameless interblog swiping, here's that Karl Sharro blogspot in full, wickedly ripped off ...

...which is the sort of thing that would have angered Sennacherib [the answer to the question at the start of this post...in the caption beneath that grainy photo of our mystery man. Photographic quality wasn't their thing back then]. That great Assyrian ruler published his own wholly original blogposts - in contrast to that Mossad/CIA lickspittle Marduk-apla-iddina II of Babylon who plagiarised people like mad: 
Robert Fisk: Reporting from Syria ‘with sensational quotes in the headline’
Our writer reports from the frontiers of his fertile imagination with superb attention to detail and amusing historical facts. 
(This is an imaginary article from this series by Robert Fisk in The Independent inspired by this article in particular). 
As I got in the car, a 1962 Mercedes built in the same factory where my father had once fought the German army in 1917, the driver smiled and nodded wisely, as all taxi drivers in the Middle East do when they’re driving a foreign journalists around. Ahead lay a deceptively empty stretch of road that my imagination quickly filled with the mental image of Sargon II’s soldiers marching along, primarily to illustrate my excellent knowledge of history.
The man back at the hotel had warned me about the false tranquillity of this part of Aleppo that I was about to visit. He only identified himself as ‘the raven’, but something told me that I must trust this man dressed strangely in an Abayya made of black feathers despite the searing heat. I have stopped long ago questioning those mysterious men I encounter while reporting, and so have my editors.

The raven sipped his black tea, sweetened with spoonfuls of the local cane sugar that was first processed when the Persians ruled this part of the Fertile Crescent, then looked at me with his piercing eyes that looked more menacing above his long beak. ‘Ask for Abu Mohomed, he will talk to you.’ He said Mohamed, but I have this habit of misspelling Arab names. When I left, the raven had disappeared. If it weren’t for the black feather on the floor, I would have thought he was a mirage.
Back on the road, the driver slowed then took a turn between two huge rocks that resembled a lion about to brush its teeth. As he sped past, I glimpsed a 7-year old child in a green and white T-shirt being hurried along by his worried mother and her brother in law’s cousin who had recently come back from Canada. Troubling times.
Inexplicably, in this paragraph I am suddenly transported to a room that the army is using as a temporary operations room. On the wall, above a wedding portrait of the previous occupiers, who now run a falafel shop in Brighton, hung a large map of the city.
The commander, a 35-year old major from Tartus who liked fishing in his spare time, described to me what they were doing there. I quickly lost interest as I was more interested in dramatic anecdotes. Also, he was speaking to me in Russian which I didn’t understand.  
The soldiers outside talk to me more openly. They had interrupted the football game they were playing with empty B67 ammunition bags. The goal was a makeshift target between two T-72 tanks which for some reason I must mention in all my articles. One told me about the giant leaping Chechen fighters that he had come across only three days ago, but I sternly told him that it’s my job to make things up, not his. Instead, I asked him to tell me about his fiancée and his plans to open an internet cafe when the war was over.
When I finally made it to Abu Mohomed’s hideout that afternoon, the sun was hanging low in the sky, its golden disk reminiscent of the famous necklace that the Emperor Aurelian had presented to Zenobia the Queen of Palmyra, before taking her in chains to Rome. Have we not learned anything in the Middle East?
Abu Mohomed gave me a different story to the one the Major Simba (I know, I’m the only one who meets people with such names in the Middle East) had narrated. Something about the need for political change but my mind drifted as I observed the partially collapsed gateway that had stood intact for 743 years. The stones of Syria can tell its stories better than most men. Later, as Abu Mohomed bid me farewell, I asked about the raven. He looked alarmed as he told me that the raven died six months ago.  
As usual, I will end with a completely irrelevant question that has nothing to do with the rest of the article and that leaves you even more baffled. Could it be that the current conflict is the logical outcome of Allenby’s reluctance to engage the local chieftains? Did King Faisal make a fatal mistake in that summer of 1932? What is really the point of those open-ended questions? Could be a useful way to imply that I am world-weary and have seen too much?  

Monday, 8 September 2014


I've complained before about John Humphrys and his way of interviewing scientists about matters of general scientific interest:
Another gripe of mine about the BBC and science arises from John Humphrys and his larky, 'ooh,-look-at-me,-I-don't-know-much-about-science-so-I'll-affect-an-ironic-tone-whenever-a-scientist-comes-onto-Today-and-everybody-will-love-me-for-it' attitude. Give it a rest please, John.
It's always the same question too: 'What's the point of this?'
There was a particularly irritating example of this on this morning's Today (6.50 am)

John Humphrys was interviewing Terry Quinn from the International Bureau of Weights and Measures about how gravity gets in the way of measuring the earth's weight with precision - a fascinating subject - and Mr Quinn began by explaining the background with such skill and clarity that I found myself hoping he might be given his own Radio 4 series. 

I was hanging on his every word, hoping John Humphrys would just let him continue, but it wasn't to be. JH crashed in with the dread words, "But we haven't got long I'm afraid", and then asked the burning question on his mind. 

And, following all the fascinating stuff Mr Quinn had just told him, what was that burning question?:
Why does it matter? 
I was reading for switching off at that point - and I wish I had because, to add insult to injury, just as Mr Quinn was trying to get back into his stride again he happened to mention quantum electrodynamics and (with all the inevitability of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) then came the following low moans from John Humphrys:
Oh dear!....yes.....right.
I was all for ripping out the car radio at this point and chucking it out of the window, but if I'd done that silly thing I'd have missed JH's coup de grace, pausing the interview to say:
Look, I take you word for it that it's terribly important. I wish I could say I understand why but that's for another time.
Did I want to know that, John? No I didn't.

The interview ended with John H laughing, as if it was all such a hoot and Mr Quinn was such a sporting fellow for taking it all on the chin. 

I myself was very interested in hearing what Terry Quinn had to say. He's a brilliant explicator of science, by the sounds of it. Plus I'm interested in hearing about quantum electrodynamics - and the phrase never makes me groan. I suspect quite a few other early-rising members of the Radio 4 audience were also listening intently to Mr Quinn's contribution.

Why then did John Humphrys ruin it by doing his deeply boring 'routine' for the umpteen thousandth time? Just because he's not very interested in science, it doesn't mean that a good part of his listenership necessarily shares his lack of intellectual curiosity.

Radio 4, please can John Humphrys be taken off doing any interviews with serious scientists (that aren't mainly about politics) from now on? He's just awful at them.

Maybe the next time a scientist is invited to take part in a politically-charged interview with John Humphrys he should start sneering at the Today man's interest in party political squabbles - what one one minister said about another minister - and call it 'nothing but gossip', or start rubbishing the Today programme's habit of speculating about what some other politician might or might be saying in a speech later that day as something he can't see the point of, or end by quoting Plato's Socrates denouncing all the things which interest John Humphrys as 'mere opinion', 'shadows on the cave wall'.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Homeless Jesus, yew trees, world chaos, and monkish urges

A blog that offers a weekly assessment of a particular BBC programme should continue to post about it even if no BBC bias has been detected in it - especially if  the blog is called Is the BBC biased? (with its question mark). 

Today's edition of Radio 4's Sunday talked about Ebola, Catholic priestly abuse, yew trees, Archbishop Justin's decision to set up a new monastic order in Lambeth Palace, a sculpture depicting a homeless Jesus and the Medical Innovations Bill.

Now, yes, Sunday's intense interest in Roman Catholic child abuse is an ongoing bias on the programme's part (though perhaps a justifiable one) and a sculpture called 'Homeless Jesus' is just the sort of thing that would appeal to them, but the issues regarding Lord Saatchi's Medical Innovations Bill could not have been handled more fairly - both in Charles Carroll's report and Ed Stourton's subsequent interview with Sir Professor Michael Rawlins  and Iain Brassington (who took very different positions). 

Plus 'Homeless Jesus', in fact, proved interesting. The sculpture (in bronze) is the work of Canadian Tim Schmalz and depicts a homeless man dossing on a bench covered in a cloth/blanket. The man's face cannot be seen.  He wanted to get away from that face, so that it becomes both Jesus and everyone. Approach it and look at his feet though, bearing the wounds of the Cross, and you realise it is Jesus. Tim, a Catholic, calls it "a visual translation of Matthew 25". He wants people to sit on the bench *uncomfortably* and would like it to be initially misconstrued as a real homeless person. Whether you see that as moving and provocative or demeaning, gimmicky and schmaltzy will be a matter of taste and/or judgement. Pope Francis has given it his blessing, and it will soon be found in Rome. Chicago and Washington already have casts. Sunday asked its listeners to suggest somewhere here. (Edward Stourton's back garden?)

The programme also talked to Foday Compey from one of its favourite charities, the Catholic organisation CAFOD, about the lockdown planned in Sierra Leone in order to combat the spread of Ebola. It's a highly unusual move and we can only hope it works.

I very much liked the feature on yew trees - a piece prompted by the Church in Wales' desire to preserve ancient yews for posterity. The report by the delightfully-named Sarah Swadling (oh please let Sunday make her do a nativity story this Christmas!) took us to St Cynog’s churchyard in Defynnog, Powys, and highlighted the fact that some of Britain's yews are much older than the churches they look after. 

This one, according to ring-dating and DNA testing, appears to be 5,000 years old (preceding Christianity by over 3,000 years), and could be the oldest in Europe - though there is a rival claim from Scotland. 

A couple of enthusiastic experts (including Janis Fry) were on hand, noting that the tree was planted on the north side of  an ancient burial mound though to have been constructed in honour of a neolithic chieftain. It is believed to have been an 'axis mundi' for the Celtic tribe thereabouts, connecting the planes of heaven and earth. The tree has a yellow sprig - a golden bough - that, according to Seneca, was used by people who wanted to communicate safely with the dead in the underworld. It is presumed that the church was built there because of the place's mystical associations. 

What with the possibility of a European war looming again over Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East (and numerous other mass-murderous militant Islamist organisations) ,the ever-growing threat of more Islamist atrocities on our own shores, growing chaos throughout the Middle East, the possible collapse of several nation states (possibly including the UK), the massive waves of illegal immigrants/asylum seekers entering Europe via Southern Europe, Iran's quiet progress towards possessing nuclear weapons, China's growing ambitions, etc, it sometimes pays to spend a while thinking about yew trees...

...or about entering a monastery (though that strategy didn't work in earlier days of darkness, like when the Vikings were doing their thing). The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is looking for a prior to lead a new 'monastic community' in Lambeth Palace. He told Edward Stourton that it will be formed from younger post-grad people, mainly Anglican but ecumenical, with the hope that they will eventually become leaders and serve in London ("active social service"). Archbishop Justin himself will be these nuns and monks' abbot. It will be called the Community of St Anselm (named after a Benedictine monk from Normandy). They are expected to be celebrate (which seems....fair enough). Intriguingly, there's already a Catholic equivalent established at Lambeth Palace called Chemin Neuf (Justin invited them there at the start of the year). That, of course, would be an ecumenical matter. Yes.