Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Off the Reservation?

Cameron and Redwood
Same crime, same MO, same culprit?
I've been having a bit of a groundhog day sensation over the last couple of days, so I feel compelled to post about something I wasn't going to bother commenting on as others had done so much more effectively. It's just that an interesting pattern does seem to be emerging.

Last week we finally saw the publication of John Redwood's competitiveness commission report, in all its 160 plus glorious pages. It was probably been a frustrating day for many Labour MPs who would normally be queuing up to condemn it, but were beaten to the gun by several of their own ministers and colleagues who chose to condemn its contents a couple of days beforehand, even before they were even known.

The most tawdry performance though was, as is so often the case these days, not by the Labour party itself, but by the BBC. Just a matter of days after the organisation disgraced itself over the early reports of the expected contents of the report, as highlighted by Iain Dale, with sufficient impact that Helen Boaden, the BBC's Director of News was forced to address the subject on the BBC's Editors' Blog, they repeated the offence on the day of the actual publication of the report.

Iain Dale's commments concerned mainly 5 live, but the same thing seemed prevelant on Radio 5. Listening to Radio 4, a venerable channel that, rightly or wrongly, most see as being the station of record when it comes to current affairs, on the day of the reports publication I was astounded to hear the same blatant disregard for impartiality once again as the 9AM news slot covered the item (OK yes, it had been a belter of a night so I slept through all the relevant parts of the increasingly anodyne Today programme). The figures hear are an approximation from a bleary eye staring at the clock radio, but won't be that far off:

  • 0-20 seconds: Presenter states that the report has been published, with a brief synopsis of its comments, concentrating on the more controversial proposals (which is fine by me!)

  • 20-40 seconds: Presenter states that reaction from the government has been very negative (surprise, surprise, but fair enough)
  • 40-god knows how many seconds: Long diatribe by government minister against the proposals, well over a minute (nothing from Mr Redwood, not even the most basic attempt at balance)

I was on the phone during the 10AM slot but I could just about hear it, and it seemed pretty much the same fare.

And then I had to go to work…and when I returned all had changed. The couple of hourly news slots I caught had nothing but the fact that the report was out, the synopsis of its contents, and at least one extended comment from Mr Redwood himself.

I wasn't going to comment on it on this blog, as so many others have done so already and more effectively, but then this week has seen pretty much a repeat of the same behaviour in the coverage of David Cameron's offensive on hospital closures. Once again the Today programme would be hard to lodge an effective complaint against as only the tone of the reporting betrayed the well known political sympathy of the programme's presenters, while a paper transcript would at least show a fair attempt at balance. The news bulletins which followed though were once again manifestly biased towards the government's refutation of the claims made by the Conservative team, mentioning them only as preamble and context to the minister's bile. Yet again, by lunchtime the item had been replaced by a more balanced offering, though only once it had ceased to be the lead item.

For what it's worth I do genuinely believe the BBC News editorial team are sincere in their desire to be impartial. I do doubt though that they fully appreciate the scale of the internal cultural problems they will have to surmount to achieve impartiality. Nor do I believe that the fulcrum around which they seek to achieve balance lies at a point that would be consistent with the weighted average of views of people in this country.

The lack of the impartiality of some of the coverage of some of the morning radio news coverage has surprised me, even from my slightly cynical standpoint, especially considering the renewed spotlight on these matters at the BBC, and the early signs that the organisation is at least recognising that it has a problem.

So stark has been the contrast with some of the later bulletins, which in some cases could have been accused of lack of balance in the opposite direction, that it leads me, from my position of complete ignorance on the matter, to speculate on the management structures that may be in play. I assume that while the heads of the editorial function are on call 24/7 that they must delegate a great deal of authority at certain times to duty editoral staff. I would probably expect that hinterland between drive-time and lunchtime not to be one of more heavily supervised time spots, compared to the key early morning, lunchtime and evening coverage, and would expect day to day operations to be delegated to someone lower down the food chain.

All of this leads me to wonder if there is just a bad apple there somewhere in the radio 4 set up, someone who has gone completely off the reservation. If so it's essential that they are dealt with firmly and decisively as they are clearly harmful to the corporation's image. I have had juniors working for me who've headed down the same route, and to be honest it's the devil's own job to ever trust them fully again, even in the unlikely event that you can shake them from their belief in their own righteousness.

I wish no real malice on anyone, but I would have to say that with the issue of BBC impartiality in the spotlight, and numerous seminars and training courses supposedly having been undertaken to address perceived shortcomings in this area I think there's little much more that could be done with such a rogue element. I would have to say that in my opinion that the very need for the training and seminars should in of itself have constituted fair warning, leaving summary dismissal as the only viable option.

It's a shame really. I have little opinion on healthcare never having needed more than a quick visit to A&E post-rugby in the last twenty years, but I found the Redwood commissions proposals interesting. Largely to my taste, and certainly controversial, but the debate has to happen sometime because right now we are heading down blind alleys on so many fronts as a nation. Unfortunately I've got a sneaking suspicion that the chances of individual components being implemented is pretty much inversely proportional to their probable benefit to the country, due to their political risks.

The attack on the health on safety culture is a case in point. In the world of business it is a pendulum that has swung to far, and it has wrought a terrible price in so many other walks of life, as the almost pathological aversion to risk by pointless non-job officials blights more and more of the harmless attempts by well meaning people attempting to add something to society.

The problem is that even to suggest it sounds like a call for the return of 19th century factory conditions, and offers an easy target for facile knee-jerk comments from even the most half-witted of NuLab MPs.

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