Today's 'Dateline: London' (BBC News 24, 12.30pm, available on the BBC i-Player) was, as usual, a haemorrhage of bleeding-heart liberals (a collective noun invented by one of the Biased BBC website's most entertaining contributors, Piggy Kosher), seasoned (unusually) with a little good sense. All present and correct was Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of the Independent at her most annoying, and fellow-regular Ali Bahaijoub of North-South magazine at his most annoying. These screaming leftists were joined by sensible CBC journalist Laura Lynch, whose political standpoint was, thankfully, not at all obvious (if only our own Gavin Esler were so scrupulous!) and the obligatory cutie, Israeli Middle East analyst Daniella Peled, who sounded like a liberal to me.
However infuriating Yasmin and Ali's contributions were (and, by gum, they were certainly that!), my focus lies with the BBC's man, Gavin Esler. He was the worst of the lot.
This is how he began the first segment: "Now Barack Obama's trying to change the American system of health care which, since it accounts for 17% of American GDP, is a massive undertaking. In contrast, Britain's national health service is just 8.5% of GDP, and yet the NHS has become the target of some anti-Obama campaigners, who accuse the American president of trying to force an Orwellian and evil NHS-style system onto the United States. Why has this turned so nasty and why did a Conservative member of the European parliament condemn the NHS as a 60-year old failed experiment?"
Why might this opening pitch be seen as biased? Because...
1. It bigs up BBC poster-boy Obama, poor lamb, who's facing a "massive undertaking" (like Hercules).
2. It trots out (as Esler also trotted out earlier in the week on Newsnight) the 17% v. 8.5% figure as a simple QED for the whole argument (in Obama's favour).
3. It then spins from that QED to an alleged denial of the QED (and true QEDs, of course, cannot validly be denied) with an "..and yet.."
4. It suggests that all the opposition to Obama's health care reforms come from "anti-Obama campaigners", whereas maybe it also comes from anti-Obama's-health-care-reform campaigners (who, as many Democrats also oppose his plans, are not necessarily the same thing).
5. It presents the opposition's objections in the crudest terms, presenting the most extreme expressions of the argument as representative ("Orwellian and evil")
6. It seeks, not explicitly but certainly by implication, to describe the strategy of those opponents as "nasty".
7. Having made the "nasty" point it moves on, in the same sentence, to the comments of Dan Hannan, shrunk and, thereby, traduced into six (context-free) words.
And that's only for starters!
Am I being over-sensitive here? Well, Esler's later interventions suggest not.
Here are a sample of his questions:
"But isn't there a short-term and a long-term thing here? One thing that struck me, as someone who lived in the United States for eight years, it strikes me about this debate is that most Americans know nothing about the British health service -why should they? - but because of the talk of Nazism and Orwellianism and so on, because of the common sense of most Americans, they will figure out it's a scare and then will see what they should do".
Is this the question of an impartial presenter, or a side-taking statement? The anti-reformists talk of 'Nazism and Orwellianism' and this is (according to Esler) 'a scare', whereas 'common sense' will guide the American people towards Obama, after they have seen "what they should do". If he wants to opine, why doesn't he resign from the BBC and become a regular guest on 'Dateline' instead, with a new, impartial presenter?
Then interrupting the sensible Canadian, he said "But one of the things, because you lived in the United States as well, one of the things that's kind of laughable about this debate was the idea that the NHS is bureaucratic - which it is - but somehow the American system isn't. If you've ever dealt with American insurers there is nothing more Orwellian than dealing with the HMOs and the care providers in America, not the doctors (who are amazing) but the insurance companies are extraordinary," and then interrupted her again to echo his leftist friend, "As Yasmin said, 50 million people don't get it". Again, Gavin Esler has given up all pretence of impartiality. He's on one side of the debate, & he doesn't mind who knows it. This should not be the case.
For sheer hutzpah though, get this: "Those pictures of Obama with a little moustache on, I mean most Republicans I know, even though they would oppose him on healthcare, think that's despicable, to treat the president like that, and really counter-productive because it's just silly." The BBC's Washington office was notorious for featuring, among other things, a Bush poster with a Hitler moustache on:
(for which thanks to fellow blogger, DB).