This is a guest post by Mitnaged
As those of you who have been following this will know, BBC Radio London aired an interview with the Guardian’s Political Editor, Michael White on 14th December last year. On the 19th December last, I initiated a formal complaint about the content and conduct of that interview. You can find accounts of the various stages of the process here, here, here and here
Readers may remember that I sent a further email to Andrew Bell, the Complaints Director of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit, which I printed at the end of Part 4 of the saga. It went as follows:
“Dear Mr Bell
“Thank you for your letter of 4th March.
“In it, you write, “… I do not feel that there was any lack of impartiality shown by the fact that he [ie Michael White] was not challenged….”
“I am afraid that you miss the point completely:
“My complaint was not only that the presenters failed to challenge Michael White but that they indicated agreement with his views.
“It is evident to me that you have singularly failed to address this evident bias on their part in your reply to me and I would like an explanation of whether this was because you ignored this in your investigation and, if so, why you did not think it important.
I got the following reply:
From: Andy Bell [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: 12 March 2010 15:19
Subject: RE: For the attention of Andrew Bell ref: AB/1000029
“Thank you for your email.
“I have gone back to your original complaint where you did raise the issue of the presenters making noises which you think signified agreement with Michael White’s views. However, you offered this as support for your complaint that Michael White’s contribution was inaccurate and misled the audience not as evidence of bias. I believe I dealt with the point about accuracy substantively in my letter though I did not refer to these noises specifically. However, I am very happy to consider it as evidence of bias now.
“I have listened to the report again. There are three occasions, while Michael White is speaking, where Jo Good says “mmmm”. I have to say that I think I would be hard pressed to take this as evidence of bias. Interviewers say this, and similar things, all the time whilst interviewing contributors and it usually means no more than “I understand what you’re saying” . I can speak from personal experience in saying this, having spent many years interviewing people for television myself. Even when an interviewer might use the word “Yes” during the course of an interview even this would not necessarily signify agreement, but simply “Yes, I understand what you’re saying”.
“I do appreciate that you were upset by Michael White’s remarks, and as I said in my letter, I do agree that he did not express himself at all clearly, but I am afraid that I don’t consider what he said, given the background I set out in my letter, or indeed any noises that the presenter may have made, to represent serious breaches of editorial standards.
“However, if you are still unhappy with my finding it remains open to you to appeal to the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust. Correspondence for the Committee should be addressed to its Secretary, Bruce Vander, at the BBC Trust Unit, 180 Great Portland Street, London W1W 5QZ or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Trust normally expects to receive an appeal within four weeks of the date of this letter, or of any subsequent correspondence between us.
“Thank you again for writing to us. .
Editorial Complaints Unit
BBC White City
201 Wood Lane
London W12 7TS”
And I replied to him by return:
“Dear Mr Bell
“I disagree with your interpretation, which I think is disingenuous and as subjective as you imply mine is.
“Much depends on the tone of the “mmm” or the “yes” and I believe that Jo Good was agreeing with Michael White. Given the BBC’s past record of anti-Israel bias, it is very difficult to understand Jo Good’s noises as not being in agreement. I also believe that she may have been totally out of her depth, which begged the question as to why she was allowed to conduct the interview.
If we look at Andrew Bell’s reply to me above, it is evident that he is engaged in hair splitting. He is not examining the presenter’s noises in the context of the interview as a whole but chooses to focus instead, rather bizarrely, on the aspect of where I mentioned them in my complaint:
“However, you offered this as support for your complaint that Michael White’s contribution was inaccurate and misled the audience not as evidence of bias….”
(It seems that Mr Bell is afflicted of the same malaise as CiF moderators, that of blinkered literalism. He appears to have no idea that a contribution may be inaccurate and misleading and therefore very likely biased as a result of both of these, whether or not “bias” is actually mentioned).
We then get to the explanation of why he thinks so:
“.. There are three occasions, while Michael White is speaking, where Jo Good says “mmmm”. I have to say that I think I would be hard pressed to take this as evidence of bias. Interviewers say this, and similar things, all the time whilst interviewing contributors and it usually means no more than “I understand what you’re saying” . I can speak from personal experience in saying this, having spent many years interviewing people for television myself. Even when an interviewer might use the word “Yes” during the course of an interview even this would not necessarily signify agreement, but simply “Yes, I understand what you’re saying”.
(So Bell is arguing, and probably with a straight face and as earnestly as he knows how, that just because HE sees no bias in the presenter Jo Good’s “mmm” remarks – and I would lay odds that she was nodding too but obviously I have no proof – then her “mmm” on the three occasions when Michael White was libelling the IDF was no more than a “Yes, I understand what you’re saying.” Moreover Bell is arguing that my subjective interpretation of Jo Woods’ part in this egregious and highly insulting exchange must needs be set aside in favour of his subjective interpretation, because he is an employee of the BBC with “many years of interviewing people for television…” because “interviewers say this and similar things all the time…”
Bell seems to have completely ignored that conversations have at least two participants, a speaker and a listener – in this case many listeners – but that the speaker dare not assume that he/she will be completely understood. Therefore for Michael White to say, “..In Israel they murder each other a great deal…” may be taken as meaning precisely that, in spite of its lamentable grammar. For me, to hear a presenter to not only allowing him to say this unchallenged but also making sounds of agreement throughout the part of the interview which deals with that is evidence of bias in that case, regardless of Bell’s opinion of what tends to happen in other interviews with less contentious subject matter).
I noted above that the BBC, like CiF, tends not to view contentious remarks or statements within their context unless it suits them to do so. Michael White writes for the Guardian. Because of this, I believe that he saw an opportunity to deliberately derail the discussion about the attack on Silvio Berlusconi and took it so that he could undermine his newspaper’s number one bête noire.
The BBC, of course, has its own history of animus towards Israel, which means that any remarks by Michael White which were consonant with that would be acceptable to it. For myself, however, I believe that at least some of the responsibility for letting the interview be sidetracked must lie with Jo Woods herself. Michael White is wily and knew exactly what he was doing. Jo Woods, however, clearly showed herself to be out of her depth when it came to reining him in, and she therefore adopted the course of least resistance towards something she probably knew very little about – that of agreeing with everything he said.