Wednesday, 17 June 2015
Lies, damned lies, and British newspapers
Last month on my own blog I discussed an example of bone-idle British journalism at its worst - and its worst is very bad indeed. In this case, the newspaper in question had apparently got a school leaver to précis a piece from a rival paper, adding her own interpretation of the original article in between quoted extracts.
The original piece, which appeared in the Telegraph, was by Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal. The rip-off version, which appeared in the Daily Mail, managed to completely reverse the meaning of what he was saying. If the misinterpretation was wilful, then it was a disgrace; if it was the result of stupidity or carelessness then it was a shambles.
Well, Mr Bond, the first time is happenstance. But this week anybody unfortunate enough to look at the Daily Mail will have seen an even more odious example of its descent from journalism into propaganda, in the form of an attack on the BBC that is clearly designed to pave the way for the UK government to reduce or abolish the licence fee. Naturally the very thought of that has the Mail flapping its wings like an excited harpy, as (along with 90% of Britain's often foreign-owned and extremely partisan press) it hates the idea of an independent, publicly funded media entity with a remit to be unbiassed and informative in its reporting.
Here are the facts. The Mail article fails to mention that £270m of the licence fee was taken to support Welsh language channel S4C and a slate of government projects including broadband rollout and local television. By the Mail's calculations, programme costs don't included edit suites, newsrooms, and (especially dear to my heart) story development, and yet without those there would be no programmes. The Mail claims that the BBC "pumps money" into its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. In fact the two are obliged by charter to conduct business at arm's length; BBC Worldwide receives no share of the licence fee and generates money (for instance by sale of BBC programmes to other countries) that feeds back into programme-making in the UK.
The bottom line is that, completely contrary to the Mail's assertions, 90% of BBC spending is on content, distribution and related support costs. And that figure is independently verified, as the Mail must surely be aware.
This is only the latest blast in a long propaganda campaign that the Mail has been running with the apparent aim of stirring its readership into a state of high dudgeon against the BBC. For example, there was this 2008 report about how BBC "wasted" £45,000 ($70,000) on a party to promote the TV show Merlin. Yet that's a perfectly reasonable cost of doing business, and it paid off. Merlin has now sold to over 180 countries, netting over £100 million in revenue for the BBC on an outlay from the licence fee of less than £40 million. Bearing in mind that the primary purpose of the BBC is to create programmes for the British public, and that turning a profit is a secondary concern, I'd say that was a pretty good return on investment. But not in the eyes of the Mail, whose proprietor has opted for non-domicile status and is a contributor to the Conservative Party, who for years have been trying to chip away at the BBC's popularity - which, I'd venture to say, is considerably higher among the general public than that of either Lord Rothermere or the Tories.
If the UK electorate is gulled by propaganda like this into allowing politicians to scrap the licence fee, the BBC will be severely weakened and we will have lost a vital source of objective reporting and high-quality programmes that are the envy of the world. All to make nasty little rags like the Mail better able to serve their paymasters. So wherever you live in the world, next time you come across a news piece that is striving so desperately to convince you of something, remember to ask yourself: cui bono?