Wednesday, 26 April 2017

My Conservative woes

Ever since the election was announced I have been avoiding bias-watching and blogging about political programmes. It’s not that I’m not interested, I certainly am. It’s just that I’m incapable of separating my subjective political views from the business of critically objective bias-watching. 
I find it hard to leave my views at the door, so to speak, and as you’ll have noticed, the stop-watch department is in the hands of my co-blogger.

However, there are certain things that I might as well get off my chest. The only credible party at the moment is of course the Conservative Party. That goes without saying. But there are certain things that Theresa May has said that have me deeply worried. Policy issues.
One is her bizarre insistence that it’s only when violence is incited or is being plotted, or after it has taken place that we need to be concerned about Islamic extremism, let alone take action against the perpetrator. It’s plain stupid. As politicians are wont to say - “What kind of country do we want to live in?” 

The  other matter is the ring-fencing of international aid. I don’t even think it’s a vote-winner.
I watched Charlie Webster talking about her near-death experience from a malaria-related complication, and her heartfelt appeal for aid towards malaria prevention, worldwide. She said eradicating malaria is not only do-able, but in the long-term, completely cost-effective. I understand she spoke about this on Capitol Hill recently.

I’m sure there are other worthy causes we might support, and I have no problem with the government aiding genuinely humanitarian causes.
However, the waste associated with present arrangements concerning the distribution of our foreign is shameful. On The Conservative Woman Karen Harradine has written a powerful two-part study of how the DFID money is really spent, which you must read. That topic would make a terrific BBC investigation. You’d think they’d snap it up before Channel 4 gets its hands on it.

Not only the £800 that is being paid (from your money) by the PA as a monthly salary to the murderer of British student Hannah Bladon who happened to be travelling on the Jerusalem light railway when she was stabbed to death by a disgraced and certifiably insane Palestinian man who believed  the act would give him “a way out of his problems”. Which it did - so, not quite so insane after all. That’s Mahmoud Abbas’s peacemaking strategy for you; his preparation for Statehood.

 That particular abuse of foreign aid is absolutely appalling, but it’s not the only abuse Ms. Harradine exposes. The widespread corruption and misuse of British taxpayers’ cash is truly shocking. Do read both articles, part one here and part two here

HARDtalk and the man on the Clapham omnibus

The BBC’s HARDtalk covers a vast breadth of issues. Stephen Sacker sweeps in on all sorts of scenarios and situations, tasked with confronting his prey with a set of penetrating questions designed to expose weakness or hypocrisy. He’s armed with several sheets of paper; perhaps he prepares his own notes or perhaps they are prepared for him by a research team.


Imagine a complex fraud investigation. Just like on TV.
An official body spends hours, days, weeks constructing a watertight case against a devious fraudster whose ‘business’ activities extricated thousands of pounds from customers who cannot immediately tell they’ve been swindled.
Evidence has been seized, statements and counter statements taken, character references concocted and a solicitor painstakingly prepares umpteen charges. Even as the case is ready to go to court the criminal activity is ongoing,
A learned barrister sweeps in from on high and after a cursory glance at the evidence and a last-minute tête-à-tête with the defence, a plea bargain is agreed. Guilty to half the charges and the rest - dropped. Just like that. The upshot: a suspended sentence, not a hefty custodial one as was hoped for.

End of analogy.

Due to being parachuted in with little more than a sketchy overview and a necessarily limited grasp of crucial minutiae, Stephen Sacker is the BBC’s jack-of-all-trades who can only be master of none. (Like that barrister.)
Instead of a bundle of painstakingly prepared evidence, Sacker is only armed with his own research, or that of the BBC. He wades in, woefully ill-prepared, and achieve an inevitably unsatisfactory outcome. I felt this too about Sarah Montague’s interview with Kenneth O’Keefe.

They mean well, but they are only as good as the research they are armed with. They can succeed only as much as that famous passenger on the Clapham omnibus, should he decide to take on an argument he is not absolutely familiar with. 

BBC Watch deconstructs the shortcomings in Sackur's interview with former head of UN ESCWA Rima Khalaf in far more detail than I can. They gave Sackur due credit for the challenges he did make, but like the fraudster in my analogy, Rima Khalif got away with most of her offences.

The woeful inadequacy of another Stephen Sackur episode of HARDtalk has also been mentioned elsewhere on the www. The interviewee was a staunch critic of Islam, the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner. Sackur’s principal argument seemed to be  accusing Bruckner of Islamophobia.

I watched Sackur’s latest episode, which was broadcast yesterday. The interview took place in northern Germany and was with the writer Nicklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank the brutal Nazi governor of Poland 1939-1945 who was “hung” (sic) when Nicklas was seven years old. 

Rather than a confrontation, after all there was nothing much to confront Nicklas Frank about, this interview morphed into one of those heart to heart counselling sessions that Victoria Derbyshire specialises in.  The only hook upon which to hang a HARDtalk approach was to question the need for transferred collective guilt and the folly of taking responsibility of the crimes of others.

One point passed by without a challenge from Sackur, one I could really have done with. Nicklas Frank equated criticism of Angela Merkel’s generous refugee policy with the world’s inhospitable response to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. A variant of the Kindertransport / refugee analogy. Interestingly, he also said that he fundamentally distrusted the German character because of a collective refusal to properly acknowledge the crime committed by Hitler (and his own father.) He said ‘the swamp has not been drained’. 

Here endeth the lesson.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Defining Terror

Using apprentices or work-experience personnel to fob off complaints from less than tenacious complainants might seem like prudent use of licence payers' money. It might even be a cost-effective method of deterring all but the most indefatigable complainant, for instance those of us whose real life eats into our complaining time.

Why waste valuable brainpower on the initial stage of a complaint when there are far more pressing matters to occupy the abundant creative talent within the publicly funded BBC?

After all, with luck, at the first stage of the procedure the complainant might be so daunted by the prospect of rewriting the complaint more forcefully than before, carefully saving their 'crime number' for posterity and asking politely for the complaint to be 'elevated', that they give up altogether. Much easier to go away and eat worms.

I certainly hope that's the explanation for the letter BBCWatch reproduces here.

"Thank you for getting in touch about our report on the attack carried out on Westminster Bridge in London and please accept our apologies for the delay in our response. 
The BBC sets out clear parameters on how terms such as "terrorist" might be used: 

Where there is an ongoing geopolitical conflict - as in the Middle East - to use the term "terror attack" or similar might be seem to be taking sides. There are those who might consider the actions of the Israeli government to be considered as terrorist acts. 
In a situation where a country that is not involved in a direct physical combat comes under attack, it may be reasonable to construe that as a terrorist incident. 
The use of such terminology is never an exact science but where a continuing conflict exists, it is reasonable that the BBC would not wish to appear to be taking sides. 

Thank you again for raising this matter. 
This letter doesn't seem to have been signed by a named individual so I can't make fun of anyone in particular; just the generic BBC complaints division.

Although this letter doesn't follow the BBC's normal practice of re-framing the complaint in its own words, presumably to show that the complaint has been 'listened to' (though sometimes it shows the opposite) the nature of the original complaint is  self-evident. It's about the double standards the BBC applies to violent attacks against civilians going about their daily business in Israel and identical religiously motivated attacks that occur almost anywhere else on the planet.

The complaint refers to the recent attack in London. The one that killed five innocent people and injured fifty others, which was carried out by ISIS fan Khalid Masood. You know, the Lorry attack. Or terror attack. Which is it?

Well,  the dictionary definition of 'terrorism' goes like this:

"the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”

The ideologically anti-Israel UN rejects that definition and the BBC must have followed suit. 

The sentence in the letter that BBCWatch has emboldened is both illiterate and incomprehensible.
Who, exactly, are:
"those who might consider the actions of the Israeli government to be considered as terrorist acts"?

And what does that garbled sentence even mean? Those who might wish the actions of the Israeli government to be considered as terrorist acts, perhaps?
I think, if one were to stay with the  dictionary definition, the preceding sentence has just as much significance:
“Where there is an ongoing geopolitical conflict – as in the Middle East – to use the term “terror attack” or similar might be seen to be taking sides.”
Or - when the term is used in circumstances when you have decided to take sides - for example, say, in London or Paris, not using it when such an attack occurs in Israel can equally 'be considered' to be taking sides.

There are 'some who consider' all Israeli civilians as combatants, therefore legitimate targets for their heroic car-rammings, stabbings and suicide bombings.

There are even 'some who consider' civilians here in the UK and throughout Europe to be legitimate targets as their countries are participating in 'direct physical combat' in the 'ongoing geopolitical conflict' against radical Islam. 

So how does the BBC's argument against the original complaint about double standards hold up? Not very well, I'd say.

Of course, when it comes to not using the term 'terror' for what is obviously 'terror,' (but has taken place in Israel) "there are those who might consider" the actions of the BBC "to be considered as taking sides." 

For example, people who see Israel as a diverse and democratic country rather than a terrorist state, or people who view Hamas as a terrorist organisation, even if some of them qualify that view by only counting the 'military wing' of Hamas "The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades" as terrorists - as if Hamas has a benign political wing (If Hamas does, then so must ISIS). Those people will definitely see the BBC's selective use of the term as "taking sides", and in the case of terrorism, so they bloody well should. How could the impartial BBC judge terrorism as anything other than 'bad'?

The BBC should urgently untangle their hypocritical Editorial Guidelines and call a spade a spade. Their muddled thinking, or maybe their hapless work-experience letter-writer's, is of course due to the BBC's ongoing partial, selective and 'half-a-story' reporting, which, in turn, causes the muddled thinking that leads to the painfully obvious double standards we can clearly see here.

The origin of this unfortunate situation is that the supposedly impartial BBC aligns itself with with the factually questionable "Palestinian narrative" and is ideologically opposed to Israel. The BBC's Editoral Guidelines virtually admit this within their peculiar, inconclusive and muddled exploration of the use of the term 'terror' and the vexed question of 'value judgements' , when they state:
"For example, the bombing of a bus in London was carried out by 'terrorists', but the bombing of a bus in Israel was perpetrated by a "suicide bomber".

Trying to make this anomaly appear "not taking sides"  is more of a task than a work-experience student or apprentice is up to. Such an exercise demands the full brainpower of the BBC most creative talent.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Open thread

Gina Miller hasn't blocked this open thread in the courts yet, so - until she does - please add anything that strikes you about the BBC below.

Mark Mardell's "very special guest"

Guess who?

Radio 4's Broadcasting House always features a plug for The World This Weekend and, as usual, Mark Mardell turned up midway to do the plugging. A huge thrill, however, was generated by Mark mysteriously announcing:
And we're hoping for a very special guest, but I can't tell you too much. It's a work in progress. so you'll have to tune in at One o'clock.
If you didn't listen to The World This Weekend, can you guess who this "very special guest" would turn out to be? The PM? Donald Trump? Vladimir Putin? Justin Bieber? Kim Jong-un? Me? Sue? The Pope? Ellie Harrison from Countryfile? God?  Henry, the mild-mannered janitor? The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)? HM the Queen? Larry the Cat? 

The nation was absolutely gagging to know. 

And who did it turn out to be, waxing anti-Brexit for a quarter of a hour with very little harassment from Mark Mardell?

Here's a clue: His name is an anagram of 'Ton By Liar'.

I will admit to having been a wee bit disappointed...

...especially given that he's hardly been a rarity on the BBC in recent months. 

Now, in fairness to Mark Mardell, his election report from the Rhondda, South Wales was fascinating. 

This, of course, is Labour if-it-has-a-red-rosette-we'll-even-vote-for-that-sheep territory. 

Or was. Some have gone UKIP, others moved from the Socialist Workers Party to voting Conservative (yes, really). Some like Jeremy Corbyn, others don't trust him. And some will still be voting for that sheep with the red rosette. 

And at least one Corbynista wasn't happy on Twitter afterwards - and Mark wasn't happy right back at him: 

John Simpson plays 'Only Connect'

John Simpson, the BBC's World Affairs Editor, has a piece in The New Statesman about Turkey's President Erdogan. He's clearly not a fan. 

Nor, as we already know, is he much of a fan of Brexit (or Donald Trump) either. His article ends by saying, "It’s been impossible not to be reminded of the Trump campaign and of Brexit here during the past week or so" - and here's why:
Erdogan’s aura of legitimacy has been weakened. Like Trump, like the Brexiteers, he only just managed to squeak through; like them, he and his allies are shouting loudly about the will of the people and the duty of everyone else to accept the result. And like them, his instinctive response in victory is to be aggressive. 
It's interesting how he ties everything he doesn't like (Erdogan, Trump, Brexit supporters) into one easy-to-handle parcel of unpleasantness. It's all very easy for him.

And, as we've previously noted, this kind of thing isn't exactly absent from his actual BBC reporting either.


In the interests of DNA-based blogging impartiality, we will be posting transcripts of all the introductions to The Andrew Marr Show between now and Brenda from Bristol's election day on June 8th. Then, after it's all over (and Brenda can go back to normal life again), we will compare and contrast them and draw any conclusions that are worth drawing: Who will get helpful introductions? Who will get unhelpful introductions? Or will everyone come out as happy or unhappy as all the rest?

And so it begins....

Here's today's main introduction:
Good morning. Jeremy Corbyn was the rank outsider when he stood as Labour leader. He smashed all expectations, he survived a coup and he was massively re-endorsed by his own party shortly afterwards. Roundly mocked by the media establishment, it's worth remembering that no proper socialist has ever been as close to Number 10 as Mr Corbyn is this morning. So for the moment, forget the polls, let's have no foregone conclusions. Today, Jeremy Corbyn tells us what kind of Prime Minister he would be. Another party leader, Paul Nutall, joins me to explain why he'll go into this election promising to ban the burka. And I'll be talking to Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru's leader as well. And I've been chewing the fat with one of the surviving legends of the great age of British rock - Sir Ray Davies of The Kinks. And reviewing the papers today as a nail-biting election kicks off across the channel, Benedicte Paviot of France 24. And two old hands - Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror and Sarah Sands the outgoing editor of the Evening Standard. All of that and more coming up in a while. First, the news with Tina Daheley.
We'll also be transcribing the introductions to each political interview. First, Paul Nuttall:
Now then, UKIP have been making news this morning, as we have just been hearing. So what is really going on? And does this party actually have a real purpose any longer? Paul Nuttall, its leader, joins me now. 
Then Leanne Wood:
Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, has had a vision of that country's future as a semi-independent country inside the EU - the option, of course, which is no longer available. So, what is their real constitutional vision now? The party leader, Leanne Wood, joins me from Cardiff.
And finally Jeremy Corbyn:
Now most of us have seen Jeremy Corbyn in short bursts in news bulletins or at Prime Minister's Questions. But now he is fighting to become Britain's next Prime Minister, there is a vast range of policy issues we need to hear more from him about - on foreign policy, the economy and of course, Brexit. He's here now. Good morning. 
Who came off best there? Who came off worst? Does it display BBC impartiality at its best? (I'm keeping my powder dry on those till the election. I'll let you judge in the meantime).

For fans of stopwatches and calculators everywhere...

Andrew Marr

Today's utterly delightful edition of The Andrew Marr Show featured three big political interviews.

By my reckoning: The one with UKIP's Paul Nuttall lasted 6m 17s and contained 10 interruptions; the one with Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood lasted 4m 07s and contained 2 interruptions; and the one with Labour's Jeremy Corbyn lasted 23m 41s and contained 28 interruptions. 

Using my old 'interruption coefficients' - where you simply divide the number of interruptions (made by the interviewer) by the length of the interview and the higher the interruption coefficient (I.C.) the tougher the interview - that works out today as (drum roll please!): an I.C. of 1.6 for Paul Nuttall, and I.C. of 1.2 for Jeremy Corbyn and an I.C. of 0.5 for Leanne Wood -  meaning that Paul Nuttall fared worst, interruptions-wise, at the hands of Andrew Marr today. 

Who'd have expected that? 

And going for statistical overkill (possibly)...

Paul Nuttall

The Paul Nuttall interview mainly focused on the burqa ban question (taking up 67% of the interview), with shorter sections on how UKIP might not stand against strongly pro-Brexit MPs from other parties (27%) and if/where Mr Nuttall himself might stand in the general election (6%).

Leanne Wood

The Leanne Wood interview mainly focused on questions of Plaid's 'constitutional vision' (taking up 59% of the interview), with other sections on Ms Wood's views on Labour's bank holiday plan (she approves of , 21%) and if/where she herself might stand (20%).

Jeremy Corbyn

The Jeremy Corbyn interview devoted 37% of the interview to foreign policy questions, though Britain's nuclear weapons were, by far, the single biggest issue for Andrew Marr in this section - though NATO, Russia and whether or not al-Baghdadi should be killed were other questions. Party political matters took up 13% of the interview; the bank holidays question 8%, matters related to private v public in the NHS and schools 19%, and Brexit 23%. 

Calculators down!


There was an amusing moment on this morning's The Andrew Marr Show where Andrew Marr 'got schooled' (as people say these days) on the question of impartiality by Bénédicte Paviot of France 24. They were discussing possible scenarios for the second round of the French presidential election, when the following exchange took place. The BBC man's subsequent "OK" sounded rather sheepish to my ears, as if he'd taken her point:
Andrew Marr: What strikes me is that if it's Macron versus Le Pen in the second round, then he doesn't really have an ordinary party and we're not absolutely sure whether he can get the votes out in numbers. Le Pen has a very formidable old-fashioned vote-gathering machine in the Front National. Is there, therefore, not a danger that if Macron makes it against her she then wins on the second round?
Bénédicte Paviot: Yes, there is indeed some would qualify (sic) as 'a danger'. Others would qualify it as 'a hope', and they'd be quite happy because....But the fact of the matter is...
Andrew Marr: OK.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Vive la difference?

Tomorrow is the first round of the French presidential election - a tight four-horse race that could, if les dieux are in a particularly contraire mood, result in the National Front's Marine le Pen facing off against the Mao-admiring Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the second round - and the possibility of Frexit on two fronts. 

The thought of that might make your jaw drop, but even more jaw-dropping was the contrast in tone between Evan Davis's paired interviews with a couple of French politicos on last night's Newsnight. It has to be seen to be believed. 

Our Evan was positively unctuous towards the centrist M. Macron's spokesman, smiling and giggling, conspiratorially chuckling with him about how tough M. Macron would be with us Brexiting Brits if elected - and about the 'p' word ('populists').  

And then came Evan's highly hostile interview with the Front National spokesman. What a monde of difference! Were I still doing 'interruption coefficients', this one would have been absolutely ciel-high. Evan barely let the FN chap get a word in edge-ways. 

A couple of very representative screengrabs will capture the difference better, perhaps, than words. First, here's Evan with the French centrist:

And now here's Evan with le homme from the Front National:

Impartial? Je ne le pense pas.


Our friends at the BBC are certainly worried about those 'stopwatches'. Nick Robinson famously doesn't like them (or calculators for that matter). And now it's Andrew Marr, writing in the Spectator, who appears to be hearing Time's wingèd chariot (in the form of a BBC bias watcher's stopwatch) hurrying near:
For broadcasters, the usual rules on being evenhanded could become ferociously complicated. If it is, as the Prime Minister says, our ‘Brexit election’ then you’d think we should give each side of that huge argument a fair crack of the whip. But if that looks like giving the Lib Dems and the SNP more airtime than their current parliamentary strength warrants, then both Labour and the Tories would strongly protest. Stopwatches will be brandished. For the next couple of months, life as a print journalist will seem a lot, lot easier.
Please excuse me while I ring for an ambulance as my heart has just started bleeding for Andrew Marr. 

"Are all presenters of Radio 4's Week in Westminster Remainers?"

Here's a BBC bias-related question posed on Twitter today by Tim Montgomerie:

Well, going back through the Week at Westminster archive shows the following as having been presenters since the EU referendum last June: 
Steve Richards (7 editions)
George Parker, FT (6 editions)
Tom Newton Dunn, Sun (4 editions)
Helen Lewis, New Statesman (3 editions)
Peter Oborne, Daily Mail (2 editions)
Anushka Asthana, Guardian (2 editions)
Isabel Hardman, Spectator (1 edition)
Jim Waterson, Buzzfeed (1 edition)
Now, several of those TWAW presenters were undoubtedly staunchly pro-Remain - namely Steve Richards, Tom Newton Dunn and Helen Lewis. 

Four of the others are harder to place with total certainty. [Please fill in the gaps if you can though]. I'm assuming with some confidence however, rightly or wrongly, that George Parker, Anushka Asthana and Jim Waterson were Remainers while Isabel Hardman was probably pro-Leave. 

The only staunchly pro-Leave Week In Westminster presenter, therefore, has been Peter Oborne - and he's only presented two editions since the referendum, thus giving the programme as a whole a very pronounced pro-Remain slant, presenter-wise. 

From that then, I'd say that Tim has a point.

Twitter and BBC bias

Impartiality is in our genes, so it's only right to point out that the BBC is under fire from the Corbynistas again, this time over BBC reporter/presenters' comments on Twitter. 

It's another of the remarkable turnabouts of the past couple of years that BBC staff are now getting slammed from the Left as well as the Right for their tweets. 

The interesting thing in the past - as painstakingly documented by David Preiser - is that it was a Herculean, maybe even a Sisyphean task, to find even one 'right-wing tweet' from a BBC reporter. They almost invariably came 'from the Left', reflecting the BBC's tendencies towards left-liberal groupthink. (We've posted countless examples of that too).

But, oh my, the Corbynistas are on the case now! Oddly, however, it only seems to be Laura Kuenssberg and Nick Robinson whose tweets really get their goat. They haven't, as far as I can see (and I keep on looking) found many other examples of 'right-wing tweets' from BBC staff (except for one apparently far-right-supporting QT staffer) - so the contention that BBC people almost invariable tweet 'from the Left' still seems to stand. 

The tweet that has caused the biggest 'stink' over the past week came from Nick Robinson:

That went down like a lead balloon with Corbyn supporters, and calls for Nick Robinson's sacking have piled in again (which much take him straight back to 2014 and the cybernats calling for his head in huge numbers over the Scottish referendum). Nick has defended himself by saying that Mr Corbyn wouldn't disagree with a word of his tweet. So is that just Nick stating utterly non-contentious facts about Jeremy Corbyn, or is it Nick being rude about Jeremy Corbyn? (I have to say that I first read it as the latter).

The great irony here, as regular readers might remember, is that it was Nick Robinson who (apparently) broke rank with the BBC a year or so ago and, in contrast to his latest protestations, said that he thought the BBC had been biased...against Jeremy Corbyn. The Corbynistas seem to have forgotten that. 

A Shropshire Lass

This morning's Today programme found Sarah Montague among those blue remembered hills of Shropshire talking farming, Brexit and the general election. 

The main theme, which Sarah pursued as doggedly as A.E. Housman's Shropshire Lad pursued death, was the effect the loss of EU subsidies will have on UK farming. 

And she kept on talking about it being "EU funding". 

At no point did Sarah remind her listeners that this "EU money", apparently keeping UK farming afloat, ultimately came from UK contributions and that UK contributions to the EU's farming budget have been considerably larger than the amount we get back from the EU. So it's been us funding them, farming-wise, for years - not them funding us

Of Barnard Castle and Beorhtnoth

Barnard Castle's castle

I wonder how common it is for politically-minded listeners to shun any programmes presented by someone whose views seem particularly objectionable to them and, as a result, how many have missed out on all manner of possible delights?

I've never been very keen on the far-Left, for example, so I've always tended to avoid programmes featuring, say, Mark Steel or Michael Rosen.

And this went on for years, until I heard an episode each of Word of Mouth and Mark Steel's in Town and now I try to listen to those programmes as much as possible and have come to like and admire Mark Steel as a comedian and Michael Rosen as a presenter.

Mark Steel's in Town has shown that Radio 4 comedy isn't all predictable, unfunny, self-congratulatory stuff that only appeals to metropolitan types. A recent repeat of a 2015 edition from Barnard Castle (which I'd never heard before) actually made me laugh out loud a lot - and how often can you say that about a Radio 4 comedy programme? It made the Barnard Castle audience laugh out loud a lot too. It was warm and clever. And as someone who's been to Barnard Castle, and experienced some of the difficulties Mark Steel himself experienced in getting to that Brigadoon of County Durham, it all sounded spot-on to me. (And to the audience of locals).
But then I went to the museum, which I honestly didn't know about before I came here. And I thought it would be like a typical museum - the sort of museum you would normally expect to see in a place this size with a stuffed otter and a bone. But it's a French chateau! It's about 30 miles long. It's the sort of thing you expect to find at the top of a magic beanstalk. I don't mean to be rude Barnard Castle but it's more than what you need. The whole population could move in there. It would make more sense if you all lived in there and the rest of the town was the museum. I know you're used to it but to the outsider it comes across as slightly eccentric for a town to consist of a castle, a Co-Op, a shop that sells milkshakes and a building with three floors of original Renaissance paintings. This must be the only place in the world where it's more effort to get a box of matches than to get a Rembrandt.  
The local museum in Barnard Castle

And as for Word of Mouth last week, that was full of fascinating facts about Anglo-Norman influences on the English language.
Laura Wright: For within a generation of 1066, Michael, we're giving up our English names. I mean, this presupposes an incredible glamour, I think, of the Anglo-Normans. So let me give you some old English names which we abandoned very quickly: Ælfgifu, Beorhtnoth 
Michael Rosen: Oh, that's our producer's name!
Laura Wright: ...Æthelflæd, Leofthryth...
Michael Rosen: I like him. I've always liked Leofthryth.
Laura Wright: You've got a weak spot for Leofthryth. Well, we started giving our children Anglo-Norman/French names such as Alan, John, Robert, Alice, William, Stephen, Susan, Christine, Jeffrey, Joan, Peter, Thomas..let me end on Michael...
Michael Rosen: Alright. I'm Anglo-Norman, am I?
Laura Wright: Well, these Anglo-Norman names just kicked out those older ones. I mean, there are very few old English names. I can think of Eric and Edward...
Richard Ashdowne: Alfred?
Laura Wright: Well, that's actually a Victorian reintroduction...
Richard Ashdowne: That's right. A lot of these have enjoyed a new vogue recently. 
Laura Wright: Ethyl. 
Richard Ashdowne: Yeah.
Laura Wright: But we didn't completely abandon our old English names, in reality, because a lot of them continued as surnames. So that Leofthryth is probably still with us as a surname. So, for example, if I give you a name like 'Margaret Cole'. 'Margaret' is Anglo-Norman, 'Cole' is an old English given name. Or 'Richard Elliott'. 'Richard' is Anglo-Norman 'Elliott' is old English. 'Catherine Wolsey' - the 'Catherine' bit is Anglo-Norman French but 'Wolsey' is an old English given name. 
That's very much my kind of thing.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Speak your brane

While we’re on the subject of Facebook, a couple of days ago I sent a message to Craig that went something like this:

“Talking of impartiality, remember what I wrote in the early days of the blog? I said I thought that true impartiality is well nigh unachievable unless the entire human race and the animal kingdom are force-tagged from birth with recording devices - a head-cam (or as science progresses a mind-reading device.) All inanimate objects must have fully operational CCTV at all times, pointing in all directions.Then all thoughts, sights and experiences are to be live-streamed everywhere indiscriminately and simultaneously for ever and ever ad infinitum." No more selectivity from the likes of the BBC, Sky, Channel 4,  al-Jaz or RT.  Just billions of ‘everywhere all-the-time’ screens continuously, live.”

Of course I was being flippant then but I’m not laughing quite so much now.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The wild side

I read a piece about Facebook in last week’s Sunday Times(£) titled:  “Behind our happy snaps is a sea of Facebook filth” by Sarah Baxter.
The article was about Facebook's cavalier attitude to dodgy content, namely "hosting pornographic images of children", something that was exposed by an undercover reporter from The Times.
 “Facebook actively encourages dissemination of vile material by herding users into friendship groups, where they can find more and more of the stuff they “like”
Facebook’s attitude seems to be “Don’t worry about the filth - if you’re not in a group that likes ‘filth’ you don’t have to see it”. It’s the algorithms, stupid. The Times reporter’s complaint elicited the boilerplate response:
'it doesn't go against any of our specific community standards"
What caught my eye was another complaint about “An objectionable TV clip of a 2013 interview with Kenneth O’Keefe, a former US marine turned self-styled peace campaigner” but this time the complaint was from one of Ms. Baxter’s family members. It too had drawn Facebook’s pro forma response. Sarah Baxter says:
“O’Keefe is a 9/11 “truther” who blames Israeli intelligence for the attacks on the twin towers and publicly burnt his US passport in 2004, but you wouldn’t know that from the Facebook clips, nor that the interview had first appeared on the Iranian propaganda channel PressTV. No, he is presented as a truth-telling, honest-to-goodness ex-marine.

In the interview, carried out at the time of the previous chemical attacks in Syria - when Bashar al-Assad crossed Barack Obama's "red line" - the ranting O'Keefe laid into the US for its "war of deception" over Syria. That, you might say, is just his opinion.
But as soon as he slipped into sly anti-semitism by claiming the Syrian civil war was part of the "greater Israel project" to destabilise the region with "rich and powerful backers" as the puppet-masters. 
Alarmed to see this nonsense proliferating again, my family member reported the clip for "racism" to Facebook last week. It didn't just reject his complaint, however; it politely offered to "help you see less of things like it in the future". That's missing the point. You don't like anti-semitism? You don't have to see it. "

Of course, this irresponsible approach is bad enough coming from Facebook, but I well remember O’Keefe being plastered all over our television screens after the Mavi Marmara affair. 
The BBC devoted two episodes of HardTalk to this person.  We can’t be sure if Sarah Montague is aware of what the ‘blockade’ actually is or why it exists, but her opening line of questioning was framed in accord with the BBC’s ideological bias against Israel.
“Do you think your achievement was worth those nine lives?” is a question that seems to come from the premise that nine martyrs’ lives were squandered -  as it merely resulted in the ‘easing of the blockade’ rather than having the blockade lifted altogether.
Later, although Sarah Montague made good use of the “Israel says’ formula, she did put Israel’s case forcibly enough to rile O’Keefe, and leave his repeated claims that ‘Israel lies” as his best argument.

The hate-filled comments to this video accuse Sarah Montague of being a Zionist. If the BBC uses comments that are so obviously written by hard-line antisemites as evidence of that well-worn “complaints from both sides” meme it exposes the weakness of the BBC’s flawed conclusion that “we must be getting it about right.”
The BBC didn’t give us the full picture of O’Keefe. I don’t know who wrote this, but it’s on the HARDtalk website:
“This is the second interview of Ken O'Keefe by BBC's flagship HardTALK program. His first interview was in February 2003 regarding his TJP Human Shield Action to Iraq. In this 2010 interview O'Keefe discusses the plight of the Palestinian people and the mass-murder of humanitarian aid workers who sailed to Gaza on the Turkish lead ship the Mavi Marmara. 9 people were murdered, all Turkish nationals, one with American citizenship as well. Some of these were provably executed, in international waters no less. This is a classic interview, a true rarity of straight talk on the planets most influential propaganda institution in the BBC.”
I don't know what the final sentence is supposed to mean. Someone enlighten me, please. But the BBC’s rose-tinted description of "Ken" contains nothing remotely like Sarah Baxter’s realistic summary of O’Keefe’s background. Substitute “BBC” for “Facebook” for a clearer understanding of this man’s history. Let me remind you:
“O’Keefe is a 9/11 “truther” who blames Israeli intelligence for the attacks on the twin towers and publicly burnt his US passport in 2004, but you wouldn’t know that from the Facebook clips, nor that the interview had first appeared on the Iranian propaganda channel PressTV. No, he is presented as a truth-telling, honest-to-goodness ex-marine.
Nothing whatsoever from the BBC detailing O’Keefe’s overt antisemitism for viewers not well enough informed to  see it for themselves.
Here's what Sarah Baxter has to say, again, about Facebook, but it applies equally to the BBC, if not more so. 

You don't have to see it [...] but that doesn't mean it isn't out there, corrupting what can often be very young minds. O'Keefe's clip is popular with anti-war teenagers.
Facebook wants you to think the world is full of people who are as sensible and well informed as you. My social media helpfully direct me to all sorts of terrific articles from traditional media. But if you prefer to walk on the wild side, you will encounter bucketloads of hate speech. Such types naturally think they are every bit as sensible and well informed as me and - here's the really scary thing - their posts are the most likely to be shared. Facebook feeds off viral videos by the likes of O'Keefe and other haters and conspiracists. You're just not seeing them.

"You're just not seeing them?" The BBC doesn’t even have that excuse.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Open thread

Unlike this Easter bank holiday weekend, the following open thread will not be rained off...

Another introspective Hugh Sykes on Turkey

Going introspective again for a few minutes...

It is certainly true that impartiality can be hard to achieve, as Sue has always reminded me (in reaction to my far more rigid views on the matter). It's true because we humans aren't robots and because impartiality is a slippery concept and, as a result, it's far from unlikely that the BBC will keep on failing in that regard, even if they were always trying to behave themselves (which they most certainly aren't always trying to do!)...

...and it's also true that a broad, cross-BBC bias might inevitably come about (as it has!) if BBC employees tend to come from much the same demographic and mindset (as they do, often via the Guardian's recruitment page!).

[Ed - That's enough exclamation marks for now, Craig.]

Here's a question though: Should the BBC actually be actively biased, with all of our blessing, in favour of 'good' rather than 'evil', say? Or in favour of 'democracy' rather than 'anti-democracy'? 

(Of course, that depends on what people think is 'good' and 'evil', or 'democratic' and 'anti-democratic', as cultural relativists might put it. I think cultural relativism is very over-rated though).

I was wondering about all this in light of what I've heard of the BBC's Erdogan coverage in recent days - and especially after Mark Mardell and Hugh Sykes's latest discussion on today's The World at One

Now, Hugh Sykes certainly got himself wound up this lunchtime in bizarrely contrived comparisons with Brexit (springing, no doubt, from his own views on Brexit) and only just managed to save himself by adding "possibly snobbishly" to his closing, loaded remarks about the Turkish referendum result being a case of "the educated for No against the uneducated for Yes" (and where have we heard that one before?)....

....but the really fascinating thing about this World at One discussion was Hugh's tone. I've never heard him sound so flustered on air before. He was babbling (eloquently of course) in a highly excited fashion at times and was so strongly inflecting his phrases with heavy tones of (unhappy) incredulity that his true feelings about events in Turkey could hardly have come across any louder or clearer - including his obvious view that what has happened in Turkey has been shabby, undemocratic and, all in all, a very, very bad thing. 

And the thing is, from my point of view, that he's obviously dead right about that. It is a very, very bad thing, and he's absolutely right to be so upset (and biased) about it. (Erdogan supporters would naturally disagree about that).

So was Hugh being biased against 'evil' and in favour of 'good' here? If so, good on Hugh! 

And if Hugh and the rest of the BBC were consistent in being biased in favour of 'good' against 'evil', and in favour of 'democracy' against 'anti-democracy', who on earth could object to them being so? 

If they didn't engage in false equivalences between democracies (shall we say Israel perhaps?) and their totalitarian, terrorist enemies (shall we say Hamas perhaps?), wouldn't that always be the right thing for the BBC to do?

And what could be sillier than Lord Hall, say, telling us (as he notoriously did) that the BBC can't call Islamic State 'Daesh' because that's a "pejorative" term used about them by their opponents and, thus, that using it would mean the BBC taking sides? 

Once again, I'm thinking on my feet here (though actually sitting down): Shouldn't the BBC be biased against President Erdogan if most people can agree that he's 'evil' and 'anti-democratic'? 

Or would that give the BBC a blank cheque to pile on the opprobrium even more against anyone and everyone they consider undesirably 'populist' (from Trump supporters to Brexit supporters) - something that most people in the UK might not agree with the BBC about? 

And, given how they already behave, wouldn't they keep on cashing that blank cheque day in and day out, making their bias even worse (if you can imagine that)?

As ever, your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Anyhow, here's a transcript of that World at One discussion:

Mark Mardell: Within the past few minutes the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has monitored the fairness of a referendum, has described it as being conducted in an "uneven" way, with a misuse of government resources. Our correspondent Hugh Sykes is in Istanbul. You've been out and about this morning, Hugh. What's happening?

Hugh Sykes: Not a lot. Very little triumphalism. There was a bit of that last night, people roaring around in their the cars setting off fireworks. A lot of subdued despondency. I think the reality of this is only just sinking in. It's a bit like the day after the EU referendum in Britain last year. Brexit suddenly came into focus the next day. So people are being thoughtful and quite quiet. But the No side are furious. I mean, that description "uneven" is to put it mildly, from their point of view. They say that Yes played so dirty that they should have won an enormous margin. The Yes campaign got massive support from the government and from television. Imagine the government in Britain only supporting the Leave campaign and marginalising all the people who wanted to stay in the European referendum. It was very comparable to what that would have been like here. And the president is supposed to be above the party here. He certainly wasn't.  His face was on huge banners and billboards alongside that the word 'Yes' in Turkey 'Evet', and the No campaign got hardly any television airtime. There were few, if any, No political broadcasts and dozens for Yes. And to cap it all...They must...they really were desperate at the end. They thought they were going to lose, the Yes side. The prime minister tried to smear No voters by saying that voting No would be tantamount to supporting terrorism. "You're with us or you're with the terrorist." That remind you of anybody?

Mark Mardell: But given that sense of powerlessness from the opposition. do they stand any chance of stopping that, even with the sort of support of the OSCE?

Hugh Sykes: Well, it's a moot point, isn't it? They are going to appeal to the Supreme Court. Will the Supreme court by the time they appeal have been stuffed with Erdogan supporters, and that it doesn't stand a chance? But the appeal would be about the the ballot form decision, this very strange (at the very least) decision by the Electoral Commission last night...said in the middle of the count that they'd accept ballots with no official stamp on them...they are supposed to be stamped, every single ballot...and ballots in unsealed envelopes...every ballot's supposed to be an envelope that's sealed. otherwise it's fishy, and if it's not actual fraud there's plenty of opportunity for it. There's a really bad cloud of doubt hanging over such a tight result. The leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, commented above all this, "You can't change the rules of the game in the middle of a match".

Mark Mardell: Doesn't sound much chance of a very divided society coming together?

Hugh Sykes: No, it's completely split down the middle. I mean, 51-49. It's not exactly a resounding victory for Yes. And if you look at the map there's a stark colour difference between the Yes places - Istanbul - sorry, I beg your pardon - beneath the No places - Istanbul, Ankara and prosperous industrial and tourism centres along the coast, the south coast and the west coast like Izmir - against the people of the hinterland, against Anatolia, characterised by some, possibly snobbishly, as "the educated for No against the uneducated for Yes."

Mark Mardell: Hugh, thanks very much indeed.

John Humphrys looks back

And talking about the BBC's attitude towards grammar schools (h/t to David Keighley here), there was a revealing comment from John Humphrys during a discussion about teaching mental health in schools on this morning's Today programme. He was talking to Kevin Courtney of the NUT:
Kevin Courtney: I think the cause is absolutely just. I'm worried about he particularities. I'm worried that it's treating the symptom not the cause of mental health, and I think we need to find ways of actually reducing the pressure on young people...
John Humphrys: Well, maybe fewer exams or something?
Kevin Courtney: Well, I think there is something in that, John. We don't need to have the SATs at Year 11. We don't need to have them in the way they're done. I mean, last year we told 47 % of eleven-year-olds, just before the summer holiday, that they were not ready to go to secondary school just before they went to secondary school. That's bound to have an effect on somebody's self esteem, isn't it, if you tell them they're not ready. It wasn't true, in my view, but we told 47 %...we told nearly half the eleven-year-olds in the country they weren't ready to go to secondary school....
John Humphrys: On the other hand, if you go back a few decades, more than half of the eleven-year-olds in the country were told they weren't fit to go to a decent school and had to go to a rubbish school.
Kevin Courtney: And I think that had mental health questions!
So such, in John Humphrys's estimation ("if you go back a few decades, more than half of the eleven-year-olds in the country were told they weren't fit to go to a decent school and had to go to a rubbish school"), was the grammar school system! 

Assertions and counter-assertions

Talking about Peter Hitchens, his complaint about BBC bias over grammar schools wasn't his only beef with the Beeb this week:

In the light of that, this commentary from the BBC's Lina Sinjab seems worth noting:

The fact that most of the victims of this hideous attack were Shia suggests to me an 'interest' on the part of some radical Sunni Islamist rebels, surely?

The BBC and grammar schools

In his Mail on Sunday blog, Peter Hitchens was characteristically scathing about our 'sleek elite' and their 'hatred' for grammar schools, and he didn't leave the BBC out of that criticism:
But so have BBC persons, whose own education was privileged and who no doubt wangle their offspring into elite alleged comprehensives. Why else did the Corporation spend the whole of Thursday cramming the airwaves with the haters of grammar schools?
That "spent the whole of Thursday cramming the airwaves with the haters of grammar schools" is quite a charge, so I thought I'd test it. Is there any truth to it?

Well, Thursday's Victoria Derbyshire closed with a three-way discussion about grammar schools which took my breath away (though only figuratively-speaking. My breathing actually remained much as it usually is throughout). 

The guest list consisted of Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, and Malcolm Trobe of the Association of School and College Leaders. 

Unbelievably, given that you'd think that the BBC would at least try to maintain some pretence at balance on such a contentious area of domestic policy, all three of them were unenthusiastic about grammar school expansion. The only difference was the degree to which they were unenthusiastic, with Malcolm Trobe and Angela Rayner being wholly against grammar schools in principle and Lee Elliott Major "pragmatically" tolerating their continuation, albeit with "deep reservations". 

The following hour's BBC Newsroom Live on BBC Two (not available on the iPlayer) featured interviews with Ed Dorrell of the Times Educational Supplement, who said that grammar schools are "not helpful" in terms of social mobility and later in the hour came strong anti-grammar schools ex-Lib Dem minister David Laws, making the case against grammar schools even more vigorously over both educations standards and social mobility. 

In other words, anyone watching BBC Two on Thursday morning would not have heard any interviews about grammar schools with supporters of grammar schools but plenty of interviews with critics of grammar schools. So Mr Hitchens might have a point.

That night's Newsnight did have a supporter and an opponent of grammar schools - Phillip Blond and Polly Billington - but they weren't on to discuss grammar schools and so didn't discuss them! (Evan asked them not to).

The previous night's Newsnight, however, saw David Laws (again) being asked by Evan Davis, "Grammar schools. The evidence that they don't work. Just give us a snapshot of the argument that they're a distraction from the government" - a snapshot Mr Laws was only too happy to give. The other studio guest, academy founder Jo Saxton, given a "right of reply", was hardly a proper counterbalance, sounding fairly lukewarm on grammar schools herself, what with her own school being non-selective. 

In passing, by the way, we've aired before concerns that Newsnight's Chris Cook may not be an entirely neutral commentator (to put it mildly) when it comes to grammar schools, so it wasn't exactly surprising to find him being negative about them during the preceding Newsnight report: "We also know that areas with grammar schools - another government idea - don't do any better than other places", he said. 

And he was back on Thursday night's edition telling us that "educational researchers remain sceptical" about the benefits of grammar schools, before giving us one of those sceptical educational researchers, Jo Hutchinson of the Education Policy Institute. (What Chris didn't tell us is that the EPI is David Laws's think tank, which grow out of the Lib Dem-aligned Centre Forum). He did, however, also give us Tory MP Graham Brady, a backer of grammar schools, cautioning against quotas for grammar schools rather than making the case for grammar schools per se

This snapshot of one BBC channel's coverage of the grammar schools story on Wednesday night and throughout Thursday certainly does seem to back up Peter Hitchens's point about the BBC's coverage. But it is only a snapshot. Was the BBC as biased across the whole range of its huge output?