Tag Archives: bbc

Save the BBC from “friends” like 38 Degrees

Yesterday 38 Degrees was forced to remove a petition calling for the resignation of Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC’s political editor following revelations that it was being used as a focal point for sexist abuse. Before then however, 38 Degrees and the wider clicktivist left had received criticism for undermining the BBC in its current mortal combat with the government and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.

The focus of this ire is aimed at the BBC’s coverage of the resignation of Steven Doughty MP from the shadow cabinet, in which he was given the opportunity to resign live on-air. What’s fascinating about this particular issue is to question what any truly independent media agency would have done in the BBC and Kuenssberg’s shoes. The implication seems to be that she should have downplayed its significance and denied him a platform. If either of those things had happened, how would Kuenssberg have been able to defend it? I have my concerns about the nature of the BBC’s news coverage, which tends to lean towards giving members of the political establishment a relatively uncritical platform while undermining wider voices, but that tends to work as much in Labour’s favour as it does the Tories, and in this particular case it doesn’t apply at all.

But the purpose of this article is not to focus on Laura Kuenssberg’s woes but the relatively happier worlds of Telly Tubby Land and the Night Garden. While 38 Degrees were busily doing damage control on their Kuenssberg petition, they were also putting up another petition claiming that the government were proposing to cut funding for CBBC and CBeebies. An email was sent out titled “No more CBeebies?” which continued with:

But children’s TV as we know it is under threat. It’s being reported that the government plans to take money away from the BBC’s children’s programmes. [1] They want to give money-making channels a chance to compete for children’s shows.

Sounds horrifying, right? However, note the 1 in square brackets, as it’s pretty relevant. If you scroll down, you find that that [1] refers to an article in the Telegraph, which doesn’t quite say the same thing. That article is headlined “BBC in row with John Whittingdale over ‘top-slicing’ licence fee to fund kids’ TV“. It is indeed about top-slicing and the funding of commercial children’s television. Crucially however, nowhere does it say that the government is calling for funding of CBBC and CBeebies to be targeted for this top-slicing. To be clear: there is no reason whatsoever to believe that CBBC and CBeebies is under threat.

Now, you could give 38 Degrees the benefit of the doubt here. After all, that loss of BBC revenue has to come from somewhere, right? However, were you to reach this conclusion, I think you’d have to be blithely ignorant of a very important point: the chief target of Whittingdale’s concerns expressed in public thus far have all been the more profitable aspects of the BBC’s output. That comprises quite a bit of BBC TV – after all, they do have a very profitable worldwide arm. Sherlock, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Poldark, Radio One, sport, even news – these have all been cited not only as not worthy of government subsidy, but as actively undermining UK commercial television as a result. What is not under threat are the bits of the BBC that perform a clear public good but aren’t necessarily commercial, such as its output for children.

Believe it or not, Whittingdale is not stupid. He’s very aware that the BBC is extremely popular. Alongside the NHS, it’s one of those national institutions that the overwhelming majority of the British public want to preseve. Scrapping or privatising it could quite possibly lead to the ending of this government, and Whittingdale is not likely to put that at risk. That’s precisely why he is talking about restricting the profitable end of the BBC’s output, arguing with at least some justification that a lot of them would continue to get made if commissioned commercially and without the dead hand of the BBC hanging over Sky and ITV. And that’s precisely why he’s started talking up the possibility of taking a chunk of the license fee to pay for children’s television.

However well meaning, the 38 Degrees petition is a gift to Whittingdale. If his SpAds have any sense they will be jumping at the chance to get the message out to the 120,000 signatories that they will indeed protect CBBC from any cuts – or at least say that it will be up to the BBC to decide whether to keep Match of the Day or Peppa Pig. All he wants to do is increase spending on commercial children’s television. Anyone old enough to remember the quality of output of children’s television on ITV before the Tories destroyed that cherished national institution at the end of the 80s (or, ahem, watches some of the better shows the Cartoon Network in the US churns out) can tell you that commercial children’s TV has the potential to be every bit as good as what the BBC comes up with. More Press Gang and The Wind In The Willows in exchange for a bit less trash on BBC? What’s there to object to?

Of course the debate around top-slicing is a lot more nuanced and subtle than “SAVE THE TELLYTUBBIES!!11!” or even “SAVE SHERLOCK!” – which is precisely why Whittingdale wants to shift the debate in that direction. By giving Whittingdale such an open goal, 38 Degrees are only helping him. Fundamentally, this debate is just as much about the BBC’s independence as it is about its level of funding and with a Culture Secretary looking to actively undermine it, we need to be extra vigilant about what he decides to target. Having 38 Degrees chalk this one up as a “win” in a couple of weeks is only going to make that public scrutiny harder.

Sometimes I wonder if 38 Degrees and the myriad of other clicktivist websites have a secret agenda to actually undermine the left and progressive politics in the UK. The reality is much more banal: it exists simply to continue existing, and with that in mind will always look out for whatever simplistic and populist angle it can find on public policy and use it to increase its email database and thus revenue. I’ve spoken to enough people behind it, and experienced working up close with them enough to know that if that means they end up becoming reactionary or wildly missing their target, that’s a price they’re quite happy to pay.

That’s why they actively undermined the campaign against disability cuts during the last government, and that’s why they focused their “Save the NHS” campaign on big, high profile moments that they knew they had no chance of winning (such as their attempts to stop the second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill) at the expense of less high profile moments which required more sophisticated lobbying. Far better to fail big than to win quietly, and far better to help the government by over-simplifying a complex debate than to make their life difficult by adopting a more sophisticated position and risk losing subscribers in the process.

Why we should take accusations of “militant secularism” seriously.

I’ve just been fuming listening to a ridiculous interview with John Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield and Alan Beith MP by Evan Davies on the Today programme. It wasn’t the interviewees who infuriated me, although Alan Beith’s argument that disestablishing the Church of England would lead to an aversion culture akin to “elf’n’safety” did come pretty close. What I found infuriating was the normally sensible Evan Davies’ repeated use of the phrase “militant secularism”.

I seem to remember being here before. Back in 2007, at the height of the rise of the so-called New Atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there was a similar counter push to present this new wave of assertiveness as sinister and extreme. I got particularly annoyed by a “balanced” (in the worst sense of the word) article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian which leant people claiming that “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube” a wholly uncritical platform.

With the tube bombing now a more distant memory no-one has quite gone as far as Colin Slee, the now dead former Dean as Southwark, did in that article. Nonetheless, over the past week or so we have seen a whole slew of attacks, partially provoked by the National Secular Society’s court action against Bideford Town Council and the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s MORI poll suggesting that many people who define themselves as Christian don’t actually agree with basic Christian tenets (only 28% of people who self-defined as Christian said they believed in the teachings of Christianity).

It would be far too generous to credit Baroness Warsi with coining the term “militant secularism” – nonetheless, alongside “secular fundamentalism”, it was a term she used in her recent speech at the Vatican.

For someone as absurd as her (remember this is the woman who made a direct appeal to get BNP voters to support her when she was a Conservative Party candidate) to make such a statement is one thing; for the BBC to use it as if it is a legitimate term is something else entirely. Because the implication takes us right back to Colin Slee and his quite offensive notion of equating vocally expressing a desire to see Church and State kept separate with a desire to wound and murder.

Although I actually got on better with Dawkins’ The God Delusion than I was expecting, I don’t actually agree with him on a number of issues. I think he goes too far when he claims that raising a child as a Christian is a form of “child abuse” (I appreciate the point he is making about the important of allowing children to make their own minds up, and there are certainly disreputable practices worthy of condemnation, but you could the same thing about any parent passing on their beliefs to their impressionable offspring as child abuse – and yet it is an inevitable aspect of raising a child). I’m not a fan of the National Secular Society either, which tends to take things too far, and unlike Clive Bone I doubt I would have been sufficiently outraged by the idea of prayers happening at the start of town council meetings to take the matter to court. But none of these people can be described as extremist, militant or fundamentalist in any way which reflects the meaning of these words. At worst you could call them perhaps strident (although they are typically softly spoken), imposing or intolerant – and even then it is hard to see how they could be described as particularly more strident than, say a Giles Fraser, let alone a George Carey.

They are people with a point of view who express it. Not only are they not bombing tube carriages, but they rarely even employ the tactics of public demonstration – which would make them rather less strident than the majority of politicians (of all colours), trade unions or democracy campaigners (guilty).

In fact, the only palpable quality that these people have which warrants a term like “militant” is that their views provoke a fury in their opponents in such a way that in almost every other sphere we would consider extraordinary. It is akin to the heightened atmosphere that I lived through during the AV referendum campaign, except that it isn’t time limited in the way that was. That in itself is a subject worthy of further investigation, but in short, it suggests that opponents of secularists are playing the man not the ball. Nor is it limited to the religious. Plenty of non-religious people appear to be sufficiently provoked by Richard Dawkins’ voice alone to use similar terminology. Nonetheless, the implication of using such terminology for such unextreme views is, as it always has been, to keep the holders of those views in their place and to warn off others who might share them from expressing them. It is a framing device designed to chill debate.

That’s entirely fair enough in public square, so long as people don’t mind having their bluff called. But, like I say, it is another thing when a public service broadcaster decides to pitch in for one side. When they do so, they cross the line from referee to player. The meaning of words matter. The BBC ought to be more careful.

UPDATE:

Two things I should add to this post. On a happy note, Evan Davis responded to it on Twitter, saying:

On a more sour note, the Sunday Telegraph have today done a hatchet job on Richard Dawkins and attacked him for, um, being the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of slave owners. I suggest you ignore the article itself and just read Dawkins’ own account of the interview.

Games Britannia and the great global gaming myth [UPDATED]

Benjamin Woolley’s BBC4 series Games Britannia has been a tantalising documentary thus far. For a political gamer such as myself, much of the first two episodes have been meat and drink. I have to admit to not knowing that Snakes and Ladders was adapted from an Indian game called Moksha Patamu which was all about karma and enlightenment and many of his insights are truly fascinating. To the surprise of no-one who reads this blog, I was delighted that it went into so much depth about how Monopoly formed from Elizabeth Magie’s Landlord’s Game, itself designed to educate the public about the need for land value taxation.

But after its section on Monopoly, this week’s episode started to lose its momentum. Cluedo rightly got name checked, but it quickly moved onto a narrative that I just don’t think is accurate. That is, that all the British games companies got bought up by Hasbro, the British games industry died a death and that only British games of note since the 1950s are a game called Kensington and the infamous War On Terror.

The most aggregious aspect of this narrative is that it completely ignores Games Workshop, now a publicly listed company and one which owns a shop in every major British city and town (as well as numerous outlets worldwide). Like a lot of gamers of a certain age, GW is something I feel quite ambivalent about as it seems to be more about making money than producing good games. But its empire, while not as vast as Hasbro’s, is undeniable, and now includes a significant number of computer games, novels and licensed boardgames (ironically, the best GW games aren’t actually published by them these days).

Quite why this company has managed to grip the imaginations of so many (mostly) adolescent boys for two generations is surely worthy of exploration. Yet the best Woolley could do was interview co-founder Steve Jackson (presumably we’ll be hearing more from Steve in the third episode which focuses on computer games and he gets to wax lyrical about Lara Croft – d’oh! Got mixed up between Steve and Ian Livingstone there) and show some old footage from a Games Day in 1982. This is a global leader and deserved better treatment, but it seemed to be a victim of a pre-formatted narrative.

The other aspect only touched upon, is the renaissance of boardgames over the past decade. Not in the UK, and not in the US, but in Germany. This gives a lie to the other part of Woolley’s narrative that simply doesn’t add up: games aren’t all US brands marketed around the world in the year 2009. In Germany, games like Settlers of Catan are huge – as big as Scrabble and Monopoly – and home grown. During the height of Lords of the Rings mania in the early noughties, you could find copies of the Lord of the Rings boardgame in every bookshop. Desgined by a German, Reiner Knizia, he is one of the world’s most successful game designers. And he is English by adoptive country. Surely the man deserved some credit. With no disrespect to the War on Terror guys meant at all, he is certainly a more important figure than them.

Reiner Knizia aside, the whole phenomena of why Germany has become such a focus of innovation is surely worth some study, as is their choice of subject matter. Unlike the US and UK tendency towards militaristic games, the Germans focus on concepts such as trade and economic development. And unlike Monopoly, which takes hours to play and leaves people out of the game twiddling their thumbs (if they haven’t already overturned the board in a fit of rage), German games are much more inclusive and concise. If you are going to do a documentary about the faltering fortunes of the British games industry in the 21st century, it seems ludicrous not to contrast it with the very different direction of the industry in our main 21st century adversary.

Germans don’t get completely ignored; the programme includes library footage of the massive Essen Games Fair in 2008 and Woolley does at least mention that a lot of games are designed by Germans these days. But this is a major and misleading gap in the narrative, and a very frustrating one. It is one thing to make a documentary about Britain’s gaming history; another to wallow in Anglo-Savon chauvanism. Will tomorrow’s episode rectify this? If it is to be all about computer games, I somehow doubt it.

UPDATE: Having seen the third and final part of Games Britannia, I stand a tiny bit corrected. This episode opens with the founding of Games Workshop, although it doesn’t explore anything that happened after 1976. It was a fascinating episode, rightly celebrating the UK computer game industry, and well worth watching. I still maintain however that there is an important gap in the narrative.

Biased Question Time? Bring it on!

It has to be said, the BNP has a point. The BBC did change the format of Question Time. It was almost all about the BNP’s policies, the audience was somewhat more ethnically diverse than the UK average.

Fair enough. Instead of pretending he got fair treatment, let’s be equally unfair to all the parties. Let’s have a similarly formatted show with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Throw in Nigel Farage, Caroline Lucas and the nationalist parties for good measure.

Of one thing I am absolutely certain: while they might flounder here and there, none of them will come across as badly as Griffin did last night. Not even Brown and his evasiveness. Not even Farage (although I suspect it will be a close run thing).

It would almost certainly make for better television than Question Time normally. Seeing how our political leaders face up to adversity is frankly more of a test than a programme attempting to maintain the semblance of balance. Frankly, right now I am struggling to come up with a downside.

Rolling news and the BNP

I’ve been watching the BBC’s news coverage. Since 5pm they have had one new story – Nick Griffin. This despite the fact that the Royal Mail strikes are ongoing, 6,000 Sri Lankans have been released from internment, another soldier has been killed in Afghanistan and Ethiopia has asked for food aid.

Why are the BBC so obsessed with, um, the BBC? In fairness to them, the UAF have been doing all they can to feed the media beast by protesting outside TV Centre, invading the building and helpfully coordinating parallel protests outside all the other BBC offices around the country.

Throughout the hour broadcast there was just one short two minute item which went into what Nick Griffin actually believed – pretty much everything else was talking heads and process. This isn’t news – it’s noise – and the only two memorable images to come out of it is a bunch of students being dragged around shouting something incoherent and silly about Nazis and a grinning, avuncular Nick Griffin entering the studios from the rear.

I think the BBC are right to have Griffin on Question Time. I’m a bit concerned at the format. In common with all political broadcasting in recent years it has become more soft focus, featuring celebrities and members of the commentariat to voice their often empty headed opinions. I am concerned that if the mix of questions is got wrong then Griffin will be let off the hook and allowed to express reasonable views on an assortment of fairly uncontroversial issues. I still think however that he is likely to get a harder time on the programme than I’ve seen any BBC interviewer give him – most notably Gavin Esler this afternoon.

But if every time he goes on a programme like this the UAF and the BBC decide to turn it into a day-long event then how he looks on the programme itself will be irrelevant. All people will remember is a big row which they can spin into their narrative about standing up to a wicked and venal establishment. Both organisations really need to consider their policies here and what exactly they are trying to achieve.

I’d rather have politicians interrogating the BNP than the BBC

The debate surrounding Nick Griffin’s imminent appearance on Question Time is hotting up. I’ve been intrigued by today’s events which, to cut a long story short, has resulted in Griffin suggesting that the army chiefs who have stood up to him today ought to be hanged.

It is an idiotic thing to day and something he will no doubt be challenged over on the programme on Thursday. And related to that, Sunny Hundal has some good suggestions of points that Griffin’s fellow panelists ought to challenge him with.

Here’s the thing though. I’m quite confident that Jack Straw, Chris Huhne, Bonnie Greer and even Sayeeda Warsi will be briefed up to the eyeballs and give Griffin a hard time. If anything, I’m worried that in their enthusiasm they may give the impression that he is being bullied. Sadly however, I don’t have the same confidence in the BBC to do the same, either before or afterwards.

The treatment meted out (or rather not) by Radio 1’s Newsbeat to Mark Collett and “Joey” perfectly encapsulates this. But generally, the BBC tends to talk up the chances of the BNP’s prospect and talk down quite why exactly they are “controversial”.

It isn’t just the BBC. The media generally tend to report the BNP as a phenomena without actually examining what they stand for in detail, leaving that to organisations such as the UAF, Hope not Hate and Nothing British.

My own encounter with Mark Collett was a case in point. A lifetime ago (well 2000-2002) I was the campaign organiser for the Leeds Lib Dems. Collett was standing in Harehills ward against one of our sitting councillors in a ward hotly contested by Labour. The Yorkshire Evening Post were obsessed with this, and convinced that Collett was about to march to victory. This despite the fact that the ward was only 60% white. They were putting him up on the front page every other day, screaming about an imminent BNP invasion. At one point, out of frustration, I bet a journalist that Collett would get less than 5% of the vote. Sadly we did not agree terms regarding money (I certainly needed it at the time): he got 3.8% of the vote (pdf).

The BNP are certainly a threat in Leeds now, having maneuvred themselves into the largely white parts of the borough. Their influx would have been slowed somewhat if only the media had been willing and able to keep some perspective.

So, far from condemning politicians who agree to go on Question Time, I’m hopeful that they will do a rather better job than the journalists who interview them – with less controversy – on a daily basis.

Public libraries: the final cut?

Camden Council have apologised to a self-employed dress-maker for not lending her a pair of scissors:

Lorna Watts, 26, a self-employed dressmaker, was turned down at Holborn Library in central London.

She said: “It’s ridiculous – public libraries are supposed to be supportive of small businesses.”

A spokeswoman for Camden Council, which runs the library, has apologised and said it would investigate the incident.

Ms Watts, from Islington, north London, said: “I asked why I couldn’t borrow a pair of scissors and she said, ‘they are sharp, you might stab me’.

“I then asked to borrow a guillotine to cut up my leaflets but she refused again – because she said I could hit her over the head with it!”

She added: “It’s absurd – there are plenty of heavy books I could have hit her with if I wanted to.

Am I the only one who thinks that not only was Camden right not to lend Ms Watts but that she should indeed be kept away from sharp implements in future? What is a self-employed dress-maker doing not owning any scissors? I’m not an expert in dress-making but don’t scissors play a fairly central role? Is that not why she can buy a pair of scissors and, being self-employed, not pay any tax on them?

I’m curious about how far this policy of libraries having to support small businesses is going to go. Perhaps small businesses should be allowed to take up a corner of the library to sell their wares? Maybe they should start buying cars, on the off chance that a small businessman might need to borrow one? I look forward to seeing Camden’s new policy with great interest.

The BBC, Jo Swinson, and a bloody great big stone wall

To recap, readers may recall that, two months ago (it really was that long), I got my knickers in a twist over an article in the Telegraph about Jo Swinson MP and her expenses. I – and others – complained to the Telegraph – as well as the Guardian and the BBC. We got a response from the Telegraph and a clarification from the Guardian, but nothing, nada, zip, from the BBC.

Last month, I complained again to the BBC, not just about the specific complaint but the way the BBC handles complaints. That full complaint can be found at the bottom of this piece. Again, for a month, I heard nothing. I phoned them last week to be told that the complaint had been referred and that they would do a little chasing. I was about to start escalating things when this afternoon I finally got a response from the BBC from a Mr Jolly (presumably not this one, and certainly not this one [or even this one]):

Mr Graham,

Thank you for your e-mails and please accept my apologies for the delay in responding. I’ll come to the issue of our complaints process shortly but first your substantive complaint. I have asked our political editor for a response, and this is his reply:

The piece you refer to was where we reported the “Claim” by the Telegraph and, where appropriate, the MP’s “Response”. The Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items. They said she had denied claiming for the eyeliner. We reported both those facts. They published the receipt on their website. Ms Swinson had told them that the eyeliner was not claimed for but had been on a receipt with other items claimed for. The Telegraph said only cosmetics appeared on that receipt.

The page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it. The redacted version of the expenses claims from Parliament fails to clear the matter up as the receipts in question are redacted so it is not possible to compare the value of the claim with the receipt submitted. There is no doubt about the tooth flosser however as Ms Swinson wrote that herself on to the claim form and it was not redacted when published.

As for our complaints procedure, the page you selected to make your complaint was the General Feedback webform. You should have received an automatic response which said: “We are unable to answer all e-mails individually due to the large amount of feedback we receive.” There is a separate form for complaints, which would have been a better place for your correspondence. This would then have ensured a reply. We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence. To have all e-mails going to one inbox where they are guaranteed a response would mean us replying to several hundred e-mails a day from our department alone. So, your e-mail was read, but it was felt that no action was needed to alter our story and no reply was sent.

Your second complaint was made via the BBC’s central complaints website and was forwarded to us the following day, and then passed on to the political team. I can only apologise for the delay in responding; that is down to us.

Best wishes,

Ian Jolly
News website

This, sadly, is the sort of response I thought I’d get. A terribly polite explanation about why I am wrong in every single way and should just learn to love Big Brother Auntie Beeb. I was further irked to read at the footer:

This e-mail (and any attachments) is confidential and may contain personal views which are not the views of the BBC unless specifically stated.
If you have received it in error, please delete it from your system.
Do not use, copy or disclose the information in any way nor act in reliance on it and notify the sender immediately.
Please note that the BBC monitors e-mails sent or received.
Further communication will signify your consent to this.

So not only is this email confidential, but if I reply to it I am “signifying my consent to this” – this is a fascinating example of Kafka-esque logic (don’t think about it too hard as it may give you a headache. Anyway, without further ado, I have sent them this response:

Dear Mr Jolly,

First of all, I have to say that I do not accept that this email is confidential. There is no reason for it, we are discussing things that are in the public domain and it would appear to go against the principles of the Freedom of Information Act which the BBC is subject to. I will be publishing your response, and my reply, on my blog.

Secondly, thank you for eventually replying to this. I would be happy to accept your apology if you could do me the courtesy of explaining a) why such an extraordinary delay and b) what specific action is being taken to prevent such delays in future.

Working backwards in your email, for the record I did NOT receive a response from your complaints website when I submitted either complaints. I did check my spam box at the time, and have just done so again. Have you checked to see if this facility is in fact working?

You state that “We would disagree that the options offered on the Newswatch page are confusing; it’s really for senders to determine the nature of their correspondence.” I was taken to that page upon clicking the option for “General comment For comments, criticism, compliments and queries about the BBC News website or coverage of an event or story.” At that stage, technically, I was asking for a correction; I wasn’t issuing a complaint.

Instead of merely asserting that you are right and I am wrong, what research have to carried out to ensure that people are not being confused by this? Are you willing to concede that if such research has not been carried out, it should be considered in the interests of providing a good public service?

In terms of the complaint itself, you state that “the page you refer to is a summary page and it is not possible to go into all this detail on it.” This may be so, but that is no excuse for inaccuracy. Your piece – and your response – IS inaccurate. You state that “the Telegraph said receipts submitted to the fees office by Ms Swinson, for reimbursement, included the items” but the Telegraph article (whatever other issues I may have with it) goes to great length to make it clear that NOT all the items on the receipts were submitted for reimbursement.

As for the argument that this subtle nuance could not be included due to the need for brevity, the Guardian article (which they have accepted WAS misleading, but for other reasons) stated: “Cosmetics included in her receipts” – that is strictly speaking accurate. You could amend your article along similar lines of:

“The Dumbartonshire East MP, the youngest in the Commons, submitted receipts to the Fees Office for a number of items including eyeliner, a £19.10 “tooth flosser” and 29p dusters.”

That is 29 words, as opposed to the original which was 26 words. If you are really worried that this makes it too long, you could remove “the youngest in the Commons” which is entirely irrelevant (and could be inferred as innuendo in any case) and would save you 5 words.

What I find most outrageous of all however is your refusal to even take action on changing the name of the constituency. There can be no argument here. Her constituency is called East Dunbartonshire or Dunbartonshire East. There is a seperate constituency called Dumbarton. Do you think it is unreasonable of me to surmise that given your failure to even make this correction, you aren’t taking this complaint seriously?

There are a number of questions there. However, given how long it has taken you to reply to my formal complaint, I feel it is reasonable that you answer them.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

Sadly, I think my chances of getting anything out of these – even for them to correct the name of the constituency – are pretty remote. There is a wider issue about how the BBC handles complaints. As a public service, it ought to be better than the typical newspaper; instead it is considerably worse. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and can feel a campaign percolating in my brain.

Finally, I should belatedly link to this article on journalism.co.uk, with full marks to Stephen Tall for taking Andrew Pierce to task.

On 23 May 2009, I wrote a complaint to the BBC regarding the above mentioned article using the BBC News’ Newswatch service (http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/newsid_3990000/newsid_3993900/3993909.stm). To date I have received no reply.

On the same day, I issued similar complaints to the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, both of which were replied to within seven days. I am therefore writing to complain about two matters:

a) The content of this specific web page.

b) The way in which the BBC handles comments and complaints.

THE CONTENT OF THIS WEB PAGE

See NOTE 1 regarding my original complaint, and NOTE 2 regarding my complaint to the Daily Telegraph. Since writing these complaints, I have had a reply from the Daily Telegraph who wrote the following:

“Thank you for your email of 27 May 2009, which was addressed to telegrapheditorial.

“While we note your comments, we believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers. The facts are not in dispute and Jo Swinson was given full opportunity to respond. Following publication we were contacted by a Liberal Democrat press officer on Ms Swinson’s behalf. This was only to draw our attention to part of a headline on the website version of the article, whichwas then modified as requested. The matter was resolved amicably and no other issue was raised.

“We are satisfied that there has been no breach of the PCC Code of Practice.

“Yours sincerely,

“Rhidian Wynn Davies
“Consulting Editor”

The Guardian also issued the following correction regarding their own coverage of the story (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2009/may/27/corrections-clarifications):

“In the category Cheapest claims, we stated without qualification that cosmetics were included in receipts submitted by Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire (23 May, page 6). Jo Swinson has denied claiming for these makeup items, telling the Telegraph, which originally reproduced one of her receipts, that the cosmetics appeared on a Boots receipt for other items she was claiming.”

The nature of my complaint to the Telegraph and Guardian was different to that of the BBC in that, while I assert the newspapers had both written misleading articles (something which the Guardian now acknowledges), neither of them had issued factual inaccuracies, the BBC article was factually wrong. To reiterate: the BBC story states that Jo Swinson claimed for “eyeliner, a £19.10 ‘tooth flosser’ and 29p dusters” while the original Telegraph article merely states that they appeared on receipts that were submitted. Indeed, the Telegraph makes it clear that not all the items on the receipts were claimed for.

I would still object to the BBC using the same precise wording in the Telegraph article as it is misleading (why is it newsworthy that an MP purchased makeup out of her own pocket). But the BBC, to date, have not even gone that far.

THE WAY THE BBC HANDLES COMPLAINTS

I have always been critical of the way the BBC handles complaints. At the top end of the scale it has programmes such as Points of View and Radio Four’s Feedback which appear to exist for no better reason than to provide BBC producers and opportunity to condescendingly explain why viewers and listeners are wrong to complain about their programmes.

Since the rise of the internet, the BBC has failed to use this opportunity to make itself more accountable and responsive to complaints, even ones of a purely factual basis.

To take my specific complaint as an example, as a minimum I should have right to the following basic service in terms of handling my complaint:

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If a direct email address is not an option, I should have been able to upload supporting documents.
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I should have received an acknowledgement that the message sent via the web form had been sent, including a copy of the original complaint for reference (I anticipated this on this occasion).
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I should be able to track the progress of the complaint online and be able to see if it is still being processed and what the conclusion has been.
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If any correction is made, the website in question should include an acknowledgement that it has been revised.

Most decent complaints services in the commercial sector provide this level of service as a matter of routine.

In my case, I have no evidence that my complaint has been dealt with at all. While the picture of Jo Swinson has been corrected (which I only mentioned as an aside), the fact that her constituency name has been wrongly listed has not. While I would content that all of my complaint is purely of a factual nature, the question of her constituency’s name is surely beyond doubt (for the record, there are three similarly named constituencies: Dunbartonshire East, Dunbartonshire West and Dumbarton)? I certainly have never received any acknowledgement.

It is not clear from the website whether I should use the “Newswatch” section in the first instance or use this service as a matter of course. I assumed that Newswatch should be used in the first instance while a formal complaint such as this should only followed if I was not happy with the initial response. The BBC website does not clarify this and it is most confusing. It would appear that complaints issued via “Newswatch” are not dealt with at all. I can only hope that complaints made via this route will be treated with more respect.

So, irrespective of the conclusion of my specific complaint, I am asking you to look into how the BBC might better handle complaints in future.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

NOTE 1

Original Complaint Submitted on 23 May 2009:

I am writing with regard to your section on MPs expenses, and specifically your coverage of Jo Swinson MP’s alleged claims (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8047390.stm#swinson_jo).

I have already written to the Telegraph about this story (see below). Your article goes significantly further than the Telegraph article. The Telegraph at all times are careful not to actually claim that Jo Swinson MP claimed cosmetics on expenses, merely that cosmetics had appeared on receipts that had been submitted to the Fees Office (nonetheless, I would still contest that this is highly misleading – and almost certainly mislead you).

By contrast, the BBC article baldly asserts – without any substantiation whatsoever – “The Dumbartonshire [sic] East MP, the youngest in the Commons, put a series of small claims on expenses, including eyeliner, a £19.10 ‘tooth flosser’ and 29p dusters. ”

It is wholly unacceptable of the BBC to republish – and indeed embellish – claims made by a commercial newspaper without seeking to substantiate them first. This isn’t journalism, this is engaging in a game of Chinese whispers. I would therefore ask that you publish a retraction to this story, together with an apology to Jo Swinson.

If I do not hear from you within seven days, I will take this matter further with the BBC Trust.

Yours faithfully,

James Graham

PS As an aside, I should point out that Jo Swinson’s constituency is called East Dunbartonshire and that photograph you are illustrating this story with is of Alan Beith and Diane Maddock.

NOTE 2

Complaint to Daily Telegraph, 23 May 2009:

Dear Mr Lewis,

With regards to your article “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” (page 6 of Daily Telegraph #47,888, Thursday 21 May 2009):

First of all, I would like to remind you of the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice – of which the Daily Telegraph professes to follow:

“Accuracy

“i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

“ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.”

The aforementioned article contains a number of misleading statements. A superficial reading of the article would lead the casual reader to assume that the record of Jo Swinson MP’s expenses claims demonstrate that she had claimed for makeup and dusters. However, a more careful reading reveals the following information:

1 that although receipts containing those items had been submitted, there is no actual evidence that these specific items had been claimed for. Indeed, this claim is explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself and no evidence has been brought forward to give us cause to doubt this whatsoever.

2 furthermore, that in at least one case the items which had been claimed for were clearly marked by an asterisk. In the case of the eyeliner and dusters this was not the case.

3 the claim that Jo Swinson is ‘known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance’ is entirely unsubstantiated and innuendo-laden. There is nothing remarkable about a Member of Parliament not wishing to look unkempt; indeed they would be open to criticism if they did so.

4 the headline epithet ‘makeover queen’ is equally unsubstantiated. No-one appears to have called Jo Swinson this apart from the article’s author, Rosa Prince, herself.

5 the page design is clearly intended to convey the idea that Jo Swinson has had numerous ‘makeovers’ – yet the photographs provided are merely pictures of her looking slightly different over a period of eight years.

The article, ostensibly about MPs’ expenses, is clearly intended to convey the impression that Jo Swinson has been buying makeup and charging taxpayers. Given that the article itself contains no evidence whatsover to indicate that this might be the case, the article is certainly misleading. Including a denial by Jo Swinson does not go anywhere near to correcting this as it works on the ‘no smoke without fire principle.’ Furthermore, nowhere in the article do you state Jo Swinson’s impeccable record in calling for MPs’ expenses to be published and for the system to be reformed.

The ultimate effect of this article is to smear an MP with a strong track record of reform with the same brush as some of the worst offenders. This is a complete distortion.

I must ask you to publish a retraction of the article, making it clear that there is no evidence that Jo Swinson MP has claimed the cost of her makeup on expenses. If I do not receive a response from you within seven days I will take the matter further with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

The Tribulations of Torchwood (SPOILERS!)

Unlike some, I’m neither a Torchwood hater or a “Rusty” hater (the habit of calling Russell Tiberius Davies “Rusty” is the Whovian equivalent of referring to a certain political party as “ZaNuLiebore”). The first season of Torchwood completely failed to live up to its potential, to be sure, but it had its moments and season two ironed out most of the creases. While the weeklong story format would certainly have lead to some changes, I was expecting pretty much more of the same.

How wrong could I be?

Torchwood: Children of Earth was a big meaty lump of good old fashioned paranoid and bleak British TV sci-fi, actually far more reminiscent of Quatermass than Doctor Who. Okay, it still had flashes of the old Torchwood’s silliness – episode two, with all its gratuitous nekkidness and concrete entombment, contained almost as much ridiculousness as the whole of season two combined – but much of that was to wrong foot the audience so it wouldn’t be prepared for the very different direction the series took for the rest of the week.

In fact, the way the writers played with expectations was a particularly clever aspect of the series. The first episode started off as Torchwood-as-usual. As the first series ended with the death of two key cast members, the impression created was that this story would be about how they rebuild the team. As such, we are introduced to Doctor Rupesh Patanjali – an obvious replacement for Owen Harper. Lois Habiba, who is clearly a dab hand with computers, is set up as the next Tosh. We’re introduced to Ianto and Jack’s respective families, which is very cosy. So far, so very conventional. But by the end of “Day One”, Dr Patanjali is dead and revealed as a deep cover government agent and the Torchwood Hub has been destroyed thanks to a bomb stuck in Jack’s ribcage (immortality has its drawbacks). It quickly becomes apparent that this story is going to be bigger and more climactic than anything we’ve seen before.

For all that though, while the scope was bigger, this didn’t mean bigger explosions (the biggest happened on Day One) and kewl CGI monsters. What we got instead was proper sci-fi, which is more about ideas than special effects. The bug eyed monsters are never fully seen and aren’t even given a proper name; all we get to see is the occasional claw jutting out from the mist and a particularly disturbing reveal about what had happened to the children given away in 1965.

Indeed, the monsters themselves, while unpleasant, aren’t the true villains of the piece. It turns out they are little more than bullying drug addicts. The real horror is how the people – and in particular the government – respond. What’s worse, that established rule of modern sci-fi – that with a bit of spunk and an inspiring leader, the human race can beat anything – is left wanting.

So it is that the cabinet sits down and casually discusses what criteria it is going to use to decide which children it sacrifices to the 456, leading to the immortal line “And if we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables good for?” (I got told off for laughing at that line too loud). We are left asking, would we do it differently? I’m sure everyone likes to think that they would have the moral fortitude to insist that the children had to be selected at random, but there is a certain cold logic to it (after all, could you really operate a ‘random’ policy in practice, and wouldn’t the lowest performing schools be the least likely to stand in the way of the military suddenly appearing and demanding their children? Somehow I doubt Eton would stand for it). A highly political drama (and it is surely no coincidence that Brian Green’s name remarkably similar to Gordon Brown, another Prime Minister famed for sitting back and letting other people take the blame), at one point the 456 asks – quite reasonably – why it is that the human race is so precious about giving up its children in this way while being entirely comfortable with daily infant mortality rate of 29,000. The first instinct of government is to give up the children of failed asylum seekers (no doubt the BNP are preparing a press release right now to denounce the BBC’s low estimate of just 62 failed asylum seeking children in the UK at any given time).

Meanwhile, Captain Jack decides that he won’t stand for it, confronts the 456 threatening revolution and… gets Ianto killed in the process. By the end of the story, Jack has thoroughly debased himself and is forced to sacrifice his grandson in a bid to save all the other children. His only recourse is to run away, off planet. To top it all, the most cold-hearted, nasty member of the cabinet ends up replacing the Prime Minister (Britain in the Whoverse seems to go through Prime Ministers on an almost weekly basis). Have you ever seen a programme on the telly that was so utterly anti-heroic?

A lot of people have been very critical of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who output. Some of it, it has to be said, is fair. Davies has two writers rummaging around inside him. One comes up with grandiose stories that end up becoming schmaltzy, soggy messes such as last years’ season finale. But when he is stricter with himself, Davies is capable of pulling off superb drama such as Midnight and Turn Left. Torchwood: Children of Earth was also quite reminiscent of The Second Coming, his pre-Doctor Who collaboration with Christopher Eccleston (the last good thing I’ve seen on ITV and also an example of event television that ran on consecutive nights). I’m a big fan of Stephen Moffatt but while he has proven his ability to do “creepy” he hasn’t thus far shown much of a “dark” side. For every Blink there have been two “everybody lives!” By contrast, even in something as seemingly bland as the Kylie Minogue Christmas Special, Davies set the story up so that all the “good” people died and the “bad” people lived. If Moffat’s Doctor Who lacks this edge, it will be much the poorer for it.

Back to Torchwood, what next? Well, opinion seems to differ on whether they have effectively killed the series or set it up for an exciting reboot. Notwithstanding the fact that bad ratings would almost certainly have killed it, I was left thinking they are planning on the latter option. They even had a bit of foreshadowing: just what was that incident that Ianto referred to “150 years ago” that Jack was somehow mixed up in that was apparently proof that the 456 should back off? But essentially the series will have to start again from scratch, with a new Hub and a new cast (Lois Habiba will presumably be back – and Johnson?). And I really want to find out what is up with the Weevils, and what has happened for Captain John – and Billis? One thing is clear: from here it can’t go back to business as usual. I, for one, really want to see that series.

UPDATE: I finally got around to reading Daddy Richard’s take on the series. Some similar conclusions but much more depth: Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five

Jo Swinson and those complaints

Rob Parsons commented:

OK, I have a nice letter from the Telegraph. What now?

It looks as if Rob got the same letter I did, which read as follows:

Thank you for your email of 27 May 2009, which was addressed to telegrapheditorial.

While we note your comments, we believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers. The facts are not in dispute and Jo Swinson was given full opportunity to respond. Following publication we were contacted by a Liberal Democrat press officer on Ms Swinson’s behalf. This was only to draw our attention to part of a headline on the website version of the article, whichwas then modified as requested. The matter was resolved amicably and no other issue was raised.

we are satisfied that there has been no breach of the PCC Code of Practice.

Yours sincerely,

Rhidian Wynn Davies
Consulting Editor

The Telegraph response is as innuendo-laden as the original article. “We believe that the above article was written and in a way that will be readily understood by our readers” – yeah, I believe that too. Just as journalists took it to mean that she had claimed cosmetics on expenses (without actually saying so), I’m sure the general readership drew the same conclusion. And as for “the facts are not in dispute” -that’s only because the issue is not the facts but the way they were presented. More to the point, the fact that they were reported at all given that the story itself contains no explicit allegations of wrongdoing, merely the suggestion of the possibility of it.

To answer Rob’s question, and having spoken to a number of people about this, by response is a grudging “not much.” My understanding is that Jo herself is wary of taking the matter further on the reasonable grounds that a poor ruling by the PCC, whose independence is questionable at the best of times, would simply make things worse. She has a point. It is hard to see where to go from here given that the Telegraph are unlikely to admit any wrongdoing and ultimately have taken steps, however cynical, to stay on the right side of defamation law.

The response from the Guardian was rather more positive. In case you missed it, they published the following in their corrections and clarifications column on 27 March:

In the category Cheapest claims, we stated without qualification that cosmetics were included in receipts submitted by Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire (23 May, page 6). Jo Swinson has denied claiming for these makeup items, telling the Telegraph, which originally reproduced one of her receipts, that the cosmetics appeared on a Boots receipt for other items she was claiming.

Perhaps this isn’t the apology Jo deserves, but it is at least an acknowledgement that they had no factual basis for the story.

Finally, there is the matter of the BBC. I wrote to them on the same day as the Telegraph and the Guardian yet to date have had no response whatsoever. The offending article is still there. They have corrected her picture, but have not even corrected the name of her constituency which surely even the most arrogant of journalist would have to accept is beyond dispute.

The BBC case is actually more serious than the Telegraph one. Where the Telegraph have published innuendo, the BBC have made a specific allegation despite not even having access to the original expenses records that the Telegraph have access to. They haven’t responded in a timely manner. They are bound by law to be impartial and they are funded out of the public purse.

So the next step, which I will be doing tomorrow, is to issue a formal complaint to the BBC Trust. Watch this space.