Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Questioning the questioners

This story is about a BBC tv show called Question Time.
It's an institution and it rings up on Twitter every time
it's on.

Unfortunately, in this country which has democracy every
5 years, #bbcqt is the closest thing to having an audience
with the queen.

I've stopped watching it because of its rampant bias in
favour of the banks.
Now I have proof to say that bbcqt is bent.

1 Guardian

Everything that's wrong with BBC Question Time in one graph

Reality TV stars from The Apprentice and Dragons' Den have clocked up more appearances on Question Time than all scientists in the world put together since the last general election

Appearances on BBC Question Time
Number of appearances on BBC Question Time between May 2010 and June 2013 by...

Okay, so perhaps not quite 'everything', but come on. Since the last general election 13 comedians have appeared on Question Time, and Russell Brand will make it 14 next week. The ubiquitous Nigel Farage, leader of a protest party with zero MPs and a manifesto comprised entirely of bits of old Jeremy Clarkson jokes, has been on 8 times. The "dragons" of Dragons' Den have appeared 4 times between them. Scientists have appeared just twice. Katie Hopkins from The Apprentice has been on as many times as all scientists or science writers put together.

I may have missed one somewhere, but as far as I can tell the last guest from the world of science to appear on Question Time was Professor Colin Blakemore, way back in November 2011. One blogger, Callum Hackett, went through a year's worth of episodes up to last May, counting appearances by profession. Only one scientist had appeared in all that time.

In the year since he wrote that post, no more have surfaced. Brian Cox the actor is far more likely to appear than Brian Cox the professor. Literary performance artist James Delingpole is more likely to appear than any meteorologist. Peter Hitchens is far more likely to appear than any expert on drugs or addiction - as his his nemesis, Russell Brand. A man who infamously claimed that "not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion" is more likely to appear than any expert on criminology or sexual health. When the e-mails of climate scientists were hacked, this is the show that brought on Marcus Brigstocke to defend them against the conspiracy theories of Melanie Phillips.

Question Time is, in short, a pretty miserable failure when it comes to informed debate. The bulk of panellists are drawn from the same upper-middle-class, upper-middle-aged pot of journalists, lawyers and politicians, and are often profoundly ignorant on topics outside of that narrow culture. Science, sex, the internet … attempts to tackle anything outside their world result in bewildering exchanges that confuse more often than they inform. It was Question Time that taught me I should be careful when doing my work on the Facebook.

A great example of this occurred in last night's show, which addressed the mysterious topic of Scottish independence by pitching a single advocate against an array of opponents that included George Galloway, and noted Scottish politician Nigel Farage. Parties that actually have elected representatives in Scotland were bizarrely excluded. David Dimbleby mounted a tetchy defence of the policy, but his argument that it didn't matter because the audience were "split fifty-fifty" on the issue only dug him deeper into a hole. The obvious retort: if it's so important for Question Time's audience to be balanced, why not also the panel?

But then the 'balanced' audience, like so much else about the program, seems little more than a television gimmick; one of many conceits in a political theatre that tries to replicate the features of a serious debate without ever really understanding their meaning or importance. Yes, it's possible that an imbalanced audience could introduce a subtle bias into proceedings, just as it's possible that putting tomato in a kebab adds a few calories to it.

Increasingly though – perhaps accelerated by the explosion of the #bbcqt hashtag on Twitter – even the pretence of heavyweight political discussion seems to have given way to the courting of petty drama and minor celebrity. Appearances by the likes of Russell Brand are trailed well in advance. David Starkey's particularly nasty behaviour, much of it directed at women, should have seen him denied a platform until he could learn how to act like an adult and treat his colleagues with respect. Instead, the BBC have rewarded his tantrums with a place or two in every series for his.

2 Nick Shaxson

Jun 04 2013
Is the BBC afraid of the City of London?

I’ve chosen this headline because I wanted to follow on from an earlier blog I wrote entitled Is the BBC afraid of tax havens? That was a very good question then, and it remains a very good question now. Amid all the global noise now about tax havens, the BBC remains a timid follower of the story, at best, raising serious questions of the extent to which the BBC is fulfilling its mandate to be, in the words of its Director General, ‘unflinching in holding power to account.’

Today’s blog looks at research from Dr. Mike Berry, lecturer at the University of Cardiff. It focuses on one small but influential part of the BBC – its flagship Today Programme on BBC Radio 4. I think it’s fair to say that my colleagues and I have always been under the impression – hard to prove but still a strong impression — that the Today Programme is substantially ‘captured’ by the City of London, the UK’s Financial Services industry. (And for what ‘capture’ means here, see this.)

The article is called The Today programme and the banking crisis, and it meticulously researches six weeks’ of coverage by the Today Programme, during the crucial period of the British bank rescues in October 2008. The article’s abstract should surprise nobody who knows the programme:

“Results indicated that City sources dominated coverage, particularly during the two- week period around the British bank rescue plan. The consequence of this was that listeners were offered a prescribed range of debate on the UK government’s bank rescue plan and possible reforms to the financial sector. The research raises key questions regarding impartiality and balance in public service broadcasting.”

Berry’s paper provides some context, exploring other analyses that have been done of the media response to particular episodes: Forte’s hostile takeover of Granada; the FT’s coverage of the Asian financial crisis, the recent Greek crisis, and more. He cites earlier research into the run-up to Ireland’s country’s banking crisis, for example:

“They [journalists] viewed them [bankers and property developers] as friends and allies and essentially became advocates for them. Their approach was justified editorially because many developers and bankers limited access to such an extent that it became seen to be better to write soft stories about them than to lose access.”

(Others have spoken of a Green Jersey agenda, which turned support for the Irish financial sector into something patriotic.)

All this goes back to the ‘capture‘ I’ve been talking about.

The article looks at the entire range of the Today Programme’s coverage of banking from September 15th, 2008, the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, to October 31, 2008, three weeks after the conclusion of the British banking rescue.

The results? This first graph gives a good idea:

Berry says this effectively understates the City input,

“since many of the individuals classified in Figure 1 as politicians, regulators, academics and business representatives also have close links with the City and broader financial services community.
. . .
This is magnified by the presence of other groups such as business lobbyists, neoclassical economists and journalists from the financial press who all tend to share a similar laissez-faire outlook on how the economy should be managed.”

And for me, a more dramatic statistic:

“Organised labour is almost completely absent from the Today programme with only a single appearance from one union leader (0.4%)”

That shows an astonishing myopia from the BBC, especially given the City of London’s impact of organised labour, as shown here.

Although Berry studied six weeks’ radio output, he paid particular attention to a crucial two-week period around the banking bailout, from October 6th-17th, 2008. And here the picture is particularly telling:

3 The Guardian
Russell Brand: what I made of Morning Joe and Question Time
So what really happened behind the scenes when Russell Brand turned up with his mum to take part in Question Time? And what did he make of Boris?
Russell Brand
Friday 28 June 2013 22.15 BST
Jump to comments (653)
Question Time
'We were excited – Question Time, like Match of the Day or Corrie, is a potent piece of living heritage' …Russell Brand, Tessa Jowell, Boris Johnson, David Dimbleby, Ed
More from acute awareness of Instant Karma's immediate sting than morality, I have learned to treat people apparently lacking power with cordiality. This means that when I arrived at the New York studios of Morning Joe, the gleaming, informal mid-morning MSNBC news analysis show, I was polite to everyone there.
I was surprised by the soundman's impatient intrusiveness and yet more surprised as I stood just off set, beside the faux-newsroom near the pseudo-researchers who appear on camera as pulsating set dressing, when the soundman yapped me to heel with the curt entitlement of Idi Amin's PA. In response I wandered calmly from the studio and into the corridor, where a passing group of holidaymakers were enjoying the NBC tour. Often when you encounter rudeness from the crew, it is an indication that the show is not running smoothly, perhaps that day, or maybe in general. When I landed in my chair, on camera, and was introduced to the show's hosts – a typical trident of blonde, brunette and affable chump – it became clear that, in spite of the show's stated left-leaning inclination, the frequency they were actually broadcasting was the shrill, white noise of dumb current affairs.
One of the things that's surprising when you go on telly a lot is that often the on-camera "talent" (yuck!) are perfectly amiable when you chat to them normally, but when the red light goes on they immediately transform into shark-eyed Stepford berks talking in a cadence you encounter nowhere else but TV-land – a meter that implies simultaneously carefree whimsy and stifled hysteria. There is usually a detachment from the content. "Coming up after the break, we'll be slicing my belly open and watching while smooth black eels loll out in a sinewy cascade of demented horror." This abstraction I think occurs through institutionalisation. If your function is to robotically report a pre-existing agenda, you needn't directly interface with the content. I was surprised when the Morning Joe clip "went viral" (I have parenthesised a sexist joke here: "Many of my casual transactions with daft blondes go viral – I put penicillin on me Frosties"; don't read this if you are offended by that sort of thing) because a lot of my promotional interviews or appearances on these kind of shows have the odd "cuckoo" ambience that defines this transient slice of pop cultural life. It's the unreal, sustained glitch in naturalism that makes this genre of TV disturbing to either watch or be on. The Lynchian subjugation of our humanity; warmth and humour, usurped by a sterile, pastel-coloured steel blade benignly thrust again and again into a grey brain....