Sunday, 24 February 2013


Just as a follow-up to the previous post...

This morning's Sunday was largely focusing on Roman Catholic matters again, examining (a) the accusations being made against the UK's most senior Catholic, Cardinal O'Brien, as reported in the Observer; (b) the latest news from the Vatican following Pope Benedict's resignation; (c) tensions between the Vatican and the English Catholic Church; and (d) a letter to the Independent by a number of liberal British Catholics calling for more democracy in the Church. 

What of our ongoing concerns? Well, I spoke too soon about Robert Mickens. Yes, Robert Mickens of the Tablet was back, talking in collegiate fashion to Ed Stourton about the "spiny and prickly questions" brought about by Benedict's decision to resign. Then Tina Beattie of the Tablet reappeared as the most-used 'talking head' in a report by Trevor Barnes, spreading her anti-conservative message. 

So was this a relapse on Sunday's part? No, because for the final discussion (on those calls for the advancement of 'the spirit of Vatican II' and the democratising of the Catholic Church) featured Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith of the Catholic Herald as one of its contributors (alongside one of the signatories of the letter) - as requested by me a couple of weeks ago! (Actually, I asked "How about Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith instead of Tina Beattie?" We got both! - which is fine by me. That's how it should be.)

So, after two years without a single guest from the more traditionalist Catholic Herald (while there were over 20 appearances by contributors to the more liberal Tablet), two have appeared within two weeks...which suggests to me that the BBC did listen to those complaints sent to the programme and to the Complaints Unit on the strength of this blog's presentation of the evidence. I'll stick with "Result!" then - and keep my fingers crossed!

The rest of Sunday included an interview with Dr Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation after "three men from Birmingham" (as Ed put it) were convicted of plotting terrorists acts that would seek to rival the 9/11 attacks in terms of bloodiness. Dr Hasan discussed the issue of Muslim charities in light of their fraudulent involvement with one, and said that "jihad" has two meanings, of which the "peaceful" meaning of a spiritually-guided fight against such things as poverty and hunger is the important one for most Muslims. 

Just as Sunday tends to turn to the Tablet for Catholic issues, so it tends to turn to the Quilliam Foundation for Muslim matters. For Jewish concerns, it favours Ed Kessler and Rabbi Jonathan Romain. For Sikh matters, it turns to...well, er, no, it doesn't actually turn to anyone because it almost never discusses Sikh issues (just once in two years!). In a similar way, for Pakistani political issues, it (like Dateline London) turns to Dr Shahid Sadullah. He's a nice, liberal Pakistani journalist. Dr Sadullah was on today, discussing Pakistani political issues.

Away from the Sunday "speed-dial" contributors, there was a piece examining the religious impulses behind the Chartist movement and an interview with the new Director for Reconciliation for the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury.

Worth a "listen again", perhaps, if you missed it.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Result! (Possibly)

I think I'm going to chalk this up as a victory for Is the BBC Biased? 

Our post Take one 'Tablet' three times a day created quite a flurry of interest, including from Damian Thompson and James MacMillan at the Daily Telegraph and on various popular Catholic blogs. Many a reader complained directly to the BBC about the extraordinary biasing of the Radio 4's Sunday in favour of the liberal Catholic magazine The Tablet (dozens of appearances by people associated with that newspaper) and the complete exclusion (for at least two years) of writers from its more conservative rival The Catholic Herald - a point I brought up again a few days ago on the post This coming 'Sunday'....

I've noted before the marked decline in Tabletistas on the programme ever since and this morning's edition went one step further. Was it in response to my challenge? We know they read us because they've linked to us twice already (rather surprisingly).

Unlike before, when two or three people from the Tablet would get together for a chat at the end of a Catholic-centred special, today we had Clifford Longley of...yes, obviously...The Tablet discussing the Pope's resignation with....drum roll....Madeleine Teahan of The Catholic Herald, who provided a rare, orthodox, pro-Benedict perspective. 

Praise be!

Similarly, though much of the early part of Sunday was more typical, with Ed Stourton and David Willey gossiping and criticising the Vatican, it should be noted that the programme's striking use of the highly liberal Robert Mickens of The Tablet as if he were Sunday's other (unofficial) Rome correspondent did not occur this morning. I think I'll chalk that one up too!

That was followed by a fairly negative report on the Pope's difficulties with other faiths. The choice of topic was possibly a sign of bias but Kevin Bocquet balanced his report quite well - far better than, say, Tim Whewell in his remarkably negative Newsnight report from last Monday, where Catherine Pepinster of The Tablet and Geoffrey Robertson QC were hostile witnesses for the Pope - and in Mr Robertson's case an extremely hostile one! - with no helpful witnesses for balance. 

Moreover, the canvassing of four opinions from around the world on this morning's Sunday may have contained two strongly liberal voices critical of Pope Benedict, namely Roberto J. Blancarte, president of the Center for the Study of Religions in Mexico, and Italian left-liberal Vatican correspondent Marco Politi (alongside John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, a studiously impartial commentator despite admitting to liberal tendencies), but at least the fourth and final voice was a conservative, pro-Benedict one, namely Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban. A biased selection for sure, but it could have been worse.

So the programme is being much more careful it seems - and for that they must be applauded. 

Shame about last night's In Search of the Real Pope Benedict though!

If you're In Search of the Real Pope Benedict, perhaps give Radio 4 a miss

I have been reading a lot of Catholic bloggers since Pope Benedict XVI's resignation announcement last Monday. Given that what might be described as the "conservative" or "traditionalist" or "orthodox" wing of the Catholic Church doesn't get much of a hearing on the BBC (and certainly hasn't in the BBC News website's coverage this week), I wanted to hear the "other perspective" on Pope Benedict. The blogs I've been reading have supplied that other perspective. 

I am very glad I did. I already knew of the huge affection and admiration felt for the outgoing Pope by a sizeable portion of British Catholics. As younger British Catholics seem to have been turning away from the liberal, 'Spirit of Vatican II' attitudes of the older generation, this does seem (from the outside) to be where the pulse of British Catholicism is beating most strongly now. Pope Benedict has been their pope and the shock and sadness at the news of his resignation has been striking to observe, and moving to read. 

As readers of this blog will know, parts of the BBC have been reluctant to give this perspective the time it deserves. 

If you recall my post detailing the extraordinary biasing of  Radio 4's Sunday programme towards liberal Catholicism - particularly the liberal Catholic magazine The Tablet - 
then you will perhaps already be aware of the problem...and it is a problem if a corporation that commits itself to impartiality by offering all significant perspectives on an issue a fair hearing then fails to do so on a grand scale.

Sunday's Edward Stourton, who is also Radio 4's go-to man for important documentaries on matters Roman Catholic - as well as being a trustee of The Tablet - presented a documentary on Radio 4 last night entitled In Search of the Real Pope Benedict. Trailers promised a "reassessing" of Benedict XVI that would contain "surprises". Very little of it surprised me and the promised reassessment sounded very much like the same old thing that I've been hearing month in and month our on Sunday over the last couple of years.

Edward Stourton is an excellent story teller and told this particular story well. He is, however, a liberal Catholic and that shone through everything he said last night. For all his attempts at generosity towards a Pope whose views he clearly has little sympathy for, the programme came across to me as being something of a hatchet job. 

This was partly brought about by the cast of 'talking heads' Edward elected to use. 

I'm sure you will agree with me that it would be a good, impartial, BBC sort of thing for Edward Stourton to have used a broad range of Catholic perspectives to give us, his listeners, a fully rounded view of the subject. Therefore, you would have expected to hear from conservatives, traditionalists and other strong admirers of Benedict XVI as well as liberals, modernisers and strong critics of Benedict XVI. That's surely the least we could expect. Surely? 

What we got, however, was a stream of liberal Catholic voices, similar (often identical) to that offered on Sunday itself in recent years.

I'll list all the contributors first:

Rupert Shortt, biographer  
Georg Ratzinger, brother of Benedict XVI
John Wilkins, former editor of the Tablet
Fr Gerald O'Collins, theologian
Mark Dowd, writer and broadcaster
Hans Küng, theologian 
Fr Timothy Radcliffe, former head of the Domicans
Marco Politi, Vatican watcher
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former head of the Church in England and Wales
Dom Edmund Power, Abbot of St Paul Outside the Walls 
Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi
Tina Beattie, theologian
Michael Walsh, papal historian

There are certain points that can be made about the people on this list. 

Several of them have close links, like Edward Stourton, to The Tablet. Besides its former editor John Wilkins, we have Tablet director Tina Beattie and former assistant editor of The Tablet Rupert Shortt. Several of the others are frequent Tablet contributors. As Edward Stourton watchers might expect, there was no counterbalancing selection of 'talking heads' from the more traditionalist, pro-Benedict Catholic Herald. This was largely a Tablet 'family affair', so to speak. Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose. (What's that in Latin?)

More obviously, this list contains an overwhelming preponderance of liberal Catholics, from the highly controversial ultra-liberal arch-critic of the Pope, Hans Küng (to be crude for other non-Catholic readers, perhaps think: 'the Tony Benn of Catholic politics'), and that bogeywoman of many a Catholic conservative, the radical Tina Beattie (to be no less crude for others non-Catholics, perhaps think: 'the Polly Toynbee of Catholic issues'), through to John Wilkins, the man who steered The Tablet to the left; the left-liberal Italian journalist Marco Politi;  historian and self-declared "liberal" Michael Walsh; Fr Timothy Radcliffe, whose liberal positions have got him into difficulties with the Vatican; and the activist Mark Dowd (see a few posts ago). Even Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is generally considered to be on the Church's liberal wing.

Now, to give you a sense of how certain of these voices dominated the programme, I'll list them again in the order they spoke:

Rupert Shortt
Georg Ratzinger
John Wilkins
Rupert Shortt
Fr Gerald O'Collins
Mark Dowd
Rupert Shortt
John Wilkins
Hans Küng
Fr Gerald O'Collins
Hans Küng
Rupert Shortt
Rupert Shortt
Georg Ratzinger
John Wilkins
Fr Timothy Radcliffe
Marco Politi
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Hans Küng 
Fr Timothy Radcliffe
John Wilkins
Fr Timothy Radcliffe
Marco Politi
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Dom Edmund Power
John Wilkins
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Lord Sacks
Tina Beattie
Marco Politi 
Michael Walsh
Tina Beattie 
Michael Walsh
Lord Sacks
Tina Beattie
Mark Dowd
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Marco Politi
Michael Walsh

We were given the received liberal interpretation of Church history, with all the familiar assessments of Vatican II, John Paul II, etc. The liberal 'talking heads' expressed their early fears about Benedict and spent a good deal of time running down his papacy. There were fleeting charitable word for the Pope, though they usually came when after he did something that failed to conform to their image of him as an arch-conservative. The element of reassessment seemed to amount to admitting a few of these less-offensive-to-liberal-sensibilities aspects of the Pope's career. A tone of polite sourness was, however, the dominant note. 

The concession that Pope Benedict's visit to Britain had been much more of a success than expected brought a selection of contemporary Catholic vox pops which, given what had just been said, might have been expected to back that up; however, the selection chosen was one positive, one grudging and one hostile. 

All of this is not to say that a well-written and well-presented liberal Catholic account of Pope Benedict isn't of great value. My concern is that the programme made no admission that that's precisely what it was. Instead, it was Ed Stourton of the BBC's authoritative, definitive take on Pope Benedict, impartiality guaranteed, BBC-style. Ed Stourton will doubtless think of it as being just that. So will BBC Radio 4's powers-that-be. It's the way they think after all. Will  non-Catholic and secularist listeners mind? Will liberal Catholic listeners mind? 

However, In Search of the Real Pope Benedict was very far from being an impartial take. It was parti pris. It excluded conservative traditionalists. It excluded enthusiastic admirers of Pope Benedict. It failed to account for why Pope Benedict has been so loved by a significant number of people within his Church. It refused to provide positive interpretations of his theological pronouncements. It simply wasn't interested in reporting such things. I am hopeful that many non-Catholic, secularist and liberal Catholics will see that that's not playing fair, even if the bias is working in their favour, and share my feeling that something's seriously wrong here. 

One-sided documentaries like this are surely incompatible with the BBC's editorial guidelines on impartiality:
Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC's commitment to its audiences.  It applies to all our output and services - television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial magazines.  We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.
The BBC Agreement forbids our output from expressing the opinion of the BBC on current affairs or matters of public policy, other than broadcasting or the provision of online services.
Imagine if this documentary had been about a political figure, the howls of protest would have been heard across the blogosphere. Imagine a major BBC Radio 4 documentary presented by Lord Patten about Margaret Thatcher which had only interviewed her political opponents from within and outside of the Conservative Party and which failed to include a single strong admirer of the Iron Lady. Well, I suspect that's what In Search of the Real Pope Benedict felt like for supporters of Pope Benedict. 

Is BBC Radio 4 too secular, too liberal to even recognise its own bias?

UPDATE: The Catholic Herald's Francis Phillips (how often do you here her on BBC Radio 4?) evidently feels much the same way about this programme:

On Benedict XVI, the BBC is already writing the first draft of history
The Catholic liberal elite dominate the corporation

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Accountancy Professors Uncut

Accountancy professors

In an earlier post I dwelt on Evan Davis's decision to introduce a guest on tax avoidance-related issues merely as "a professor of accountancy at Essex University". My concern was that it risked misleading listeners into assuming that Professor Prem Sikka, the guest in question, is a disinterested expert. Prem Sikka, however, is emphatically not a disinterested expert. He plays a significant role in the left-wing campaign the Tax Justice Network which target multinationals, Tory donors and the like.

This wasn't the first time that Professor Prem Sikka had been introduced in this way. An attempted Panorama hatchet job on Tory donor Lord Ashcroft introduced him in much the same terms whilst using him as a key independent-sounding expert throughout the programme. (He was highly critical of the Tory donor). To compound the problem, one of the programme's other key experts, Nicholas Shaxson (also highly critical of the Tory donour), was merely introduced as a “financial journalist”. Googling quickly dispelled that illusion, however, as Mr Shaxson is also part of the self-same Tax Justice Network. So, presenting two campaigners as disinterested experts? And in such a highly politically-charged edition of the programme? Yes.

That was worth a complaint to the BBC. (You can read their reply on that earlier post).

Going back to Evan's 'failure to disclose', I'll re-quote here the question posed by Umbongo over at the Biased BBC blog:
Sikka was not on Today as a disinterested expert on the mechanics of tax; he was on as an advocate of the policies the TJN espouses. Why would Evan choose not to disclose Sikka’s lobbying background? It’s hardly irrelevant. Doesn’t the failure to give such information concerning Sikka strike you as odd behaviour by an outfit claiming to be “impartial” in such matters?
I made the point, however, that Prof. Sikka's campaigning zeal on that edition of Today was so obvious that most listeners would have surely assumed that he is campaigner. However, that was just pure luck on Evan's part, so to speak. Prof. Sikka could have toned down his rhetoric while still putting his Tax Justice Network-approved points across and the audience might well have been none the wiser, assuming disinterest on his part. It would have been far better if Evan Davis had taken the precaution of telling his listeners that Prem Sikka is affiliated to the left-wing campaign group the Tax Justice Network so that they could see that he has a large dog in the fight, perhaps saying something like "And we can now speak to Prem Sikka, a professor of accountancy at Essex University who is a senior advisor to the Tax Justice Network." It would have taken a mere 3 seconds of precious airtime to add that highly relevant piece of information, so there was time and it didn't entail reading out his entire C.V.!

I'm re-hashing all this because the news that the UK, France and Germany are coordinating attempts to tackle tax avoidance featured as a main story on this morning's Today and guess who they invited to comment?

As soon as James Naughtie began introducing the topic I thought "I bet it will be someone from the Tax Justice Network". Would it be Prem or Richard Murphy? It's usually one or the other on the Today programme - "on speed dial", as BBC critics often say!

Well, it turned out to be Professor Prem Sikka and, yet again, James Naughtie introduced him merely as a professor of accountancy from Essex University without any mention whatsoever of the Tax Justice Network:
Professor Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the Essex Business School at the University of Essex. Good morning.
Unlike Evan's interview, Prem's discussion with James Naughtie today was conducted in a very seminar-like fashion. The accountancy professor didn't sound anywhere near as stridently campaigning this time. Listeners might very well have assumed we was merely an accountancy professor, giving a disinterested point of view. His message, however, was just the same - that of the Tax Justice Network. 

I think we should have been told about his involvement with that pressure group. Don't you?

Also unlike Evan's interview, Prem's seminar was a purely 1-to-1 affair with James. There was no John Redwood to counterbalance the professor's left-wing point of view this time. Tut tut. 

More evidence of Auntie’s leanings?

Now you see him. Now you don't.

Following on from Sue's post...

The BBC's decision to appoint former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell  to the newly-created senior management position of Director of Strategy and Digital has, unsurprisingly, been extensively reported. It's been headline news everywhere from the Guardian to the Daily Mail,  though the BBC itself rather slipped the news into an article headlined Helen Boaden becomes director of BBC Radio

The appointment has proved highly controversial in some quarters, prompting accusations of left-wing bias at the BBC from Conservative MPs, right-of-centre columnists, a former BBC news anchor and at least one anonymous current senior BBC boss. Many of these criticisms of the BBC's decision can be read in right-leaning newspapers. The left-leaning newspapers, in contrast, seem intensely relaxed about the appointment. Wonder why?

Damian Thompson in the Telegraph crisply articulates the concerns, and neatly disposes of a familiar riposte from defenders of the BBC along the way:
More evidence of Auntie’s leanings 
The BBC has appointed the former Labour Cabinet minister James Purnell to become its “strategy chief ”. That’s nice for him: nearly £300,000 a year of our money to direct the corporation’s “public affairs”. As far as I can work out the job was created for him; there was no recruitment process. The BBC’s centre-Left bias is one of the wonders of the modern world. Nothing on earth can shift it. Any Tories in its management are always of the bogus Chris Patten variety, while editorial power rests firmly with liberal programme makers. I pay my licence fee to the Beeb by direct debit. Would it be simpler if I just paid it to the Labour Party instead?
Also in the Telegraph, however, comes a gossipy piece by Tim Walker that raises a couple of other potential counter-examples (over than that desperate riposte of last resort: "Jeremy Clarkson!"):
Thea Rogers, who was Purnell’s lover, left her job as the BBC’s lead political producer last November to become George Osborne’s special adviser. She had impressed Craig Oliver, the corporation’s former news executive, who is now David Cameron’s director of communications.
Of course, the difference between Thea Rogers and Craig Oliver exiting the BBC to work for the Conservative Party and the BBC inviting a well-known Labour Party figure into the higher reaches of BBC management is obvious. The former doesn't provide any evidence of bias, only proving that there were senior Conservative-supporting BBC managers after all. The latter, however, could indeed provide evidence of bias in that it is the BBC's choice to create a strategic role for the until-recently-high-up-in-the-Labour-government Mr Purnell. 

As for James Purnell himself, well, as Norman Lebrecht puts it:
As a former Labour MP, a part of his BBC strategic role will be dealing with a Government of the opposite stripe who will regard him as the enemy. Tricky.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Last Laugh

“A Good Read" this week discussed Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead”.

Meg Rosoff [top] and Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe, described on the website as a ‘stand-up”, chose the book.  Her fellow contributor Meg Rosoff and AGR presenter Harriett Gilbert complained about being forced to re-read it, which they regarded as a huge chore because of  its 800 page length, its ‘cheesiness’ and its politics. The particular bit of the conversation which caught my attention came towards the end of the programme, which was the point at which I switched the radio on.  It starts at around 24:30.

Harriett G.
“[Ayn Rand] thinks and feels like a teenager. I mean this is a really adolescent book.

Sara P
“It really, really is, but I when I was reading it I thought this is so clever because she makes it so palatable.

And actually, to be fair to her, though why one should be I’m not sure because she has such loopy ideas, but, to be fair to her there are some things in there with which you can’t help agreeing. 
I mean she grew up in Russia in a fairly prosperous family that was deprived of all its belongings when the revolution came along and she was, understandably, not at all keen on communism, but she’s not keen on fascism either but in both cases she sees them as ‘goupthink’ systems, so she concludes that the only alternative is the other side of the coin, it’s total selfishness, that you should never help anybody else out because that’s a sign of weakness and so on.”

“I mean part of me is really regretting bringing it in...”

Meg R
“No no really, I enjoyed it, I really enjoyed reading i...”

“Sometimes I think getting into the mind of someone you don’t agree with is so much more fascinating than learning about people that you can absolutely understand why they believe these things” falters Sara, apologetically.
“I mean I love the way she uses language. I love her voice. I love the fact that it is, it is a woman. it’s a grown woman, and it’s a fantasy. It’s a fantasy book, and I feel like you could never take I mean all of the philosophy without the novel that she put together it was never a workable system that you could put together and implement and create any kind of good, but, I exist in such a liberal left-wing world, because of the people I work with, and I’m very...and luckily, but it was so refreshing for me to read a book which disagreed with people. A book that just staunchly said charity is bad. Don’t help people. If you’re gonna help people because it helps you, great; if not, why. And so. If someone who, and I was probably.. grew up thinking everyone should pay, especially if you earn more than thirty grand, about fifty, sixty percent tax, brilliant! And then everyone can go to school and we can blah blah blah blah. It was so interesting to say. But if you tax people... a lot... then, what is the incentive for people to do great things. To become rich, and, and, own and make huge things, and then employ lots of people and that keeps more people alive..”
She began reminding me of David Brent ruminating over some deeply philosophical abstraction for the benefit of the camera, but she was cut short by Meg Rosoff:

“Oh my Gaad” “Now we have the voice of Paul Ryan coming at me, now that’s very (inaudible)”

Sara continued, defensively:
“No-one had ever said that to me. No-one had ever talked to me about it, and the fact that there was a novel, that then, made me open to listening to more right-wing political views, just for their usefulness, rather than just being very staunchly ‘No! This defines me! I think this. I think I want to live in a socialist world where we’re all equal, and...Oh no! You’re all laughing at me..I’m not gonna say now”

“Hahahaha” hooted Meg

Harriett Gilbert intervened: 
You really do need to see Meg Rosoff’s face at this point...”

“Hahahahahaha” cackled Meg.

“And the way it’s just falling” (?) adds Sara, apparently referring to Meg’s face

Harriett G
“But Meg, isn’t the one delight in this book that it does occasionally keep wrong-footing you. I mean you’re sort of going through it thinking you know exactly where it’s going, in every single respect. And then it does wonderful things like it’s got some great satire going on in there. I mean wonderful satire about the tabloid press for instance. This desperate search for the lowest and even lower common denominator, and how the tabloid press will manage to titillate, and how they’ll write about rape and corruption and everything while holding the high moral ground, how disgusting this is.”

The discussion continues for a short time, and concludes.

I haven’t read Ayn Rand, so the scant fragments I’ve gathered about her writing are based on hearsay. 
Nor had I heard of Sara Pascoe, so my observations are not even based on hearsay, but whoever she is, she enunciated these revelatory concepts breathlessly yet with an excited, staccato delivery. It sounded like a faltering awakening - half apologetic, and half embarrassed because of the unsympathetic audience.
Meg Roscoff, (who I’d not heard of either pardon my ignorance) hooted with mirth at the thought of  a comrade daring to deviate from the default line of thought. The effrontery. 

Fleetingly, I imagined this scenario turned on its head, from the opposite side of the political divide. Say something similar took place before the pendulum swung to the left, i.e., before they invented sex and Phillip Larkin, when the conservative right was the status quo, would any ‘liberal left’ views have gone down any better? There surely would have been a considerable amount of tut tutting, but perhaps a bit less of the disdainful sneering. Were progressive ideas generally treated with more respect? At least in those days politeness was the status quo.
That was just a thought. The possibility remains that one day the centre of gravity will readjust and Sara Pascoe and her ilk will fling off their straightjackets, and people will like Ms Rosoff will laugh alone.

I noted Harriett Gilbert’s characterization of the tabloid press, as though the holy Guardian isn’t equally guilty of astonishingly hypocritical prurience, which the flimsy cloak of its self-imposed position atop the intellectual moral high ground cannot quite conceal. Which brings us to the Music College Sex Scandals that are popping up everywhere, over which the Guardian has been by far the most explicit and the most salacious.

Having been indirectly involved with both Chetham’s, the RNCM, the RCM and the GSMD I have my own view on this topic, but that’s neither here nor there for now. But it does bring me to Norman Lebrecht’s blog, which examines this topic from various angles, and lo, brings me back to the beginning of this piece, namely leftism @ BBC. 

James Purnell


Monday, 11 February 2013

This coming 'Sunday'...

I note that the the 'Top Stories' at the moment on The Catholic Herald's website are:

The third item on that list, when you click into it, is a post by Dr William Oddie from March of last year making a prediction which in the light of today's news makes him look like a poor prophet. Ah yes, The Catholic Herald's enemies are obviously already gathering ammo for a hatchet job on one of the Herald's star conservative columnists.

Still, given the evidence presented in my post about the extraordinary dominance of commentators from The Tablet (The Catholic Herald's liberal rival) on BBC Radio 4's Sunday, as presented by Tablet trustee Ed Stourton, it would be expected - were this not the BBC - that the coverage of Pope Benedict's resignation on this week's Sunday would include at least someone from The Catholic Herald

Since my expose and the subsequent tranche of complaints made by conservative Catholics to the BBC in protest, Tabletistas have been absent from Sunday. Will this change this Sunday, given that they might feel that the fuss is dying down? Will the programme resist the urge to dial the usual suspects - Catherine Pepinster, Robert Mickens, Tina Beattie and John Wilkins, who usually appear en masse for such occasions, alongside their Tablet colleague Ed?

Wouldn't it be something if a programme which has featured dozens of guests from the left-leaning Tablet over the last couple of years but not a single guest from the right-leaning Catholic Herald decided at last to redress the balance? 

Instead of the four usual suspects from The Tablet (like the four who appeared on the last big Catholic-centred edition), how about Ed interviewing a few Catholic Heralders? How about Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald in place of Ms. Pepinster? How about Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith instead of Tina Beattie? How about Damian Thompson instead of John Wilkins? How about Edward Pentin instead of Robert Mickens?

How about it Sunday? What's stopping you?

You may not be a Catholic (and I'm certainly not a Catholic) but Sunday's total bias in favour of one liberal Catholic magazine at the expense of a conservative Catholic magazine remains indefensible - and important, if you want to argue that the BBC is not biased. In this case the BBC emphatically has been biased. 

Watch this space to see whether Sunday has learned its lesson or whether it's simply incapable of learning its lesson.

Is the Pope a Catholic?

When you are sensitive to the question of BBC bias you can easily find yourself trying to anticipate the BBC's behaviour in light of your assumptions about them. 

Learning of Pope Benedict's decision to resign, I wondered who the BBC News website would select to write their beyond-the-BBC analysis for this breaking story. There's always such a piece on a big, breaking piece of news - and such there was today. 

As readers of this blog's work on Sunday might have guessed too, I assumed, based on past experience, that it would be a liberal Catholic, probably someone associated in some way with the liberal Catholic magazine The Tablet. I assumed it would not be a conservative Catholic, large numbers of whom welcomed Benedict's election and have felt rejoiced in his papacy.  

Coming in tonight and checking the BBC News website's coverage finds that, yes, they have indeed gone for someone outside of the BBC to provide an 'Analysis'. Have they, however, confounded my expectations of them?

No. They invited the gay activist and Catholic liberal Mark Dowd, regular contributor to the Guardian and (inevitably) The Tablet, to pen their piece on the Pope's legacy. Mark's 'analysis' is not wholly unsympathetic to a pope he's grown less hostile to as time has passed but it's still the perspective of a Catholic liberal. 

No counter-balancing appreciation of Pope Benedict from a Catholic conservative is offered. No hopes for the continuation of his traditionalist reforms are expressed. Much as I expected.

Of course, I should have expected such a counterbalancing point of view to be given, what with the BBC's commitment to impartiality and all that; but I think I know my BBC quite well by now and so I only expected someone from the perspective of Mark Dowd to be chosen by the BBC. And choose him, and nobody else, they assuredly did. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Is 'Islamist' about to go the same way as 'terrorist' at the BBC?

Not Islamists? 

The BBC has frequently been criticised for its refusal to use the word "terrorist" in its reporting of terrorist acts. This isn't merely an informal refusal. It is enshrined in the BBC's Editorial Guidelines:
  • There is no agreed consensus on what constitutes a terrorist or terrorist act. The use of the word will frequently involve a value judgement.
  • As such, we should not change the word "terrorist" when quoting someone else, but we should avoid using it ourselves
  • This should not mean that we avoid conveying the reality and horror of a particular act; rather we should consider how our use of language will affect our reputation for objective journalism
From a piece which has just appeared on the corporation's College of Journalism (COJO) blog it appears as if rules governing the use of another word might also be about to become enshrined in the BBC's Editorial Guidelines:

‘Islamist’ - acceptable shorthand or dangerously misleading?
Friday 8 February 2013, 12:15Cathy Loughran Cathy Loughranis currently editing the College of Journalism blog

The article outlines a discussion between three BBC correspondents - Artyom Liss, head of the BBC Russian Service; BBC Urdu's Aamer Ahmed Khan; and Josephine Hazeley of the BBC African Service. 

Cathy Loughran notes the "common if crude theme" to people's general take on the word "Islamist", a point Artyom Liss amplifies:
“The answer I got back from quite a lot of people was ‘a bearded guy who runs around wielding a Kalashnikov’” 
There has apparently been "heated debate in the BBC African newsroom" about the use of the term, though the article itself merely presents one side of that "heated debate" at this point:
The concerns of journalists there seemed to centre on the use of ‘Islamist’ as journalistic shorthand for Islamist militant/extremist/rebel/terrorist, or in circumstances when the militancy or violence referred to has nothing to do with Islam.
The discussion between the three BBC reporters then begins. The BBC Urdu reporter shares both of those concerns:
Aamer’s view was that precise language is the only way to avoid misleading readers and audiences. “The confusion is where you use [Islamist] interchangeably with the words ‘militant or extremist’. It’s just plain wrong - as wrong as calling a tortoise a coconut,” he argued colourfully.
Besides, not all militant groups are Islamist. The Taleban in Pakistan? Yes. It would be inaccurate to describe the Taleban as just a militant organisation, Aamer believes. But al-Qaeda? In his opinion it is not necessarily an Islamist militant group because its driving political focus is anti-Americanism.
Now I have to admit that my jaw dropped open (and not only figuratively-speaking) at this point. al-Qaeda isn't Islamist?!?!?!? Probably not, according to a top BBC reporter. Isn't that a truly astonishing thing for a BBC reporter to say? To believe it requires us to ignore what we know to be the prime aims of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the countries of the Maghreb, in Kashmir, in Somalia, in Syria, in Nigeria, in Yemen, etc. They want Sharia. They want to establish Islamic rule. They want an Islamic Caliphate.  Yes, anti-Americanism is important to al-Qaeda, but their enemies are many and various. They also hate Israel and India. al-Qaeda kill Westerners and non-Westerners of all colours and creeds. They kill Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and, wherever they can, Jews. They also kill non-orthodox Muslims. To dismiss the movement's driving belief in political Islam is quite incredible and really makes me worry even more about the BBC Urdu Service.

Anyhow, back to the question in hand: "‘Islamist’ - acceptable shorthand or dangerously misleading?"

Aamer believes it's dangerously misleading. So he falls into one camp. What of the two other BBC journalists party to the discussion? Well, the BBC African Service's representative is in the same camp as Aamer:
An uncompromising Josephine Hazeley thought the word ‘Islamist’ should be qualified whenever it is used: “If you’re talking about a group that espouses violence by using, unfortunately, the Islamic religion, you should qualify it.”
So that's two in the "unacceptable shorthand" camp. What about the third BBC reporter, Artyom Liss? Is he going to dissent from this emerging BBC consensus and stand up for the use of "Islamist"? Of course not. This is the BBC after all:
Her Russian counterpart concluded that ‘Islamist’ is an empty shell of a word: “It’s bit like ‘the international community’ - a convenient term when you don’t really know what you want to say.”
So far then, this "heated debate" within the BBC has only heard from one side of the argument - the argument opposing using "Islamist" as a stand-alone term. 

Cathy Loughran then put these concerns to Ian Jolly, the BBC newsroom's style guide editor. Ian is clearly already heading in their direction of travel, but hasn't quite arrived there yet:
“Our own view is that an Islamist is someone who derives a political course from Islam. But it’s vital that we make clear what sort of course that is. For instance, there are Islamist political parties in various countries and Egypt has an Islamist president.
“So, if we are talking about Islamists pursuing a violent course, we should say so - ‘Islamist militants’, ‘Islamist rebels’, ‘Islamist extremists’. But context is, as always, important too and once we have established what we’re referring to then ‘Islamists’ on its own can be an acceptable shorthand."
He's getting ever closer though to the emerging BBC consensus, ending by 'conceding' much of their argument:
"In general, though, Ian says to be specific. “Although sometimes even these labels are no substitute for a more detailed explanation of what is motivating a group or individual,” he concedes."
I wouldn't be surprised if this marks the first stage in the process of banning the use of the word "Islamist" from BBC reporting (in much the same ways as the word "terrorist" has been banned), namely a Editorial guideline prohibiting the stand-alone use of "Islamist" (except in quotations from outside the BBC). It looks as if the BBC is already moving in that direction and the force behind this COJO piece strongly suggests it will be a point conceded at the highest levels of the BBC. Where will it lead onto from there? 

What will the Islamists make of all this BBC hand-wringing?

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Answer the Question!

Our Questions, Questions post on the subject of the BBC's Question Time, using this week's edition as a test case, raised some concerns that the specific questions selected by the Question Time team on that particulate edition did indeed indicate bias - against critics of the NHS, against the Conservative Party, against those hostile to Chris Huhne and against the SNP - or, perhaps, to put it another way, pro-Labour bias.

So, there are big questions (minus Nicky Campbell) for the BBC to answer...

....except that the full list of questions asked on the programme over the past year - as chronicled on the preceding post We're running out of time, but..., - doesn't suggest anything like so simple a case against the BBC.

I know a lot of you have been reading them. (We have ways of knowing!). You will have formed your own opinions of them (hopefully). I suspect, if you're being honest with yourself, that you'll agree with me that any straightforward assertions of pro-left bias with regards to the Question Time team's question selection process will be easy for the BBC Complaints Department to refute (in the true sense of the word 'refute'). Here are some of the questions the programme makers chose:

When David Cameron called Ed Balls a "muttering idiot" was this improper language or a statement of the blindingly obvious?

Countries such as Norway and Switzerland have thrived outside of the European Union but still have strong trading links with EU member countries. Should the UK follow suit? [which, even though 
Euroscepticism isn't only a right-of-centre phenomenon by any means, refutes the assertion that the BBC is always pro-EU ("Europhile") and always anti-Eurosceptic.]

Why should prisoners who've shown they cannot abide my the laws be given a say into society is run? 

It hardly needs adding, obviously, that any simple assertion of pro-right bias in the questions selected would be very easy for the BBC to counter. I could fill about half a mile of cyberspace with counter-examples to that! (And I already have!!!) But, for the sake of any passing left-wingers critical of the BBC, here are a few savoury specimens:

Is the large number of Tory MPs opposing gay marriage symptomatic of a party out of touch with contemporary society?

Given that this week George Osborne has already begun blaming Ed Balls for his part in the Libor Scandal I would like to know what's to stop a parliament-led inquiry turning into a political squabble?

Is George Osborne discriminating against the under-25s with his proposal to remove their housing benefits?

Shouldn't the adoption limit be a matter for the morality of individual women and not Jeremy Hunt?

I really could go on and on and on here with examples but, as you can read them for yourself in a slightly earlier post, I won't bother here.


The most distinct trend is the repetitive nature of the questions. The same questions come round again and again and again. I don't think this is the Question Time team's fault. It reflects the news cycle (although that may be the BBC's fault). So, I don't think the actual questions are biased, but the phrasing is interesting, and it's hard not to wonder if the question are tweaked by the BBC before going out (especially after Sue prompted me to wonder about this!) The questions are also often put in such a way as to provoke a predictable response.

Moreover, the questions - as you'll have spotted - have an anti-government bias in that there are an awful lot of questions that are unhelpful to the present (Con-Lib) government. Does that make them anti-Tory? Well, I don't know (to be honest). There are anti-Lib Dem questions too (as you can see), but named Conservatives feature far more often in the anti-government questions. "Ah, of course they do!" some of you will cry. This is a Conservative-led government after all (as Ed Miliband wanted us to say - and as we are all now saying, for some reason) and the BBC is bound to encourage criticisms of the government of the day, whoever that might be. If I could list a year's worth of examples of questions put by Question Time audience members during Labour's term of office I might be able to prove a difference but I can't, and I can't. (Damnation!)


Sue: I haven't spotted a distinctly leftie trend in the actual questions, but I think the bias would be more detectable if we take into consideration the political affiliation of each particular panellist and the MSM attitude towards the topic under discussion. I mean, say, when Abu Qatada comes up, or the police, or the economy in respect of government cuts etc, you just know which side the audience will like. Unless  a panellist has previously expressed a controversial opinion, say, someone like Melanie Phillips, or a prominent member of the government, in which case they'll stand by an unpopular opinion, not many speakers will deliberately court the audience's disapproval.  There are pressures in that there bear pit.

These things are certainly not a simple matter of statistics in the superficial sense, (how many lefties, how many leftie questions, how many leftie interruptions) although it could possibly be broken down into a statistic-friendly format by analysis of some sort. Then, the analysis would inevitably be biased as well. All I'm saying is that the very public sociologist isn't as clever as all that.

It is a difficult task we’ve taken on. We set out with an agenda, which was to show that despite Phil Sociologist’s stock-take, his findings were not conclusive. QT is still a leftie bear pit. However, this has proved surprisingly slippery to nail. 

I think that even though I suspect the questions are tweaked by BBC staff, it could be simply to make them more controversial, or “make sparks fly” as I used to say. Ratings and all that.

Using the next most recent edition as an example. (31/1/13 Lancaster)

"Is reducing the travelling time from Manchester to London worth £30 billion?"
How else could that have been phrased?  It’s quite straightforward. Make of it what you will. The implied criticism of the enterprise HS1 or whatever it’s called, is probably in the eye of the beholder. 

"Are we wise to become involved in another Islamist struggle in Mali?"
“Another Islamist struggle” is one way of putting it. It at once minimises the threat of Islamism, and implies that fighting Islam is an un-winnable aspiration, and also that foreign matters might be considered none of our business.  Is that politically motivated?  It is concisely worded though, and it’s the kind of question whose meaning could be interpreted according to who asked it of whom. If you see what I mean.

"With the Cumbria vote against the nuclear waste dump is it time the government turned its back on nuclear and backed renewables instead?"
This one ‘sets the scene’ in the first part of the question, which makes one suspect the BBC had a hand in composing it.  It’s certainly loaded towards ‘green’ / against nuclear, but maybe that’s for the sake of provocative questioning.

"Should Prince Charles ask the Queen to go dutch? "
Ha very ha. I can’t even remember what that was all about. It doesn’t particularly sound as though the BBC wrote it, but was it too witty for the questioner?

"Should Nick Clegg send his children to private schools?" 
Again, that was obviously designed to spark off a debate about hypocrisy, bad state education and class. Cleverly phrased, but it could have been as *innocent face* as one wanted to make it.

"Polish is now the second language in the UK. Will we need to revise this to Bulgarian or Romanian next year?" 
This is neat. It’s about immigration, but it sets the scene again, carefully bringing in the Polish language stats by only alluding to Eastern European immigration so as not to appear racist or Islamophobic. 

I suppose one could pull every question apart, trying to find obvious examples where it looks as though the BBC has manipulated the way the question is worded. Consider that the phrasing affects the outcome, thinking of it in the same way we query the wording of a referendum. 

If the BBC does tweak the questions, it could merely be justifiable editorializing. I mean if the audience only came up with a bunch of long-winded clumsily worded questions, they’d have to amend them as a matter of good practice. But on the other hand, as it’s the BBC, all that will necessarily be from a certain perspective. On their terms. They aim to provoke the kind of discussion that they know will humiliate the nasty Tory and glorify the nice altruistic leftie. They know there will be bullying by the audience, because they think it is what makes a good programme. A lot of TV features / relies on bullying.

Craig: Good points. It does indeed, unfortunately. 

You will doubtless have spotted Damian Thompson's piece in today's Telegraph about political schadenfreude (in the wake of Chris Huhne's disgrace). He shares in "the delicious, malicious joy of shaming politicians" but is conflicted about this, given the atrociousness of the way people (especially on public forums) behave in response. It's an outstanding piece and one line in particular stands out for me as especially capturing the spirit of Question Time:
....when I watch Question Time and compare the terrified waffling of the panellists to the sneeringly cheap shots of the audience and the idiots live-tweeting the show, I can’t help wondering: who here, exactly, is incapable of feeling shame?
"The line the audience will take" is, as you say, something it's so easy to anticipate. Cheap - and highly predictable - shots from the audience abound. The politicians waffle, tugging their forelocks beseechingly to the potentially-baying bear pit. 

The plight of the controversial rightie in the bear pit is an interesting one that deserves further investigation.

The BBC Savages Itself Again (Geoffrey Howe-style)

Newswatch with Samira Ahmed (BBC News Channel yesterday evening, BBC One this morning) offered a fine example of the BBC fearlessly holding itself to account.

It led with the hottest BBC News row of the moment - one that has raged across the blogosphere for days now, with the intensity of an Australian bush fire: Why was former cabinet minister Chris Huhne's guilty plea over perverting the course of justice and the announcement of his resignation as an MP (resulting in a by-election) treated by the BBC as if it was a more important story than the surely infinitely more significant breaking news of Richard III's bones being discovered in a car park? A couple of Richard III fans had understandably got the hump over this and were bravely invited into the studio to air their wintry discontent at the BBC's scandalous behaviour. They dismissed the Huhne story as completely unimportant. I'm sure we can all agree about that. The BBC's age-old animus against Richard III truly knows no depths. 

Then it was onto how the BBC covered the gay marriage vote. Some viewers were outraged that the main evening news bulletin had got the spelling of 'marriage' wrong. The caption read 'Gay mariage'. "It's completely inexcusable. Hang your heads in shame!", one viewer wrote. Two other similarly offended Newswatch viewers agreed and got their complaints read out too. Rightly so. It's a very important point. It does make you wonder how on earth some blogger types (you know who you are!) can keeping banging on about biased BBC coverage of the issue when the real issue, the one that genuinely matters, is the question of whether typos are changing the whole fabric of British society for the worse and whether the BBC is actively proselytizing in favour of those typos? 

Someone else complained about the use of 'gay' in the term 'gay marriage', saying it discriminated against bisexuals and transsexuals. The phrase 'same sex' should have been used instead, she/he/it said. I imagine that most of you are just as angry that the feelings of vulnerable, socially-excluded transsexuals have been hurt in such a shameful way by the BBC. You should write to your MP about it.

On the BBC's coverage of the Stafford Hospital scandal, a viewer was appalled. Why, oh why, was the reporter standing outside the hospital needlessly? It's a disgrace! Who cares about what he was reporting, the real issue surely is, was and always will be the question of whether reporters should be standing outside the places they're reporting from. The BBC should extend the Savile Inquiry to cover  that very subject.

Another viewer demanded High Definition local BBC News, so that they could watch all the news about local accidents, cuts, murders, court cases, cuts, weather and football results in the highest possible quality. I'm with them on that. When I'm watching North West Tonight I find my appreciation of their reporting of the cuts is severely curtailed by the lowness of their definition. Samira and the Newswatch gang put the challenging question of High Definition local news to the BBC. I can't remember the answer they got as I nodded off for a few seconds at that point.

Then it was back to sloppy grammar. It's the thin end of the wedge, innit? A BBC reporter was being overly-colloquial, dontcha know, and a Newswatch viewer felt it worth complaining about. A Newswatch producer thought it worth airing too. Quite right!

I must admit I really wouldn't want to have been a BBC bigwig watching Newswatch this morning. It would have ruined their enjoyment of their coffee, croissant and Saturday Guardian. The new DG's days are, I suspect, numbered after this edition of the programme. Lord Patten is rumoured to be already packing his bags. (It's trending on Twitter, so it must be true). Moreover, parliament, led by the cross-party Friends of Richard III group, will be debating the removal of the license fee on the strength of this.

Who needs blogs to take on the BBC when there's Newswatch to give the corporation such a ferocious drubbing, week in and week out? 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Questions, Questions

OK. I didn't want to but I suppose I had to watch last night's Question Time. I endured it purely in the interests of using it as a test case (and, my, what fun it was!)

The programme came from the fairly safe Labour seat of Stirling, and featured Lib Dem Michael Moore MP; the SNP's Humza Yousaf MSP; Labour's Lord Falconer; Conservative MP Mary Macleod; and SNP donor Sir Brian Souter, Chief Executive of Stagecoach Group.

Let's concentrate on the questions though.

The first question selected by the Question Time team concerned the appalling standards of care found at an NHS hospital by a newly-published report. This was investigating the high mortality levels found at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust between 2005 and 2009 - the report into which can be read in full here. The report chronicles staff failings and substandard levels of care on an extraordinary scale. As well as revealing a lack of basic professionalism and compassion shown by doctors and nurse at the hospitals, its managers have also been blamed for cutting corners and covering up mistakes in an attempt to meet Labour's targets and win "foundation status" for the trust. So there's a lot of blame to spread around it seems. Commentators (not all on the right) have been making an obvious point, juxtaposing the shocking examples of neglect, incompetence and cover-up at Stafford Hospital (which caused some 1,200 people patients to die needlessly) with the sanitised and sanctified view of the NHS presented by Danny Boyle during the Olympic opening ceremony. "We ♥ the NHS."  

This scandal, as the politically-informed among you will realise, took place during the "boom years" of the last Labour government, when public money was pouring into the NHS. Cost-cutting may have been in the mind of managers at the hospital, but money from central government was still coming at them at record levels. What sort of questions might you have expected then on last night's programme, given that surely not even the most left-wing Question Time audience could try to blame the present Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government (and/or its austerity measures) for a scandal within the NHS from 2005-2009? 

How about these questions?: "Should the scandal at Stafford Hospital shake us out of our complacency about standards in the NHS?" or "Who's to blame for the appalling standards found in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust -  NHS managers, the last Labour government or NHS doctors and nurses?" Or how about something more neutral?: "What does the scandal at the Stafford Hospital tell us about standards of in the the NHS as a whole?" or "Who does the panel think is to blame for the appalling standards found at Stafford Hospital?" 

This, however (believe it or not), was the actual question chosen by the Question Time team to be asked:
"Are the appalling standards found at Stafford Hospital a sign of things to come from our NHS due to austerity?" 
Yes, the question and questioner selected did try to make it about the present government (elected in 2010) and did try to tie the scandal to "the cuts"! The point here is that it was the Question Time team's decision to pick that particularly-worded question to put to the panel (as they do with all questions). They made a choice. What on earth entered their heads when they chose it above all others (and presumably there were many questions to choose from on this subject)? It's certainly an odd question to choose in the circumstances, isn't it? Is it also a shocking instance of BBC bias? 

The question was so wide-of-the-mark that the panellists either almost entirely ignored or dismissed it - despite another audience member also giving it a try and despite David Dimbleby trying to get Michael Moore to discuss it. Yes, even the Labour and SNP representatives refused to go down the path the questioner clearly wanted them to go down. Was that the path which the Question Time team also wanted them to go down? If it was, why?

Regular readers of right-wing anti-BBC blogs will know that Chris Huhne - the pro-Green, climate change campaigner,Tory-bashing Lib Dem from the left-wing of his party - has always been a firm BBC favourite. I've read that accusation against the BBC so many times over recent years. What would such a reader expect from the unavoidable question about Chris Huhne which came up on Question Time last night in the wake of his guilty plea over the charge of perverting the course of justice and his subsequent resignation as an MP? That reader would surely expect the BBC to bias the question in Chris Huhne's favour. How? Maybe by picking a question from someone asking a facetious question which implies that Chris Huhne isn't a bad chap and it's all become a bit overblown - something along the lines, perhaps, of "Is Chris Huhne such a public menace that he deserves to be sent to prison?". The idea of Chris Huhne as "a public menace" or "a danger to society" is so hyperbolic as to sound ridiculous and phrasing a question like that would be quite helpful to him in the circumstances.  So that's the sort of thing someone expecting bias from the BBC might expect. And what question was chosen by the Question Time team?:
"Is Chris Huhne such a danger to society that he deserves to go to jail?"
Unsurprisingly, the panel said he most certainly isn't "a danger to society" and were full of sympathy for him and his family and the view seemed to be (except for the Conservative MP) that his wasn't a major offence (not compared to the actions of the bankers, of course. Clap, clap, clap, clap). Was this a biased choice of question? Given some of the audience comments there must have been some far less sympathetic ones to pick from.

Next came the obligatory Scottish independence question. Here bias-watchers need to be aware of two rival claims: One is that the BBC is pro-SNP and pro-independence; the other is that the BBC is anti-SNP and pro-unionist (in the Scottish sense of 'unionist'). Many at Biased BBC contend that it's pro-SNP. My one attempt to systematically follow a major Scottish current affairs programme (The Politics Show: Scotland) from late 2009 to mid 2010 found that its presenter seemed to be anti-SNP. SNP supporters, pretty much en masse, agree that the BBC is biased against them. Bearing all that in mind, what question was chosen by Question Time last night?:
"What do you make of recent polling that suggests that support for Scottish independence is at its lowest level since the creation of  the Holyrood parliament in 1999?"
Well, that's a question which most assuredly isn't biased in favour of the SNP! Does it also confirm bias on the part of the Question Time team though?

The most common complaint here, of course, is that the BBC is anti-Tory. The first question could easily be construed as being anti-Tory, and the final one was most definitely anti-Tory: 
"How can the Conservative Party claim to want a fair, more equal society when almost have their MPs opposed the Same Sex Couples Marriage Bill?"
So, despite the fact that it was a Conservative Party prime minister who brought the bill in, the Question Time team chooses an explicitly anti-Tory question about the passage of this potentially landmark piece of legislation. There were doubtless many others for them to choose from, but they chose that particular one. Is that also evidence of bias? 

Of course, if you expect the programme to push the anti-cuts agenda even in the unlikeliest of questions whilst covering Labour's tracks, or if you expect the programme to cover Chris Huhne's tracks for him, or if you expect the programme to be anti-SNP, or if you expect the programme to push an anti-Tory slant on a major piece of social legislation, then you will be highly likely to judge the programme makers' choice of questions last night to be "biased". My old self of three years ago, when I last seriously watched the programme, would certainly have expected all these things to happen in advance. That they did all happen last night when I was not really expecting them to happen is intriguing. Does it trouble you too?