Monday, July 23, 2007

Pervasive dishonesty at the Leftist BBC

The BBC executive board gathered for its regular meeting last Tuesday morning for coffee, biscuits and meltdown. The previous evening, at 5pm, the deadline had passed for producers to come forward confessing, in a spirit of openness and honesty, to programmes they had made that had misled the public in some way. The invitation for them so to do had been extended by both Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of vision and an executive board member, and Jenny Abramsky, the BBC's director of audio and music. They, and other BBC chiefs, were giving staff a chance to come clean after revelations that a trailer for a programme about the Queen had been less than truthful with viewers, and that the corporation had also been fined 50,000 pounds for faking a Blue Peter competition.

Much to the apparent surprise of Bennett and Abramsky, two experienced and highly respected corporation bureaucrats, a procession of contrite and nervous producers came forward to 'fess up. The public, it seemed, had been deceived with unnerving consistency, particularly over programmes with phone-in polls and competitions. And on the corporation's most noble flagship enterprises, too. Comic Relief and Children in Need, for example. "We just sat there absolutely stunned," one executive board member told me, "shocked beyond belief. Nobody had any idea that this was going on on such a scale."

Not even Bennett and Abramsky, when they asked for producers to come forward? "Nobody. Nobody at all. And we had the very powerful sense that there was a lot more to come. And we thought this time no excuses, something really has to be done."

In the short term this might mean the ceremonial defenestration, for the benefit of a baying Fleet Street and an angry public, of some high-ranking executive. Bennett perhaps, even though she is one of the corporation's most talented and savvy apparatchiks? "But if Jana, why not Mark [Thompson, the director-general]? He is about as remote in the hierarchy from what went on as she is."

The feeling within the upper echelons of the BBC is that the sacrifice of a senior figure would be a capitulation too far to critics, although how far that view is shared lower down is a moot point. There is a certain glee and schaden-freude in some parts of the corporation, long dismayed at the grubby and antiReithian business of chasing the ratings with lowest common denominator broadcasting. Either way, all those I spoke to believe the BBC needs a change of culture, that it needs to decide what it is there for and why we should continue to pay for its existence, compulsorily and on pain of imprisonment if we don't fork out.

"Why are we doing these phone-in polls?" said the executive board member. "In what possible sense are they public service broadcasting? "The programme makers tell you that it's an invaluable way of reaching the difficult-to-get C2D audience. But we need to reach them in different, cleverer ways. "The BBC has always been very good at reaching middle-class, Old Etonian audiences; in fact it has whole channels just for them. But it doesn't know how to attract the white working class, because nobody from the white working class works for it. Phone-in polls are an easy and unacceptable answer. They've been suspended now; there's absolutely no reason why they should ever start again."

According to Roger Graef, a leading independent producer, the scams and manipulations have been threatening to erupt for some time. "It was lurking under the surface," he says, "but there were more and more people coming to my company literally bursting into tears and saying, `I don't want to do this to people any more'. But they wouldn't go public because they were worried they'd never get another job."

A senior BBC journalist put it even more bluntly. "The BBC has to stop trying to get in the f****** gutter with all the other tawdry channels. When you start chasing ratings and using the foul marketing language of City spivs, it's inevitable what will happen." AH, but the trouble is, if the BBC doesn't get into the gutter it may lose its raison d'etre anyway. For the past 60 years or so the BBC has managed to straddle two poles - universality and public service - and thus justify the licence fee. But it is finding it increasingly difficult to do so.

Never mind all this stuff about a new, imported culture whereby production teams subsist under intense pressure on short-term contracts and are not imbued with the BBC ethos, such as it is. That may be in the mix somewhere, but it is not the crucial point. It is about why the BBC exists at all and where it locates itself in the future. And each way the corporation turns it finds a howl of complaint. When it attempts to achieve universality by diversifying in order to serve a specialist audience and dreams up such channels as BBC4 (audience share: 0.4%) and BBC3 (audience share: 1.3%) it is accused of spreading itself far too thinly and as a result splurging huge amounts of licence-payers' money on a vanishingly small audience. Indeed, you might wonder why there is a need for both BBC2 and BBC4 to exist as separate entities when their remits are more or less identical.

Those who accuse the BBC of doing too much, and sacrificing quality as a consequence, were given plenty of ammunition by the current fiasco: at least one of the programmes that rigged its phone-in competition did so because nobody from the audience phoned in. They were broadcasting to an audience of close to zero.

On the other hand, when the BBC attempts to fulfil its charter by providing top-quality mainstream entertainment for a mass audience, the critics attack it for trying to compete with the commercial sector in chasing ratings and paying too much money for household names. Take the Jonathan Ross contract as an example. "The BBC was burbling with happiness because it had got Jonathan Ross for `only' 18m pounds when he had asked for 24m," the senior BBC journalist remarked with some derision. "He draws only about 3m viewers every week - for which he is paid almost eight times the entire yearly budget for a programme like The World Tonight. How can that possibly be justified?"

Privately quite a few BBC executives admit that the Ross contract was a misjudgment, politically, morally and practically. One told me it had cost the BBC "a couple of hundred million quid" when it came to charter renewal because the politicians were ill-disposed towards an organisation that could be so cavalier with licence-payers' money. Others argue that the BBC should not compete with commercial organisations because the BBC is simply inept at doing so, and they use the Ross contract as a case in point. For the executive board member it's a more straightforward calculation. "If there's a commercial organisation that wants to pay Jonathan Ross 18m and thinks it can draw an audience that justifies the salary, then let them do it. It's not for the BBC. Exactly the same applies to phone-in polls."

WHAT should be done? The BBC provided an easy sacrificial victim by "suspending" all commissions from RDF, the independent production company which supplied the original shots of Her Majesty. But the firm says that they e-mailed the BBC three times asking to see its edit before transmission. Someone in the BBC jumped to the conclusion that their trail showed the Queen storming out. At no time did they ask RDF whether this actually happened.

The Beeb's director-general has also ordered that all 15,000 staffers and a good few thousand independent producers must be inculcated in the ethos of the corporation through new training schemes. You might argue that it would be prudent for the BBC to decide exactly what its ethos is before embarking on such a laudable process. At the moment it is not remotely clear. It is vague about the extent to which it should be competing with the commercial channels, and even more vague about the notion of what constitutes its "core broadcasting".

"You know, whenever I ask them about some new programme or channel they're planning," the executive board member told me, laughing, "they always tell me that it is core broadcasting. And I say to them, `Right, okay, well give me an example of something the BBC does which is peripheral broadcasting'. They can't come up with an answer." It is this lack of focus that the BBC management needs to address - as well as the simple fact of not misleading viewers. At present the BBC's default position is that everything it does is always for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. But if the BBC is still to be with us in 10 years, with a statutory licence fee, it needs not only the trust of its captive audience but a far clearer idea of what it stands for.


More BBC fraud

A SENIOR executive at Panorama is to be questioned by police over allegations that the BBC's flagship current affairs programme broke the law by using forged documents to target one of Britain's richest doctors. Detectives are expected to interview Frank Simmonds, the programme's deputy editor, under caution, following claims that Panorama used fake referral letters from GPs to send undercover reporters into clinics run by Mohamed Taranissi, a leading IVF expert. Officers from Scotland Yard want to question Simmonds in relation to the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act, according to an informed source. Using a "false instrument" under the Act carries a maximum jail sentence of 10 years.

The BBC is already facing a crisis of trust after it admitted deceiving viewers by faking the results of phone-in competitions in shows such as Comic Relief and Children in Need. The broadcaster has also been forced to apologise to the Queen after wrongly claiming that she stormed out of a royal photoshoot. The police inquiry into Panorama, however, raises fresh questions about the BBC's core journalism, and comes as Mark Byford, the deputy director-general, faces a grilling by MPs on Tuesday.

Taranissi, 52, whose wealth is estimated at 38m pounds, is suing Panorama for libel, claiming the programme made defamatory allegations about his techniques and has caused lasting damage to his professional reputation. The BBC could face a bill for more than 1m pounds in compensation and legal costs if it loses the case.

The Panorama investigation into Taranissi, broadcast in January, claimed that one of his central London clinics, the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre (ARGC), offered "unnecessary and unproven" treatment to an undercover reporter posing as a patient. The show alleged that a 26-year-old journalist was offered IVF treatment costing thousands of pounds despite neither her nor her partner, having any history of fertility problems. It also claimed that Taranissi was running a second clinic without a licence and was sending his older and harder-to-treat patients there to maintain a high success rate at the ARGC.

Taranissi, an Egyptian who has helped mothers give birth to 2,300 babies in seven years, denies any wrongdoing. His lawyers claim that Panorama researchers forged at least four referral letters from nonexistent GPs to gain access to his clinics. Police took a statement from Taranissi earlier this year and now want to question Simmonds, who oversaw the IVF sting, about the letters. The BBC claims they were "justified" in the context of the undercover probe.

A BBC spokesman said: "We are more than happy to cooperate with the police. They indicated at the outset that they would want to speak to Mr Simmonds." A spokesman for the Yard said: " Inquiries are still ongoing."


Greenies sow food confusion

A Brit tries to take it all seriously

There's this organic carrot, and it's doing my head in. It's a nice carrot, as carrots go: fat, orange, with feathery green tufts on top. It has lived a blameless life in a field of joy, innocent of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. And now, here it is in the supermarket, rooting me on to take it home. Only, here's the thing: the carrot is from Israel. That's nearly 2,500 miles away. If I buy it, I will take on its carbon footprint, garnishing every mouthful with the greenhouse gas that it has splurged into the atmosphere to be here today. Can I live with that? Does the carrot's organic worthiness trump the fact that it is has amassed more air miles than an MP on an international fact-finding mission? Or should I let it rot for thoughtlessly contributing to the destruction of the planet?

You see my problem. I'm food confused. And not just about vegetables. Fruit, meat, dairy - these days, everything is fraught with ethical complications. If I tried to follow all of them, I'd end up an oxygenarian - one of those people who eat nothing but air. The "good" food choices have proliferated like salmonella in an Edwina Currie egg - organic, Fairtrade, locally grown, free range, boutique, the Leaf mark, Red Tractor, Freedom Food, farm assured - some important, others just marketing spin. How am I meant to know what comes first in the pecking order?

Some choices are straightforward. Processed food clearly puts you on the fast track to hell. As for animal welfare, I won't eat anything that hasn't had weekly spa treatments. But organic? I used to think it was a no-brainer: good for the planet (no energy wasted on fertilisers and pesticides); good for the soil (it works with nature, rather than against it); good for the creatures that inhabit furrow and field (livestock, wildlife, farmers). It is also, arguably, good for us.

But when food miles enter the equation, organic quickly loses its halo. Getting an organic New Zealand apple from the tree to your lunchbox releases 235 times as much carbon as it saves. How depressing is that? And that's before you even think about seasonality. We shouldn't be eating apples in June, but we have turned luxuries into necessities, demanding strawberries in midwinter and nectarines in spring.

Of course, there are some things (citrus fruit, pineapples, bananas) that don't grow in Britain, and I would be the last to suggest we could do without them. I'm also not sure I could survive without spices, olives, tea and coffee. But there have to be limits, such as not flying blueberries from Chile in December. And where do food miles and seasonality leave fair trade? Supporting Ethiopian coffee growers is one thing, but should we really be importing pears from South Africa, however benevolent our intentions?

Home-grown is no less problem-filled: your Isle of Wight tomatoes were probably grown in a greenhouse that burns more energy than a Chinese power station, and that supermarket potato has been taken by lorry to the other end of the country to be washed and packed. Sometimes it seems as if supermarkets set traps for unwary ecoshoppers. You know those fruit and veg packets with a picture of a happy supplier on the front - farmer Ted from Hampshire with his organic fruit? Turns out they aren't always from his farm at all. Sometimes they aren't even from his country.

Still, at least you know where you are with meat and dairy. Stick to organic and free range, and you can't go wrong. Except that farm animals happen to be huge contributors to global warming. A field of farting cows produces enough centrally heated methane to drown out the sound of the icecaps crumbling. Then there's all the packaging, the energy-hungry refrigeration, the distance between farm, slaughterhouse and supermarket depot.

A brilliant book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by the American journalist Michael Pollan, poses this dilemma: "When you can eat everything, what do you choose to eat?" Pollan works his way along the different food chains in the States, from the longest (which stretches from the cornfields of the Midwest through intensive cattle farming and processing plants to the fast-food outlets that blight every town and city in the country) to the shortest - a modern hunter-gathering mission in northern California, on which he shoots his own wild boar, harvests morels in the hills, picks cherries from the streets of San Francisco and makes bread with wild yeast captured from the air. In between, there is "big" organic - operations such as the American organic supermarket Whole Foods Market - and small-scale organic, local growers supplying local people and local businesses. The hunter-gathering wins hands down, although Pollan admits it's not that practical on a daily basis. Local organic comes a close second.

Pollan has thought about what he eats; he has looked at the contradictions and worked out what matters. It's probably pretty similar to what most of us want - food that tastes good and makes us happy, without troubling either our conscience or our health. The difference is that he has done something about it. We can blame the supermarkets and producers, but ultimately the responsibility for what we eat lies with us. The choices are confusing, and there is no perfect solution. But the worst thing we can do is do nothing.

There is a movement in America called the Locavores - people who eat, wherever possible, a diet harvested within a 100-mile radius (in cities, we're talking farmers' markets, allotments, small shops that prioritise local producers). Locavores have a mantra: "If not locally produced, then organic. If not organic, then family farm. If not family farm, then local business. If not local business, then fair trade." I would add a line at the beginning: "If not local organic, then locally produced." But I've decided the Locavore code of priorities is going to be my way through the food confusion. That Israeli carrot will just have to go home with someone else.


Greenie misanthropy on display again

Hatred of people is a major driving force among Greenies -- which is why they have been trying to stop people having babies from long before the global warming scare popped up. See e.g. here

The new head of the Science Museum has an uncompromising view about how global warming should be dealt with: get rid of a few billion people. Chris Rapley, who takes up his post on September 1, is not afraid of offending. 'I am not advocating genocide,' said Rapley. 'What I am saying is that if we invest in ways to reduce the birthrate - by improving contraception, education and healthcare - we will stop the world's population reaching its current estimated limit of between eight and 10 billion.

'That in turn will mean less carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere because there will be fewer people to drive cars and use electricity. The crucial point is that to achieve this goal you would only have to spend a fraction of the money that will be needed to bring about technological fixes, new nuclear power plants or renewable energy plants. However, everyone has decided, quietly, to ignore the issue.'

Such arguments give an indication of the priorities of the new Science Museum chief, an office that has been vacant since 2005 when Lindsay Sharp abruptly left the 150,000 pound post following rows about financial waste, cronyism and the 'Disneyfication' of exhibitions. Now Rapley, currently head of the British Antarctic Survey and a passionate believer [not a real scientist, in other words] in man's influence on climate, is set to take charge of the museum, one of Britain's most challenging institutions, where strict academic requirements must be met while competing with Legoland and Disneyland to attract visitors. Only by tackling the issues of the day can he succeed, Rapley said.

Hence his urging that we deal with overpopulation, a call of wide public interest and one that reflects the contents of the recent report by the Optimum Population Trust, which called for each couple in Britain to be limited to having two children each. 'A voluntary stop-at-two guideline should be adopted for couples in the UK who want to adopt greener lifestyles,' it stated.

The interest of Rapley, 60, in this subject stems directly from his climatic concerns. He sits near the extreme end of scientific views about global warming. He fears our planet faces a very hot and uncomfortable future. This belief puts him opposite climate-change deniers, about whom Rapley is generally vitriolic. He described the recent Channel 4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle as 'a tissue of lies' while individual deniers, like Dominic Lawson, are dismissed in unexpectedly terse, Anglo-Saxon terms.

'As to my job at the Science Museum, my remit is very simple,' Rapley said. 'It is to make it the most advanced museum in the world. I will only be able to do that by addressing the key issues in science today and the most important of these is climate change and energy policy. However, there are topics like stem cell science and genomics that are set to have enormous impact and which will have to be tackled in detail.'

Rapley is passionate about making displays and instruments far more accessible. 'If you look at the Science Museum's great engine hall, there are wonderful machines on display but the accompanying explanations are quite often above most people's heads. Most children today probably don't realise these machines run on heat and water, but that is never mentioned. We need different explanations for different levels of understanding: the six-year-old, the 60-year-old, the PhD student. At the same time, there is no point having a few touch-screens about the place. People can only use them one at a time. One idea would be to send free texts to visitors' mobile phones, according to their needs, as they stand in front of displays. Just about everyone has a mobile phone, after all.'

The Oxford-educated physicist earned his spurs as a scientist who built instruments for space probes, such as X-ray detectors for the international Solar Maximum Mission launched in 1980. He went on to work at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory using satellite radar scanners to study the Earth and in particular Antarctica. 'All sorts of environmental issues lead to the Antarctic: sea-level rise, ozone depletion, atmospheric warming,' added Rapley, who is married with two daughters. In 1997, he was appointed head of the British Antarctic Survey and has worked there ever since.

As to key influences, Rapley points to an English teacher at his old school, King Edward's School, Bath, who introduced him to the works of Conan Doyle. 'I learned the joys of deduction from Sherlock Holmes and they stood me in good stead for the rest of my life. They got me to the Science Museum, in effect.'


More straight talk from Bolton

When John Bolton left the United Nations, some of the fun went out of the multi-storey talking shop. No longer was the walrus-moustached rightwinger there to cast barbs at the silver-tongued bureaucrats who took pride in peddling compromises, turned a blind eye to corrupt practices and humoured dictators - the very essence of diplomacy, some might say.

Happily, Gordon Brown's elevation of Mark Malloch Brown to be his minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, a lofty perch from which the newly minted peer will attend cabinet meetings and play the "wise eminence" to young David Miliband at the Foreign Office, has revived one of the most entertaining transatlantic grudge matches of recent years. If the hawkish former US ambassador to the UN is from Mars, the flexible former UN deputy secretary-general is from Venus....

Malloch Brown, Bolton points out, was "simply saying the sort of thing he used to say lurking behind closed doors in the United Nations", where diplomats have perfected the art of "speaking with four or five faces". It is important, he suggests, for the United States to "know exactly where the Brown government is going instead of skulking around the hallways".

"If the Brown government wants to be more European than Atlanticist, let's hear it. If they would rather not have a special relationship, let's hear it." And then comes the zinger: "If they want to be a part of Europe in the same way as Belgium and Luxembourg, let's hear it." Bolton believes Britain must face the question: "Do you want to be an independent country or a county in a big Europe?" The way he tells it is guaranteed to offend our national pride, but you can't say he hasn't warned us. "If Britain wants to be subsumed into the European soup, the United States will have to react accordingly - and we will, make no mistake." ....

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic believe that Iran presents the greatest threat of disagreement between Brown's Britain and America - not Iraq, where plans for a drawdown of British troops were agreed long ago with Tony Blair. Although the balance of power between Dick Cheney, the bellicose vice-president, and the dovish Pentagon and State Department is more volatile than it used to be, some senior officials are convinced that Bush is determined to strike Iran's nuclear facilities before he leaves office. "I hope so," says Bolton, unabashed. "I don't regard the use of military force as attractive, but if the choice is a nuclear-armed Iran, there is no question that you have to come down on the side of force."

Bolton believes the "blind persistence" of diplomacy through the EU3 nations of Britain, France and Germany has merely strengthened Iran's hand. "What will it take to convince Europe the policy has failed? If we wait till they get a bomb, it will be too late."

More here

Testing defended in Britain

The new Children, Schools and Families Secretary set himself on a collision course with the teaching establishment yesterday by pledging that national testing and school league tables were here to stay. Despite growing pressure from the Government's own examinations regulator and the majority of the teaching profession about overtesting in schools, Ed Balls said that "testing and the publication of results" were the only way to ensure accountability. "It enables us to be able to see as policymakers what is working, who is not performing well and, in the extremes, being able to tackle poor performance," he told The Times. It was necessary also, he said, to help parents to judge the performance of their child's school.

Mr Balls's comments will disappoint the main teaching unions, as well as the professional body, the General Teaching Council. All complain that, far from raising standards, overtesting encourages a narrow curriculum, alienating students from learning and increasing their anxiety.

Children in England typically sit 70 tests and exams in their school careers and are the most tested in the world. Despite this, Britain is near the bottom of international league tables for the number of students leaving school with valuable qualifications.

Critics of testing include Ken Boston, head of the examinations regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who has argued that national tests for children aged 7, 11 and 14 should be replaced by the random testing of a sample of pupils and teacher assessments.

Mr Balls's opposition to this approach will also distance the Government from the Conservative Party, which has promised "fewer but tougher" tests and the dropping of Key Stage 3 tests at 14. In his first newspaper interview since he was appointed three weeks ago, Mr Balls also attacked Tory support for more streaming and the promise made by the Conservative leader, David Cameron, for a "grammar stream" in every comprehensive.

Mr Balls stopped short of banning streaming, which involves separating children into groups according to overall ability and teaching them in the same class for all subjects, arguing that individual head teachers know what works best in their own schools. But he emphasised that it was "backward-looking and divisive", imposing an arbitrary judgment on children's intelligence and ignoring individual talents. He said that he would rather see a greater use of setting, where children are separated into ability groups for individual subjects. "I do not find anybody sensible advocating streaming in schools. As somebody who went through streaming myself through secondary school I saw how deeply socially divisive it was," he said.

Mr Balls said that he would be making a series of impromptu visits to schools to spend time with teachers and pupils, who would not be informed who he was. He made his first such visit on Monday, when he spent the day at Banbury School in Oxfordshire, having informed only the head, the deputy and two senior staff members of his intention to visit. He arrived on foot, having asked his driver to drop him some distance from the school and was introduced to teachers and pupils as "a visitor".

He said that there was an old-fashioned view that you either focused on the welfare of the child or drove up standards in the classroom. His visit to Banbury had shown him that this was a false choice. "You can only drive up standards if you are actually focusing on the whole child, tracking their learning on an individual basis, but also knowing that if they aren't ready to learn because they are not sleeping or have difficulties at home, it's not possible for them to do well," he said.

He was determined to tackle the "achievement gap" in society, emphasising the importance of closer cooperation between education, health and social care services for children. "There are children in the same borough, on the same streets sometimes, and even going to the same schools, who have radically different experiences, shaped by family income and family environment, by poor health. The scandal is not England v Sweden, but Blackbird Leys v Headington. It's Harehills v Roundhay. It is North Kensington v South Kensington," he said.

Mr Balls said that more than 400 city academies could be set up, but insisted that they should become part of the "mainstream" and work more closely with nearby schools. The man who has spent most of his political life advising or working for Gordon Brown admitted that he felt "a bit liberated" at being outside the Treasury at last and declared himself ready to argue hard with his former colleagues for cash. Acknowledging that plans for a more flexible national curriculum would place a heavy burden on teachers and head teachers, he said that he would welcome the appointment of head teachers from outside the teaching profession.


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