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Editorial - 19 January 2004Copper-bottoming or censorship?
Faxfn has discovered a new word: "copperbottoming". We understand it is well-known in the BBC. It is the term used to describe for the investigation of people's backgrounds before they are asked to speak on current affairs programs. Copperbottoming selects from the establishment: politicians, academics, industrialists, and the like. This process gives voice to the privileged: those who have benefited from property ownership, those with subsidised higher education, those who pollute the world with their affluent lifestyles. The underprivileged may sometimes be the topic of discussion but their voices are rarely heard. The underprivileged are censored, albeit unconsciously.
Current affairs programmes have a requirement to be balanced. However, this balance is not struck between the views of the privileged and the underprivileged. This may be a natural consequence of the fact that it is harder for broadcasters and their researchers to find good spokespeople from the underprivileged. It also is convenient because the audiences for these programmes are from the ranks of the privileged.
It is not just the underprivileged who are excluded. Copper-bottoming rejects the majority of us, who may manage to get a vox pop read out or placed on a website. But that's just damming with faint praise. But the serious stuff is reserved for those who have been copperbottomed. Loose cannons are rejected.Argument from Authority.
Faxfn has just made another discovery: Locke, not Aristotle, coined the term "argument from authority" (argument ad verecundiam) (see the web page The Traditional Fallacies from UCLA.) But, we guess, Aristotle would have been as pissed-off as anyone if assertions were taken as fact simply because they were made by a copperbottomed contributor.
Current affairs programmes, especially on the radio, are powerful influences on the public consciousness. Copper-bottomed contributors dispense "facts" into our minds. "Facts" that can be hard to check. Below we give a recent attempt by one of our contributors to check a piece on Radio 4's "Case Notes" programme. It has been hard work and the issue not yet resolved.What can the BBC do? For a start:
The BBC should take a serious look at the discussions on slashdot. They have an excellent and democratic methodology presenting and grading their contributions so they are listening to the experience of their contributors.
The computer industry faces a skills crisis, the president of the British Computer Society has told BBC News.
Unless steps are taken now, there will not be enough qualified graduates to meet the demands of UK industry, warned Professor Nigel Shadbolt. (BBC News)
"Bollocks", says the feedback.
The one I like is this:"I'm an IT manager, however I studied Chemistry when I was younger. IT is something you have to have a knack for, and it's best to be self-taught. Experience is everything."(Newsforums). On the feedback pages I could not find any support for the academic professor-for-producing-more-graduates. Has he read Alison Woolfe or Ronald Dore? See universitiesandinnovation.org.uk
Professor... Proove me wrong!
The Beeb has the sense to hide the feedback several clicks away, where only the informed will look. It would be so rude to put a summary next to the article. It would be too impolite to say:
Professor says industry faces a skills crisis. "Bollocks", say those that have some experience of the real world.
For some years now, I have been campaigning for the medical profession to change its prescribing habits for benzodiazepines. Recently, I was telephoned by a doctor, who prefers to remain anonymous. He had heard a Radio 4 programme about sleep (Case Notes, 'Sleep' BBC Radio 4, broadcast 30 December, 2003.) He particularly disagreed with certain views expressed by one of the contributors, Professor Ian Hindmarch, Head of Human Psychopharmacology, University of Surrey. But he was particularly surprised when the professor seemed to be claiming that under 4% of the population were susceptible to benzodiazepine dependency and that most people could be prescribed these drugs for longer than recommended by the guidelines with safety.
My informant was a specialist in public health medcine. He said he and his colleagues would take very seriously anything they heard such a programme on BBC Radio4. He knew I had done allot of research into the subject of benzodiazepine dependency and wanted to know if I knew a source for the 4% "fact". So I set about trying to find out what had been said. Searching the BBC website I could not find a transcript of the programme but I did find an audio file. Listening to this meant getting the "free" Real Player plugin installers on my computer, which after some difficulty, I eventually managed. After a few days of effort I was able to get my own written notes of the relevent parts of the programme. Here they are:
Extract from Case Notes, 'Sleep' BBC Radio 4, broadcast 30 December, 2003. Programme on sleep. Interview on the use of benzodiazepines in sleep disorder. Interviewer: Alison Ayres Interviewee: Porfessor Ian Hindmarch, Head of Human Psychopharmacology, University of Surrey. AA: "Professor Ian Hindmarch is Chair of the Human Psychopharmacology Unit at the University of Surrey and been involved in the development of several types of sleeping pill. He believes that the drugs have received unwarranted amounts of bad publicity given the small numbers of people who do go on to develop a dependency problem." IH: " It's true that you can become dependent on benzodiazepines; I think even the most serious critics will say that the percentage of people who use benzodiazepines and become clinically dependent is under 4%, which means that 96% percent actually can use these drugs without any dependency or problems whatsoever."
Re: 1988 Guidelines on benzodiazepine prescription AA: "ÖSome GPs have continued to write longer prescriptions for some people" IH: " Many people have taken these drugs on a chronic basis because they have a chronic sleep problem and they have been prescribed these drugs." AA: " But hang on, we've had this advice since 1988, saying that they shouldn't be on these pills for more than 4 weeks - that's being ignored by general practitioners." IH: " It's been ignored by a lot of people, because the conditions exist - chronic conditions. These are guidelines, it's not written down in law and any prescribing physician takes it on his own cognisance. If you have a condition which is lasting chronically, you treat the condition chronically."
What I now wish to know is the following :
My informant was clearly worried by the power of such radio programmes to broadcast "facts" that influence public opinion and the opinion of the influential. The power comes from the use of sources which have "authority". "Authority" may have its place but "authority-based" sources of information should only be temporary substitutes for a "research-based" ones. A wider public should have the ability to follow the trail of reason and correct the mistakes.29jan04a: Paul Shelton: I am no longer listening to their "news" programmes.
Why do I agree with everything you say? Why have I had to write to Sambrook to tell him I am no longer listening to their "news" programmes?
In light of the Hutton enquiry, I would like to say that this is the wrong time to be critical of the BBC. I think any government has too much power and have too much influence over the opinions of the general public. I also think they have the ability to cover up any embarrassing situations, which may harm their public image.
I try to watch television as little as possible as I see it as a method of social engineering. But when I fancy a bit more depression in my life, I generally watch "East Enders". And if the government want the poor to watch their means of propaganda, the price of the latest model TV and DVD should be included in with their fortnightly Giro (£96!!). Lucky bastards Thieving from us all the time and spending it on pot and munchies.
But his isn't the time to be attacking the BEEB. You'll fuck it for all of us. It's the only ray of hope we've got amongst all the shite.
(Ed: It is unfortunate that smugbastardsatthebeeb has gone live during the run-up to the publication of the Hutton Enquiry. Partly that is our political naivety. But we did not forsee the current turmoil. But please express your view on the current situation by leaving this site via our exit poll.)www.smugbastardsatthebeeb.org.uk: Exit Poll.
Later we may complain about the BBC's misuse of polls and vox pops, because they can trivialise the views of ordinary people. But at this important time for the BBC we wish to let readers of this site know the gut feelings of other readers.
This morning Sir David Attenborough has said "In the eyes of the people, the Government is already exerting overdue pressure on the BBC." Please click one of the links below that best express your view.
Comments and serious argument are also welcome. Send them to
February 2nd 2004BBC Radio 4, Interview with Norman Tebbit, Today Programme.
"Iíve always worried somewhat, that the BBCís belief is that impartiality is something that appears in the Guardian newspaper."
Control of BBC (board of Governors etc)
"You donít want the bunch of establishment patsies that you always seem to get landed with and whoever is the establishment at the time."
Norman Tebbit was interviewed after an article he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph about on improving the BBC. ("Make me chairman and I'll save the BBC", 1st February 2004) where he says:
If the BBC is to be saved, it needs a director general as good as Greg Dyke, and a chairman and board of tough independents, not establishment trendies. They should all be committed to the aim that the BBC should not only lead the pack, but lead it to higher standards too.
The Corporation should do more of what it does best: news, current affairs, arts, music, science, history, drama, comedy and sport. It has no need to follow the competition downmarket. It should be a broadsheet broadcaster.
However, it was news and current affairs that brought the BBC to the brink ... They need to be exposed to more other opinions - especially on Europe, crime and immigration, where the received wisdom of the BBC is a minority cult.
Your editorial comment of 29 January 2004 is non-sensical. How can it possibly be "unfortunate" that your website launched in the run-up to the Hutton report's publication? Either it informs the debate or it is useless. It's a poor activist who runs scared if his opinions suddenly become relevant.
Your "argument from authority" contention is tested here. The BBC should have struck Gilligan's allegation because he couldn't prove it. Gilligan (and Kelly) were 'copper-bottomed' sources who turned out to be unreliable. The BBC's failure to investigate the complaint allowed a lie to persist in the public domain.
However the Kelly affair also shows how a malign authority might use a complaints mechanism to pressure the BBC into paralysis. It shows that a BBC subject to such intense self-regulation might be incapable of serious investigative journalism.
In such circumstances the BBC might be unable to report on a contentious issue, even if an aspect was already being reported as fact in other media outlets. Gilligan repeated his claims in the Mail, but the newspaper was not included in the Hutton enquiry.
Finally it demonstrates that even a judicial enquiry into a complaint may leave most people none the wiser as to its veracity (witness your own opinion poll). It seems many people believe the truth can sometimes be impossible to prove.
The tone of your editorial comment suggests the Hutton judgement made you uncomfortable about the consequences of your own logic. If so then be honest about it. Your self-deprecation is ingenuous - "political naivety"? Having written an editorial you should either back it up or withdraw it.
Your domain name disclaimer is troubling. Your URL more than anything defines your target audience. It is also as semantically important as any editorial or contributor comment on the page. Your explanation implies you have disregarded objectivity in favour of advertising exposure. It's a poor excuse and it doesn't change the implications of your choice.
So piss or get off the pot. You've chosen to editorialise your site - explicitly and contextually. Hutton either vindicates your arguments or refutes them. Let's hear where you stand.
My own disclaimer: I am a BBC employee, however the views expressed in this email are my own and not those of my employer.
Hutton either vindicates your arguments or refutes them. Let's hear where you stand.
Hutton does not necessarily do either. As campaigners on a shoestring we haven't had the time (or the inclination) to analyse the details of the Hutton Report. Our position is this.
We have noticed how worried BBC employees are about expressing an opinion - orders from the top?. Can any of you beebies let us know more?
We would also like to know who, in the BBC, is allowed to be opinion forming. As an example, we would like to know more about global warming as an issue. We have the impression that the weathermen are keen to emphasise the issue but that, in general, the BBC is dragging its corporate feet. Is this mistaken? Are the weathermen copperbottomed or just technicians?
What is important about the Hutton report and the government/BBC issue is the immense difference between the BBC and particularly the government's idea of a 'debate' and the average person possessing common sense and any modicum of information (though seemingly greater than Blair at the time of war is a good starting point).
In all truth, what person not obsessed with legal semantics CARES about Gilligan's claim? Whats the alternative being postulated? That the government thought Saddam could bomb the U.K.? Or the U.S.? What's striking about politics post-Bush is the increasing apathy being demonstrated by governments towards justifying their increasingly extreme actions. Bush is an excellent example.
Blair, while following this lead with regard to his extremist policies (e.g. such as those regarding asylum seekers, or his anti-terrorist bill) has come a cropper basically because he has tried to give some sort of... evidence. What was he thinking? At the anti-war marches, an observent eye would notice the huge disparity of groups opposed to the war, from teachers to socialists to students to other politicians. How many of their views are represented by the BBC?
Why pretend to be having a debate?
It doesn't take a media expert to see that the Beeb, uses Vox Pop as newspapers use it...as editorial comment. and now more and more viewers and listeners are invited to comment...after careful screening.
Obviously there is no clear repreresentation or fairness possible ....so it must simply be stopped completely. Finished.
Additionally ... surveys, polls and all research reports should be clearly identified as to the actual questions asked and also which organization has paid for this service.
16jun04a: Monitoring the BEEB
Too much to do. Too little time. But I've just woken up to Radio 4's "The world tonight" after crashing out for a few hours. So here we go. The scores are 1-10.
"The world tonight" Radio 4
Item: Choice - in education and the NHS.
An academic from the US said we were overwhelmed by choices that were too complex. A political researcher here said we could "perfectly" well understand what the market was offering ("perfect" market geddit). The presenter suggested that markets in education and healthcare were far from perfect. The researcher cited the excellent service from supermarkets - a result of the competition between Tesco, Sainsbury etc.
Questions:Are supermarkets a good "perfect market" example? They have externalities like traffic, food miles etc? (see www.shopsforneighbours.org.uk). And what about the effect on community from driving the kids to some distant school of your choice? (See www.communityschools.org.uk).
Weightiness: 8. Academic and political researchers. Well spoken. It's always weighty to appeal to economic theory.
Depth: 2. Unasked questions. No references.
Transparency: 2. Who were these people? No mention of the item on the website.
Item: University research says graduates are good value for money.
A researcher from the University of East Something said they all got paid lots more than non-graduates and all had good jobs after a few years. They were mostly well suited to these jobs. But rather crusty academic said graduates learnt by rote and these days didn't do much to train their minds.
Questions: Did the research make adjustments for students' backgrounds? Is it posh kids go to university, posh kids get good jobs. Is this research compatible with Alison Wolf's "Does Education Matter"
...we cannot conclude ... that the skills that employers are actually using and looking for are indeed the ones gained late in the day. The most valuable could have been acquired much earlier - by age fourteen, sixteen or eighteen - and we have seen strong suggestions that this may indeed be the case.(see www.arestudentsmiddleclasswankers.org.uk).
Weightiness: 7. University researcher and an academic. Seemed proper research with experienced academic commenting.
Depth: 2. Unasked questions. No references.
Transparency: 1. Who were these people? Some crusty academic and a report from the University of East Something. No mention of the item on the website.
29jul04a: The BEEB discovers global warming.
At last the BEEB have woken up to Global Warming. News 24 is full of it. But what's happened to their copperbottomed experts that said it wasn't happening? This is just the sort of case where the BBC should have a forum for weighty but informed discussion rather than pronouncements by copperbottomed experts followed by flimsy Vox Pops.
The bbc website says here:
Climate change came last of the list of important issues facing the UK, chosen by 53%, though 64% said it was one of the most important problems facing the world.They report higher levels of concern for health, crime, education, terrorism, poverty, education and immigration.
I'm surprised that so many people know about Global Warming, given the media we have.
The BEEB is the best we've got. But it's still awful, particularly when it comes to serious policy discussions.
The BBC discovers global warmingThe snows of Kilamanjaro will soon be gone
Auntie Jayne writes:
1 See Professor Stott's interesting blog EnviroSpin Watch.