Friday, January 30, 2004

You'll never beat the media...

Perhaps I am unduly contrarian by nature, but any issue that unites the Spectator, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, Tribune and the New Statesman immediately makes me nervous. Such unanimity amongst the media makes me wonder what we are dealing with.

The current case in point is the now familiar Hutton backlash. The Spectator calls it a whitewash, The New Statesman claims that Hutton has it wrong, while the Mail and the Guardian find a rare unity in saying that the BBc should stand up to the Government.

Why such unanimity? Well, the obvious argument is that each of these varied and fine organs have two common views- first that the present government is wrongheaded and decietful and secondly, that, well, they're all produced by journalists.

I know this second point seems stupid, but think about it. If all commentary about accountancy was written by other accountants, isn't there just a chance that the coverage of the topic might be slanted in favour of accountancy?

This point was driven home to me last night when watching and listening to various BBC outlets- News 24, the ten o'clock news and Radio Five live.

The dominant theme enunciated by talking heads as varied as the Guardian media correspondent, Austin Mitchell, Austin Mitchell's wife, Martin Bell, Frederick Forsyth and Stuart Maconie was that the BBC was a fine organisation, that it was trusted far more than the government, that Greg Dyke was a great manager, that the independence of the BBC was vital, that rules and regulations shouldn't be allowed to stop journalists muckraking and so on and so forth.

I even noted that the delegated Government voice- Former No 10 press officer Lance Price was another former BBC employee and was rather complimetary about the BBC as a whole.

I agree that the BBC is a great organisation and that it's independence is vital to the health of the nation, but the selection of talking heads, the overwhelming thrust of commentary and the tone of questioning all made me feel uncomfortably like there was a media echo chamber happening- determined to excuse the BBC from the dastardly bias of Hutton.

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Thursday, January 29, 2004

The one where I tip-toe into controversy...

I generally don't like criticising other bloggers (unless I can get a cheap laugh out of it). It strikes me far too often as a debating move akin to picking a fight in a pub. It's too easy to choose the weakest, most feeble opponent and it's usually more about your own insecurities than a real challenge to combat.

So it is with some trepidation that I edge towards saying that the estimable dsquared at crooked timber is talking out of his backside. Sadly, I feel he is, and I feel I should mention this unfortunate fact as politely and evenly as possible.

Daniel is concerned that Alistair Campbell is telling porkies when he says

"If the Government faced the level of criticism which today Lord Hutton has directed to the BBC, there would clearly have been resignations by now. Several resignations at several levels.”

Nonsense says Daniel, and cites the first "dodgy" dossier to back up his point. See, that was an own goal, and no-one resigned, ergo, Campbell is wrong.

Except errmm, no. Hutton made some very specific accusations at the BBC. Namely that they got the initial report wrong, failed to investigate the complaint properly, backed up their report without evidence, and didn't cough to their multiple offences until it was unavoidable. In sum, the BBC was wrong, wrong and wrong again.

If Hutton had even come close to saying the same about the Government, it would be a total demolition of HMG's case. Daniel would now be reading about the end of the careers of Geoff Hoon, Sir Kevin Tebbit, as well as several press officers and personnel managers at the MoD and likely the Prime Minister too.

Daniel's reference to the "dodgy dossier" is entirely irrelevant. While the dodgy dossier was poorly sourced, it was a minor part of the case for war- slid under a few journalists doors and only making the news when it became controversial. The government coughed immediately, and admitted a serious error.

Alongside all this, there are no suggestions "the dodgy dossier" was untrue (even the amendments were true - unless you think that the Iraqi regime was not aiding terrorist groups in Israel- which they proudly proclaimed themselves). The sin was petty plagiarism versus deliberately and intentionally accusing the Government of lying, never withdrawing the accusation, never investigating the complaint and acting high-handedly to complaints on the flimsiest of evidence. The two issues are incomparable.

While, I am sure daniel is a most logical and eloquent person, This is typical of the most frustrating element of taking on those who want to see the government as wrong- they keep shifting the goalposts. It might be a Tory MP saying that Hutton failed to investigate the "culture of spin", or an anti-war campaigner saying "only the WMD's matter", or the BBC saying "We were just standing up for our independence", or Daniel saying "ahh but what about the Dodgy dossier- all try and deny the significance of Huttons verdict.

So let's apply a simple test. If The Hutton verdict had been reversed, would the Spectator, the Tories, Galloway or Daniel be calling for government resignations? If the answer is yes, then they cannot expect less for the BBC. I know that the Government was on the rack- and expecting resignations if Hutton had gone badly.

By what logic should the BBC be less endangered?

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But where next?

Now Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies have both resigned we are bound to see the enraged splutterings of disgusted commentators for the next few days.

Anthony Wells has a good collection of those articles of the "Whitewash" persuasion already posted, and the bizarre Galloway/Spectator/Guardian alliance is presumably cranking itself up for a full weekends worth of outrage.

It is no doubt an outrage that Lord Hutton sided with the Government rather than the admitted liar (or incompetent) Andrew Gilligan, an Editor in Chief who did no investigating into a complaint of the utmost seriousness, and a Chairman who asked no questions.

We have to ask what lunacy could have lead Hutton to blame these innocents when he could instead have blamed a Minister who chaired a meeting in which it was agreed to say who Kelly was to those had already guessed it?

An aside: I particularly like the polls that are being used to justify the scepticism of the media to Hutton. First you report that a story is a "whitewash", then you poll on it and report with mock amazement that a number of those responding say it is a "whitewash". I wonder where that idea came from?

But what is there next on the political radar? Many Labour insiders were bracing themselves for a post-Hutton reshuffle. That now seems unlikely.

The Chief Whip and Leader of the House will want a fairly quiet run up to easter- not least because there are big elections in June, and more huge fights will be unhelpful. The Budget can be used as the springboard into thase elections and any surgery should be delayed until after they are finished (and since Labour will likely get a battering, blame can be apportioned then too).

So Domestically, I'd expect Number 10 to try and move the focus back to schoolsnhospitalsndoctorsnteachersnstrongstableeconomy.

The Tories will be talking crime, asylum, and transport. These are hot issues right now, and if it wasn't for the fact that Howard can now be saddled by the nasty and opportunistic themes, might be effective. I'm increasingly thinking that Howard was the wrong choice. He just can't help trying to kneecap when smothering would be far more effective.

The LibDems will wave the Iraq flag if anything goes wrong- and try and get their spending commitments sorted out (one of the pleasant sidelines of this weeks PMQ's was the way Blair tore Kennedy apart on spending).

So back to politics as usual. A nasty, vicious, hand to hand fight to the end.

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Hold me accountable...

This is what I said would happen about Hutton on July 22nd 2003 and a couple of days later on the 24th of July.

"The stark truth is, that Dr Kelly spoke to journalists and the result of one of these conversations was an unsubstantiated attack on the Government’s honesty on a issue of national importance. Dr Kelly then told the MoD that he had NOT said the things that the source in the story was alleged to have said. Once the BBC had confidentially refused to agree that Dr Kelly was their source, and so any attempt to get Dr Kelly’s rebuttal of the BBC story on the record anonymously was dead, the government had two choices. First do nothing and give the allegation that it lied with credibility, or name Dr Kelly, which, given media interest, was likely to happen anyway.

So, I think they acted responsibly and reasonably. There is no case for Campbell to answer. "

As I watch the Daily Politics today, I see the attempt by journalists and right wing commentators to somehow spin the Hutton report . Either Hutton missed "the context", or he was an establishment figure, or got it plain wrong. To me this seems to be flailing to fit the actual story into the "expected story"

Journalists find it impossible to believe that the BBC was completely wrong and the Government almost all right. They were geared up for an assault on the government, and have to make to with some obscure BBC governors. There is a palpable sense of loss at the coverage, an attitude of how can they still be there after all the stories we wrote.

To which I can only say, Heh. You shouldn't have twisted the story to fit your ideology, should you?

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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

With one mighty bound...

I think the one person who should be hugging himself with glee is Geoff Hoon. Overall the BBC looks pretty bad. Howard looks cynical, the Prime Minister looks vindicated.

For those of us who;ve been following this, the only real surprise is that Geoff Hoon comes out so cleanly. I'd like to see how the media cover this. For those of us who have been expecting the Secretary of State for Defence to be the sacrifice demanded by the Media gods have been confounded. Instead the BBC's big chief is to be sacrificed.

On to the next crisis....

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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

316- 311

A damned close run thing. According to Sky, two of those votes can be traced to the SDLP.

Of course, some are now spinning this as Gordon saves the day/Gordon the plotter. Cue long debate about another Blair/Brown axis/deal/split. Yawn.

More importantly, Jason from AndStuff was the winner of our competition, predicting a Government win by 4. I shall interpret this as a lead of 4, not a majority of 4. Let me know what topic you want me to write about.

An honourable mention goes to Councillor Stuart Bruce, who had predicted a win by 4, but succumbed to a last minute surge of optimism.

Egg on face for me. well, at least I was sure we'd win. Ahem.

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Last Chance to Vote..

What will be the result on the Tuition fees vote? I predicted a majority of 25, so I'm the outlier at the moment. Exact numbers please. Winner gets a post by me on the blog on the topic of their choice.

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The fix is in

From Gallery News:

Former chief whip Nick Brown, a leader of Labour rebels over tuition
fees, has now vowed to back the Government in tonight's crucial vote.

The Higher Education Bill vote was on a knife edge but Mr Brown's
support is likely to make victory for the Government more certain.

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Tuition Fees and Hutton

I've just woken up from a very pleasant post work sleep (for some reason my sleep patterns are completely destroyed at the moment). It's too late to do the one thing I really want to do, which is call my girlfriend and have her whisper lullabies into my ear, so my mind turns to only one thing.

What goes through my mind as we near the witching hour? This is the biggest week of the Blair government. This is the moment of decision. Cue drum rolls. The fat lady is about to sing. What will happen?

Dear reader, do not reflect on the type of person that this makes me. That way leads only to introspection and despair.

As I lie restlessly in my bed, it occurs to me that I have not been able to summon up the enthusiasm and esprit de combat on these issues that such moments of decision usually bring out of me.

This is because I think we will look back at the end of this week and wonder what the crisis was.

The speculation on tuition fees has swung one way and the other over the last week. I still think the government will win, though perhaps my estimate of a majority above 20 is on the optimistic side. I just can't see the whips not having a good enough head count to know what concessions will need to be made to get the damn thing through. Like Trafalgar, this will be a damned close run thing.

As for Hutton, Geoff Hoon will most likely resign within the week, The BBC will get a fair amount of criticism and the PM will emerge fairly unblemished, and everyone else will be so bored with the whole damn thing it'll be out of the news cycles by Monday.

I suppose, holding these basic opinions and largely being supportive of the Government it's hard for me to watch the whole messy business unfold with the enthusiasm and hope of a critic of the Government or the excitement of watching a drama enacted.

Given that I'm not a whip, a rebel whip nor a clerk of the Hutton enquiry it's pretty clear that my predictive information is as helpful to you as the equine investment advice of the all day resident of the local boozer hunched over his racing post. Perhaps that's the real reason I'm so jaded. I'm out of the loop.

So, as a substitute, I'm projecting my political interest into New Hampshire, where I'm currently seeing the Dean comeback I hoped for below, and the comeback arc I oh so wittily described even further below.

Oh, and most importantly of all, I'm looking forward to getting the lullaby whispered into my ear tomorrow night.

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