‘Tory! Tory! Tory!’ (7)

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DNqXrRcWkAEI6Tb.jpgIn the long, sickening history of BBC bias and manipulation — which will never be written, not least because the Corporation spews out more examples in a single month than could ever be collected, let alone analysed — there has surely been no programme more damaging to UK democracy than Question Time. Literally every aspect of this show — in which ‘members of the public‘ offer ‘their own questions‘ to ‘a selection of prominent and influential figures both in and out of politics‘ — yields textbook examples of how a programme with an ostensibly ‘open’, ‘public access’ format can yet be made to run from beginning to end on elite-serving rails.

To a considerable extent, of course, what ensures the programme’s success in toeing the Establishment line is tight editorial control over who it is that the viewer gets to see and hear. As far as that studio audience is concerned, I’ve often felt that the ‘Q‘ we see in front of them really ought to be written out as ‘KEW‘ — since whatever row one looks at, one sees a plant. And when it comes to the guests on the panel, it’s pretty much a running joke in media-analysis circles that, week after week, the ‘selection of prominent and influential figures’ turns out to contain a veritable chimps’ tea-party of atavistic right-wing opinion. Speaking as someone who takes the trouble to spend 30 seconds or so every single Thursday actually collecting the show’s latest ‘Tonight’s Panel‘ graphic, I feel able to say that, eight or nine weeks out of every ten, the choice of guests is absolutely outrageous

The aim of all this studio shenanigans, in case you’d not noticed, is to move the nation’s apparent political ‘centre of gravity’ — and thus the perceived ‘normal’ and the boundaries of the thinkable — as far to the right as possible: what matters above all at this late stage in the corporate enfoldment of the nominally democratic state is the race to transform public assets into private property — which of course requires the prioritising of anything that will either make this legalised larceny seem legitimate (‘There is no alternative!‘) or will distract people from the fact that it is taking place at all (‘Let’s talk about Muslims!‘).

Here’s yesterday’s panel:

Does that look okay to you? It’s not at all impossible that it does — especially if you just take it at the ‘face value’ that is all you’re offered. I mean, aren’t those three parties — SNP, Conservatives, Scottish Labour — the three with the most seats (respectively 63, 31 and 23)  in the Scottish Parliament? And isn’t it ‘good’ to have two apparently contrasting journalists on the panel, rather than two who work for the same billionaire?

If that’s what you’re thinking, then well done: that’s exactly what you are meant to think. And if, on top of that, you are thinking it instead of wondering about how Dimbleby ‘framed’ these five panelists at the start of the show — this in spite of all the words I wrote about manipulatively asymmetric framing in my posting of a few days ago — then even more sarcastic congratulations are in order: you’re also not doing precisely what you are not meant to do.

Do you want to know how these five panelists were framed…?

You do…?

Well, thanks to my trusty reporter’s notebook and the jottings scribbled therein, I can tell you exactly what was said

Cue David Dimbleby:

Here on our panel…

The Conservative MEP and committed Brexiteer, Daniel Hannan…

Jeane Freeman, formerly a communist activist, then Labour Party adviser, now the SNP’s Minister for Social Security…

The former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale…

Senior Editor of ‘The Economist’ and veteran Westminster-watcher, Anne McElvoy…

And, flying the flag for a socialist Britain, the ‘Guardian’ columnist Owen Jones…

Now, I don’t know about you, but by the time I got to the end of that, I was weeping with laughter

Can you see why?

Let me wipe my eyes again, and then we’ll start with those ‘two apparently contrasting journalists’…

See what’s going on there? It’s not a million miles away from the tactic we diagnosed in our analysis of last Sunday’s ‘Andrew Marr Programme’. There we had the same Owen Jones described as ‘Corbyn-supporting ‘Guardian’ columnist‘ — and Isabel Oakeshott described as ‘author and commentator‘. The precise impact of that asymmetric framing — and the nature of its manipulative intent! — can be gauged by simply re-writing Marr’s introduction so as to minimise the asymmetry while remaining scrupulously accurate

Compare the actual:

Reviewing the news[papers], the Corbyn-supporting ‘Guardian’ columnist Owen Jones and the author and commentator Isabel Oakeshott — all of that coming up after the news, here read by [etc].”

with the factual:

Reviewing today’s newspapers, we have Owen Jones — the Corbyn-supporting ‘Guardian’ columnist — and Isabel Oakeshott — until recently the ‘Political Editor-at-Large’ for the ‘Daily Mail’ — all of that coming up after the news, here read by [etc].”

Feel the difference…?

Now let’s take a look at Dimbleby’s nasty little offering. Note the way he takes care to ensure that McElvoy — just like Oakeshott! — is described in a way that helps her look like a neutral, dispassionate observer of political events: she is, we are told, a ‘veteran Westminster-watcher‘. Likewise, that word ‘senior’ in her quoted job-title of ‘Senior Editor of ‘The Economist’‘: doesn’t do any harm to stress a word that connotes ‘sober maturity’, does it? — especially when the other journalist is baby-faced Owen Jones, who is only 33 and looks a lot younger.

And, here too, let’s assess the nature and purpose of the broadcast framing by comparing the impact of the unmodified original with that of a version altered in a way that reduces the asymmetry without introducing anything incorrect

First, the actual:

Here on our panel…

[…]

Senior editor of ‘The Economist’ and veteran Westminster-watcher, Anne McElvoy…

And, flying the flag for a socialist Britain, the ‘Guardian’ columnist Owen Jones…

And now, the factual:

Here on our panel…

[…]

Flying the flag for a neoliberal Britain, the ‘Economist”s Senior Editor, Anne McElvoy…

And, flying the flag for a socialist Britain, the ‘Guardian’ columnist Owen Jones…

Feel the difference…?

Of course you do!

In fact, I would say that those two, more symmetrical frames — the first correcting Marr, the second correcting Dimbleby — have something in common that is actually very striking. In each case, what emerges in the more symmetrical revision is something that millions of ordinary viewers — forget about you and me for the time being! — would actually find rather chilling. A huge number of people in the UK rightly despise the Daily Mail — and wouldn’t be at all impressed to hear that Oakeshott had worked for it; similarly, no small number would be pretty nauseated to discover that every issue of McElvoy’s academic-sounding Economist is actually a partisan tract devoted to the service of society-destroying globalised free-market small-state liberalism, albeit with the occasional application of a ‘civilising’, socially liberal lipstick to its psychopathic totems.

The more symmetrical you make the framing, in other words, the less extreme and weird does Owen Jones seem — and the more extreme, objectionable and worrying do his journalistic antagonists become. Which, of course, is precisely the reason for all the asymmetric framing in the first place.

What else does Dimbleby not tell us about Anne McElvoy? Well, like Owen Jones, she actually contributes to The Guardian. Yes, really. And, also like Owen Jones, she’s all over the BBC — although in her case, it’s as a regular or semi-regular presenter/participant in various long-running series. In other words, by not mentioning the fact that this intended counterweight to Owen Jones is not only ‘one of the regular presenters of Free Thinking, Radio 3’s arts and ideas magazine’, but also appears on news broadcasts, as a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze and presents radio documentaries‘, Dimbleby was actually bending over backwards to make sure her potentially feather-ruffling status as a BBC insider remained safely out of audience sight: all they got instead was ‘veteran Westminster-watcher‘…

(Now, you may think it right and proper that Dimbleby said nothing at all about who Anne McElvoy is married to; myself, I think such silence verges on the corrupt — given the far-from-irrelevant fact that her husband is Martin Ivens, Editor of the Sunday Times: are we all supposed to think ‘it doesn’t matter’ that this elite couple’s lifestyle is at least partly funded by Rupert Murdoch’s money? We also heard no mention of McElvoy’s regular column for the Evening Standard — though that probably did everyone a favour: the insightless twaddle she sends there is best overlooked — except as an important reminder that a properly established elite insider will get paid for any old muck…)

No, I am not for an instant implying that someone’s introduction in a panel-discussion programme should aim at biographical or ideological comprehensiveness. I’m just saying that Senior Editor of ‘The Economist’ and veteran Westminster-watcher won’t cut it when Dimbleby has just referred to another woman as ‘formerly a communist activist, then Labour Party adviser, now the SNP’s Minister for Social Security‘.

The woman in question was, of course, the SNP’s Jeane Freeman — or, as she really ought to be called, Jeane Freeman OBE. Yes, she has a gong — which Dimbleby obviously didn’t think was worth telling people about, determined as he was to stress the ultra-scary COMMUNIST ACTIVIST bit that, in Freeman’s wikipedia entry, makes its appearance in connection with 1970s student politics and doesn’t get any mention in any context at all after the early 1980s. And, in case you’re wondering, her ‘Order of the British Empire’ — which she received for her services to the rehabilitation of offenders — was awarded as long ago as 1996.

(So far as I’m aware, Dimbelby’s own ‘student politics’ have never featured on the programme’s menu; but something about them may perhaps be divined from the fact that he was a member of the Bullingdon Club: yes, at Oxford — which is where he gained his sparkling Third in ‘Philosophy, Politics and Economics‘ — Dimbleby was a member of the same socially exclusive student dining and drinking society that later provided a vomit-stained incubator for Cameron, Johnson, Osborne and their pampered coevals.)

Needless to say, Dimbleby wasn’t ever going to leave it at FORMERLY A COMMUNIST ACTIVIST: with the SNP not only making electoral mincemeat of the Scottish Tories but also constituting the principal force behind the drive for Scottish independence (and good luck to it!), he had to take three more swings. What were they? Well, the first was to tarr Freeman with a Labour brush — Scottish Labour (which has a considerable degree of independence from the London HQ, and hasn’t used it at all wisely) being widely despised north of the border. The second was to connect her with ‘Social Security’ — that perennial bête noire of the savagely right-whinge Question Time audience (many of whom plainly believe that suddenly becoming sick, jobless and broke is something that only happens to other people.) And the third? Surely you glimpsed it — just for a moment! — as that list of Freeman’s past allegiances lengthened unnecessarily before your eyes: ‘The woman can’t make up her bloody mind, can she…?’

I think it’s also worth pointing out here that communist witch-hunting is actually something of a Dimbleby specialty — providing as it does a rich source of scare-words to wave before the audience and the other panel members. If you saw the programme with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell a year ago, you’ll have heard Dimbleby flinging the word MARXIST at him no fewer than six times — allowing Conservative MP Anna Soubry to run with it and use it twice, and the SNP’s Joanna Cherry to use it once. As you’ll see, a detailed analysis of what Dimbleby was up to in that programme makes fascinating reading (I can’t remember where I got this graphic from: if you know who produced it, let me know so I can acknowledge them)… What about Kezia Dugdale? As we saw, she was described as ‘former leader of the Scottish Labour Party’ — and then dropped like a hot brick. Inevitably. I mean, the last thing the programme wants is someone to be saying anything that makes Labour — even Scottish Labour! — look as if it matters to anybody: after all, there are 31 Scottish Tories in serious danger of being slung out. And while Kezia Dugdale has blown hot (opportunistically) and cold (mostly) over Jeremy Corbyn — who, across much of the UK represents the nearest thing any voter has to a political choice that doesn’t entail their utter dispossession — Dugdale does seem to be a supporter of Corbyn at the moment. So, a description in seven minimally informative words will do — before we pass quickly on to a profit-making ‘junkonomics’ magazine that’s partly owned by an English branch of the Rothschild family and whose proposed solution to pretty much every problem is more privatisation and increased deregulation

Which, of course, brings me to Daniel Hannan, much as I wish it didn’t. Hannan, in fact, is a fascinatingly foul example of what is terminally wrong with our political culture: the breathtaking absurdities in which he trades would long ago have seen him laughed into utter obscurity were it not for the fact that he deploys them in unwavering support of concentrated private wealth; this being so, the system renders him untouchable. What he is, in fact, is a priest in the Church of Wealth-Extraction — a votary of unrestrained, unregulated capital, who mumbles at the altar of rent-seeking and unearned shareholder value — and it is in such sheerly religious, indeed, catechistic terms that his utterances should be understood.

Last time I looked — which was literally a few hours ago — Hannan was having his clock cleaned on the RT website by my pal Neil Clark over his recent, rubbishy attempt in the (billionaire-owned) Daily Telegraph to reduce the number of Hitler’s victims to a mere 17 million. (In reality, well over 20 million Russians alone perished in the war that Hitler started.) Which is what I mean by untouchable: a public figure who minimises a death-toll connected with the Nazis does so at potential risk to their career and (in some cases) their liberty — except, that is, when it’s done for the reason that Hannan was doing it: to whitewash the crimes of the omnicidal capitalist system by making it seem that anti-capitalists — Stalin, Mao and the rest — have murdered squillions more. (Spoiler: They haven’t.)

So what about Hannan’s Question Time framing? Well, as you saw, Dimbleby began by calling him ‘Conservative MEP‘ — which is true enough, but dangerous: there’s always the risk of such a person being taken for a Brussels ‘gravy-trainer’ — and of the audience responding accordingly. Which is why we immediately heard the ‘safe word’: calling him a ‘committed Brexiteer‘ will not only have removed all such worries, but will even have made him an instant favourite among the gammon-faced Little Englanders with whom every one of this programme’s audiences is mysteriously packed.

We still need, however, to see what happens when Hannan is presented in a less manipulative, less asymmetric frame — for which purpose we once again replace the actual…

Here on our panel…

The Conservative MEP and committed Brexiteer, Daniel Hannan…

[…]

And, flying the flag for a socialist Britain, the ‘Guardian’ columnist Owen Jones…

with the factual…

Here on our panel…

Flying the flag for a US-style system of health insurance and the dismantling of the NHS, the Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan…

[…]

And, flying the flag for a socialist Britain, the ‘Guardian’ columnist Owen Jones…

It really does make a difference, doesn’t it? (For a video of Hannan talking about the NHS on US TV see here.)

Now, this posting is designed to rub in a few points made in the previous one — not only about the nature and purpose of manipulatively asymmetric framing, but also concerning my declaration that, once one knows what it is that the BBC does and how it does it, one begins to see that the techniques are used everywhere. From this point of view, the present posting’s job is just about done; but I want to add three little thoughts before I go to bed.

First of all, note that even though Dimbleby’s introductions addressed a substantial slice of the ‘mainstream’ political spectrum, it so happened that the only terms he used that related to political ideology were left-wing ones: we heard the words ‘communist’ (SCARY!) and ‘socialist’ (DISCREDITED!), and that was it. Only when I had fixed the framing did the word neoliberal appear alongside those other terms.

This selective silence, it seems to me, is of immense significance — not least because it is an omerta that is upheld across the BBC’s entire output: in spite of neoliberalism having been the dominant economic and political principle in the West since the days of Reagan and Thatcher — to the point that it is now even enforced across the EU by the Lisbon Treaty — it is a fact of broadcasting life that the ‘n-word’ is one that never seems to be uttered.

The reason for this is plain — once you actually notice what is happening.

For in order that neoliberalism’s elite money-go-round may keep revolving — that endless cycle of privatise — deregulate — asset-strip — erode workers’ rights, pay and conditionsprivatise — deregulate — asset-strip — erode workers’ rights, pay and conditions… — it must never be identified as the mere voluntary policy and practice that it is, but must always seem to be unavoidable reality, as natural and essential as the air we breathe. In short, neoliberalism has to be something that goes without saying — and to that end, no-one uses the word for it. In a combative but capital-serving context such as Question Time exists to create, words like ‘communist’ (SCARY!) and ‘socialist’ (DISCREDITED!) function as smackdowns: denoting mere ideologies open to discussion and critique, they are used to stigmatise and problematise views outside the permitted narrow range. But neoliberal capitalism — the monster that is eating our planet — is the god of gods, whose name must never be spoken.

Secondly, that Question Time audience. If you ask me, two things ought to happen — and don’t. The audience should consist of people selected essentially at random from the constituency concerned; and the selection should be carried out by agencies unconnected with those making the programme. After all, look who it is that is making the programme: not the BBC itself (which would be bad enough), but a private company called Mentorn that is owned by venture capitalists. Yes, a ‘public service’ broadcast of considerable status and influence — in which politicians and policy makers of the right and (when you’re lucky) the centre-left take part in public debates which help to decide who will acquire the legislative and executive power to regulate things like private equity firms — is in fact a programme provided to the BBC by a company owned by a private equity firm. As the saying goes, ‘you couldn’t make it up’.

Thirdly, if you want to read some scandalous revelations about Question Time, its audience, and the people who select it, you can read this. Which report — and I do hope you will read it all — prompts me to say, by way of final comment on this utterly despicable programme, that if your mission is to take the ‘Overton Window’ — the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse — and shift it further and further to the right, your audience can never contain too many neo-Nazis.

https://i1.wp.com/digitalspyuk.cdnds.net/17/25/768x384/landscape-1498233209-dimbleby.jpg

“What’s that? You’re curious about how much I get paid for doing this? Well, it so happens that the BBC pays me through an independent production company — so all you people who want to know the amount can just…”

MD

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13 thoughts on “‘Tory! Tory! Tory!’ (7)

  1. Very astute Mark
    I have long witnessed the deceitful manipulative behaviour by the media, portraying (certainly all my life, 69 years of it) anything anti-establishment as vile. I saw the Overton Window shift with Thatcher – now, some of her policies (Corporation tax at 30% for example) now being lambasted as far-left. And I despair of the bias in QT, especially that audience!!!
    Mind you – I think that ‘millionaire singer, plays at Socialism’ is a bit cruel on Billy Bragg – he does try to fly the left wing flag. And I have no criticisms of a person’s wealth, but only of who they crushed to attain it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Having been directed to this entry, I am afraid I cannot hold my tongue. But I should start with a compliment: this piece is at least well-written. However, I find it baffling that you seek to de-legitimise the Daily Telegraph by pointing out that it is owned by Rupert Murdoch (fair enough in some ways), but make no such critique of RT – wouldn’t it have been easy to add in ‘(strong ties to the Kremlin)’?! This conscious omission is symptomatic of a piece purporting to criticise journalistic bias – with some justification, though the BBC is a poorly-chosen target – but that is itself riddled with inherent bias (eg ‘Red Tory’) and prejudice (eg one-sided critiques of neoliberalism; ‘people would be reviled by the Daily Mail’, despite the fact that its online platform is the most visited newspaper website in the world – whatever ones personal views on its editorial line). This piece, while it raises some interesting points, over-emphasises the role of the ‘framing’ of the debate, in turn doing down people’s ability to think critically about what is actually being said by panellists on QT.

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    • The Daily Telegraph is not owned by Rupert Murdoch, and I didn’t say it was. It is owned by the Barclay brothers.

      Why on earth should I seek to de-legitimise RT? Our entire political and media establishment already does that all the time: they don’t need my help — and even if they did, the one thing I wouldn’t give them is support for their desperate attempts to ban the Western voter’s principal source of news and comment that hasn’t been filtered through the US/UK state-corporate propaganda system. Our elites don’t hate RT ‘because it’s fake news that undermines their attempts to give voters proper information about what’s really going on’ — they hate it because it undermines their own capacity to put out fake news as and when it suits them.

      What’s that? You think ‘RT is biased’? Well, hang on to something, because I have shocking news for you: everybody sits somewhere, and nobody stands for nothing. What matters is what comes out that otherwise couldn’t — and, as far as my respected pal Neil Clark is concerned (I know of no more necessary journalist writing today in the English language), it’s worth mentioning that he writes for the Daily Express as well as for RT. But it’s only RT that lets him write Op-eds about politics and foreign policy — and, indeed, about propaganda. Know what I’m saying…?

      The Daily Mail website may well be the most visited newspaper (your word) website in the world: it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to discover that its ‘sidebar of shame’ (readers see here) is a bookmarked internet ‘favourite’ of every non-incarcerated sex offender on the planet. For the record, what I said was that ‘A huge number of people in the UK rightly despise the Daily Mail‘. Attempts to attack this statement by referring to the ‘Mail Online’ website are rendered insubstantial by the fact that 70% of that website’s readership is located outside the UK — and this is even before we get to the detail that much of the website’s content is stuff that has nothing to do with anything printed in the Daily Mail itself. You really aren’t very good at this, are you?

      As for ‘people’s ability to think critically about what is actually being said by panellists on QT’, thoughtful readers will recall that I took the trouble to include an analysis of one programme that showed how Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell — a senior, front bench member of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition — was barely permitted to get a sentence finished before Dimbleby allowed somebody to interrupt him (nine times), or interrupted him himself (five times). As a direct result, McDonnell was allowed less time to speak than any of the other guests — none of whom was interrupted more than four times, and two of whom were only interrupted once. What concerns me in all this — and it should be of interest to you also — is not so much ‘what is actually being said’ as what is not permitted to be said.

      Using the term ‘Red Tory’ to describe Owen Smith — Corbyn’s ex-BBC-producer, ex-big-pharma-lobbyist opponent in the other year’s offensively unnecessary second leadership contest — is not ‘bias’. It is diagnosis.

      What you say about what you think I say about neoliberalism is not worth responding to. And your submission that, in discussions of journalistic bias, ‘the BBC is a poorly chosen target’ is, frankly, hilarious.

      Lovely chatting.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. This is a great piece. The framing of these debates is crucial. Neoliberal reason is always portrayed as the obvious common sense and any challenges to it must be flagged in order to be swiftly dismissed. We are making progress, however slow it may be, in challenging this framing. The popularity of socialism, and the growing skepticism towards capitalism, especially among the young, will over time blunt the scare tactics of the BBC. If socialism could experience the revival it has without the help of media outlets like the BBC, imagine what could be possible if we actually had a balanced public broadcaster that didn’t represent the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an excellent analysis of the BBC’s Establishment bias which can only get worse, if possible, under the chairmanship of Sir David Clementi ex of Virgin Money/Prudential/ Bank of England etc., – Thatcher’s pet privatising pit bull and appointed by Number 10 last February. I would have enjoyed a brief contrast with Radio 4’s Any Questions and David’s (age 79) younger brother Jonathon (aged a youthful 73) which, I’m sure would have proved a mirror image. Your pithy article has brilliantly explained why on every Thursday night, I have to be restrained from throwing my mug of cocoa into Dimbleby’s smug face.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. All future guests on Question Time should read this and be prepared to re-introduce themselves and any members of the panel not presented in the round.
    One moment the article called to mind for me was when Jacob Rees Mogg in saying he was lucky to have had the advantage of an Eton education, pointed out that he was actually there with David’s son. Dimbleby’s waxen straight face at the curtain being pulled back and Alex Salmond’s gleeful little cackle in response was hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. thank you so much Mark , your words and your passion have made my day. so happy to have discovered your writing. You have gained a fan.

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  7. Found out something that surprised me a little about the audience comments. The morning before the program I heard that one of the local GPs would be in the audience and had his question (about the number of local hospital consultants) “approved “. I assumed he would be introduced as “our next question is from Dr Smith. Dr Smith, please.” But no. After some of the panel had discussed a question, DD said “let’s hear from the audience, you in the blue, yes you with your hand up” who turned out to be Dr Smith who proceeded to ask his pre-approved question. Silly me to have thought the audience comments were a spontaneous reaction to the debate.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have just thoroughly enjoyed your article about QT and the games that famous names play in public. I look forward to reading more of your articles and subsequent comments. I left the UK in 2002 so I have not been able to keep up to date with QT while living in Spain & Poland. Evidently I have missed the opportunity of hurling a mug of tea at the TV!

    Like

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