Fine words butter no parsnips

Bishop Hill blogged about how the BBC forced George Alagiah to quit his role as a Fairtrade charity patron. His Grace wrote:

Does it strike anyone else that the BBC have got this the wrong way round? Allowing BBC journalists to make programmes about issues on which they are active campaigners would indeed lead to biased programming. But merely demanding that they leave their official posts in those campaigns doesn’t change a thing. We now know that George Alagiah is an active campaigner for Fairtrade. Ergo his programme on the subject is still biased, whether he has left his position as patron or not.

I’d like to look at two subsequent letters to the Times written by BBC top brass in response to a letter from various charities (that is, charities and “charities”) complaining about Mr Alagiah being forced to quit. The bold type in the quoted letters was added by me. Here’s the first BBC reply:

Sir, The charities that ask that George Alagiah be reinstated as patron of the Fairtrade Foundation neatly articulate the reason why we asked George to step down from this role in the first place. Their letter (Aug 8) says that the Fairtrade Foundation seeks to “transform trading in favour of the poor and disadvantaged”. Such an ambition is the prerogative of the charities. Many may find it admirable, though others may take a different view of global economic priorities.

It is not the business of BBC journalism to take a view on this or to be perceived to take a view. We are committed to due impartiality, which means we do not take sides on issues of controversy including the fairness of the global trade system. Our job is to represent all sides in an argument accurately and fairly, and test them as rigorously as we can to allow our audiences to reach their own judgments.

And it is not enough for our journalism to be impartial. We must also be seen to be impartial. That is why it is inappropriate for a BBC journalist to take a high-profile, public role representing an organisation which, as the charities’ letter makes clear, takes a very particular view of the controversial issue of global trade.

Helen Boaden

BBC Director of News

Fine words! I really approved of the tone of that letter. I liked the second BBC response – that came after a further letter of complaint – even better:

Sir, Michael Mitzman (letters, Aug 12) misunderstands the BBC’s commitment to impartiality. Yes, of course we would give airtime to those in favour of, as he defines it, “unfair” trade practices, should the story demand it. We would also give airtime to their opponents and a range of views in between. More likely, we would also want to hear the views of those who believe in the untrammelled operation of the market, even though that might give rise to “unfair” trade.

In Burma we would be very keen to hear and test the arguments of the generals were they ever to grant us access. We would challenge all those views with vigour but as long as they fall within the law and within our own code of taste and decency, it would be entirely against our commitment to plurality of voice and due impartiality to exclude them. Assuming a liberal consensus is dangerous for any news organisation.
Putting someone on air and testing their argument is not an endorsement by the BBC — the BBC does not have a view — rather it is allowing the audience to hear the whole story. Our job is to find the facts, test a wide range of opinion fairly and rigorously and let the audience, armed with the best assessment of the evidence we can provide, make up its own mind. And given that, it is important that our journalists, who carry the brand of the BBC, do not take on public roles that call into question the BBC’s impartiality on issues of controversy or dispute.

David Jordan

Director, Editorial Policy and Standards, BBC

Very fine words. Really, could scarcely be bettered. Only…

How does the BBC cover trade? How does it go about ensuring that all sides of the story are heard? All this caught my eye because in 2004 I wrote a post called Fair Trade 4 Kidz which dealt with the way Children’s BBC handled trade issues. Looking over five articles I found literally half a sentence that was not promoting the idea that trade was exploitation and corporations oppressors. I was particularly struck by the fact that all the links provided were to bodies like Oxfam and Make Trade Fair. There were no links to any pro-trade organisation. Come 2005 I posted Fair Trade 4 Kidz Part II. Basically, I called up the CBBC Newsround website, typed “trade” into the search box and saw what I got. Among the things I got were two lesson plans, one written by Christian Aid and one by the Fairtrade Foundation. Yes, the same Fairtrade Foundation that Mr Alagiah supports. Why does the BBC website host lesson plans provided by bodies who, by its own admission, support only one side of the argument about trade?

Well, that was then, you might say. What is there now? So off I went back to the CBBC Newsround website, typed in “trade” again and got…

Do you care about fair trade? Somehow I don’t think that the next story was called “Have you ever heard of selection bias?”

Big protest at trade talks. Contained “A draft agreement from the summit has already been attacked by relief agencies, with ActionAid calling it “a disgrace and an insult to poor people all over the world”. Also had a link to the same piece about the WTO as I mentioned in the Fair Trade 4 Kidz II post – lots about why protestors hate it, nothing to the contrary view.

How fair is international trade? A lesson plan! With a picture of a puppet! The same lesson plan and the same puppet as the one I mentioned in both the earlier post as provided by Christian Aid… only all reference to Christian Aid has gone and it is presented as the BBC’s own. Funny.

By then I was running into stories I’d covered earlier. But I had an inspiration – instead of typing “trade” in the searchbox I would type in “Fairtrade”.
Whointroducedthiswordtothedictionary, anyoneknow?

And I got…

Do you support Fairtrade products?, Cadbury to make Fairtrade chocs, There should be more fairtrade easter eggs, We rapped with Shystie for Fairtrade, Why I support Fairtrade products

UPDATE: A further thought or two. I asked above who introduced this new all-in-one word “Fairtrade” to the dictionary. The answer is, of course, supporters of “Fairtrade” such as the Fairtrade Foundation. If the BBC were to be as exquisitely careful about avoiding all loaded words as it is with the word “terrorist”, then it would say not “Fairtrade” but “fair trade” – or indeed “fair trade”. After all, it’s keen enough on the scare quotes in other contexts! But talking of the t-word, I suddenly remembered where I’d heard of Helen Boaden. She is the one who sent out the memo saying that the 7/7 bombers could not be referred to “terrorists”, for fear it might offend the World Service audience. The BBC has the duty to be impartial between shades of opinion within the democratic pale and it also has the duty to not be impartial between those within and without the pale; in this example, between the victims of murder and their murderers.

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