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Nick Cohen
Wednesday 22nd September 2010
How Broadcasting Bias Works (1)

The rigged debate.

Debates are between people with opposing views. If they're not, we call them love ins. A favourite tactic of Radio 4 is to set up what seems to the casual listener to be a debate, but which is in reality a sham argument. Listen to how the Today programme rigs this supposed debate about Kenneth Clarke's plans to reduce the prison population. (Scroll down to 0732.)

"Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has signalled that significant changes are ahead in the criminal justice system. Two criminal justice experts from each side of the Atlantic - filmmaker Roger Graef and the Harvard professor of Criminology Christopher Stone, discuss some of the possible changes that could be made."

     It's a debate in which no one disagrees. Professor Stone, rightly in my view, is appalled by the vast numbers in the American prison system. Graef, a far sillier man in my opinion, appears to believe that hardcore criminals will reform if only we treat them nicely. Because prison reform is a liberal cause, the BBC has brought in two advocates of liberalism, while excluding those from the Right and Labour who favour a tougher line. Today gives the listener the impression that all experts agree that jail numbers should be cut, which is certainly not true in Brtain.

   The behaviour of the presenter reinforces the bias. Given that his guests agree with each other he ought to be compensating by asking them ferocious questions. But, of course, he doesn't because they are going along with the liberal consensus. Either because of his own political views, or because of peer pressure from his colleagues, he cannot question orthodoxy. There are no hectoring interruptions. The one supposedly tough question he asks the professor is so ludicrous Stone can bat it away with ease.



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September 29th, 2010
11:09 AM
Well, yes. The BBC is biased to the consensus viewpoint. Everyone knows that. The soggy centre ground. The point I would make is, it has a particularly strange view of where the centre-ground is. When was - aside from TUC general conference, or when their members go on strike - the last time you saw the BBC ask a Union Leader on to discuss, well, pretty much anything? The odd appearance on Question Time, as opposed to the reams of anti-union propaganda that the BBC pumps out on a daily basis. Six million members. Going on a "one other member of the household" bit of maths, that's 12 million people. Or, a fifth of the population. Can you think of any other situation in which a fifth of the population would be routinely ignored?

Thomas Jefferson
September 22nd, 2010
11:09 PM
Ah, so you've noticed!

Sir Graphus
September 22nd, 2010
4:09 PM
Gosh, Nick, it's normally us right-wingers who rant about the BBC. I started listening to Today in the dog days of Thatcher, and got used to a certain level of aggressive rigour when a cabinet minister was interviewed. This all changed overnight in 1997. However, it seems only recently that I've noticed a campaigning liberal staunchly pro-high public spending line has emerged, seemingly coordinated across all programming. You also won't find the BBC following up last night's documentary on the Gospels of Philip and Thomas with a an hour long debunking of anyone else's religion, either.

Clem the Gem
September 22nd, 2010
11:09 AM
Well said Nick. debate can only come through different views competing. Otherwise we have no dialogue. Keep it up...

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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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