Doughty news values (UPDATED)

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Originally posted May 29, 2007 @ 18:16

Despite coming from a different political galaxy, I wish 18 Doughty Street every success if nothing else than for the fact that if it works, it opens up the possibility of other, more politically sympathetic, rivals. It really needs to work out what its agenda is however. One minute they are producing rightwing attack ads, the next they are bending over backwards to improve the political balance of their programmes.

A related problem is highlighted by Iain Dale’s recent outburst about Greenpeace refusing to share studio space with Dominic Lawson. Now, personally I’m a bit of a Greenpeace-sceptic and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is wryly amused to hear them pontificate about refusing to debate with people who do not accept the “scientific reality” (Greenpeace, and FoE’s agenda is only tangentially related to scientific fact and always has been). But the tactic is sound: in debates where there is no common ground there is little point in taking part and legitimising your opponent’s views. If Greenpeace don’t want to waste their time, why should they? There are certainly times in my own life where, retrospectively, I’d wished I’d done the same. When I went on the Daily Politics with Laurence Boyce last week, I made this very calculation (and concluded that the cat was already out of the bag).

I fear that Iain gives the game away by criticising this decision by labeling Greenpeace as “Enviro-fascists”. Leaping from wanting a ‘balanced debate’ to slamming one side as being ‘fascist’ rather suggests that Greenpeace were being set up. Their biggest crime was to call Iain’s bluff.

The big irony is that the BBC, that most hated of media empires, do this sort of thing all the time. It is epitomised by programmes like You and Yours which regularly features articles in which an issue that is plainly barking mad is given large amounts of airtime, justified purely on the basis that they have a token rational human being on as well to declare it to be nonsense. More recently of course there was that Panorama about Wi Fi which was ‘balanced’ only in as much as the fact that it had people arguing both sides of the argument. This sort of lopsided ‘balance’ – where you claim that the views of an individual are of equal weight to the established scientific consensus – only ever has one purpose: to undermine confidence in that consensus. Sometimes it is due to simply sloppy thinking; sometimes there is an agenda behind it. Either way, the effect is the same. At its worse, we have examples such as the MMR scare, which has brought back near-extinct childhood diseases with a vengeance (I write as someone who caught the mumps – the fucking mumps! – aged 30. Thanks a bunch, Andrew).

What I don’t understand is why 18 Doughty Street are pursuing this BBC definition of ‘balance’. Polemic I can understand, genuine balance which looks at the weight of evidence and recognises the scientific consensus would be even better. But surely this mealy-mouthed, insincere “one the one hand… on the other…” drivel is precisely what 18 Doughty Street was set up to fight?

My suspicion is that a lot of people who rail against the BBC’s news bias have a very selective analysis. Where the BBC’s news values correspond with the Daily Mail’s (and they do, increasingly so), they are all for it.

UPDATED: Iain has now moderated his tone following a chat with Greenpeace’s Ben Stewart. Not by much though. I confess this para may have been in the original, but it did stand out to me this morning:

Anyone who seeks to constrain debate on this hugely important issue is adopting the tactics of crypto-fascists. They act as if scientists are in one hundred per cent agreement. They are not. The hubris and condescension in this email is almost beyond parody.

No they don’t. They do act as if the scientific community is in 90% agreement, which it is, a fact which people like Lawson and Iain Dale consistently downplay. Ben Stewart stated in his original email that he would be happy to debate the issue with Bjorn Lomborg and Dominic Lawson isn’t a scientist. Finally, it is the standard tactic of anti-fascists. Why hasn’t 18 Doughty Street had Nick Griffin on yet if they are so concerned about no platform policies?

8 thoughts on “Doughty news values (UPDATED)

  1. It was a laugh though, wasn’t it? And we had a vaguely intelligent conversation. And the overall portrayal was broadly in your favour I thought. I like Iain Dale a lot, but I don’t think he has much of a clue about science. Perhaps 18DS should employ you as their chief scientific advisor!

  2. BBC have a decidedly arrogant and left wing liberal bias, and is now propoging its message in a new style.
    This is disinformation. I would like to believe that it is just incompetence or a lack of joined up thinking, but today I was made fully aware of this new war front.
    If you had listened to the various news broadcasts on Radio 4 today you would have heard at least 4 different and wrong versions of why Brady resigned from the Conservative front bench. This was done in spite of him being interviewed on the Today programme and giving a very clear reason of why he had resigned. The last news I heard at about 8pm was that he was in “disagreement with Camerons policy on grammar schools” – possibly the worst distortion of the whole day.
    Is it any wonder that no sane person trusts any of the main parties and especially Blair/Brown and Cameron?
    Is it any wonder that the BBC is losing credibility in its task to being the nation’s best ambulance chaser?
    I say bring back Guy Fawkes (a successful one of course)

  3. I’m not sure that 18DS necessarily needs to have an agenda. I’d rather it had a much lighter editorial touch, with individual programme makers free to make a programme as balanced or as polemical as they see fit.

    Of course, 18DS is a Tory propaganda station, so perhaps what I really want is a genuine politicos (internet) TV channel that does the above.

    I agree with your point about Greenpeace. (All of them, but especially…) I used to think that one should encourage widely differing opinions to share a platform, but I’ve been to a few debates over the last couple of years that were simply pointless, becuase experts were arguing about such fundamentals of the evidence that the lay audiance was left with little option but to stick to their pre-conceptions.

    Perhaps the solution is to abandon the air of neutrality and adopt the Newspaper system: be openly ideological and allow the viewers to choose. This would necessitate privatising or dismantling the BBC, of course, as it could hardly be both biased and publically owned. But some sacrifices are worth making!!

  4. Laurence: yes, it was fun. Having seen the finished package, with us on for 30 seconds and Andrew Neill lobbing abuse at Rennard, I happen to think the public would have been better served by just watching our whole discussion.

    Colin: I don’t accept that the BBC bias is ‘left and liberal’. You give the game away by equating the two (suggesting you don’t know what either of them actually are). It is certainly middle class and patrician, but you only have to glance at the number of BBC journalists who write for rightwing papers to realise that the bias isn’t leftwing.

    In terms of Graham Brady, I’m reading his resignation letter (published in the Daily Mail) and he states: “Like all Members of Parliament who have grammar schools in their constituencies, I must now help to provide the evidence that those schools need to defend themselves. That is why I have felt duty bound to continue my practice of obtaining and publishing facts which demonstrate that selective local education authorities perform better than comprehensive ones.” I could go on, but it is quite transparent that he resigned over disagreement with Cameron on Grammar Schools. How has the BBC distorted this fact?

    Conversely, yesterday I was listening to Caroline Quinn on the Today Programme suggesting to Peter Tatchell that gay rights were ‘Western values’ and that he should expect to get beaten up defending them if he will insist on protesting in Russia. How is suggesting that universal human rights such as the right to protest and free assembly, let alone sticking up for gay rights leftwing, or liberal?

  5. James,

    I’m not sure that writing for a write wing paper precludes you from being left wing. There’s plenty of old Trots on the Times.

    As for moral relativism, it has been an ever more powerful force in leftwing thinking. Many left wing academics have claimed that brutal practices such as female genital mutilation are cultural norms that neo-colonialist Westerners have no business criticising.

    Hell, Noam Chomsky defended Pol Pot!!

    You are right that this is not “liberal”, but it is very typical of “the left”.

  6. But the right is as guilty of moral relativism. Rightwing foreign policy is all about ‘our bastards’ and much rightwing thought is based on the notion that each culture is/should be a hermetically sealed silo. The right is always keen to emphasise difference rather than common cause. No-one would accuse Iain Dale of being a lefty, but here he is equating the views of a journalist on the environment with the views of the vast majority of the scientific community. Relativistic or what?

  7. One of the problems here is that the science around climate is so complex that only the smartest mathematicians and physicists understand many of the processes. The rest of us have to take the application of the science on trust, and all of us a window from which to observe the weather, a faulty memory on which to draw, partially informed opinions and a gob with which to express them. We can only have informed opinions, Iain Dale and Nigel Lawson

    And we generalise: one commentator objected that MMGW must be bollocks because it rained a lot on the Isle of Wight last week. Climate models cannot be used to predict local conditions, but that is short sentence precising a long, complex argument, easily countered by the argument that scientists are all ‘in on it.’ There is a familiarity to this tactic by the right which people active in other areas will recognise: use minority dissenting experts to support your position, quote mine from mainstream experts and exaggerate, resort argument from incredulity, posit a conspiracy. How 18 Doughty Street behaves is up to it: whether its audience believes a former paper editor with no scientific training is up to them. At a lecture last week a scientist said that the climate was now changing at the fastest rate in 40 million years. I know who I believe.

  8. Peter: I’m happy for 18DS to have whatever values it wants. I’m merely questioning the notion that it is challenging the establishment by adopting establishment news values.

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