Thursday, June 21, 2007
BBC WARNED (AGAIN) ON INSTITUTIONAL BIAS
or many years after I moved to Asia in the early '90's, the trusted BBC was, for me, a daily staple for keeping in touch with the world. In those days, BBC World was offered free-to-air over satellite (as was CNN - both have now withdrawn that service), and my little shortwave radio was a constant companion whenever I travelled -- always tuned to the Beeb's Worldservice. Whether I was in Phnom Penh, Jakarta or even on a bus plying the narrow roads of Aceh, it was wonderfully satisfying to punch in a couple of frequencies at the top of the hour, and pick the clearest one to hear that sonorous voice intone, "This... is London." Followed by the classy, brassy horn section that played the signature theme of the most trusted international news service.
I still carry the little shortwave receiver on the road, but my trust in the institution has been much reduced in recent years, mainly due to the relentless bias which is so apparent -- if intermittent, depending on the issue being reported -- on the television network. If I have any lontime readers left, they will have noticed that I don't spend time anymore complaining about the pathetically partisan reporting of Caroline Hawley, Orla Guerin, Rageh Omar and the gang. If I'm in the mood for that type of Middle East reporting now, I can just go to Al Jazzeera English -- which is offered free-to-air over satellite here, and which looks and sounds remarkably like BBC World anyway. Everyone knows what the agenda is at AJ, so there's no reason to complain about it (most of the personalities are ex-BBC and ex-CNN people who finally found their ideological home, and even with that, AJ comes across as more fair and balanced than BBC World ever was - again, with certain particular issues only).
At one time, impartiality was the paramount concern at the BBC. Back ... back in the deep mists of time when the corporation broadcast the very first televised newscast, the newsreader could not be shown on the screen due to fears that mere facial expression might accidentally indicate something other than full and complete impartiality. A news item might be illustrated on screen by a simple map of the region in question, with someone off-camera manipulating a pointer. The reader's voice would be a practiced monotone, lest any inflection betray a hint of anything other than "just the facts." It was an ethos which may have been overly cautious, though admirably aware of the potential power of the new medium to influence the public. If only those worrywarts of long ago could see the power of today's media over public opinion, they would likely conclude that they had misunderestimated the danger.
With the release this week of a year-long study commissioned by the BBC itself, the issue of institutional bias at the corporation is once again on the table.
The report concludes BBC staff must be more willing to challenge their own beliefs.This senior reporter is a master of understatement. There have been a few BBC (and former BBC) figures who have criticised the pervasive group-think at the institution, but such sentiments can have dire consequences for one's career.
It reads: “There is a tendency to 'group think’ with too many staff inhabiting a shared space and comfort zone.”
A staff impartiality seminar held last year is also documented in the report, at which executives admitted they would broadcast images of the Bible being thrown away but not the Koran, in case Muslims were offended.
During the seminar a senior BBC reporter criticised the corporation for being anti-American.
More coverage of the report's release was found on This is London -- and yes, it's the same entertainment rag which recently carried that strange ode to a prospective Islamist Britain under Sharia law, which I noted here a few weeks ago.
The BBC is out of touch with large swathes of the public and is guity of self-censoring subjects that the corporation finds unpalatable, an official report has claimed.The Beeb itself was quick to point out that the report's findings did not actually state that the corporation is a fever-swamp of lefty progressive anti-capitalists hostile to any religion other than Islam, but in finding fault with the headline choices made by London newspapers on the story, its own self-reporting did allow this little nugget to sneak in:
As part of the report's research the BBC's own controller of editorial policy admitted that people felt that the corporation was guilty of a "bias of omission" by not covering their views.
"It's a bit like walking into a Sunday meeting of the Flat Earth Society," said the Daily Telegraph's Jeff Randall about his time as the BBC's business editor.The atmosphere sounds like it would be familiar to anyone on a Western university campus these days. The findings are spun, within BBC's own coverage, more in the direction of 'warnings' against the 'risk' of bias and group-think, and emphasis on how much harder the BBC must work to maintain trust.
"As they discuss great issues of the day, they discuss them from the point of view that the earth is flat.
"If someone says, 'No, no, no, the earth is round!', they think this person is an extremist. That's what it's like for someone with my right-of-centre views working inside the BBC."
[Chairman of the report committee, Mr. Richard] Tait believes that, in the end, the broadcasts stayed within the impartiality guidelines.And then, as if on cue, the BBC pulls a massive boner a few days later -- as if it wanted to prove the most uncharitable gloss on the bias report was in fact, the right one. Embedded in a BBC Online story on the latest Coalition / Iraqi Army offensive in Diyala province, against al Qaeda's civilian-slaughtering terrorists entrenched in Baqouba, was the following request for information:
But it illustrates all too clearly how the complex the whole concept of impartiality is in the 21st Century.
"Are you in Iraq? Have you seen any troop movements? If you have any information you would like to share with the BBC, you can do so using the form below."Note that British troops do form a part of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, and that asking for information on "troop movements" could very well endanger British forces. But in this case, "Operation Arrowhead Ripper" is a joint US / Iraqi Army operation (see Michael Yon's dramatic pre-battle account - and notice the care he takes not to give away any operational information - as well as his newly posted Day One report).
The BBC was specifically looking for information from anonymous donors on the movement of US troops. The distinction with British forces should not matter, since both are on the same side with the Iraqis and all three are allied against al Qaeda. The lesson is, don't count on the BBC as being on the same side as Her Majesty's Services. Abetting espionage against a war-time ally is certainly not something a BBC journalist of the 1940's would have engaged in.
Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Secretary, voiced his shock at what he claimed was a "bizarre" request for information about army movements.The Biased BBC blog was prompted to ask a couple of pertinent questions about all this (and see that link for further proof that the espionage request remained on the BBC website for over four hours).
"I am appalled because it shows either a wilful disregard for the safety of our Armed Forces or a shocking lack of understanding about their safety.
"It makes me wonder who makes these decisions. The BBC now needs to have urgent discussions with the Armed Forces as to how this message came about," Dr Fox said.
I do hope if the BBC are going to request this sort of info that all their staff are security cleared. One wouldn't like to think of such information falling into the wrong hands. Alternatively, could they try a radical new departure and request information on the movements of "militants" and "insurgents" ? And what would they say if Al-Jazeera asked their viewers to report on the movements of BBC staff in Gaza, Iraq or Afghanistan ?Oh, that one's easy. Anonymous tips about the movements of BBC staffers in those places would be irresponsible, because they aren't hegemonic stormtroopers of the Gaia-defiling Great Satan. Although a spokesperson would be unlikely to phrase it exactly that way, for reasons of propriety.
A BBC editor makes a half-hearted attempt to spin this embarrassment away, here.
We made a mistake yesterday, as the Daily Telegraph has noted. As is our regular practice, we added an e-mail on the bottom of a story about a military offensive north of Baghdad, asking for people in the area to get in touch with us.Yeah, asking for people to "get in touch with us." Pretty innocent, eh? Those who reported on this potentially lethal gaffe "wrongly interpreted this as an attempt on our part to seek out military detail." You were asking for details on troop movements! How does that get to be spun as anything other than to "seek out military detail."?
It simply cannot be so spun, even by Mme Vicky Taylor of the compassionate head-tilt brigade, and the laughable admission of "bad phrasing" is just too rich for words.
It is tragic to see the lofty idealism of the early BBC pioneers end up being held in such contempt by those who purport to be carrying their tradition forward.