The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

BBC bashing spreads to the Boston Globe

The last time I was in this neck of the woods (February 6), it was to compare and contrast the hostile reactions of some American commentators to the post-Hutton travails of the BBC with the near silence which greeted Robert Novak's (so it appears) untruth on the stuffing of ballot boxes in the 2002 US Senate election in South Dakota.

I had thought the effusion of bile Stateside had come to an end. But an article in the Globe on Sunday shows the bile reservoir not yet quite dry.

Amazing that a piece castigating a journalist and his outlet for sensationalised and inaccurate reporting should appear beneath a hed like
Broadcast blues
How dubious news practices and a creeping commercial ethic helped humble the mighty BBC

There's a j-school seminar in that little piece of work - the handiwork of a copy-editor, I'm thinking, rather than the hack (Kevin Cullen). Though the punctuation mark itself is not present, this is one of the species known in academic publishing as the colonic title, in which the words before the colon are chosen to be eye-catching and snazzy; leave the rest to explain what in Sam Hill the book or article is about!

So, that's one strike - for pretentiousness.

Then the Hollywood bombast in
humble the mighty BBC
- do I hear the opening voice-over in Casablanca or is it the end of King Kong:
...Beauty killed the beast.

Strike two for tabloid sensationalism - worthy of the Sun [1].

And - a screech of cartoon comedy brakes - what about that

dubious news practices and a creeping commercial ethic
merely helped in the humbling, what did the rest?

It seems to me that that helped was a last minute qualification by - whoever it was - of an original which, even in the throes of self-congratulation, the headline writer realised went far beyond the facts of the case.

All told, a putrid little effort well suited to the piece over which it stands.

Cullen, it says at the bottom of the piece,
is the Globe's former London bureau chief [2].

And there are indeed what I can only take to be attempts at local colour, no doubt drawn from his experience in the UK: for instance he talks about
a slagging match between the government and the BBC.

Whereas the British idiom is slanging match. And he adds a dash of Ye Olde Englande with
As in medieval times when there were failed attempts to challenge British authority, heads rolled in the immediate aftermath of the Hutton inquiry.

Oozes with scholarship, that one.

He tells us that
British democracy, many BBC staffers said, had been diminished

How many staffers? I can find (on a cursory search - Cullen would have had Nexis) no sign online of a poll amongst BBC staff on the impact of Hutton. Is many a proportion or an absolute number in this context? Or is this British Sunday journalism? (Aka complete bollocks.)

And he says that
...there is also acknowledgement among journalists, even among some BBC staff, that Hutton's findings have been a wake-up call, perhaps a clarion call, for the broadcaster.

Please explain to me what, in context, is the difference between a wake-up call and a clarion call?

One feels cheated by having been offered merely two contesting metaphors! Why not tocsin and siren as well?

And what to make of
...the BBC's traditional enemies have always had the long knives tucked in their cloaks...

One might wonder how the writer could manage to be the Globe's former London bureau chief at the age of fourteen...

In support of his attack, he quotes from NPR ombud Jeffrey Dvorkin - whose own hatchet job on the BBC I dealt with in the February 6 piece - and a February 3 piece by Guardian hack Martin Kettle [3] who seems to have appointed himself as some kind of Blair whip for left-leaning British journalists. And quotes no one to contest their views.

And this is the Globe's idea of objective journalism?

Cullen sighs wearily that
Some worry that the Hutton inquiry will have a chilling effect on the BBC.
These some are, one suspects, as unquantified as the many BBC staffers - contemptible creatures, scarcely worth counting!

To illustrate how absurd the idea is that BBC journalism might become defensive and submissive, he cites veteran BBC hack John Simpson
who disguised himself in a burka so he could slip into Kabul when the Taliban fell

Instructive to read another Guardian piece (from 2001), in which Simpson is quoted as saying that
he "really resented it" when people claimed the BBC was caving in to foreign administrations that did not like the way it reported on their countries.

"In the past 20 or 30 years there has been a real stiffening of the BBC's backbone on things like this," he added.

"The BBC isn't that sort of organisation any more. It's stronger than it was."

That was then...

And Cullen also cites as an example
...Lena Ferguson..., a producer in Northern Ireland, [who] is risking jail because she refuses to reveal the identities of soldiers who spoke to her on the condition of anonymity when she worked for Britain's Channel 4 News about their roles on Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British troops killed 13 unarmed civilians in Derry.

Had he chosen to do some actual journalism on his piece (datelined February 15), he would have discovered that
Lord Saville, the chairman of the tribunal...said no further legal action would be taken against...Lena Ferguson.

That from a piece timed at 1400 GMT on February 13!

His very next words are
If the BBC needs to be more rigorous in its editorial process

Glass houses and stones, I think...

Interesting, finally, to set Cullen's effort against a piece (March 1) by Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky in American Prospect on the sorry excuse that is the American press right now. Their piece includes such radical suggestions as
Go beyond the "he said, she said" and tell us what you believe to be true and important about a story.

Challenge the master narrative with genuine investigative reporting.

Oh, and don't forget to check your spellings, too.

The fact is - and this blog cites plenty of examples - that there is much bad journalism on both sides of the pond. (There is some outstanding stuff, and a lot of OK, bread-and-butter stuff, too.)

Rather than delivering pompous lectures, supported by skimpy research and inadequate understanding, and purporting to judge by absurdly stratospheric standards of millennial perfection, Cullen and his colleagues would do far better to recognise the realities of journalism practised by human hand, American, British or Hottentot: that every man must be his own fact-checker, there is no such thing as truth, one should be wary of buying on the strength of the brand. That their readers should be credited with the capacity of behaving like grown-ups, in fact.

That's how the net works: users soon find that they have constantly to be applying their own judgement in evaluating material from every kind of source. What arrogance from Big Media folk to suppose - against the weight of the evidence - that their stuff does not require the same treatment!

As for the BBC, we Britons have been complaining about it since long before Cullen arrived on our shores. Its level of servility to the government of the day has fluctuated, and has probably been lower than it is today (Lord Reith was no Rod Liddle!).

But Britons do not entertain any illusion that it possesses superhuman qualities. And therefore even evidence of serious defects in the Corporation (as the management shambles documented in the Hutton evidence, oral and written) does not give them the sort of fit of the vapours that seems to have gripped certain transpondian hacks, harking back to a Golden Age That Never Was.

The BBC is part of the national furniture, a much-distressed and sat upon piece, but one likely to survive Blair without irreparable harm having been done, the present Ice Age in the News department notwithstanding.

It is, in particularly, trusted much more than Brer Blair: post-Hutton polls here and here suggested that the proportion trusting the BBC is twice or three times that trusting Blair.

And a majority picked Hutton as a whitewash soon after the Report came out; which I take as a hopeful sign that we may be moving a little closer to a society where the degree of trust in pols, hacks and others placed in authority over us is strictly conditional on a properly sceptical and continuing evaluation of their performance.

An idea that one suspects Brer Kettle, for one, would utterly loathe.

  1. The London Sun, that is, purveyor of such heds as Gotcha! (after the sinking of the General Belgrano in 1982), Up Yours, Delors! (to a President of the European Commission) and Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster (don't ask).

  2. That is saying that he is the only one! That may be true: or it may just be sloppy journalism.

  3. Cullen fails to provide the URL for the Kettle article.

    British journos' comments that I've seen have generally acknowledged that there were and are serious faults in the management of the news function at the BBC, and - to that extent - serious criticism from Hutton was expected and justified.

    There would, I suspect, be many fewer British journos (even amongst partisans of the war) who would agree with Kettle that

    ...the law lord did an excellent job in conducting his inquiry so briskly and transparently, and to stress that his report is overwhelmingly consistent with the evidence he received
    particular as touching the handling of intelligence within HMG.

    There is, of course, no kind of context given: no mention of the Campbell campaign against the BBC, say; or Blair's history of manipulating the truth; or the hostility to be found within the ranks of Guardian hacks to the practice of British newspaper journalism [4], from which a pretence at Olympian detachment is often made.

    Kettle's prose is as luridly sophomoric as Cullen's: a Blairified version of the Dave Spart column in Private Eye (fl 1970s), with its undigested morsels of Trotskyite tract.

    Kettle says the post-Hutton press comment suggests that

    the modern journalist is prone to behaving like a child throwing its rattle out of the pram because it has not got what it wanted.
    He gives space to the rather absurd former boss of Andrew Gilligan at the Today programme, Rod Liddle, who was putting himself about in AG's defence (with friends like that...) as the most ludicrous straw-man [5] representing
    the iceberg tip of a culture of contempt towards politicians (and thus of democracy) and judges (and thus of the law) that is too prevalent in British journalism...
    Culture of contempt is weaselling on a par with Lawrence Summers' anti-semitic in effect - when a profession acts contemptibly, surely one may be permitted to show one's contempt?

    He even cites the Economist - no mean practitioner of sophomoric prose itself -

    So, hats off to the Economist editorial that skewered Gilligan for a report that was "typical of much of modern British journalism, twisting or falsifying the supposed news to fit a journalist's opinion about where the truth really lies. Some in the British media have described such journalism as 'brave'. Sloppy or biased would be better words".
    The Economist thinks it is granted to man to know
    where the truth really lies
    does it? Let us not confine our contempt to politicians and judges!

    And Kettle quotes the servile acting Director-General Mark Byford that

    Mostly right isn't good enough for the BBC.
    How does Byford suggest 100% accuracy might be achieved, this side of the Second Coming? A loop of speeches of the Dear Leader on all channels, perhaps?

  4. That is of the right-wing press of Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black and Associated Press (Daily Mail).

  5. Of which no regular reader of this blog could think me anything other than an severe critic.

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