BBC Complaints: The link you need!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


This morning's Today programme contained a classic case of interviewer bias, as James Naughtie clearly sided with one of his guests (the one who shares his views) against another guest (whose views he definitely doesn't share).
The issue was cuts to higher education funding. In the red corner with Naughtie was Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University College Union, and set against them in the blue corner was Andrew Haldenby, director of the think-tank Reform.
Here's how the interview went, with (as ever) the interviewer's words transcribed in blue:
0.49 Q1 (to Sally Hunt): "Sally Hunt, I imagine, clearly you'll not like this, you can't be wholly surprised given how things are?"
0.57 A1 (SH)
1.41 Q2 (to SH): "Which means not just that the university experience will be diminished for a lot of these students but that standards are bound to fall. If there's less contact time, people are in sausage-machine teaching, then the truth is that some degrees are going to be devalued?" (This sort of question is not really a question at all. It's a statement, or an invitation to agree. Sally Hunt did agree and expanded on Naughtie's points. This was because their views closely coincide. Surely an interviewer for whom the concept of impartiality is important should never betray his own opinions (they should be a complete mystery to the listener) and should adopt a devil's advocate stance wherever possible, asking questions from contrasting standpoints to each of his guests. James Naughtie failed on both counts here.)
1.57 A2 (SH)
(2.07 a quiet "yes" of agreement from Naughtie.)
Note that there have so far been no interruptions!
2.38 Q3 (to Andrew Haldenby): "Andrew Haldenby from Reform, what do you make of it?"
2.40 A3 (AH)
3.21 Abortive interruption: "But if, crerrrrrr (a long, throaty sound!)..."
3.25 Abortive interruption: Gurgling sound, "Well.."
3.33 Interruption 1/Q4 (to AH): "Yes absolutely but...everybody understands the financial pressures but...what the government says, and many other people say too of course, is that the way to come out of the recession and the downturn more strongly as an economy and a society is to improve our knowledge base, to have better trained people, more skill. Now if you produce a higher education system which does the job less well then you're not going to do that." (Another statement disguised as a question, asked from the same position as the earlier statement).
4.01 A4 (AH)
4.27 Interruption 2/Q5 (to AH): "Yeah, but you can't compare a one-year course with a three-year intensive degree." (Criticism of AH).
4.31 A5 (AH)
4.58 Interruption 3/Q6 (to AH): "No, no, but, sorry, no, no, the point about some courses being possible in that time, that's one point (yes, and you'd interrupted to query it Jim, so if Mr Haldenby answers you on that very point you should'nt be surprised!), people can argue about that (i.e. I, James Naughtie, don't agree with you!), but there is another point. At the same time the government is saying that its target is still for £50% of people to go to university. If you're going to have fewer staff, if there's going to be less contact time, doesn't it make sense to come clean and say, look, we can't do that because frankly if there are a lot of people who are going to go to university who at the moment don't, then if they're going to get the most out of a university education they're actually going to need more attention, more contact, which will be less available because of the number of people who are going and the number of staff who are there to teach them?" (This 40-second long 'question' is from the same standpoint as the previous questions, and its end-point was crashingly obvious from about half-way! It's the sort of point you'd expect a left-liberal like Naughtie to make.)
5.38 A6 (AH)
6.02 Interruption 4: "Well this is another point...this is a long argument." (Firstly, no it wasn't another point at all. It was the answer to your point Jim & cutting Andrew Haldenby off after 20 seconds worth of an answer to a question that took you 40 painfully long seconds to ask and then accusing Mr Haldenby of being long-winded because he wants to defend himself isn't just a bit rich - it's filthy rich!) "No, I want to bring Sally Hunt back".
6.06 AH tries to struggle on
6.08 Interruption 5: "Yes, so people who can afford it can get a better education." (This stops AH in his tracks - as well it might, as it was a complete non-sequitur. Where the hell did that leftie gibe come from???! It certainly didn't come from anything Andrew Haldenby had actually said! Gibe made, Naughtie moved straight on, without giving AH the chance to respond to it. Disgraceful.
6.11 Q7 (to SH): "Sally Hunt?"
6.12 A7 (SH)
7.07 The interview ends
Viewed from the perspective of interruption coefficients, Naughtie here scored 0 against Sally Hunt and 1.5 against Mr Haldenby.
How many more rules of impartiality can James Naughtie break? *

David, commenting on the Biased BBC website, reminds us that Jim Naughtie is not a neutral on this particular issue, as he is Chancellor of Stirling University

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