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A writer of the old school, Huw always puts on a bow tie and dinner jacket before starting work on his column

August 2005

In the light of recent events, Huw looks for balanced coverage and informed commentary on politics, religion and terrorism. Failing to find it on the BBC, he turns to the bloggers…

 

These days, I am told, announcers on British radio are no longer required to wear a dinner jacket when reading the news. Jolly bad show, say I! There was a time when formal evening dress was de rigeur on the wireless. According to the BBC’s history of itself: “Since January 1926, announcers had been under orders to wear dinner-jackets in the evening, as a mark of respect to performers also obliged to dress formally.” These days, I strongly suspect, the BBC radio newsreaders are more likely to be wearing a tee-shirt and jeans than a bow tie and tuxedo.

While I cannot say with any certainty whether or not the wearing of a dinner jacket improves the quality of the news, I must reluctantly admit that my respect for the quality of BBC news reporting has declined in recent years. The low point for the BBC was the culmination of the Hutton Enquiry which looked into the events following some shoddy reporting by the BBC which, through a convoluted series of events, became entangled with the suicide of weapons expert, Dr David Kelly, and, eventually, led to the resignation of both the Chairman and the Director General of the BBC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutton_Inquiry).

However, that’s not my only, or indeed my major, gripe. My real problem with the BBC is that its news reporting is habitually ‘seasoned’ with opinion (to make up your own mind, listen online to BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/).

For someone who feels even more strongly than I do about the inadequacies of the BBC’s reporting see the Biased BBC Blog (http://biased-bbc.blogspot.com/).

There has long been a polite fantasy in the UK that BBC reporting is impartial. To be honest, I am not sure whether real impartiality is either possible or desirable. Do we really want the BBC to hover uncertainly, unwilling to make a judgement on the rights and wrongs of terrorist bombings in London? Probably not (though in recent times the BBC showed itself surprisingly reluctant to describe the London bombers as ‘terrorists’ - see The Telegraph and Harry’s Place).

However, what I do want are news reports which report news and opinion pieces which give opinions. What I all too frequently get from the BBC are news reports which silently insert the opinions of the reporter: “This is a worrying day for the government.” - yeah, says who (apart from the reporter, I mean)? “This is yet another dent to public confidence…” - uhuh? And you measure ‘public confidence’ how, exactly?

The worst crime of all is what I call the “mood on the street” report. This is when the presenter in the studio talks to the reporter at the scene of the crime, bombing or murder and, asks “What is the mood on the street?” to which the reporter rather rarely replies “Unbounded joy, laughter and merrymaking….”

OK, so let me put this in perspective. The BBC isn’t all bad. News presenters such as Nick Clarke and Eddie Mair are among the best in their profession. And BBC TV can still produce excellent and thought provoking documentaries such as Peter Taylor’s recent ‘The New Al-Qaeda’. So credit where it’s due….

Fortunately, the Internet frees me from a dependency on the BBC. In fact, it frees me from a dependency on the British media in general. When a major news story breaks in Britain, I now make a habit of viewing it from an International perspective. Having checked the BBC’s version http://news.bbc.co.uk/ I take a look at CNN http://www.cnn.com/, The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/ and The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/. If I feel up to practising my French, I may throw Le Monde into the mix too http://www.lemonde.fr/. Then, back to Britain to trawl through the ‘quality’ newspapers of varying political complexions: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ and http://www.telegraph.co.uk. It’s often surprising how differently the same news story may be reported on these various sites. It’s equally surprising that many ‘breaking’ UK stories appear on American sites before they make it to the BBC.

You can read all varieties of opinion on the Internet. For example, Islamic Party of Great Britain http://www.mustaqim.co.uk/ipb-archive/commonsense/london.htm seems to think that the recent London bombings may have been suspiciously ‘convenient’ for the British Prime Minister: “Hitherto the British government had thought that scaring people of an inevitable terrorist attack was good enough, but received ridicule and accusations of fear-mongering in return….. London needed a real terror attack in order to numb people sufficiently for the government to push through legislation that they had not been able to push through even before their electoral fiasco.” Blogger, Eric Lee, http://www.ericlee.me.uk/archive/000126.html thinks they are wrong.

In the wake of various atrocities around the world in recent years, many of us who had previously been largely unaware of (or unconcerned by) the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism have been left asking the question ‘Why?’. In the years since 9/11. I’ve read and heard many attempts at explanation in the British press, on the radio and TV and, frankly, have found most of them to be unconvincing. It seemed as though a journalistic consensus had emerged, with many UK journalists asking more or less the same questions and providing more or less the same answers: poverty, injustice, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. I always felt that these explanations might form part of the story but as a whole they were far from satisfying. But, in the absence of any other explanation, what else was there...?

The Blog Alternative...

The web sites I mentioned earlier - from the BBC to Le Monde - are all outgrowths from conventional publishing and broadcasting organisations. In fact, some of the most interesting web sites are those run by individuals - usually Blogs of some sort. Blogs are often scorned by professional journalists. “How can you be sure that what you read is true?” they ask, rashly assuming that we can be sure that what we read in newspapers is true.

In my experience, some of the best independent journalism (unfettered by the demands of a publisher or the subtle prejudices of an ‘editorial policy’) is to be found in Blogs. Yes, it’s true that Blogs are often biased but their bias is generally self-evident, not hidden away in the silent sophistication of news with opinion.

I certainly would not claim that Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch http://www.jihadwatch.org/ is unbiased. But, whether you agree with Spencer or not (and if you don’t you can say so by leaving a comment), I think you would have to agree that Jihad Watch provides an interesting and provocative perspective on the news which you are unlikely to find in your daily newspaper.

Of course, concentrating as it does on jihadists, Spencer’s site does tend to present rather a negative view of Islam. Well, fine. There are plenty of other sites that explore more a positive view of the religion. For non-Muslims the online book, ‘A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam’, provides a fairly user friendly introduction to the religion. In the present climate, Chapter 3’s explanation that “Islam, a religion of mercy, does not permit terrorism” makes for interesting reading. And, while on this subject, you may want to browse around the site of The Institute of Islamic Information and Education http://www.iiie.net/ which is “dedicated to the cause of Islam in North America through striving to elevate the image of Islam and Muslims by providing the correct information about Islamic beliefs, history and civilization from the authentic sources.” This site explains that “Muslims follow a religion of peace, mercy and forgiveness. If an individual Muslim were to commit an act of terrorism, this person would be guilty of violating the basic tenants of Islam.”

While I may characterise the Internet as a force for the good in this column, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Internet has no moral stance and can equally well be used for less desirable aims than the dissemination of informed opinion. Indeed, in Peter Taylor’s ‘The New Al-Qaeda’, the Internet is described as one of the most powerful tools of international terrorism, providing “ a secret and safe means of communication, as well as an inexhaustible online library of training manuals and information on how to carry out terrorist attacks.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/4683403.stm

The trouble with having such a diversity of informed opinion just a mouse click away is that after a bit of browsing you can soon find yourself more confused than when you started out. Is Islam a religion of peace or violence? Is Islamic terrorism caused by injustice, hatred, brainwashing or a determination to bring about worldwide Islamic state? Who is telling the truth - Mr Blair? Mr Bush? The BBC? Or Jane Fonda (see the Washington Post: “Actress and activist Jane Fonda says she intends to take a cross-country bus tour to call for an end to U.S. military operations in Iraq.” Fonda will tour on a bus running on vegetable oil. "I can't go into any detail except to say that it's going to be pretty exciting," she said.)?

At which point it is nice to be able to read an intelligent and lucid commentary to pull together the diverse threads. One of the best commentaries on world affairs is provided by Normblog http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog (a typical pithy comment on Jane Fonda’s anti-war tour : “Good to know she'll be excited, and running on vegetable oil, while campaigning for the people of Iraq to be left to the benign attentions of the 'insurgents'). Written by Norman Geras, Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Manchester, Normblog is blogging at its best. An intelligent and incisive writer, Professor Geras is a Marxist who confounds expectations by expounding arguments (particularly in support of the war in Iraq) which many people had assumed were the preserve of the right wing. Or, as the Sunday Times once pithily put it: “Stormin’ Marxist is toast of the neocons”.

Whatever your politics, Normblog is a terrific read. With online writers of this calibre, who needs the BBC?

Right-wing, left-wing, the best ‘amateur’ bloggers of political persuasions are now providing more incisive and well-argued commentary on current affairs than some professional journalists who are paid a decent salary for the efforts. I also recommend Scott Burgess’s The Daily Ablution http://dailyablution.blogs.com and Harry’s Place http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net/.


And Finally...

 

I’ve seen some bizarre error messages in my time, but this one from Amazon had me really stumped. So far my attempts at achieving a negative number of DVDs have met with little success. Perhaps if I rotate them through a fourth dimension…?


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