The death of debate


by Sunny
22nd September, 2006 at 5:51 pm    

BBC chairman Michael Grade yesterday wrote an article for MediaGuardian.co.uk arguing why it was important for the BBC to remain impartial and how it does that. The article was a bit brief, as can be expected, and I’m not sure its critics would be convinced with such a small piece.

I am willing to accept the BBC tries its hardest to remain impartial as a whole. Or more impartial than its competitors at least – though some would no doubt disagree.

There are critics who see the BBC’s licence fee as a regressive poll tax and would rather leave everything to market forces. Then there are critics who view its output (news in particular) as biased towards or against the government or liberals. A whole litany of names including the Bolshevik/Blair/Baghdad/Beirut/Bzzzzionist Broadcasting Corporation have proliferated (OK, I made the last one up).

I can sympathise with some of the latter sentiment. Despite being a firm supporter of the BBC, taking into account all the insults that entails, I, too, am frequently driven to frustration at the Beeb’s output.

The problem isn’t that the BBC is insufficiently impartial, but rather it is not being informative enough. The corporation, in a desperate bid to keep its audience, is contributing to the “death of debate” (as a fellow blogger called it) by seeking to entertain rather than inform its audiences, even in current affairs and news.

Let me elaborate. When faced with a conflict such as Israel / Palestine, or more recently Israel / Lebanon, rather than dedicating a sufficient amount of time to explain the complexity of the issues involved with well thought-out pieces followed by an informed discussion – we get entertainment.

We get to see a “debate” with two commentators on extreme opposing ends in the studio let loose on each other. One may be hooked by watching people shout at each other but one is definitely not left much wiser.

Rather than taking the example of Fox News, Grade is probably paying more heed towards CNN, which popularised this form of cheap political programming through its programme Crossfire, where two presenters on opposite sides of the political spectrum prodded and harassed their guests.

The series became infamous when the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart came on and accused them of “destroying America” because of their combative style. I wouldn’t go so far as saying Michael Grade (or director of news Helen Boaden) are destroying Britain but they are nevertheless contributing to the demise of informed television news and debate.

To take another example, one only has to count the number of times Anjem Choudhary and Abu Izzadeen, from the now banned Al-Ghuarabaa sect, have been invited across its current affairs programmes. The Beeb thinks their voices ‘must be heard‘, but then why not invite Nick Griffin and his ilk on to Newsnight since they also pose a problem to ethnic minorities? The corporation does not even realise it is being used by these provocateurs for their publicity. The viewer loses out by being exposed to an uninformative and deliberately sensationalist charade.

To be fair the BBC is not alone in taking this approach. Across our media landscape the tone of analysis has become increasingly frenzied as commentators are encouraged not to inform their readers or sit on the fence but instead play to their prejudices. You are supposed to either hate them or love them; there is no middle ground.

This may work with topics that editors are familiar with but not when their knowledge of the affairs of Britain’s ethnic minorites (with Muslims under the spotlight) is still woefully inadequate. Rather than leading the way towards informed coverage the BBC is instead following the trend of television channels across America – cutting costs by ditching packages in favour of facile debates.

Its critics can thus accuse it of being pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian at the same time not because it is sitting in the middle but because it gives plenty of airtime to extremists on both sides.

Over the medium and long term it is this approach to current affairs that will drive away viewers and continue to attract accusations of bias, not a debate about the BBC’s impartiality.

[cross posted on comment is free]


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  1. Serious Golmal » Muslim is the new Black

    [...] This is why I completely concur with Sunny when he suggests that the BBC is harming itself and doing the public a disservice because of this of tendency to sensationalise issues by spotlighting the extremists: This may work with topics that editors are familiar with but not when their knowledge of the affairs of Britain’s ethnic minorites (with Muslims under the spotlight) is still woefully inadequate. Rather than leading the way towards informed coverage the BBC is instead following the trend of television channels across America – cutting costs by ditching packages in favour of facile debates. [...]




  1. Roger — on 22nd September, 2006 at 6:04 pm  

    The problem with the B.B.C.’s “impartiality” is that it is often like someone standing with one foot in a bucket of ice and the other in a bucket of boiling water and supposing that that’s comfortable because the mean temperature’s bearable.
    It’s also much easier- put up Amrit Choudhary and there’s no need for opposition. The fact that there are dubious aspects to investigations into alleged terrorist offences- the number of arrests compared with the number of charges, the seriousness of the charges brought, the possible effects of over-reaction or not reacting to information, methods of assessing the information suppplied, how far the alleged sympathise of British muslims for bombers and other terrorists go and how real they actually are in their support- all of these need to be discussed and debated and Mr. Choudhary isn’t someone who could or would discuss them.

  2. Chairwoman — on 22nd September, 2006 at 6:15 pm  

    What we get on BBC News, CNN, and to a lesser degree, Sky, is News Lite.

    My thinking on the BBC is not so much that it’s coverage is baised, put that it’s what it considers populist. Pretty much like our political leaders, it doesn’t have a policy, it follows its audience (or what it imagines its audience is) rather than setting any sort of agenda.

  3. Jai — on 22nd September, 2006 at 6:53 pm  

    Roger,

    =>”It’s also much easier- put up Amrit Choudhary”

    Freudian Slip, I presume :)

    It’s Anjem, not Amrit. The latter is a Sikh name and our friend Mr Choudhary is not a Sikh by any stretch of the imagination.

  4. mirax — on 22nd September, 2006 at 7:23 pm  

    * amrit= immortal nectar (sanskrit)

    A sprinkling of amrit is supposed to bring the dead back to life- good news for Anjam C.

    Whoever came up with the brilliant idea that by presenting the viewer with 2 or more unbalanced opinions, a debate was being conducted?

  5. Vikrant — on 22nd September, 2006 at 7:32 pm  

    Its critics can thus accuse it of being pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian at the same time not because it is sitting in the middle but because it gives plenty of airtime to extremists on both sides.

    Really? BBC has always had a pro-Arab slant… ask John Simpson and Rageh Omar..

  6. ZinZin — on 22nd September, 2006 at 7:40 pm  

    i agree with Sunny the BBC should provide a historical context with certain stories ie Israeli/Arab conflicts.
    I prefer information and informed debate for example the Hardtalk slot on news 24 should be moved to BBC1 or 2. Unfortunatly there is a dearth of current affairs programmes on TV on Channel 4 there is Dispatches, 30 minutes and unreported world. BBC Panorama and Correspondent (not been seem for years). ITV Tonight with Trevor Mcdonald. In short there is a dearth of Current affairs programmes. This has been apparent for years and the advent of 24 hours news channels has let them off the hook. The news is repeated but at very few points explained.

  7. yakoub/julaybib — on 22nd September, 2006 at 8:13 pm  

    In the introduction to Chomsky’s Profite Over People, Robert W McChesney states that (US) news debates relatively trivial events due to the fact that the neo-liberal hegemony ensures little of social significance really changes. Having said that, in the UK, we do seem to have neoliberalism with welfare bolted onto it (although increasingly welfare delivered by the private sector), so I guess one can debate how big that welfare bit bolted onto the side is going to be. But now even Ming’s men are drifting towards the neoliberal consensus, and Cameron towards the ‘caring’ State, that bit of a bit is going to a matter of a very small measure indeed.

    Wasalaam

    TMA

  8. Katy Newton — on 22nd September, 2006 at 11:34 pm  

    I always knew I was inspirational!

  9. Roger — on 23rd September, 2006 at 7:48 am  

    “=>”It’s also much easier- put up Amrit Choudhary”

    Freudian Slip, I presume.”

    Sorry- Jai and mirax- so intent on spelling Choudhary consistently I didn’t think.

    “Islam is a pile of shit ? Islam is boring ? Islam and it’s followers are a pain in the ass ?”

    Perfectly true. However, that should not deprive people of their rights under British law. If the fact that someone thought that of any set of beliefs deprived them of their rights no-one would have any rights. What does need debate sre the questions I raised in my first post.
    People who write “it’s” when they mean “its”, however, should be shown no mercy, except when the absence of an edit button means it’s irrevocable.

  10. sunray — on 23rd September, 2006 at 11:28 am  

    “I am willing to accept the BBC tries its hardest to remain impartial as a whole. Or more impartial than its competitors at least – though some would no doubt disagree. ”

    perhaps.
    Haa –putting that into practice is another story.

    Why am I paying the BBC money to watch NEWS on a Saturday morning! Its beyond belief.

    and their was some controversy about their reporting on radio 4 on honour killing
    http://www.gujarat-samachar.com/1currentdate/Y_HonourKillngs.html

    Keep your ears on the BBC Asian Network radio as they bend backwards to please the muslims community over Ramadan and force us to listen to their religious beleifs.

    BBC impartial? joke

  11. Kismet Hardy — on 23rd September, 2006 at 11:33 am  

    “People who write “it’s” when they mean “its”, however, should be shown no mercy”

    I love you roger. Come round my gaff and watch some “DVD’s”

  12. Rakhee — on 23rd September, 2006 at 11:40 am  

    The problem with the BBC is that it is positioned as a leading authority on news in this country. If they are this, then surely there is a need to be impartial at times? I mean, lets be honest, impartiality doesn’t really get viewers excited in the first place.

    Also, the highest viewership for the BBC is over 55s. When it comes to race issues, for example, theres a great opp for the BBC to educate and use it’s power to change people’s perceptions. This target group is a tough one to break as their views are already formed and they are mainly exposed to the rubbish which is written in The Daily Mail. The BBC could actually change opinions if only they paid more attention to the content and understanding the issues.

    I appreciate that the BBC has to be seen to report fairly, but at times, sitting on the fence doesn’t, in my view, help anyone.

  13. Bert Preast — on 23rd September, 2006 at 12:54 pm  

    The BBC is certainly still showing bias on Iraq. Here’s today’s good news from them:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5366270.stm

    Where they devote the bulk of the text to bad news going on elsewhere in Iraq. Even though they cover that in several other stories too.

    How did the handover come about? Was that area always quiet? If not, what made it so? When was this handover planned? When was it scheduled? Was it on time? Who are the bosses there now? How do they treat with the central government? Do the people have water, power, food, schools etc? Does the handover mean they life normal lives, or is it the same as the rest of the country just with no foreign troops?

    None of that stuff seems important to the Beeb. It could be crap journalism, but I’m going with bias because it was just the same when they covered the last handover.

  14. Anas — on 23rd September, 2006 at 4:45 pm  

    The BBC absolutely is biased in favour of the official government position especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine and Iraq. I can’t believe anyone can seriously make the claim that it’s otherwise, especially post-Hutton. The BBC has every reason to play it safe in the face of government threats over its future.

    The whole coverage of the middle east was bad enough before (see http://www.vigie-media-palestine.org/1anglais.html & http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5770), but the handling recent Lebanese conflict was disgraceful. I mean, so many of the relevant facts were either underreported or ignored on the BBC — which is OK for any other news organisation but not one that’s funded by public money.

    Check out this version of an article from Le Monde Diplomatique http://www.democratsdiary.co.uk/2006/09/britains-role-in-israeli-hezbollah-war.html I was watching the Daily Politics on Friday, and they were talking about why Blair is facing difficulties with his prime ministership. The focus was on the whole feud with Blair, and the powerplay within the labour party. No mention of why his role in the Lebanon conflict was an absolute disgrace.

  15. sunray — on 23rd September, 2006 at 6:38 pm  

    i forgot to add to my list — the bias against Bollywood music which the BBC Asian Network has.

    They either play Punjabi or Bhangra music from UK all the time or bolly music that is punjabi or bhangra style in rhythm and lyrics or if its somehow related to muslims or ‘islamic’ style.

    why dont you tune into –no no no
    why not just listen back to any of the morning shows or drivetime shows!!

    BBC are killing off Bollywood music.

  16. Loz — on 23rd September, 2006 at 10:44 pm  

    Was it about a year ago that they were pushing digital TV by saying viewers could get ‘in depth briefings’ on the BBC interactive services. And what did that actually look like when you looked? Must have been two hundred words, three hundred max on a subject.

    And 24 hour rolling news, on the BBC and other channels, is designed for those who won’t spend half an hour watching the bulletins on the regular TV channel, which seems to me to be the opposite of what the opportunity is for.

  17. Jackie Brown — on 24th September, 2006 at 2:28 pm  

    ^^ the “new Black” is apparently Kate Moss. Yes Muslims are in the spotlight. That does NOT equate to racism to being a thing of the past. From your bog: They [BBC] should have had a “moderate” voice on there to contextualise the rants by the angry militant, ….. I agree. What is the context that has more quantifiably more Muslims showing up to protest the pope remarks,vs. the invisible presence of non black Muslims during the same time at Sudan’s embassy concerning the present day DEATHS (not historical words) of Muslims in Africa ? It almost gives the impression that Muslims are not exactly colour blind.

    It’s the right thing to call attention to injustice and hypocrisy etc- it’s an even better thing to practice what you preach.

  18. Jackie Brown — on 24th September, 2006 at 2:34 pm  

    Better yet to use a spell checker. bog= blog.
    More Asian Muslims show up to protest pope’s remarks than attend a protest about current deaths in Darfur Sudan.

  19. Chris Stiles — on 24th September, 2006 at 4:13 pm  

    The problem with current affairs and analytical programs are that there are very few people who can both think on their feet sufficiently fast to engage politicians in real time, and at the same time keep the debate explicable to the audience.

    The BBC hires a subset of these few people, off hand I can only think of Messrs Paxman and Humphries – who because of their rather lonely position end up being driven to extremes – and then no one wants to speak to them anyway. Though as I haven’t watched TV in many years there may be others out there.

    It’s an arms race; posit a Louis Theroux like character interviewing politicians and getting them to drop their guard, and he’ll only survive until they realise what’s going on.

  20. ngum — on 25th September, 2006 at 12:51 am  

    the problem with delivering anything worthy of being called the news is the rise of populism and glorification of stupidity. the BBC and other news networks seem happy to go along with this sedation of the mind.

  21. roxsana — on 25th September, 2006 at 12:42 pm  

    M sister worked at the Beeb briefly a few years ago, commissioning young people’s programmes. She said the major of the “creatives” had the attention spans of gnats and spent a lot of time thinking up ways to force themselves to the head of the pack by garnering if not big audiences then big publicity. Usually this involved making “controversial” shows, or deliberately provocative ones.

    As an example of how far the Beeb has moved from making News programmes about news, here is Newsnight editor Peter Barron’s justification for allowing Anjem Choudary a platform to spout his addled views on Newsnight earlier this year:

    “We did receive a large number of complaints about the debate – as did the BBC’s Newswatch programme before which I was hauled on Friday – but the reality, I think, is that the vast majority of Newsnight viewers love the drama and danger of a highly charged live debate. One and a half million watched Mr Choudary’s antics, and I reckon they’re well able make up their minds about what they were seeing. ”

    So it seems according to the unrepentent Mr Barron that ‘s not so much about calmly delivering the latest news and evetns but generating the “drama and danger of a “highly charged ” live debate”. Why not get some BNPers on as well Mr Barron?.

  22. Uncleji — on 26th September, 2006 at 12:17 pm  

    So according to this threat. The BBC is Anti-Israeli, Anti-Arab, Anti-Hindu, Anti-Muslim, Pro-Government, Anti-Government and Anti-Bollywood (ha ha ha ha ) I’m almost deafened by the sound axes being grinded.

    Its very hard to take Sunny’s comments are way off course when it comes to this subject.

    His analysis sounds horrifying like Birt’s infamous “bias against understanding” argument that was imposed diastrously on the Beeb during the 90′s. The effects are now found in a declining audiences for news and current affairs. The real problem is making politics in a form relevant for normal people. If you want to freebase on politics do what i do and listen to the Radio 4 & the World Service as well : today in parliament, westiminster hour, newshour, the week in politics, the world tonight, bh etc.

    There is still enough hardcore politic news and analysis on the Beeb for you politics junkies, even with its disappearance off the ITV. An example of this is increasing time given to foreign news during the 10 oclock news. Newsnight populist you must be off your rocker!

    Lets not hark back to a golden age of serious politic broadcasting Panorama started off with light enteriatment and musical acts, Today started with no politics at all

  23. roxsana — on 26th September, 2006 at 6:50 pm  

    The reason why shows like Newsnight and Today continue to interview ranting extremists like Choudary and Brookes (Nasrullah) is in the hope they will provoke a row/headline which will enable the programme editors like Barron (see above) to claim their show is relevant and important.

    Which it is only if you measure relevance by your ability to grab the headlines for shows with little underlying substance. The New Labour spin technique all over again really I suppose.

    In fact we don’t need to the BBC to continue giving them a platform to know what morons like Choudary and Nasrullah think, we already know, they have unbelievable amounts of air time already.

    It seems headline grabbing is more important in the Beeb when it comes to advancing your career than serious reporting ofislamic events.

    Roxsana

  24. Bijna — on 26th September, 2006 at 11:17 pm  
  25. Roger — on 27th September, 2006 at 12:25 pm  

    “It seems headline grabbing is more important in the Beeb when it comes to advancing your career than serious reporting ofislamic events”
    Do not worry, it’s not anti-islamic. Any events.
    “To educate, inform and entertain” used to be the purpose of the BBC. Unfortunately many of its producers now have reversed the priorites and- if they can’t do them all- want only to entertain.

  26. sonia — on 27th September, 2006 at 12:33 pm  

    death of debate – good term.

    well that isn’t just the BBC is it now it seems to apply generally to most media outlets. This is the problem across the board. Media for most = entertainment.

    and publicity – hell everyone in media seems to want publicity.

  27. sonia — on 27th September, 2006 at 12:35 pm  

    Still it’s hardly true to say the BBC doesn’t ‘inform’.

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