Tag Archives: jo-swinson

Channel 4 News’s problem with women

Channel 4 News(Disclosure: I am friends with both a number of the women who have made allegations against Lord Rennard and Jo Swinson.

Channel 4 News’s interview with Sarah Teather summed up the misgivings I have had with its coverage of the whole Chris Rennard scandal.

Ostensibly about the coalition’s increasingly harsh line against immigration and welfare, on which Sarah Teather is outspoken, interviewer Matt Frei midway switched topic entirely to instead focus on the Lib Dems’ “women problem”, attempting to link her experience within the party with those women who have made allegations about Chris Rennard of sexual harassment. Two weeks ago it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had dropped its investigation into Rennard’s conduct.

Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman of course broke this story earlier in the year, and so I suppose it is understandable that they feel a sense of ownership of it, but it is hard to see how ambushing Sarah Teather in this way is justifiable. She had agreed to appear to discuss immigration policy, something which has implications for far more people (including women of course) than the Lib Dems’ internal culture. Teather’s sacking last September served to highlight Nick Clegg’s failure to include enough women in his own frontbench team, but there is nothing to suggest that Teather was sacked in any way because of her gender. It is equally hard to see how, had Teather been a man, Matt Frei would have spent half the interview wanting to discuss this issue at all.

That double standard has, sadly, undermined Channel 4 News’s coverage throughout. Going right back to Cathy Newman’s initial piece, it was clear that Channel 4 News had identified Jo Swinson and Ros Scott as their main targets, despite the fact that the allegations focused around two complaints made to Bridget Harris’s manager and the Chief Whip Paul Burstow. Newman continued to focus on Swinson in her subsequent reports and Telegraph columns.

Now, it is true that Swinson was the equalities spokesperson at the time the allegations were put to her. However, this is largely irrelevant because the role of a spokesperson is to focus on policy matters, not on personnel matters. We are also talking about someone who, in 2007, had been an MP for a grand total of two years and had just been sacked by the then leader Menzies Campbell as the shadow Scottish secretary. I have no doubt that neither Jo or the women making these allegations made no mistakes in their conduct but regardless of how she did respond, one thing that is not in doubt is that when the allegations were first made, she lacked the authority to do anything about them. The people who did have that authority at the time – Paul Burstow, (then president) Simon Hughes and (then leader) Menzies Campbell – entirely escaped media scrutiny.

Channel 4 News, and especially Cathy Newman, have consistently applied a double standard in this story, whereby the implication has been that in issues concerning sexual harassment, women should be expected to behave to a higher standard than men. That theme came up repeatedly in Newman’s coverage, and Matt Frei returned to it yet again this week. It is a repellent world view that ultimately undermines both men and women; if scandals such as this are to avoid getting dragged into a blame game then the focus needs to be on the people with authority at the time and what they did; not, as the media likes to play it all to often, on whoever knew anything regardless of what position they were in to do anything about it.

In terms of the allegations themselves, I declined to blog about it at the time, but following the Metropolitan Police decision I feel the need to state for the record that I don’t personally doubt the integrity of any of the women who made allegations against Chris Rennard; nor can I understand what possible ulterior motive they might have for making them. I’ve known about these allegations for years and offered to give a formal statement to the police, but they declined my offer (not entirely surprisingly as all I could really do is corroborate dates and facts; I’m not a primary witness). I didn’t decide to leave the Lib Dems for any specific reason, but it is fair to say that this debacle was one of the various ones which lead to my disenchantment of it, inexplicably linked as it is to the narrow campaigning focus which Rennard represents.

In fairness to the party however, since these allegations were made public and Nick Clegg’s initial appalling mishandling of it, the party has done much to pull itself out of the quagmire it had got itself into; much credit for that must go to Tim Farron. And even after the Met decision, it has been made quite clear that the party is continuing to take those decisions seriously.

Government brainwashing works – and it’s for your own good

Earlier today, a tweet by Ellie Sharman about a two year old Liberal Vision article almost prompted by to write about its wrongheadedness before I realised that I had already done so. That was that, I thought, until I read this article about how the beleaguered Health Minister had been forced to restore his cuts to the public health campaign budget after evidence emerged that the cuts had actually lead to an increase in flu deaths, as well as a decline in things like people joining programmes to give up smoking.

What does this have to do with airbrushing? Well, for me it highlights a pretty fundamental point: advertising works. Andrew Lansley has at least given us a bit of evidence we can now draw on in future to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.

It is the fact that advertising works that sums up why I am not a libertarian or classical liberal. Brains can be manipulated and even fooled; we aren’t rational beings. The libertarian assertion that if you just took state action out of the equation, people would act rationally simply isn’t backed up by any credible evidence. And of course they end up tying themselves up in knots attempting to prove it.

So it was that in his Liberal Vision article two years ago, Tom Papworth found himself implying that “airbrushing” doesn’t manipulate young women and that to assert that it did so was to suggest that it does is to brand them as “stupid”. The idea that people can be manipulated on a psychological level and not be cretinous does not sit well with libertarians. Yet the simple fact is that if psychology did not have a large part to play in advertising, it would not have evolved in the dramatic way that it did over the course of the 20th century, and people would not now be lamenting the delay of Season 5 of Mad Men.

When the government produces an advert designed to encourage you to give up smoking, it is explicitly attempting to manipulate you. That doesn’t sit terribly well with classical liberals, yet why is it such a dreadful thing for a democratically elected and ultimately accountable government to be doing it but not a commercial company which is only accountable to its shareholders?

Psychology and neuroscience represent massive challenges for liberalism which it can’t afford to ignore. It isn’t that the principles at the heart of liberalism are flawed, just that their real world application are inadequate. This is what the new liberals realised at the start of the 20th century and it is something we must be continually alive to. Yet there remains a strand which defiantly refuses to acknowledge this and wraps itself in the easy slogans and notions about rationality of the Victorian Age.

As a result of the government spending millions of pounds encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles, people’s lives – and thus liberty – are improved in a tangible, measurable way. It is right that governments continue to do so, notwithstanding the fact that there is a real debate to be had over how far it should go. It is equally right that politicians such as Jo Swinson raise issues about advertising and body image with initiatives such as the Campaign for Body Confidence; again notwithstanding the fact that some of the conclusions they draw are liable to be problematic. To suggest that there is some simple, magic liberal litmus test which we can apply to difficult areas such as this is the ultimate act of illiberalism.

Credit where it’s due

datacameron

The Evening Standard and Liberal Vision have been patting Guido Fawkes on the back for observing the uncanny similarity between David Cameron’s latest airbrushed photo and Lt Cmdr Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Only one slight problem with this: Guido actually got the idea from me as I tweeted this observation over a week ago.

Back in the day, Guido used to run a regular feature on diarists who regularly ripped off bloggers. These days of course, Guido is feted by the mainstream media. Fascinating how times have changed.

It is also worth observing that the substance of Angela Harbutt’s blog post is that Jo Swinson is a hypocrite for criticising adverts with airbrushed images of women whilst not criticising Cameron for this blatant act of fakery. Wrong again, I’m afraid, as any twitter search will tell you.

UPDATE: Guido has issued a carefully worded non-denial denial and accused me of “bloggers narcisim” – possibly the most self unaware statement ever uttered on the internet. Just for the record, I don’t expect or demand an acknowledgement – I’m just putting the facts out there. People can draw their own conclusions.

And the blog post of 2009 is…

Parliament, The Telegraph and Jo Swinson. Gosh! Thanks a lot. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Obviously, I dedicate the awards to Jo herself and would like to use this opportunity to say fuck you Daily Telegraph (who at least respond to complaints promptly) and up your arse BBC (who don’t).

Congratulations too to Jo for winning the “Best use of blogging/social networking/e-campaigning by a Liberal Democrat” award for her tweeting of Prime Ministers’ Question Time, to Mark Thompson for winning Best New Blog and to Slugger O’Toole for winning Best Non-Liberal Democrat Blog.

On a personal note I was especially pleased to see Brian Robson win the Tim Garden Award for Best Blog by a Liberal Democrat Holding Public Office. I personally recruited Brian to the Liberal Democrats almost exactly nine years ago today at the Leeds Universtiy Union Freshers’ Fair. I seem to recall that Brian was especially attracted to the Lib Dems’ commitment to scrap tuition fees. How time flies.

Finally, congratulations to the Blogger of the Year, Costigan Quist for Himmelgarten Cafe. Costigan couldn’t be at the awards because he has to look after the caff that he runs (obviously). In these harsh economic times, it is useful to remember that not all Liberal Democrats can afford to take a week off work to swan around Bournemouth.

Thanks a lot to Lib Dem Voice for organising the event, and commiserations to those who didn’t win. But please: let’s not use Harry’s Bar a third time? It’s a bloody awful venue.

Real Women and Policy

The Lib Dem womens’ policy paper has now been published so the ‘airbrushing’ debate can now move away from what is being said in the media and onto what the policy paper actually says.

The paper has a total of 40 policy proposals, many of which are already policy. The two that have garnered media attention are:

21. Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules. We would work with industry regulators and professionals to find ways to ensure that children have access to more realistic portrayals of women (and men) in advertising

22. Help women make informed choices by requiring adverts to clearly indicate the extent to which digital retouching technology has been used to create overly perfected and unrealistic images of women

The first thing that should be noted is that nowhere do the words “airbrushing”, “Photoshop” or “ban” appear. The clauses are much less prescriptive than last week’s hype might have lead us to believe.

I still have two significant problems with these clauses however. Firstly, the paper provides no evidence whatsoever to convince us that this would be an effective remedy. Not even a footnote (there are footnotes and anecdotes for other proposals).

Secondly, it fails to explain why advertising is being singled out here when the magazines that such adverts are to appear in are not. There does not currently exist a regulatory body to control what can appear on the front page of magazines. All the time they continue to pump out idealised images of women (and they do that because it sells) then why get worried about what appears on page 92?

When you break it down it appears like a fairly meaningless sop. Having read the paper I don’t think it gets to the heart of the problem at all. As such, I fear that this is selling short the very women and girls that the paper is seeking to protect.

For completeness, I should point out here that the paper does have a number of other proposals when it comes to body image:

23. Encourage the British Fashion Council and design schools to ensure students are taught and judged on their ability to cut to a range of sizes and body types
24. The fashion industry should implement all the recommendations in the Model Health Inquiry, including introducing model health certificates for London Fashion Week
25. Require cosmetic surgery advertising and literature to give surgery success rates by collecting and publishing Patient Reported Outcome Measures. This would assess whether the surgery had the desired effects
26. Ensure age-appropriate modules on body image, health and wellbeing, and media literacy are taught in schools

23 and 24 are surely unobjectionable as they are simply urging best practice and not even regulatory. For non-libertarians, 25 seems a pretty common sense measure, aimed at providing people with useful information. 26 is all well and good, but I have to say I question the wisdom of adding to the already long list of things we make teachers cover in schools; I thought we were demanding a bonfire of the curriculum as recently as March this year? Either way, I am sceptical how a lesson one afternoon in school is going to achieve much.

In short, I can’t help but feel this is just scratching the surface of what is a much more complex issue.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has just written this:

[The main problem the Green Party faces is] it’s open and democratic approach to policy-making in which any member can put forward a policy, call for vote and get the policy accepted into the party’s manifesto if it prove popular with members too readily militates against evidence-based approaches to policy making, particularly in a party that typically attracts considerably more than its fair share of proponents of pseudoscience.

He’s writing about the Green’s anti-science policies but before we get to smug about their often loony ideas we should pause for thought about how the Lib Dems are often subject to the same forces. I don’t agree with Unity and Martin Robbins that the problem is democratic policy making processes; Labour has torn up its democratic structures but its policies are if anything less evidence-based than the Lib Dems’. But people need to be wary of voting at party conference in favour of “nice things” and demand a more rigorous approach. It is notable that the party’s Federal Policy Committee has failed to demand this itself in this instance. Perhaps this is a good example of how the policy paper model, imposed during the merger period by the SDP wing, doesn’t particularly work very well. Certainly the rules about policy papers having to have specific word limits works against a more evidence-based approach.

Airbrushing: will Jo Swinson blind us with science?

Having been away for a week, I didn’t comment on the proposals to ban the airbrushing of models which will be debated at the Lib Dem conference next month.

The real problem about commenting on this is that we have yet to see the full proposals. The Lib Dem blogosphere, particularly the Libertarians, love to get terribly exercised at the prospect of banning things. It’s just not liberal! we are constantly reminded, or more precisely, it is Fundamentally Illiberal (complete with scary looking capitalisation). Personally however, I tend to take a more evidence-based approach before banging on about John fucking Mill (I think the Lib Dems should produce their own God Trumps inspired Liberal Trumps, with the Mill card always winning. It would save a lot of time). Philosophy is always reached for, psychology or sociology almost never. It is as if the last 100 years never happened. More to the point, it is as if dualism was never critiqued. Frankly, if we did all live in a state of complete seperation of mind and body, the libertarians would have a point. The fact that time and again we learn that environmental factors affect behaviour is a problem they have never come to terms with.

With all that said, I remain somewhat sceptical of this proposed policy. What exactly are we going to ban, for example? When Jo Swinson talks about “air brushing” is she talking literally or figuratively? If the idea is some tightening up of existing advertising guidelines, including a general prohibition against promoting an ideal body image to children, then I would look a lot more favourably to it it than a blanket ban on “airbrushing.” There is a real danger of confusing the medium for the message here. Is it really okay to promote images of “perfect” bodies so long as they are produced with the use of lighting and lenses rather than Photoshop?

The proposed rules about advertising aimed at adults sound, if anything, more difficult to regulate. If augmentation is okay so long as it is admitted to, how big will the disclaimer have to be? 8-point text where you won’t notice? A fag packet-proportioned 50%? Will it just be beauty products targeted or all advertising? Will film posters, Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives, have to carry the same disclaimers?

But fundamentally, where is the evidence behind any of this? Thus far, the only statistic I’ve seen anywhere is a 47% increase in under-18s admitted to hospital for anorexia or bulimia treatment. That is clearly bad, but is it a spike or a trend? And what evidence is there that such a ban would change behaviour?

In the case of restrictions on smoking there was a lot of evidence produced, over decades. You might quibble about some of it. You might argue that we went too far, or that we acted too slowly. But the debate was evidence-led. What I haven’t seen thus far is anything to suggest that a ban like this would achieve anything. What would an airbrushing ban achieve that won’t be immediately be undone by all those Barbies, Bratz and Disney Princesses? You don’t need photographs to sell fantasy to children (or indeed anyone).

I’m not against bans in principle. If a judicious ban or restriction here and there can help people exercise their own personal judgement instead of being influenced by a bombardment of propaganda, then in principle it is the only liberal thing to do. But it has to be evidence-based and in most cases I’m not convinced there really is that much evidence out there at the moment. I have yet to be convinced that the new Lib Dem policy paper is going to make a case for restricting “airbrushing” – here’s hoping that it contains, to quote the immortal words of Jennifer Aniston, a pretty damn meaty “science bit.”

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:

*

If a direct email address is not an option, I should have been able to upload supporting documents.
*

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).
*

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.
*

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

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.

Jo Swinson and The Telegraph: complaints, complaints, complaints

Thanks a lot to everyone for all the positive feedback I’ve had about my article this morning. By happenstance, Alix Mortimer has just asked:

Fucking disgusting. Can we get them on article 1 (accuracy) of the PCC code?

The answer, at least in my view, is yes, which is why I’ve just spent the last couple of hours writing letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC. And I would ask you to do the same.

First off, the Telegraph. You can contact them via this page (under “What does your enquiry relate to?” select “Editorial”). My letter reads as follows:

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 BBC’s contact page is slightly harder to find, but can be accessed here. I wrote them the following:

jo090520bbcI 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.

Finally, the Guardian are the easiest to contact of all. The Reader’s Editor page is here. I wrote them the following:

Dear Ms Butterworth,

I am writing with regard to your table on page 6 of the Guardian dated 23 May 2009. On this you include a section “cheapest claims – claims that Britain mocked”. The first item you list is “Jo Swinson: Cosmetics included in her receipts. Because she’s worth it.”

In doing so, the Guardian repeats a misleading slur that was published in the Telegraph on Thursday 21 May. On careful reading, the Telegraph article does not accuse Jo Swinson MP of claiming cosmetics on expenses, provides no evidence whatsoever to indicate that she had and the fact that she might have done has been explicitly denied by Jo Swinson herself (link). It is therefore a non-story and I have written to the editor of the Telegraph calling for him to retract it (see below).

I note that the Guardian has chosen its words in an equally selective manner, merely saying that the cosmetics were ‘included in her receipts’ not that they were actually claimed for. Unlike the Telegraph however, you do not even allow Jo Swinson a right to reply.

That the Guardian should choose to pilliory a female MP for the crime of purchasing cosmetics is particularly galling. I was under the impression that the Guardian regarded itself as a champion of feminist causes. It is certainly tempting to join in with the anti-politics throng at the moment, but that does not mean accepting every article published by the Telegraph is accurate or free of pursuing a regressive political agenda; it certainly does not mean you have to uncritically go along with explicit misogyny.

I am writing to request that you issue a retraction of this report and an apology to Jo Swinson. If I do not get a response within the next seven days, I will take this matter up with the Press Complaints Commission.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

While I hope reprinting these letters here will be useful, if you complain please do so in your own words – it will be much more effective that way.

As an aside, the Telegraph appear to have completely lost the plot. Dizzy reports:

Nadine Dorries has seen the blog part of her website instantly taken down after she made allegations against the owners of the Telegraph Group, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay.

Lawyers acting for the Barclay brothers, Withers, instructed the takedown to Acidity via mail last night, citing the Acceptable User Policy. The takedown will be bolstered by the Godfrey vs Demon precendent, where an order can be made and it will be done instantly.

This is quite remarkable behaviour. It is one of the few things they could have done to make me feel even a twinge of sympathy for Nadine Dorries. Furthermore, this isn’t just a nasty bit of bullying by a precious publisher to a blogger, but to a high profile (some would argue over-exposed) MP. This is going to be big news tomorrow.

What an utterly stupid act of fuckwittery.

Parliament, The Telegraph and Jo Swinson

winner-best-ld-blog-postOne of the advantages of being effectively out of action for the past month is that because I haven’t been able to even attempt to cover the expenses row, blow-by-blow, I can now afford to take a somewhat wider view. It has been a fascinating couple of weeks, revealing not just how Parliament works but how the media does too.

Were the Telegraph right to publish these expenses details given the fact that they were due to be published this summer anyway? On balance, I’m afraid I think they were. To start with, I am deeply sceptical that the fees office had any intention of actually publishing in July. They’ve been buying time for literally years now and I have no doubt they would have sought even more time then. Secondly, it was clear that they were falling over themselves to be helpful to MPs with embarrassing claims they wanted to cover up. By fighting the FOI requests every step of the way, ultimately the Parliamentary authorities have made the problem worse. To that extent then, the House of Commons as collective body, deserves everything it is getting right now.

But the problem with the data being in the hands of a single newspaper is that everything we get is transmitted via its own idiosyncratic political position. And the problem with this being an example of chequebook journalism, as opposed to the investigative journalism of people like Heather Brooke, is that the paper has to make good on its investment – and that means extending the coverage and the ramping up the salaciousness of it as much as possible.

In terms of the Telegraph’s politics, it has always and always will be the Conservative Party in print. They couldn’t have got away with just publishing the Labour and Lib Dem expenses details, but it is interesting how they have portrayed the Tory ones. The types of claim broadly fit into three categories. The first, which the Labour MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about mortgages, “flipping” and capital gains. They played the system to make personal profit. The second, which the Conservative MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about moats, duck islands and country piles. Literally, they fit into a different class. The third, which the Lib Dem MPs exposed tend to fit into, are about using the system to get the odd perk, be it a trouser press, an orthopedic chair or a packet of chocolate Hob Nobs.

They category that has captured the public imagination has been the second one. Hogg’s moat has achieved iconic status within just a few days. Yet the Telegraph has conspiciously attempted to portray all three as morally equivalent at all times. It held off publishing the details of Tory MPs for as long as possible, meaning that when they were exposed, Labour had already been buffetted for the previous five days.

I happen to think the house flipping and profiteering is as bad as the showering of cash onto country estates, but the third category most certainly is not. There is no question that the Conservatives have an image problem here and the Telegraph and the Tory press have done all that they can to mitigate this. They have been falling over themselves to portray Cameron’s leadership on the issue as dynamic and forthright despite the fact that, when you look at it in detail, it turns out he isn’t particularly interested in reform at all. He insists that his richer MPs must buy themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves but is keen for MPs to be able to continue to profiteer via the ACA. He wants a snap general election, something which would have the effect of scapegoating a handful of MPs in marginal constituencies whilst giving the ones in safe seats renewed terms of office.

A general election now, with the Tories still insisting that (aside from a bit of fiddling), the status quo must prevail, would be a white wash. Yet this is the Telegraph line, too. Fortunately, the Telegraph can’t entirely have its own way and the debacle has revived calls for real democratic reform. It may yet turn out that they have created a monster that they can’t actually control. We can hope.

But the other side that irritates me is the salaciousness of it all. It has started to stop resembling journalism and to start looking somewhat more like expenses porn, designed to titilate rather than inform. What has developed out of this debate over the past couple of weeks is a mood that any expense claim is bad. This is deeply pernicious. Clearly an inner London MP does not need to furnish a second home, but an MP representing a constituency further afield must (this is one of the reasons why I’m sceptical of the calls to scrap the expenses system altogether and replace it with an increased salary – great if you are a single man and have no real intention of representing your constituents, hard cheese if you aren’t). Are we really going to get precious about someone having a telly in their second home? The agenda of the Telegraph has been to convince you that yes, yes you should.

And finally, there is the innuendo. This is the single worst aspect of the Telegraph coverage. Many of the stories over the past couple of weeks have been rooted in the fact that the Telegraph have been able to get away with “X submitted a receipt which included Y” – thus implying that X claimed for Y whilst knowing that if they did say that they would be open to libel. Yet the suggestion is out there and before you can blink, half a dozen other media agencies are repeating the claim as a matter of public record. A lot of the stories they have covered have turned out to reveal nothing more than minor errors in paperwork, but that hasn’t stopped them from smearing everyone with the same brush.

The print version of the Telegraph article on Jo Swinson

The single worst example of the Telegraph coverage can be found in their story about Jo Swinson this week (declaration: Jo is a friend of mine, but I don’t accept this makes a word of what I have to say any less true). The online version of this story has been sanitised by the online editors, who were presumably too ashamed to publish the print version unchanged. The print version has the headline: “Tooth flosser, eyeliner and 29p dusters for the makeover queen” and contains no less than nine seperate photographs of Jo taken at various stages over the last eight years.

There are so many dreadful aspects of this story, I don’t know where to start. Let’s start with the misogyny. What Jo is being attacked for here is for wearing makeup. The epithet “makeover queen” implies someone who has had a lot of makeovers, yet Jo has never appeared in one of those articles about MPs getting glammed up or anything like that and doesn’t do the daytime television circuit. The article states that Jo is “known in Westminster for the attention she pays to her appearance” yet I can find no media story which has remarked on this before this piece. Google “Jo Swinson” and what you find are lots of stories about her campaigns against excessive packaging, winning local constituency battles such as the one to stop a new prison being named after one of her local towns and the leading role she has played in fighting for Parliament to be more accessible and transparent. Is she a slob? Hardly, but since when did not being one become worthy of criticism?

Secondly, the article is complete, unmitigated bollocks from beginning to end. Read it closely and you will find that the Telegraph isn’t stating she claimed for an eyeliner or feather dusters, merely suggesting that she might have done. There is an irony there in that if Jo had not issued them with as full a statement to act as a counter-balance, their legal team might have blocked the story on the grounds that it would have been clearly defamatory. This paragraph is particularly revealing:

At one point, she submitted a Tesco receipt for £22.67 that appeared to show that the MP or an aide went to the trouble of putting an asterisk next to three items, totalling £5.75, for which she intended to claim — a £1.75 chopping board, a “food saver” for £1.50 and a £2.50 sieve.

In other words, what she did claim for were basic cooking utensils. Nowhere in the article at any stage does it claim that a single item of makeup was claimed for – or even ‘asterisked.’ She is being criticised here, not for claiming an inappropriate item on expenses, but for allowing an inappropriate item to appear on a receipt.

jo090523guardianJo has of course rebutted all this, but that hasn’t prevented other media outlets from reporting it as fact, including the BBC (the cost of Jo’s makeup might not come out of your pocket, but the cost of repeating bullshit claims about her most certainly does – they can’t even be bothered to get her photo right) and the Guardian (in print but again, not online – funny how newpapers are afraid to put their misogynist crap on the web for all to see).

After a fortnight, this story has mutated from one about ministers playing the housing market at taxpayer expense to barefaced sexist lies being spread about one of the Commons’ champions of reform and transparency. Yes, the Telegraph have done democracy a service by breaking this story but never forget that they ultimately represent the forces of darkness.

UPDATE: I’ve written letters of complaint to the Telegraph, the BBC and the Guardian and would urge you to do the same.