Prince George and the Butterfly

Whose tea has been spiked with LSD, the BBC’s or mine?

I saw something on the BBC News Channel yesterday afternoon (Tuesday 22 July 2015) that made me think I was losing my marbles.

Perching on the arm of the sofa, enjoying a few moments of shade after spending a glorious summer afternoon sweltering in the scorching heat of the garden, I was absent mindedly flicking  through the TV channels, when I came across an interview on the BBC News Channel between BBC Business Correspondent, Ben Thompson, and a lady from some City brokerage firm giving the usual market updates. At the end of the interview Thompson said something like:

“I suppose we can’t end without mentioning that RATHER BORING NUMBER released by the Office for National Statistics today: the government deficit for June.”

To which the City brokerage lady said something like:

Well, I don’t  think it’s boring. In fact it’s quite ironic that public sector borrowing last month was 50 percent higher than last year. When you consider that the financial crash of 2008 was caused by too much government borrowing, and total government borrowing since then has risen by another 25 percent, then when they finally decide we have to balance the books, some future generation is really going to feel the pinch.”

YOU WHAAAAT??? I was so shocked I nearly fell off my chair. Some FUTURE generation is really going to feel the pinch? Isn’t THIS generation feeling the pinch NOW! Isn’t lowering government debt what austerity was supposed to be all about?

But the BBC interviewer gave no such reaction. Instead he laughed, like they do at the end of most news bulletins these days, before handing back to the BBC anchor lady who joined in with the jollity, as if we’d just been watching a news item of Prince George talking goo-goo with a butterfly.

Prince George and the Butterfly
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince George during a visit to the Sensational Butterflies exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London

I couldn’t believe it. I needed some way of confirming what had actually happened to know whether I was going crazy or not.

If we had Sky Plus or some other gadget for replaying live TV it would have been easy, but we don’t. So I had to think of something else. We do have one of those Smart TVs connected to the internet, so the BBC iPlayer is only a couple of clicks away. So I tried that and discovered you can get almost anything on iPlayer EXCEPT the BBC News Channel!

You CAN get the News at Six and News at Ten, but only for 24 hours after they were transmitted. After that they disappear down the Memory Hole forever.

Which is kind of strange when you remember that the reason we have to pay the BBC licence fee is because the BBC is supposed to supply us with radio and TV news in the same way as the water company supplies us with water – as a public service. So if they were going to supply  anything on BBC iPlayer you’d think their 24 hour News Channel ought to be top of the list.

My last hope was to try typing government borrowing or deficit into the search box on the BBC News website where I discovered one article, Public borrowing at £11.4bn in June, along with a picture of George Osborne, but no video clips of anything BBC TV News actually broadcast on the subject during the day.

Without access to the BBC news archives I have no way of checking what I saw and no way of knowing whether I’m going crazy or not. The only option left I can think of it to put out an appeal here for anybody who either saw or, better still, recorded what happened to either confirm or deny my own eye-witness account in the comment section below.

Update: 6 June 2015

After I’d posted this piece on Wednesday morning (23 July 2014) I spent the rest of the day enjoying the sunshine in the garden and didn’t give it another thought, until I happened to be watching the BBC News at Six at tea time the following day (Thursday 24 July), and heard Fiona Bruce announce that the IMF had raised its UK growth forecast “by almost half a percentage point“.

When I heard  that several light bulbs went off in my head at the same time. First, I remembered the flippant and dismissive way Ben Thompson had treated the ONS announcement that the June deficit was fifty percent higher than last year. Then I compared that with Fiona Bruce’s weighty tone when announcing that the IMF had raised its UK growth forecast by almost half a percent.

Less than a half percent rise in an IMF forecast (i.e. an estimate or guess) deserves a weighty tone, yet a fifty percent rise in an ONS historical fact deserves to be treated as a joke? Surely there’s  something wrong here! Could the BBC be displaying lack of due impartiality here by portraying news which supports Tory austerity policy in a good light, and dismissing news which suggests austerity isn’t working as some kind of sick joke?

Then it struck me. If the BBC had failed to give the same prominence to the ONS deficit figures on Tuesday’s News at Six as they had given to the IMF forecast on Thursday’s, then that would prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that they were deliberately burying news that was bad for the Tory government. Which would demonstrate bias in favour of the Tories in the year leading up to a General Election, which would be in direct contravention of the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines.

For a brief moment I was enthused by the idea of being able to prove, simply and scientifically, what many people have been suspecting for some time now – that the BBC aren’t the honest injuns they claim to be – simply by comparing two News at Six items on the economy transmitted in the same week.

Then I remembered that I hadn’t seen the News at Six on Tuesday so I had no idea how they had treated the news of the fifty percent deficit increase. Worse still, as more than 24 hours had passed and the BBC had already disappeared Tuesday’s News at Six down the Memory Hole, I had no way of finding out!

So I began to hatch a cunning plan to get the BBC to give me the information I needed. If I submitted a complaint through the BBC’s Complaints Framework they would have to supply the necessary information.

But, before that, I took advantage of the fact that Thursday’s edition of the News at Six WAS still available on iPlayer to get my facts straight on exactly what degree of prominence the BBC had given to the IMF figures.

The running order for the first half of News at Six on Thursday 24 July 2014 was:

  • 00:00   Generic Title Sequence
  • 01:49   The Gaza Conflict
    UN shelter in Gaza hit by an Israeli missile. 15 killed over 200 injured including women, children and UN staff.
  • 07:52   MH17 Crash (happened a whole week ago!)
    Two more military aircraft carrying the remains of victims of Malaysia Airline’s flight 17 have landed in the Netherlands.
  • 11:06   Air Algerie AH5017 believed missing in W. Africa
    A passenger jet with over 100 people on board is believed to have crashed in West Africa.
  • 12:38   IMF forecast
    “The UK is on course to outpace the world’s major advanced economies this year after the International Monetary Fund raised its growth forecast for the UK for the 4th time in a row. The IMF forecast has been upgraded by almost half a percentage point to 3.2 percent driven by consumer spending and a tentative boost in manufacturing. The forecast this year for the United States is 1.7 percent and Germany 1.9 percent.”
  • 13:04   Murder of 17 year-old Jayden Parkinson
    “One of the most disturbing cases in living memory. That’s how the police described the murder of 17 year-old Jayden Parkinson. Her former boyfriend, Ben Blakely, has today been found guilty of her murder. He killed her 24 hours after she told him she was expecting his child and buried her in his Uncle’s grave. Duncan Kennedy reports…”

So, this was my benchmark reference point against which I could measure the prominence the BBC gave to the ONS report of the budget deficit. If Tuesday’s News at Six gave less prominence to a fifty percent increase in a real measurement than Thursday’s had given to a less than 0.5 percent increase in a forecast or estimate then there could be no argument the BBC was unduly biased in favour of the Tory government.

So I submitted an online complaint to the BBC on Friday 25 July 2014 and waited to see what happened.

The first big revelation came in an email from BBC Complaints on Wednesday 6 August,  when they surpassed my expectations by admitting they had given no prominence at all to the increase in the deficit, preferring to give equivalent prominence they’d given to the growth forecast to a conference on FGM instead :

“The fourth story on 22 July’s programme was the London summit on Female Genital Mutilation. There is no report on ONS figures in this edition of the programme. We’d therefore seek your clarification on the date you saw the initial report you refer to. “

– email from Lucia Fortucci, BBC Complaints, Wednesday 6 August

But any elation I felt at that revelation was quickly dashed by the next paragraph:

We’d add that due to the prohibitive costs of providing such a service, video, audio and transcripts for ‘BBC News at Six’ are not available.

What prohibitive costs? I’d accept there might be some cost (though nowhere near ‘prohibitive‘) to providing video or audio. But transcripts … plain text files … in the age of digital media!!!!!  Are they serious? They produce all the running orders and scripts on computer anyway as part of the production process, so running off a copy couldn’t cost more than the click of a key.

I couldn’t accept that the cost of making available text files which are generated as part of the production process was ‘prohibitive‘. The BBC is supposed to be a public service organisation operating in the public interest. That’s how they justify charging a licence fee.  If journalism is’ the first rough draft of history‘, as former Washington Post President and Publisher, Philip L. Graham, famously said, then transcripts of BBC News programmes are the kind of invaluable historical documents that ought to be freely available through the British Library. Withholding them isn’t just a failure to serve the public interest, it’s actively working against it.

So, on Thursday 7 August 2014, I submitted another complaint to the BBC on their refusal to make transcripts of news programmes available to the public.

On Tuesday 9 Sep 2014 I received an email from the BBC dismissing my complaint about the transcripts:

“We are sorry to tell you that we have nothing to add to our previous reply. We do not believe your complaint has raised a significant issue of general importance that might justify further investigation. We will not therefore correspond further in response to additional points, or further comments or questions, made about this issue or our responses to it.

We realise you will be disappointed to hear this but hope this explains why we are not able to take your complaint further. If you remain dissatisfied about our decision you can appeal to the BBC Trust, the body which represents licence fee payers.”

– email from Nicola Maguire, BBC Complaints, 9 Sep 2014

I didn’t appeal to the Trust because I was already up to my ears pushing my initial complaint on due prominence through the labyrinthine  complexities of the BBC complaints framework and couldn’t sustain a battle on two fronts.

Long story short…

My complaint on lack of due prominence went through all three stages of the complaints framework all the way up to appeal to the BBC Trust. It was an exhausting process which filled over 55 pages of correspondence, lasted over 10 months and eventually ended up with the BBC deciding the complaint was of such little substance it didn’t deserve and answer:

“Trustees did not consider that the complaint raised an issue which had a reasonable prospect of leading them to conclude that there had been a breach of Editorial Standards.

The Committee therefore decided that this appeal did not raise a matter of substance and so did not qualify to proceed for consideration.”

– BBC Editorial Standards Committee Decision,  Friday 22 May 2015

Anyone who is interested in discovering exactly how the BBC managed to pull that off can download the collected correspondence here:

6 thoughts on “Whose tea has been spiked with LSD, the BBC’s or mine?”

  1. I read your latest blog with interest because I too have experienced the BBC’s ‘disappearing news’ phenomenon. I can’t help you with this one because I didn’t see it, but I regularly marvel at the disappearing news items and comments broadcast on World Service radio, that never make the mainstream news! I recently heard an interesting interview in the early hours with a Dutch spokesman in the Ukraine praising the treatment of the bodies from the m17 air disaster. By the time I was listening to the Today programme at 7am, we were back to hearing how appalling the treatment of the bodies had been. Like yourself I am left floundering and wondering if I’m losing it? I am also highly aggravated by the latest trend to ‘lighten’ serious items by following them with studio banter between presenters, to get the audience, ‘back in the breakfast mood,’ no doubt.

    Your example of a major piece of financial information ‘disappearing’ is typical. Even the ordinary listener/viewer can discern distraction tactics when they appear. If I see one more pair of baby dungarees, I’ll scream!! Bring back good old fashioned in depth investigative journalism and let the viewer/listener make up their own mind based on the facts that come from truthful reporting. Get rid of the hours of half informed opinion and speculation that now seem to have replaced basic news values.

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    1. I wouldn’t argue with any of that 🙂

      I’ve just discovered that the BBC went all the way to the Court of Appeal to prove its Editorial Guidelines and Mission Statements were not deeply held beliefs!!!

      The implications of that are so mind boggling I would have thought that at least it would have been covered by Murdoch’s mob if not by the BBC or Guardian. But so far I haven’t found anything except a court report of a lower court judgement which the Court of Appeal overturned. I’m hoping to investigate this further if I get time, but if anyone else wants to beat me to it the case to Google for is Maistry vs BBC.

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    1. Hi Devan,

      Thanks for the link to your Court of Appeal judgment.

      It’s pretty stunning that the BBC would want to go to court to argue that it’s guidelines and principles weren’t genuine philosophical beliefs worthy of protecting under the law!

      More stunning still that it would argue that if BBC employees were required to follow BBC values then NHS employees would have to follow NHS values too!

      Even more stunning that a High Court Judge would agree with them!

      The BBC’s argument that BBC managers couldn’t possibly know a BBC employee believed in BBC values is tantamount to saying that the BBC expects its employees to be hypocrites – paying lip-service to its values but not believing in them or acting on them.

      This seems to be a pretty accurate description of the BBC and the British establishment in general. Hypocrites who say one thing but do exactly the opposite, or Perfidious Albion as traditional British “diplomacy” (aka infidelity, duplicity and treachery) has been known since as far back as the 13th century.

      But perhaps the most stunning thing of all is that none of the “guardians” of the public interest in what used to be known as the 4th estate think any of this is worth even the smallest mention anywhere amongst the acres of newsprint and hours of worthy radio and television news they generate every day.

      So what conclusion can we draw from that except that the mainstream media and the rest of the British establishment are such deeply ingrained hypocrites they can’t believe anybody else could possibly be any different!

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      1. Dear Ian

        Thank you for putting what might appear to be a minor workplace skirmish into proper perspective. I thought it would be useful to provide some context. The BBC claims to have dismissed me for poor performance. The Tribunal heard that the only investigation of these performance issues was conducted after I was dismissed at the end of a ‘capability’ process lasting more than three years. This investigation found – that after 14 years at the BBC as a manager and program maker (radio and television) – I was incapable of discharging the most basic of production tasks. But the BBC also acknowledged in writing that it had been broadcasting substantial documentaries that I had produced and presented.

        My argument that the BBC’s claim was both impossible and contradictory is not mentioned by the Tribunal. The important point is that Employment Tribunals are solely responsible for determining the facts and in practice their findings cannot be challenged. It is left to Court reporters to ensure transparency. As you note a case of serious public interest – and in which ten BBC managers gave evidence – went unreported. The facts are now of no interest legally. However I believe there is a serious need to reconsider the monopoly of the fact finding mission granted to Employment Tribunals if there is to be genuine equality before the law.

        I claimed that the real reason for my dismissal was my belief in the BBC’s Values. In accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 1 and 14) the United Kingdom must provide legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9). My view is that the Court of Appeal judgment of Lord Justice Underhill suggests the United Kingdom is in breach of its treaty obligations by failing to provide any such protection. In short there is no guarantee of freedom of thought and conscience and therefore of freedom of expression under UK law.

        Here is the argument: The UK provides protection to certain beliefs which qualify as ‘philosophical beliefs’ deserving of protection. The test for whether a belief amounts to a philosophical belief is set-out in Grainger PLC v Nicholson. Employment Judge Hughes says: “The starting point as regards what is encompassed by “belief would usually be the statutory wording. However the 2003 Regulations simply use the word “belief and do not further define it and are therefore of no assistance and one must look to the authorities. The leading case is Nicholson. The criteria set out in Section 24 of the EAT’s judgment in that case are as follows:

        The belief must be genuinely held.
        There must be a belief and not, as in McClintock, an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
        It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
        It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
        It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

        To go on: Whether a belief is genuinely held and meets a cogency threshold can only be established by a Tribunal. Until then, any alleged discriminator can simply claim to have been unaware of a philosophical belief at the relevant time. The significance of Lord Justice Underhill’s judgment is that, for discrimination to be possible, there must not just be awareness of a belief but knowledge of a philosophical belief only available after the event. This is impossible.

        And now for a touch of class. Lord Justice Underhill again:

        “But I am afraid to say that I do not believe that it is arguable that a generalised assumption that senior management employees will subscribe to BBC values can be equated with the knowledge that a particular employee has a philosophical belief in those values.

        Meanwhile:

        Employment Judge Hughes rejected the BBC’s claim that its Values are simply a mission statement and not a serious belief…

        Employment Judge Harding rejected Judge Hughes’ conclusion and found the BBC Values are indeed a mission statement and not a belief…

        Employment Judge Harding said there was no conflict between these judgments because she found the BBC managers understood the BBC values quite differently from the way they were understood by the BBC’s Management Board and the claimant…

        Lady Stacey found the claimant was attacking the Tribunal’s findings of fact … this is obviously a non-starter…

        Lord Justice Underhill, to his credit, resolved the conundrum of whether the BBC could be aware of a belief it promotes by declaring the question was irrelevant…

        And hopefully:

        I have complied with the formalities for an application to the European Court of Human Rights. I have complained that the UK has failed to protect my (and our) rights under Article 9 and denied me (and us) a fair trial as guaranteed under Article 6. The UK has also failed to comply with international law by breaching Articles 1 and 14 which require signatory states to ensure protection of the rights enshrined in the Convention.

        Finally:

        Lord Justice Underhill seems to imply – and I may be completely wrong – that I have become overly sensitive to the issue of human rights by virtue of a stint under straight-forward apartheid. The corollary is that decent British people cannot establish a philosophical belief on genuine grounds as they must be aware of how the game is played.

        Thanks Ian – for the space and commitment. I hope your readers will advise.

        Like

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