Monday, August 31, 2009

Journalistic ethics (part 2)

My last blog began with a reference to Jeremy Paxman, who gave the annual MacTaggart Lecture in 2007.

This year's MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival was given by James Murdoch. Nine years previously, in an Alternative MacTaggart Lecture on media globalisation James had argued that there will eventually be four major language groups - Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Hindi. In 2000 he had said: The last decade of media industry navel-gazing seems to me to have been dominated by two major themes. The first one is that the era of "Big Media" - consolidated, multi-national, multi-service corporate powerhouses - has ushered in a rash of exploitative, lowest common-denominator content that is destroying the cultures in which it is disseminated. The second is that the Internet has changed everything, resulting in new vs. old paranoiac fantasies about every traditional media firm suffering the same fate as Time Warner, that of being gobbled up.

Murdoch's views about the Internet have become a major concern in media circles. In Friday's lecture James went further, saying that Britain has outdated thinking when it comes to broadcasting and the media - we have, as he put it in a trite and well-worn phrase, analogue attitudes in a digital age. His speech was seen as a direct attack on the BBC and its dominant position in the UK, as well as on the media regulator Ofcom. The lecture was the headline item in BBC2's Newsnight programme that evening. It is fairly obvious that Murdoch sees the BBC as potentially thwarting News Corp's UK ambitions to charge for online content.

Murdoch's lecture ended with a rhetorical flourish: people value honest, fearless, and above all independent news coverage that challenges the consensus. There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.

The trouble with Murdoch's thesis is that it is totally false, as is comprehensively demonstrated by the abject failure of journalism in the United States to stand up to, and scrutinise, big business. Financially powerful corporate interests, for example drug companies and health insurers, by dint of influence on major media players and politicians, have effectively stifled debate on meaningful health care reform. And it's not as if the Murdochs aren't aware of this fact, as Fox is one of the biggest and most pliable outlets when it comes to corporate influence peddling.

This blog is primarily concerned with the failure of the BBC to keep to its own principles on diversity and inclusiveness in the Newsround children's daily news programme. On 28 October 2008 I mentioned last year's California Proposition 8 debate. I said: This is a golden opportunity to acquaint Newsround viewers with the debate, and it might go some way to make up for the dearth of coverage of LGBT issues on BBC children's TV. A few days later an American commentator who works for NBC, Keith Olbermann, delivered a striking and heartfelt polemic against the bigotry represented by Proposition 8:

How could a person expressing such noble views be nobbled by big business? The answer is the ownership of media companies by big corporations such as News Corp and General Electric. One of Olbermann's favoured bugbears was a Fox commentator called Bill O'Reilly and associated journalistic malpractice by the Fox news channel. O'Reilly was, by the way, one of the instigators of the kerfuffle (blog 25 June 2008) about the Heinz Deli Mayo advert in the UK.

Fox News and their O'Reilly fought back by attacking NBC's owners General Electric - over its supposed business involvements in Iran. Olbermann's withering criticism was obviously hurting them. The collateral damage became too much for GE, so Olbermann was effectively muzzled by a deal between Rupert Murdoch at Fox and GE, exposed later by Brian Stelter from the New York Times. What's the betting that Rupert himself was the instigator of O'Reilly's fight-back tactics? But that's a minor issue; what this shows is how a seasoned and otherwise principled commentator was nobbled in the free market USA.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Journalistic ethics (part 1)

Two years ago Jeremy Paxman told a meeting at the Edinburgh International Television Festival that blogs don't operate by conventional journalistic rules, such as accuracy (see blog 'Checking facts' on 31 August 2007). It seems that the BBC's journalists are sometimes guilty of that problem. Certainly Newsround on Friday was at best confusing, and at worst deliberately misleading.

Newsround Friday CBBC Channel 3.55pm -

Sonali: Hi there, I'm Sonali and this is Newsround. First up we're talking school uniform - apparently it can cost your parents around £700 a year. Supermarkets and other shops might have cut price deals on the stuff you need, but some schools only sell their uniforms and kit through particular shops. Leah's been checking out the story.

Next we heard Richard Kemp from the Local Government Association, who told Leah that parents had to spend up to £170 to send each person back to secondary school. Richard wanted to see more choice of outlets for school uniforms.

However the story was reported in a different way at 5pm on BBC One -

Sonali: Hi there. First up today we're talking school uniform. It might make life easier for you not to have to think about what to wear every day, but it can be a right old dent in your parents wallet. That's why, today, there are calls for the cost of uniforms to come down. Leah's been investigating.

Leah's report which followed dealt with school uniform and sports kit costs. Leah said "Shirts, skirts, and trousers - just a few of the things you need to get kitted out for the new term. Add to that sports gear and shoes, and the price can really stack up. It's reckoned that parents have to spend around £700 a year making sure you have everything you need for primary school. And when you start secondary, that goes up to around £1200 ...."

Newsround report on 21 August 2009
In fact the Government Report - Cost of Schooling 2007, published earlier this year, has a detailed breakdown on page 34, and it turns out that uniform and sports kit accounted for about 30% of the cost of schooling. Newsround didn't explain that the £700 (actually £683.79) also included school trips, class materials, stationery items, swimming lessons, school fund, school lunch, travel, school photos, charity contributions and the cost of other activities/items.

We are entitled to expect reasonable ethical standards of the BBC. So was Newsround negligent, or did they mislead their audience simply to hype the story? I might get in touch with the new editor of Newsround, Owenna Griffiths, to ask if there is another plausible explanation.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Equality Bill: possible opt-out for broadcasters

My blog on 7 June 2009 dealt with the BBC's duplicitous attitude to diversity, and their request to be excluded from proposed duties in the new equality legislation. I was sufficiently concerned to write to the DCMS at the beginning of May. Following receipt of the DCMS response dated 7 August 2009 (shown below) I wrote early this week to ask solely for release of the originating requests for opt-outs, and have not yet heard back.

Response from DCMS on 7 August 2009

Thank you for your request for information regarding the Equality Bill, which was received on 1 May 2009.

Your request read: “I understand that the DCMS has received requests from the BBC and Channel 4 to be exempted from certain duties in the new Equality Bill. Please could you send me copies of correspondence in connection with these requests?”

Please note that your request has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Act deals with requests for information and a request for copies of correspondence would not usually qualify as a request for information. However, we have decided to treat your request as a request for information contained in correspondence between the BBC, Channel 4 and the Department relating to requests from those broadcasters to be exempted from certain duties in the Equality Bill and have dealt with your request accordingly. Under the Act, you have the right to:

  • Know whether we hold the information you require

  • Be provided with that information (subject to any exemptions under the Act which might apply)

    We contacted you on 2 June 2009 and explained that the Department holds certain information that falls within the scope of your request. It was considered at that stage, on a preliminary view, that all the information we hold may have been exempt from disclosure under section 35(formulation of government policy) and section 42(legal/professional privilege) of the Act. We explained to you that when these exemptions apply, we need to carry out a public interest test to consider whether the balance of the public interest lies in favour of maintaining the exemption or in favour of releasing the information.

    On further deliberation we have now concluded that section 42 of the Act does not apply and we confirm our view that section 35(1)(a) and of the Act is engaged in relation to the information we hold that is relevant to your request. In addition, we have concluded that s.41 of the Act also applies to some of that information.

    Section 35(1) (a) (formulation of government policy) applies to the information that the department holds in connection with the Equality Bill that falls within the parameters of your request.

    The factors we considered in carrying out the public interest test are as follows:-

    Section 35

    Public Interest Considerations in favour of disclosure

    1. Greater transparency makes the Government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust.

    2. The public interest in being able to assess the quality of advice being given to Ministers and subsequent decision making

    3. The topic in question is likely to be of considerable pubic interest.

    Public Interest Considerations in favour of maintaining the exemptions

    1. Good government depends on good decision making and government should have time and space to explore options and to “hammer out” policy safe from the threat of “lurid headlines”. The issue of the broadcasters and how the Equality Bill will affect them has already attracted media interest and disclosure of the options and issues under consideration may well result in the type of media interest which is likely to impair good decision making.

    2. In relation to the Equality Bill, the government is working with a number of third parties/stakeholders in order to ensure that the development of policy is based on the best possible advice from the industry involved. Advice should be full and frank and should be broad based and there may be a deterrent effect on external experts or stakeholders who might be reluctant to provide advice or express their views because of the risk of disclosure whilst such advice and views are being discussed and developed. The views being expressed relate to ongoing policy development and therefore it would be damaging to disclose the discussions before decisions are taken and policy is formulated. In respect of this process, organisations making their representations need to be able to give their opinions in a free and frank manner. The premature release of the information requested may mean, in the future, that external experts or stakeholders may not feel that they can be as open. There is a risk therefore, that future decision making and policy formulation would be damaged or inhibited.

    3. Ministers and officials need to be able to conduct rigorous and candid risk assessments of their policies and programmes including considerations of the pros and cons without there being premature disclosure which might affect full and objective considerations of all options. Any publication could hinder the frank discussions and rigorous considerations of expert advice required.

    In the light of the above, the Department’s view is that the public interest in favour of maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

    Accordingly, we consider that the information you have requested should not be disclosed.

    Section 41

    In addition we have also concluded that Section 41 (Information provided in confidence) of the Act applies to some of the information that the Department holds that is relevant to your request.

    This exemption has been applied because the information in question was supplied on a confidential basis. The Department owes a duty of confidence in relation to this information. The exemption in section 41 is an absolute exemption and, accordingly, because it applies to some of the information you have requested, it requires us to withhold that information from you.

    This exemption under s.41 applies to some of the information in addition to the exemption under s.35 of the Act as set out above.

    Further Advice
    If you are dissatisfied with any aspect of our response to your request for information and/or wish to appeal against information being withheld from you, please send full details within two calendar months of the date of this letter to:

    FOI Central Team,
    Public Engagement and Recognition Unit
    Department for Culture Media and Sport,
    2-4 Cockspur Street, London,
    SW1Y 5DH

    You have the right to ask the Information Commissioner (ICO) to investigate any aspect of your complaint. Please note that the ICO is likely to expect internal complaints procedures to have been exhausted before beginning his investigation.

    Please accept my sincere apologies for the delay in responding to your request and do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of further assistance.

    Kind regards
  • Thursday, August 20, 2009

    Richard Dawkins believes bigotry against gay people is still alive and kicking and we only need to look at, say, the murder of Michael Causer, the subsequent trial and lack of media coverage to see that Dawkins is right. (see blog 24 Feb 2009)

    Unfortunately it is hardly surprising to see that this bigotry exists. The LGBT minority, alone, is treated with disdain by the BBC. My blog on 16 August 2009 demonstrated that the Corporation has no qualms about using 'poof' on a family entertainment programme. Yet BBC children's TV maintains a de facto ban on words such as lesbian and gay - in fact CBBC is much less inclusive of LGBT representation now than it was 15 years ago.

    Dawkins suggests that an apology to Turing would not be needed in fifty years' time, but it seems his timescale might be optimistic.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009

    Campaign to win official apology for Alan Turing

    Yesterday Richard Dawkins wrote:

    I have signed the petition, although in general I am not impressed with apologies being issued for the sins of past generations. I think that attempts to make all modern white people feel guilty for the slave trade are ridiculous, and apologies to all modern black people are even more ridiculous. But Alan Turing lived pretty recently. Many of his colleagues at Bletchley Park are still alive, and Turing himself might still be alive if he hadn't committed suicide. He was of roughly the same generation as my parents, both of whom are still very much alive. Moreover, although the law on homosexuality in Britain was changed in 1967, the bigotry that gave rise to it is still alive and kicking, and it still has the force of law in much of the Islamic world. An official government apology to Turing would send a signal to the world, which needs to be sent. An official apology for slavery would not send a useful signal, because nobody, not even the most bigoted Christian, is nowadays in favour of slavery. I agree that in, say, another 50 years, an official apology would no longer be appropriate. But it is still appropriate today.

    Also see my blogs on 13 June 2007 and 23 June 2007

    Sunday, August 16, 2009

    Language and offence (part 3)

    Supposedly there's a big conversation going on within the BBC, coordinated by their diversity unit, to examine editorial policy and portrayal issues in relation to sexual orientation.

    In 2007 Ofcom looked at the words 'nigger' and 'poof' as used by Big Brother contestants, and the differing ways these words were treated by Big Brother and Channel 4. In 2008 Channels 4 and 5 jointly published guidance which makes plain (in section 4A) that 'poof' is unacceptable in normal circumstances, and can cause serious offence regardless of intention.

    Possibly as a result of Ofcom's contorted reasoning in the 2007 Big Brother decision, the BBC continues to allow use of the word 'poof' thus promoting it as an acceptable epithet. As part of its reasoning Ofcom had cited the name of the resident band on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, to demonstrate that the word 'poof' could be acceptable.

    Last Thursday the panel on As Seen On TV hosted by Steve Jones (8pm, BBC One) had to identify a mystery guest. Eventually Melanie Sykes succeeded in sussing who it was:-

    Melanie: Do you work with a very outspoken chat show host?
    Mystery Guest: Yes
    Melanie: He is one of the singers of 4 Poofs and a Piano from the Jonathan Ross show!
    Steve Jones: Thingy, could you please reveal your identity?
    Mystery Guest: Hi, I'm Stephen de Martin, but I'm best known as one of the 4 Poofs and a Piano. {video clip of band singing - FNwJR 6 Feb 2009}
    Steve Jones: Fantastic. One poof, no piano, sounds like Elton John unplugged

    And as soon as Steve Jones finished reading that line - at that very instant - we saw a close-up of Christopher Biggins, laughing along with the "joke"

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009

    After a sustained campaign by Newsround Blog to get the programme to give out the correct schedules, today they got it right. Well done Newsround!

    Friday, August 07, 2009

    Yesterday I told the BBC, once again, about the scheduled time for the start of Newsround on BBC One. So hopefully, today, Newsround will get it right (see blogs on 3rd and 5th August)

    Wednesday, August 05, 2009

    Newsround's website has today put up a press pack report about the UK Youth Parliament meeting which took place in Kent the weekend before last (see blog 28 July 2009). Would also be nice to have seen an earlier report on the programme itself, especially as it looks like there are quite a lot more TV press pack reports now than of late. Talking of late, they're still giving out the wrong start time for the BBC One edition of Newsround (previous blog).

    Monday, August 03, 2009

    The BBC One edition of Newsround has recently been re-scheduled to begin at 5pm but for some reason presenters of the 3.55pm edition on the CBBC channel still keep giving out the old start time of 5.05pm.

    I mentioned the discrepancy in an email on Friday, but the same mistake was repeated today. Anyone could miss the first news story if they switch on at 5.05pm. And that wasn't the only thing they got wrong today, because the third news story on the 5pm edition was:

    Two pieces of music written by one of the world's most famous composers, Mozart, have been performed for the first time. They've just been discovered, but were written by Mozart more than 250 years ago, when he was only about eight years old.

    The problem is that Mozart was born in 1756, so the music was written less than 250 years ago. (see also blog on 21 May 2009)

    Sunday, August 02, 2009

    It's exactly a year since Michael Causer died. Even today, in Liverpool, there is a great deal of shock and anger. However, in contrast to racist hate attacks, Michael's murder received little attention from the national media (see blogs on 11 March 2009 and 17 May 2009)

    30th April 2009 was the tenth anniversary of the hate-motivated bombing attack on a bar in Soho called the Admiral Duncan, which resulted in the deaths of three people and injuries to around seventy.

    On the 10th anniversary, Pink News commented: At the time, many gay people had seen the area of Old Compton Street as a safe haven where they could socialise without fear of homophobic attacks. The explosion inevitably changed all this and highlighted the prejudice inherent in society that many had forgotten existed.

    The anniversary commemorations, however, passed without notice by the BBC.

    Last night there was another homophobic attack, this time in an Israeli LGBT support centre. The murderous attack sparked a demonstration in Tel Aviv, but by 9am this morning the incident and its aftermath received little coverage by the BBC.

    Saturday, August 01, 2009

    Language and offence (part 2)

    Recall my blog on 12 July 2009 mentioned that out of interest I'd asked Ed Richards if he had any comment to make about the contradictory positions of Ofcom and the EHRC in respect of Jonathan's Radio 2 remark.

    It now seems there is less of a contradiction. Ofcom has acknowledged that the remark by Jonathan Ross could cause offence - something which had not appeared in their original Decision published on 6 July 2009.

    There is another glimmer of hope. Friday Night with Jonathan Ross has recently ended its 16th series, and the programme finished with a spoof Tarantino film. Quentin Tarantino, annoyed at a criticism by Mr Ross, came on set with a machine gun to mow down Jonathan and his house band. Jonathan alone escaped unscathed.

    So, have we seen the last of 4 Poofs and a Piano on TV? Let's hope that spoof scene foretells a real change for the better by Mr Ross, and a more enlightened BBC.