How the BBC leans to the right

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In a fascinating extract from a forthcoming book called Is the BBC in Crisis? Professor Justin Lewis details some of the ways in which the BBC fails in its mission to be impartial.

(I’ve long believed that the BBC’s ‘impartiality’ should be towards the truth, so that when the facts have a left-wing or liberal bias, there should be no need to wheel out the likes of Nigel Lawson to rebut the findings of 97% of climate scientists.)

Anyway, regular listeners/viewers will hardly be surprised to learn that the BBC has a right-wing bias – especially under a Conservative government, because of worries about the Conservatives (who are in power but have no mandate) eviscerating the BBC through the licence fee settlement.

Recent evidence from the most recent BBC Trust commissioned impartiality review appears to support this view. The research, by my colleagues at Cardiff, compared BBC news when Labour were in power (in 2007) with coverage under a Conservative-led coalition (in 2012). The study found, by a series of measures, that ‘Conservative dominance in 2012’ of BBC news was ‘by a notably larger margin than Labour dominance in 2007’ (Wahl-Jorgenson et al 2013: 5).

Beyond the main parties, the study suggested that the BBC is more likely than either ITV or Channel 4 to use sources from the right, such US Republicans or Ukip, and less likely to use sources from the left, such as US Democrats and the Green Party. But it is the imbalance between Conservative and Labour – by margins of three to one for party leaders and four to one for ministers/shadow ministers – that was most striking, especially since the research indicated that this rightward shift was a strictly BBC phenomenon.

The other interesting aspect of the article is its focus on the way the news agenda (news values) of the BBC also has a right-wing bias. They spend far more time discussing issues of interest to the right (e.g. immigration) than they do discussing issues of interest to the left (e.g. inequality).

I noticed during Party Conference season that the BBC spent much more time reporting the UKiP conference than they did the Green Party one, which was happening at the same time. What’s tragic about this, of course, is that ‘blind testing’ tends to show that twice as many people support Green policies as they do the foam-flecked ravings of the UKiPers. In other words, the BBC should be spending twice as much time covering issues if interest to Greens (climate change, inequality) than they do dealing with UKiP issues (immigration, immigration).

Read more: Extract: ‘How the BBC leans to the right’ – Opinion – Media – The Independent.

Ten things you won’t hear about while the press navel-gazes about Leveson and regulation

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The New Statesman nails it in an article that questions what happens to news when the media starts to obsess about itself. On the day when The BBC obsessed about moving house and the rest of the media obsessed about press regulation, here are the stories we could have been hearing about. News values in action:

1. The Department for Work and Pensions has introduced emergency legislation to “protect the national economy” from a £130m payout to jobseekers deemed to have been unlawfully punished. The so-called “Poundland” ruling would potentially entitle thousands of people to financial rebates after the court of appeal declared that almost all of the government’s “work-for-your-benefit” employment schemes were unlawful. The legislation is will come before the Commons tomorrow as the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill.

2. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, the Steubenville high school football players, were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old after a party in August last year. It’s become a national story in the US – a CNN reporter was accused of being a “rape apologist”.

Read the rest: Ten things you won’t hear about while the press navel-gazes about Leveson and regulation.

Big blast or small riot – it’s the hot air that counts | Media | The Observer

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Peter Preston writes an interesting column about the nature of news over on the Observer. What happens to the news when certain kinds of events (murder, muggings, riots, terrorism) become routine? We saw what happened with major earthquakes (in quick succession) in Haiti, Chile, and then China.

What happens – to quote my PhD thesis – is that events lose their eventhood. News loses its novelty (and newsworthiness).

Ah! The most difficult question. If news is essentially the unexpected, what happens when murder becomes routine? Well, in a sense we know the answer to that. Look for extended coverage of ghetto or township murders in Washington DC or Johannesburg and you look in vain. Look, indeed, for escalating coverage of terrorist strikes in Pakistan’s own press and you find that routine turns to page two after a while. Violence doesn’t guarantee huge headlines.

So now the same cloud settles over Millbank as front pages are cleared because a few dozen sort-of students moved from marching protest to window-breaking mayhem and Scotland Yard didn’t have enough boys in blue to cope. Was that – a rampage around Tory HQ, a storming of roofs – news? Of course. Everybody from David Cameron to the Met commissioner was sounding off.

via Big blast or small riot – it’s the hot air that counts | Media | The Observer.

Chile miners reporting by BBC squeezes coverage of other events | Media | The Guardian

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A memo written by the BBC’s world news editor, Jon Williams, and sent to fellow executives, says the cost of reporting the rescue will exceed £100,000.

It will also result in cuts to coverage of the Cancún climate summit, which begins in November, the Nato summit in Lisbon, and the Davos World Economic Forum.

BBC News has sent 26 people to cover the dramatic rescue of the San José miners, pushing its annual budget far beyond its agreed limit.

“The financial situation is serious”, Williams warns. “We are currently £67k beyond our agreed overspend of £500k; newsgathering’s costs for Chile will exceed £100,000.”

via Chile miners reporting by BBC squeezes coverage of other events | Media | The Guardian.

Chile is a story about journalism’s failure

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I see a story about journalism. To know that 1300 journalists have descended on this mining town to cover a worldwide story is a little disconcerting in an era of closed foreign bureaus and budget cutbacks. Many might question that thought given the intense interest in the story; my Twitter and Facebook feeds were lit up last night as the first miner descended ascended up the 2000-foot shaft. But the public doesn’t think in terms of resources when it consumes journalism; it only has what it has in front of it.

Thirteen-hundred journalists – imagine what we could do with that. Journalism organizations are pouring resources into this as if it is the Baby Jessica 1980s and ’90s, with fatter newsrooms and no Internet. Really, does every major TV news network in the U.S. need a camera crew and reporters out there? In an era of satellite feeds and citizens on the ground who can pipe in material, does the U.S. media have to parachute in on a story like this?

via Chile is a story about journalism’s failure (updated) | @JeremyLittau.

BBC criticised over Goody coverage

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In an interesting example of doublethink, The Telegraph has a story about the number of complaints received by the BBC over their “excessive” coverage of Jade Goody. They did go a bit overboard on Sunday – they claim this is because it was a slow news day. But they’ve received 69 complaints.

The Telegraph can’t resist reporting these complaints, whilst at the same time offering (in the sidebar) links to their RSS feed on Jade, video coverage of the wedding, photo coverage of the wedding, and a “Jade Goody in Pics” gallery. There’s also a box-out with six Jade Goody-related stories. This is The Telegraph, remember, not The Sun or The Mirror.

Hurricane Confusion

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oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now

oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now

The reportage surrounding the latest meteorological event to threatenAtlantis New Orleans is typical of the media’s deep, deep problems with science stories. Weather systems, as you should know, are at the cutting edge of chaos theory – the mathematics of non-linear systems. You can throw the Biggest Computer In The World at weather prediction and the best it will do is get the weather approximately right for up to about 48 hours. Beyond five days, you can forget about it, which is why I’ve always found it killingly ironic that the French weather service, Meteo.fr used to try to charge you for weather forecasts beyond two days ahead.

But this isn’t really about mathematics. It’s simply about understanding the basics of weather and using the correct terminology.

Tonight’s 5Live Drive had wording in its news headlines that summed up the problem. Hurricane Gustav, said Anita Anand, is battering the US state of Louisiana “with gale force winds.”

The Beaufort wind scale goes from 0 to 12. Gale force winds are between 7 and 10 on the scale, with wind speeds from 50 to 102kph. By its very definition, a hurricane like Gustrav has wind speeds over 118kph which makes it a, you know, hurricane, and not a, you know, gale.

Now, Hurricanes have their own scale, The Saffir-Simpson, which goes from 1 to 5. When Gustav hit Cuba a couple of days ago, it was a Category 4. As it approaches the coast of the United States, it has been downgraded to Category 2. Hurricanes always lose energy over colder water, and over land.

Needless to say, this information is easily accessible for any journalist wishing to check facts.

But the bad reporting goes beyond scales. The radio reports from Cuba the other day were focused – by the reporter in the field – on where the eye of the hurricane was located. “The eye hasn’t reached Havana yet, but if it does…” was the essence of the reporting, with the implication that the eye is the most dangerous part. Except of course, the eye of the hurricane is the calm bit in the middle where nothing is happening. It’s referred to on the National Hurricane Centre web site as a way of locating the centre of the storm, but it’s the high-speed winds around the edges that cause all the damage – that and the storm surge, which is basically a very high tide with a lot of extra water.

The media has descended on Atlantis New Orleans like vultures circling a corpse, waiting for a killer blow to break the levées and sink the city for good. You can almost sense the disappointment as the storm loses energy.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean is being threatened by the next storm in the chain, Hurricane Hanna, which is a Category 1. Even on the BBC weather site, you can see Hanna squatting over the Caribbean islands as we speak*, but the headline on the page is all about Atlantis New Orleans.

Meanwhile meanwhile, over a million people have been made homeless and half a million are stranded in India by monsoon flooding. But all the news bulletins lead with New Orleans. Why do you think that is?

Answers in the comments!

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*UPDATE: Hanna is now getting a mention on the BBC extreme weather site, as the depression previously known as “NINE” (destined to have a name beginning with the ninth letter in the alphabet) has been christened Tropical Storm Ike.

Friday Things

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1. Interesting thing about newspaper stories and the people who get caught up in them. It can be a life-changing event, even if you are just an innocent bystander. But the wife of the guy who committed insurance fraud for a piddling £250k (how long was that ever going to last?), will forever be known as “Canoe Wife.”

2. The Guardian mulls the future of print media.

3. One way to survive is to raise the cover price. Or relaunch your web page
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4. The McCanns’ dominance of the news over the past year is now reaching the fallout stage. Following the Daily Express apology, we now get the libel damages.

Robert Murat, the British expatriate property consultant libelled in more than 100 articles in the British tabloid press over the disappearance in May last year of Madeleine McCann from Praia da Luz, the Portuguese resort where he lived, accepted more than £600,000 in damages from 11 national newspapers yesterday.

Hang on. £600,000 between 11 newspapers (with a combined circulation of 15 million copies) is only £50k each – hardly much of a punishment, or a deterrent. I bet they’re doing the maths: you sell x-number of newspapers with a scurrilous rumour connected to the McCann case, which equates to y-profit. And it’ll only cost you a £50k fine. This for someone who has had his life completely destroyed by these allegations. That’s only 1/5th as much as Canoe Man got for his faked death.
Roy Greenslade asks why the legal teams at the newspapers allowed the stories to be published – but why not, if the punishment doesn’t fit the crime?
As one of the commenters on the Greenslade post points out, this is like the plot of the 1981 Paul Newman film, Absence of Malice. Tagline: Suppose you picked up this morning’s newspaper and your life was a front page headline… And everything they said was accurate… But none of it was true?

5. Delia Derbyshire was the genius behind the Doctor Who theme (or Doctorr Who, according to The Times). The Times story is actually about the restoration of some tapes. It’s always amazing to me how quickly stuff falls into decay, undervalued until it’s (almost) too late. The Who’s 1978 film The Kids Are Alright was only restored for DVD release because someone found the original negatives – all the prints of the film were allowed to rot away in someone’s shed. The problem is that there is just so much stuff, and nobody really knows at the time what’s going to prove important. Fashions change. Nobody cared about the pioneering work of Derbyshire in the 1980s, when Doctor Who was cancelled by Michael Grade. This year, though, is the 50th anniversary of the Radiophonic Workshop.
The interesting thing for me about the story is the fact that they had to use a vintage Studer tape machine to do the tape transfer. Two-inch tape on a Studer is still the ultimate in sound quality – an there are software plug-ins for Pro Tools that attempt to recreate the dynamic response of those machines on digital recordings.