CHARLES MOORE SLAMS BBC NEGATIVE ‘GROUPTHINK’ IN REPORTING OF TRUMP

CHARLES MOORE SLAMS BBC NEGATIVE ‘GROUPTHINK’ IN REPORTING OF TRUMP
This is a guest post from Craig Byers of Is the BBC Biased?
This week’s The Media Show featured a remarkable pair of interviews about BBC bias – especially regarding BBC bias against Donald Trump.

The first interview featured Charles Moore of the Spectator, laying into the BBC’s ‘groupthink’ and the corporation’s lack of even-handedness when it comes to disputing/believing ‘facts’ (i.e. questioning figures from the Trump side whilst simply taking on trust figures from the anti-Trump side), plus making the contrast between how the BBC greeted the election of Barack Obama with how it’s greeted the election of Donald Trump.

The second interview featured James Harding, Director of BBC News. It was one of those BBC interviews when the senior BBC manager essentially says little other than that ‘the BBC is getting it about right’. Even when he sounded as if he was about to concede one of Charles Moore’s points, Mr Harding spun around and refused to concede it:

JAMES HARDING  Erm, I think, let me say two things. One is: I think Charles Moore makes a really good point and made a really good point in that article which is, if you’re going to have an argument about the honesty of the President of the United States in picking a fight with the media about the size of his audience at the inauguration, then you’d better be as vigorous and as keen to monitor the numbers of people who go on marches. And I think that point is not just related to Trump, it’s related to that bigger issue about public protests and how do you make sure that you, you do that accurately?

STEVE HEWLETT:         So do you think there was an element in the BBC’s reporting . . .

JH:          (interrupting) So . . .

SH:         . . . that could fairly be described as ‘uneven’ slightly?

JH:          No, I just think, I think what that is an extremely important thing is (sic) to keep on reminding people that if you’re going to pick a fight over fake news – and there is a fight on all sides over fake news, then you keep coming back to the efforts you make to be accurate.  That’s a really important point. Plus, he quite blatantly side-stepped some of Steve Hewlett’s sharper questions (or, to put it another way, failed to answer them), eg:

SH:         I guess is . . . I mean, this is a very cheeky question . . .

JH:          Hm-hmm (laughs)

SH:         And there’s no reason why you should have a proper answer to it, in fairness . . .

JH:          Can I just say, ‘No I don’t’ (laughs)

SH:      Do you . . . well, that might be the answer. Do you know anybody on the journalistic or editorial staff at the BBC, who is pro-Trump?

JH:          (two second pause) (inhales) So . . .

SH:         As an individual I mean.

JH:        So, so really important . . . there’s a really important thing here, which is that, people inside the BBC, they are all journalists, actually, one of the great misunderstandings about journalists is that there is such a thing as groupthink. Journalists, by nature, have really contrary opinions, they have different opinions, certainly when, when there’s a group of think— er, people who go in one direction, they, by nature, want to go the other direction, you know them as well as I do. Erm, one thing that is true of the BBC is of course, you leave all your personal opinions at the door.

Yeah right!

It was a strikingly weak performance, all in all.
Full Transcript:

Transcript of BBC Radio 4, The Media Show, 25th January 2016, James Harding on claims of BBC Bias against Trump, 4.30pm

STEVE HEWLETT: Hello, he’s certainly been in the news alright.

NEWSREADER:     The White House is accused of telling falsehoods in a battle with the media about President Trump’s inauguration.

SH:         But has the BBC’s coverage of him and his administration been duly impartial?  We’ll hear from the former editor and Telegraph columnist Charles Moore and James Harding Director of BBC News. (Discusses other stories coming up in programme).  So, is the BBC Biased? It’s not exactly a new issue, but it appears to have been given a new lease of life by Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States.  Charles Moore, Conservative commentator and Telegraph columnist wrote a piece attacking what he suggested was the corporation’s one-sided coverage of Trump. Whilst Trump’s attempts to challenge the otherwise low estimates of the numbers attending his inauguration were given a fully rigorous going over, estimates for attendance at the women’s march against Trump, put by organisers into the millions worldwide, were allowed to pass without question. Moore sees this as indicative of a much deeper malaise. In a moment we’ll hear from James Harding the BBC’s Director of News, but first I asked Charles Moore to explain his problem with the BBC’s reporting of President Trump.

CHARLES MOORE:              Everything in the Trump side of things is challenged, not necessarily wrongly so, but it is challenged and everything on the anti-Trump side is not challenged. One of the reasons that Donald Trump is now President of United States is because of the massive counter-reaction in middle America against what they call the Liberal media, and in a way they are right, you know, the New York Times, ABC, CNN, etc, present particular view of the world which is extremely hostile to a certain sort of ordinary American. And the BBC, who Donald Trump describes as ‘another beauty’ is the most important exterior non-American network that also behaves like that. And so what this reporter is, about the figures is, is not actually really a sort of disinterested inquiry into the figures, it’s a battle between the Liberal media and Donald Trump.

SH:         I mean, whereas the New York Times clearly defines itself, or declares itself to be anti-Trump, called him a liar, recommended a vote for Hillary, are you saying that the BBC in some ways sees itself as fighting the, in inverted comas, ‘the good fight’ against the evil Trump?

CM:        Yes of course, it will try to, at least to some extent to present facts properly but secondly because it’s paid for by the licence fee and has a charter which says that it has to be unbiased, so it can’t actually write its own article as it were, saying, you know, ‘We hate Donald Trump’, which the New York Times can, but it does. And I think it’s so obvious it hardly needs description.

SH:         But do you think there are a group of people somewhere in the BBC, sitting around a table deciding that this is the way things . . .

CM:        (speaking over) No, no, no.

SH:         . . . should be done?

CM:        No, no, it’s like all, almost all BBC bias, it’s groupthink. It’s the same people thinking the same thing and it –  by the way doesn’t only apply to Donald Trump, it applies to the assumption made about Brexit, it applies to climate change, a whole range of issues where there is an automatic assumption about what a decent person would feel. And, I don’t regard this as a conspiracy, but I regard it as quite a serious dereliction of duty about reflecting the variety of opinion in society.

SH:         But if you have someone like President Trump, for example, issuing forth with – I think of myself as a reasonably independently minded observer of these things, things that are really demonstrably untrue, or at the very least massively exaggerated, I mean it’s just this weekend we had the inauguration figures, we had his assertion that the media had concocted his feud with the FBI and CIA, when you look back at the tweets he issued around the time, that seems to be just plain nonsense. He then had to go on illegal immigrant voters, that last claim was made without, from what I can see, a single shred of evidence, and even senior Republicans are saying to him, ‘Please stop saying this, it’s going to get us all into a lot of trouble’. When you have someone doing that, is there any other way of dealing with him?

CM:        I think the way you phrased your question shows what you think of President Trump in the first place and therefore confirms my point. By the way, I’m not defending the particular claims that President Trump makes. I personally haven’t criticised in public his tendency to exaggerate, but I think if you, if you think how you might approach other politicians with whom the BBC is less likely to disagree, they let them off, they don’t submit them to the same sort of relentless attack and investigation. He’s been treated like a witness who . . . and prosecution is . . . trying to pull him apart. If you were a challenger to the establishment from the left, the BBC would be welcoming him. So when President Obama comes in challenging a whole enormous range of American attitudes, partly because he’s the first black candidate, he gets the benefit of the doubt, 8 years ago, it’s . . . nobody’s going through all President Obama’s claims about whatever they may have been, because what you’re getting from the BBC is how wonderful it is that somebody has arisen against the white establishment. And now you have a great big white man who’s arisen against the establishment and he’s treated like a monster. This is simply because, or largely because, it reflects the BBC’s world view.

SH:         Do you think that there’s anything the BBC could do to remedy this?

CM:        First of all, I think it could knowledge it, and that would be a start to remedying it. Second, I think it should have an exterior investigation, not of . . .  bias in the sense of cheating, but about mindset, about the way almost everyone in the BBC thinks the same thing, and is therefore – and this is really my biggest objection to it all – so behind the game about what’s happening in world news. It didn’t understand that we were going to vote for Brexit, it doesn’t understand and therefore its viewers and listeners, it’s much harder for them to understand, what the revolt that has produced Trump is all about, because it’s just regarded as wicked, and that sort of bias against understanding, which is a phrase that John Birt used many years ago, is a really serious problem with the BBC which its own authorities and possibly exterior authorities should be invited to investigate.

SH:         So, James Harding, thanks very much for joining us. ‘A bias against understanding’ arising from groupthink, rather than kind of . . . any sort of clear, positive effort to mislead? Do you think there’s anything in that?

JAMES HARDING (sighs audibly) Well, firstly I should say, Steve, I think that having read you and listened to you for a fair few years now, I’m pretty sure that the way you asked the question about Donald Trump would be the way you would asked a question about a politician of any stripe. I mean, part of the job of the journalist is to lean into (fragment of word, or word unclear) people in positions of power. Erm, I think, let me say two things. One is: I think Charles Moore makes a really good point and made a really good point in that article which is, if you’re going to have an argument about the honesty of the President of the United States in picking a fight with the media about the size of his audience at the inauguration, then you’d better be as vigorous and as keen to monitor the numbers of people who go on marches. And I think that point is not just related to Trump, it’s related to that bigger issue about public protests and how do you make sure that you, you do that accurately?

SH:         So do you think there was an element in the BBC’s reporting . . .

JH:          (interrupting) So . . .

SH:         . . . that could fairly be described as ‘uneven’ slightly?

JH:          No, I just think, I think what that is an extremely important thing is (sic) to keep on reminding people that if you’re going to pick a fight over fake news – and there is a fight on all sides over fake news, then you keep coming back to the efforts you make to be accurate.  That’s a really important point.

SH:         (speaking over, fragments of words, unclear)_

JH:          But can I just make . . .

SH:         (speaking over) But when I looked at the website and so on . . .

JH:          Hmm.

SH:         I haven’t seen all the broadcast coverage, but erm, it, it was quite clear, that whereas Trump . . . Trump’s numbers were being taken to task, now, in fairness to the journalists who did that, that might well be because there was direct, concrete evidence that what he was saying simply wasn’t true, or was massively exaggerated. When it came to the ‘millions of people’ quote . . .

JH:          Hmm.

SH:         . . . around the world, I mean, that may simply not be checkable in any meaningful way, but nevertheless, you know, march organisers are renowned for inflating their numbers . . .

JH:          Yes.

SH:         . . . and there was no sign of any scepticism, being . . .

JH:          Yeah.

SH:         . . . shown. Journalistic scepticism I mean, towards that number.

JH:          (inhales) Look, there’s . . . there is a real risk here that we all lose our minds and we disappear into a debate about something that doesn’t . . . matter as deeply as the real changes that are happening in the world . . .

SH:         (words unclear, speaking under)

JH:          (speaking over) But let me just, let me just finish. There is clearly a difference between the President of the United States challenging a piece of reporting that compares the audiences in 2009 with the audiences in 2017. That is a, that is about whether or not President of the United States is using the podium in the White House to try and challenge what looks to be demonstrably true. There’s a second point which is: is the BBC when it makes estimates and any other news organisation to that matter, makes estimates of crowds, is it rigorous enough about those estimates and does it take into account inflation. I’ll just stand back to this for a minute. There is a really important risk here that the media turns into a circular firing squad and starts having such a huge discussion about itself that it misses what are the really essential changes that are happening. And just to take it back to how the BBC is thinking about this is: there are going to be, by the nature of the way in which the new President of United States operates, huge media flare-ups. He’s picked fights with certain networks, he’s had arguments about actors, about shows and these are fantastically interesting. At the same time of course there are really important changes to the way in which United States is operating in the world of trade, in the world of aid and development. One of the things we keep saying in our morning conferences, ‘Let’s keep an eye on those executive orders, make sure we’re really rigorous in understanding . . .

SH:         (speaking over) Okay, (fragment of word, unclear)

JH:          . . .  what the President is doing. And  I think that is really important this, because the media spat actually could distract us from some of the things . . .

SH:         (speaking over) Okay.

JH:          . . .  that are quite important . . .

SH:         We’ll come back to how you’re dealing with him . . .

JH:          Yeah.

SH:         . . . and the things you may have to set up to do things differently given the sort of challenges that he and his regime clearly represent. Erm, but just to go back to one more specific thing, he says in the article, we didn’t hear it in the conversation there, that he says whenever Fox News comes up in the BBC’s coverage, it’s described as pro-Trump – there’s no real argument about that, it is,  unquestionably, pro-Trump and (slight laughter in voice) I’m not even sure Fox News would deny . . . would seek to, would seek to avoid the charge.

JH:          Actually, if you look back through the course of 2015-16, Fox as a Republican-leaning network actually had a quite ambivalent relationship with Donna Trump, it’s changed, obviously . . .

SH:         (speaking over) Well, as of last weekend you were describing him, describing them as pro-Trump. However, when the New York Times or CNN or NBC or ABC turns up, all of whom are in their own ways anti-Trump, they’re never described as such.

JH:          (inhales) I, I think, look, I think . . .

SH:         (speaking over)(fragment of word, or word unclear) You’re not giving the same signal.

JH:          (fragments of words, unclear) And again, this is my point about the media turning into a circular firing squad.  Different networks there would take different views, and, you know, if you look at the way the US media works, it’s different to the way it works here in the UK.  You know, in British newspaper, newspaper editor has control of the run of the news pages, and also the opinion pages, and the leader column.  In the US it’s different.  You run the news pages and there’s a separate group that runs opinions and leaders.  So clearly, if you look at the New York Times, they’ve taken a, they took a very strong pro-Hillary, anti-Donald Trump position.  Reporters there would say, ‘our job is also, in the news pages, to try and report the stories fairly and accurately.’  So, it is a complicated picture, I go back to my point I’m afraid, Steve, which is I think there is a big media argument happening, I don’t want to distract, it to distract us from actually the really key issue . . .

SH:         (speaking over) But, but, but (fragments of words, unclear)

JH:          . . . which is the presidency of Donald Trump.

SH:         But you could resolve these, these, these . . . these are footling in a way . . .

JH:          Hm-hmm.

SH:         I take your point, it’s not . . . you know . . . their nuclear policy appears to be changing, (laughter in voice) rather more significant.  Their policy towards China might be changing, you know, these things are really significant I actually get the point. But simply being even-handed about the way you describe other news organisations, being even-handed about the way that you deal with different claims to numerical accuracy, that’s not a . . . it’s only an issue if someone doesn’t fix this.

JH:          And I guess what I’m saying is some people will make judgements about, particularly, networks, particularly on the TV networks, on the US papers, I think it’s easier to make that point, I think it’s, I think they’re clearer in their editorial position on the President.

SH:         So, do you think the BBC should start describing CNN in matters Trump as being anti-Trump?

JH:          I think (fragment of word, unclear) I think the BBC should, should focus on, on Donald Trump. I think that . . . I think that where you can see particular papers or particular news outlets taking a very clear editorial position, and it’s there in black and white or there in the soundbites, we should make that clear. Where there . . . where, where it’s more mixed, I think that the business of branding and seeking to brand every different outlet is probably a fools’ errand and actually is a distraction from the real story.

SH:         So there are times when you wouldn’t label Fox News as pro-Trump?

JH:          (two second pause) Yes. I think that’s right. And actually, if you look back at our coverage, that’s true.

SH:         Okay.  Just take his point more generally, or one of them anyway, about ‘groupthink’ – this is not the first time this has come up in the BBC, indeed, one of their own reports, run by, it was run by Stuart Prebble, ex-of ITV, and it looks at immigration and Europe . . .

JH:          Hmm.

SH:         . . . and it concluded that the BBC did suffer, in periods, through sort-of groupthink . . .

JH:          Hmm.

SH:         . . . because of the sort of people that the BBC was full of.  It didn’t suggest any active attempt at bias or whatever, but, you know, these are people who grew up in a world where being anti-immigration meant you were rather uncomfortably close to the National Front and neo-fascism. So racism and fascism became very connected with anti-immigration, and so, you know, people just didn’t go there.  So (fragment of word, or word unclear) sort of taken together, the BBC was exhibiting a sort of groupthink.  It . . . is there anything, do you think, in Charles’s argument that over Trump something similar could be happening?

JH:          I, I don’t think . . . I think if you look back at 2016, and people look back and say how do we understand the nature of Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton? Or the Leave victory over Remain? Actually, I think that in both of those cases, what the BBC sought to do – and we were right, to be honest with you, we were quite chastened by the experience of 2015 where, you know, as you remember, I think we discussed it, the experience of the polls, we weren’t reporting the polls, but the polls were reflecting the way in which we were conducting interviews, thinking about the likely outcome of the result. In 2016 I think we went into both . . . er . . . the June 23 referendum and the November election really clear in our mind that there was no trusting the polls, and one of two outcomes was possible in every case. And what we tried to do very differently last year was to make sure that we were not covering the, the race, we were covering the choice.  What we set out very clearly to do last year was to make sure, actually, let’s report the choice. I think that we did that, and we did it extremely carefully . . .

SH:         (speaking over) (fragments of words, or words unclear) The question, the question here . . .

JH:          I don’t think we, we, we (word or words unclear due to speaking over)

SH:         . . . I guess is . . . I mean, this is a very cheeky question . . .

JH:          Hm-hmm (laughs)

SH:         And there’s no reason why you should have a proper answer to it, in fairness . . .

JH:          Can I just say, ‘No I don’t’ (laughs)

SH:         Do you . . . well, that might be the answer. Do you know anybody on the journalistic or editorial staff at the BBC, who is pro-Trump?

JH:          (two second pause) (inhales) So . . .

SH:         As an individual I mean.

JH:          So, so really important . . . there’s a really important thing here, which is that, people inside the BBC, they are all journalists, actually, one of the great misunderstandings about journalists is that there is such a thing as groupthink.  Journalists, by nature, have really contrary opinions, they have different opinions, certainly when, when there’s a group of think— er, people who go in one direction, they, by nature, want to go the other direction, you know them as well as I do. Erm, one thing that is true of the BBC is of course, you leave all your personal opinions at the door.

SH:         So says James Harding.  And we also heard there from Charles Moore.

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