Friday, July 25, 2003

DUTY: Tom Watson thinks that there are two principle issues arising from the Kelly affair - the role of Select Committees and the Role of the BBC. At the risk of appearing tackless; I think that there is a third - the neutrality of the civil service. Dr Kelly was a civil servant and whatever he actually said, it appears he was briefing against the government he served and in breach of the terms of his contract.

Now this in itself is nothing new, civil servants have always leaked and briefed. But when caught they were normally suspended, sacked and often prosecuted. But in Dr Kelly’s case the government seems to have been remarkably lenient- merely asking him to appear before a parliamentary committee and testify. If this had been, say, the Thatcher government, he would probably have been suspended immediately and possibly, later prosecuted.

The neutrality of the civil service is a longstanding principle and central to the effective functioning of government. To maintain it, it has to be policed – by the government in the case of anti government actions by civil servants and by parliament if the civil service becomes too party political. And it must be policed with effective sanctions, which means the power to suspend, sack and prosecute, not just to name and ask offneders to tell the truth.

So criticism of the Blair government for being too hard on Dr Kelly are well off the mark; if anything the Hutton enquiry should enquire into whether the Blair government was too lenient in not suspending Dr Kelly. This may sound cruel but there is a very real danger that sympathy for his family may establish a precedent that civil service breaches of their duty of neutrality may be overlooked if a political favour, like appearing before a select committee, is paid in return.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

WHY THE TORIES LOOSE: This edition of The Spectator illustrates why the Covenservates are now the natural party of opposition. The Kelly affair raised many questions about both the BBC’s news reporting and the Blair governments modus operandi. It should have presented a sitting duck for any conservative pundit. So the Spectator runs 5 articles attacking those conservative pundits who’ve opined that the BBC is most at fault.

Now I’m a BBC basher but this is not an exclusive accusation; it is entirely possible, or even probable, that both are at fault. So an edition that attacks the BBC blamers is not just wrong, its counterproductive – it manages to do the BBC and the Blair governments work for them simultaneously.

So the accusations in the leader that editorial policy is constraining attacks on the BBC is false as articles by the BBC’s Andrew Marr and Alice Thompson show in the Telegraph show. For the Times it is undoubtedly true that Murdoch has an interest in putting the BBC down, but again this has not been the unequivocal position of the Times as, for instance articles by peter Riddell shows. By contrast the Spectator runs not one article critical of the BBC.

While the Conservatives bitch about which direction to take, it looks like the BBC and Labour have agreed to bury the hatchet.
"Plans to publish details of Andrew Gilligan's controversial second appearance before the foreign affairs select committee have been postponed indefinitely following an intervention by the chairman of the BBC.The FAC chairman, Labour MP Donald Anderson, today said he had "reluctantly" agreed to shelve plans to publish the transcript following a written request from Gilligan and a "private communication" from the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies."

"The judicial inquiry into the death of David Kelly will not be televised after all, it was announced today"
The BBC now realises it wont survive without an electable Labour government i.e. one with Blair in charge, and Blair realises it needs the left wing media to win. Conforming to stereotype, the conservative commentary argues everything’s black and white and attacks each other. Who’d you vote for?
GUNG HO? This anecdote pops the gung ho GI media meme:
“More recently, American soldiers have been charged with the sensitive task of searching those who enter the Palace district of Baghdad. One Shi'ite mullah felt it a great dishonour to be searched. The soldier responsible, Captain Wolford, agreed to take him round the back of the building and search him in private. Once there, the mullah agreed to be searched. Captain Wolford refused then to search him - the agreement to comply was enough. The gentlemanly approach much pleased the mullah.
It is because of this kind of sensitivity that the Americans have slowly and quietly achieved the intelligence triumph that led to the discovery and killing of the sons of Saddam Hussein.”
But read the whole article; it wasn’t American technology that won it, willing and well trained soldiers were the difference.

A BATTLE OF COMPETENCE: One of the main tenets of guerrilla warfare is that you disperse your command to avoid knockout blows– so having two of your most senior commanders in the same house at the same time for a couple of weeks is either a sign of supreme over-confidence or supreme incompetence.

Evidence for the latter is the largely ineffective guerrilla campaign waged so far: intelligence estimates that there are at least 9,000 “active fayadeen” in which case, managing to kill just over 30 soldiers over 3 months is hardly the strike rate of a ruthlessly efficient organisation. It was also important that the Baathists strike back today to neutralise the propaganda coup the allied forces scored yesterday. They managed to kill just two soldiers, a tragic loss for the families involved, but hardly a toll that’s going to convince the Iraqi population that that Baathists are on the way back to power.

I personally don’t think that the worst is over; the fayadeen are likely to get better with and sooner or later a bomber likely to get through and inflict a significant loss. The problem for Saddam is that the slower they learn, the more irrelevant their actions become politically.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

FREE MILITARY COMPETITION: There has been debate about whether the British Basra strategy in the south or the American Baghdad strategy in the heartland is best. In reality it is like comparing the actions of two surgeons dealing with two totally different patients. The Shia South is a patient suffering from relatively mild Baathsim and the “non-invasive holistic” approach adopted by the British suits this pathology. However the Sunni triangle is a more serious case and, as the events of the past months show, radical and invasive surgery to root out the cancer is required. So while the impression of gung ho yanks and mild mannered Brits may makes good copy, it’s hard to see how either ally is dealing with the problem in a way that is inappropriate to the particular problems they face.

Of course history is likely to prove neither approach was ideal. I suspect that time will show that the British forces made a mistake being vigorous enough in tackling Iranian backed tribal militias. And once the Baathists are rooted out, the Americans may regret not starting a hearts and minds campaign sooner. But that’s the advantage of multilateral action; firstly you have competition to judge your strategy against. And secondly, if you need to change tack, advice is only a radio call away.

UNWELCOME HOUSE GUESTS: Looks like the story was that the Saddam brothers overstayed their welcome or at the least were unwelcome house guests. The Indie give a good account of the events:“
Neighbours and witnesses of the US attack have offered anecdotes that seem to confirm he was host to the two brothers. For instance, Mr Zaydan, who was hardly popular in the area, has been spending unusual amounts of cash on luxury items, notably groceries. Moreover, he was paying in cash on the spot, which apparently was not his normal habit…. But bad feelings may have lingered. That opens the possibility that Mr Zaydan knew all along that he would turn the brothers in and that he indeed gave them shelter in the first place with that in mind. Surrendering them to the occupying forces would have been revenge for the time spent behind bars. And, of course, such betrayal offered the promise of enormous financial gain, otherwise unthinkable in Iraq…

That he was expecting some kind of action on Tuesday seems to have emerged from other accounts from neighbours….. US soldiers tried to enter the house, using a megaphone to order everyone inside to step out. They did not step out and the firefight ensued. Later, Mr Zaydan was spotted sitting in the back of an American military vehicle, casually smoking as his house was blown to pieces.”
The taste of 30 million notes.

His popularity reached a high of 74 per cent during the war in Iraq, ….. but according to a poll …… it has fallen to 53 per cent this week. More significantly, 68 per cent of people think he should be more involved in domestic politics.
Bush? Blair? No Chirac.
WHAT DUTY: Mr Guy Thornton letter to the Times asks:
Sir, A government employee gives unauthorised briefings to journalists. Many people appear to believe that the employer then became duty-bound to keep the employee’s name secret.
Yours, etc,

Because it advances their cause, etc.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST: And interesting reason why the Tories choose to go after Campbell and the government not Gilligan and the BBC:
“The leading critic of Alastair Campbell’s alleged role in the “sexing-up” of the Iraqi dossier was John Maples, the suave former Tory minister. While most MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee floundered, Maples pursued Campbell with admirable vigour and was noticeably gentler with Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter…

When Dr Kelly told the committee which journalists he had met, they included Jane Corbin, a highly respected reporter for the BBC’s Panorama programme. Corbin happens to be the wife of Maples, a fact he omitted to mention during his tirades against the Government.”

DOWNTIME: In case you’re wondering where I went, it looks like I got hacked yesterday. Anyway NeverCalm -the site the hackers had partially set up as a mirror - kindly helped me sort the problem out. So click here to check out a great photoblogg!

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

I've been hacked!
CRACKS?: After first defending the BBC’s behaviour in the Kelly affair, even Peter Ridell concedes that there is a problem with the BBC’s status:
"But any such organisation must be properly accountable. The BBC is not. Its governors are straightforward non-executive directors. As the annual report shows, they support the BBC lavishly and, in return, are entertained and massaged by BBC celebrities. To pretend that they can at the same time be dispassionate custodians of £3 billion of poll tax and independent regulators of a state monopoly is ridiculous…..I admire the belligerence with which the BBC is handling this crisis. But its next crisis may be its last. The present charter expires in three years’ time and must be the last in the present form. A new regulatory framework is needed for PSB Britain, with the BBC as no more than a bidder. PSB radio, PSB music or PSB news may well be different networks with different contracts. The BBC may not win all of them. Today’s “BBC-heavy” will have to become “BBC-lite” if it is to survive.

What is sure is that the governors will have to choose, either to be the regulators of PSB Britain or to run what is left of the BBC. On present form, they had better do the latter. “
As I said.

LIVE BY THE SWORD: Signs of strain or a confident new spin? Having spent the past six years campaigning for the resignation of every Tory party leader, countless ministers and most recently the Prime Minister himself, the BBC’s Andrew Marr now want to suggest that resignation and responsibility is passé:
“Everyone should resign. Tony Blair; Geoff Hoon; Alastair Campbell; Alastair Campbell's missus; all spin doctors; the BBC governors; Gavyn Davies; Greg Dyke; Andrew Gilligan; Andrew Marr - indeed, everyone called Andrew at the BBC - the foreign affairs select committee; the editor of The Times; the Madonna of the Pinks... all these people must, for the sake of the nation, go. “

THE CAKE: It takes an outside opinion to sift the spin and hysteria from the story. Eoghan Harris of the Irish Indie has this to say:
“Already the Blair camp seems to be, stupidly, signalling it wants a truce, when this is the best chance it will ever get to reform the BBC. Likewise, Duncan Smith and the Tory press are laying off the BBC in the insane belief that the Tories might get a better deal from a BBC culture that hates them almost as much as it hates the Blairites. What a hope.

My wife, Ann, compares the behaviour of the Blairites and the Tories on the Iraq dossier issue to that of a baby with a slice of cake, who drops a crumb on the floor and for the next five minutes concentrates on the crumb. The Conservatives can't seem to see that Campbell, like Mandelson before him, is the crumb. He is not the slice of cake. The BBC is the cake. And a poisoned piece of confectionary it is, too.

The BBC is the big issue in the Iraq dossier affair. Like Iraq itself, it needs to be liberated from fundamentalists and ideologues and returned to those who love fair play - which includes the free play of ideas.”

“President Charles Taylor's allies issued what appeared to be inflated casualty figures yesterday as the troubled Liberian regime stepped up its campaign to draw foreign peacekeepers into the country's civil war.”
There seems to be a pattern here – the dictators and warlords have realised that there’s a reckless willingness in the Western media to accept at face value inflated figures if they suit the editorial agenda. It also suggests that Bush was wise to be cautious about committing troops. I’m not entirely sure what Taylor’s big plan is, but it seems to be based on a belief that there’s nothing left to loot in Liberia so he wants to bring in the Americans to re build, and then start all over again.
Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s Head of News who knew Dr Kelly’s identity, said on June 26 that Mr Gilligan’s story came from “one senior and credible source in the intelligence services”. The spokesman said: “That was a slip of the tongue.”

Fortunately this is a problem that can now be cured - First human tongue transplant succeeds

Update: And here’s another slip of the tongue:
In what has been described as a carefully worded statement, Richard Sambrook, the head of BBC news and current affairs, has said that the corporation believes that it "accurately interpreted and reported" Dr Kelly's remarks.
Interpreted? If it was straightforwardly reporting what Dr Kelly said, where did the "interpretation" come in? Does the use of that word not imply that Andrew Gilligan took liberties with his material? To what end? To reinforce the BBC's (and particularly the Today programme's) own political message that the Iraq war was unjustified?
Looks like the Austrian tongue surgeons going to be fairly busy over the next few years.

Monday, July 21, 2003

PRIVATISE THE BBC: Jeff Jarvis is running the line that the only solution is to privatise the BBC. I’m not convinced that this is the solution either as a matter of principle or one of practice.

As a matter of practice, the simple fact is that the majority of public opinion does not support such a move. This weekend’s YouGov poll indicated that it still retains a high degree of trust amongst the public. Of course this support is likely to decline over the next few weeks, but rather than being the story that breaks the camels back, I suspect that the Kelly affair will just put the BBC on probation. The fact that broad swathes of Israeli and Anglo-sphere right wing opinion disagree will not sway the matter.

And it is the fact that so much of the support for privatising the BBC comes from abroad that underlines one of the reasons why the BBC should be maintained as a matter of principle: it matters internationally and as such is a legitimate body for the British government to fund as an instrument of soft power. This is not to say that the BBC should become a propaganda outfit. If it merely reports the news as accepted in the UK and reports it widely it serves a purpose; it allows the UK to set the record and right the agenda to a degree that France, Japan, Italy and other mid-ranked powers are incapable of. And this is a useful power, recognised by Chirac when he set out his plans for a French “state CNN” a couple of months ago.

Now of course there is the obvious rejoinder that advancing the national interest is not what the BBC has been up to of late, but this is more a problem of culture than principle. It is no coincidence that the great hammerer of the BBC over the last few years, Andrew Sullivan, has also been a hammerer of the New York Times, because both institutions suffer the same faults in the same context.

A paper of record comes across as an entirely alien concept to a British reader, used to a plethora of diverse and opinionated newspapers, but in the US is has an appeal because most states/cities are dominated by a cosy duopoly of at most one slightly left and one slightly right paper. Readers, and more importantly most journalists, therefore crave a publication that sets out where the compromise reality actualy lies, which is why many right wing journalists wanted not the destruction of the NYT after the Blair affair but simply a return to the paper they were brought up on. In the UK, with a geographically restricted television market, the same desire exists for a media outlet of record, and to date, that has been the BBC.

Now the fault both institutions suffer, one private, one public, appear remarkably similar – culture. The first problem, the cult of diversity is seen best in the NYT – Blair embarrassment, because here an obviously out of his depth journalist was allowed to maintain his position despite a widely recognised record of incompetence. But if you think that this was a uniquely NYT phenomenon, just look at the BBC annual report and the prominence given to the meeting of diversity targets. Of course the BBC scandal is not the result of a minority hire, but the culture it engenders is what allows reporters like Gilligan to prosper; once you allow people to be hired on the basis of how well they are perceived by management, the premium on quality falls and more importantly, the ability of wiser heads to question hires falls. In both cases, it would seem that large numbers of journalists were bemused at the management’s backing of what seemed to them to be so obviously suspect reporting. And when the kudos of the person becomes more important than their job, people who care become afraid to speak up.

The second cultural problem arises out of the sixties counter culture – the challenge of authority. In both cases, a new generation of editors and reporters saw the opportunity to transform the authority of an “outlet of record” into one that made the record. In the NYT’s case this was by and large ineffective, as the flood the zone coverage of Augusta best illustrates, but the BBC’s attempt to flood the zone on Iraq did set a record in large sections of British and world opinion.

But though it was effective in doing this, its motivations were suspect. If the principle domestically were to show that the Blair government were confabulators, then virtually any policy or target over the last 5 years would have been an easier and more legitimate target. Instead the counter culture set the irreverent in pursuit of the irrelevant. Even if Blair over-exaggerated the dangers of the Saddam regime, he pointedly failed to rebut the expected costs. In terms of international relations, casualties and refugees the figures have all so far been well below then accepted estimates. Whatever the spin, with hindsight, even if just for now, the benefits still far exceed the costs.

So what has this got to do with the privatisation debate? Well what I’m trying to illustrate is that despite different media markets, both the US and the UK seem to have an inherent need for a lead outlet – not something, as the NYT and BBC management imagined - as a source to lead the news, but rather one to follow, edit, accept and reject the stories that the guys at the more desperate end of journalism had sourced. Does this have a market rationale? Well I’m sure I could point you to some good game theory articles on the issue, but like much of economics, the inherent emotional rational is more compelling –in most professions and markets we have a yearning for a head honcho, arbiter of the truth, market leader or what ever.

And in the UK, if the BBC were to be privatised immediately, there would no one to fill the void. Which is why I advocate the tranquilo amigo path. The problem is not how to deal with the BBC in the long term but how to save it in the short term. It would not be possible to transform the BBC overnight without the assistance of the NKVD. Instead change needs to be gradual and there are four key areas that could be addressed.

First, costs: the BBC is simply too expensive – for £116 in the free cable market, you’d expect to get a package that has when animals attack programs non- stop, every major sporting exclusive live and a porn channel so depraved that it would make even the Bishop of Bath and Wells blush. Instead you get good drama and documentaries, some quite good soaps and comedy, ok-ish sport and barking news. Which is what you’d expect from a public broadcaster, but for just a few notes. So rather than printing “Privatise the BBC” bumper stickers, I think something along the lines of “Fifty Quids Fair” may be more effective.

Secondly: the BBC budget is part of the problem; at over 2 billion it dwarfs the economies of many small countries and is far in excess of what a public broadcaster needs. More importantly it has distracted the BBC from its founding purposes, easy money encouraging it to go into markets, like publishing and digital media, but more importantly scoop seeking and opinion, that are not part of it’s remit. Non core business such as digital should be sold off and the proceeds put towards covering any funding shortfall as the license fee is reduced.

Thirdly:the BBC should look at whom it hires. As an outlet of record it should not be looking to make stars, but instead should concnetrate on retaining the cynical plodders who can sift the spin from the story. By that I mean it should discourage its journalists from making a name as op ed and book writers. More importantly it should stop making this part of its business. I was somewhat surprised to read that Rageh Omar hoped to make a million on a book deal on his Iraqi war experience, no doubt marketed by the BBC, when his only scoop of the war was a look of bemusement when the 3rd Armoured turned up in the centre of Baghdad without significant casualties. Baby Spice could have given us more insight.

Fourthly: The management structure needs to be changed, not in a way that, say, McKinsey would advocate, but more in a way that would be recognisable to the countless small democratic institutions of American public life. The weakest link in the structure so far has been the governors; it is humanly understandable that Giligan’s managers backed him, but it is pathetic that the “independent” governors then endorsed Dyke’s stonewalling on what they now claim was the flimsiest of assurances. A better system would provide that, when you pay the licence fee, you get the right to elect the governors who are going to safeguard how your money is spent. Of course that means anyone can make it, but an opinionated committee of Polly Toynbee’s and Richard Littlejohn’s would be far more effective in holding the BC management to account than the captured quangonista’s that the current system of government appointment creates.

This is of course not a free market solution and maybe it is not the solution in the medium term. But technology will probably take care of the medium term. People accept a TV license not out of principle but because they always have. I think that it will not be too long before a plug in will deliver TV to your laptop but I think it will be an age before people accept a licence fee to own a computer. So while time will probably deliver a market solution, it would be churlish to discard out an important British institution in a moment of pique over a matter that history will probably judge childish.

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