BBC: The World at One

Off to Cornwall and beyond the news, and truth and post-truth, for a few days. But before I go…

BBC news reporting has so often impressed me, but in these post-truth days it worries me – the standards of presentation, debate, argument, balance, integrity have to be so much higher.

Taking a World at One programme from a few days ago as an example.

Martha Kearney: trying to get an answer to her question, why had there been no increase in participation by young people 16-25 in sport as a result of the Olympics. The Sports England director of sport, Phil Smith, answered valiantly, pointed to an overall increase since 2005, made the point that there were increasing pressures – distractions if you will – for young people, against which sport has literally to compete. (Where would we have been without the Olympics? –  declining rates of participation a real likelihood.) She wanted a quote – an admission – a headline. In the best, and worst John Humphreys tradition. Instead of pursuing a wider knowledge, she was seeking a story.

A debate regarding statues in the post-Charlotteville (Alt-Right demonstration, and an anti-racist protestor’s death): the ‘debate’ disguised the story, and ambled round the David Aaronovitch’s argument in the Times that statues should remain but with explanations. The BBC treatment completely missed any shading in the argument – the dark shade, the statues out up in the 1920s as political Jim Crow-era statements – re-asserting the old slaveholding anti-bellum America: for every African-American passing by they are a reminder of a cruel and bitter world. Whereas the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford (my college, Oriel) is high on a wall, all but out of sight, a thank you to a benefactor – not a political statement. You can (indeed I can) argue the Rhodes statue shouldn’t be there, but explanation could be, and I think will be, the way forward in this case.

More recently, late night, BBC News, Professor Stephen Hawking has come out strongly arguing that the government has been selective in its use of evidence for the 7-day working week for hospitals. We then had the Secretary of State for Health’s strong denial – all right and proper. But they then quoted just the kind of selective evidence Hawking was referring to – and didn’t quote any of the other studies. The bare facts as portrayed by the government were even given display boards. ‘Labour-supporter Stephen Hawking’ – that was the final way of damning his argument. It was poor stuff. The arguments on both sides were never properly addressed.

Going back to the News at One I remember they ended with a Tory MP being given space to argue for entitlement cards for immigrants, which as Martha Kearney pointed out, implies identity cards for all of us. David Davis has strongly opposed these, I understand, but the Tory MP argued along the lines of ‘special measures for special times’. The vast inconsistencies in this as in most Brexit arguments was hardly touched on.

And there are other stories. I feel like the Mail – on BBC watch all the time. But the Mail belongs in the post-truth era, and has for many a year, long before post-truth. I am of course just the other side of the argument these days. It does make it so much harder to make a case…

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