Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 24 January 2011

BBC in basic grammatical misunderstanding shock

Sometimes the BBC makes itself hard to defend.

You do your best. Today's development, that BBC Online will be cut by 25%, is basically a punishment for being too good. When the BBC comes up with a decent product, and their web offering is a supremely decent product, they are criticised for killing competition. When they come up with a bad product, their critics ask why we should pay the license fee.

But they occasionally make life harder for themselves. Today's report of a leaked memo instructing BBC staff not to use the word 'reform' during coverage of the electoral… something… referendum is so barmy it's hard to find the appropriate superlative.

According to the leaked memo, the corporation's political advisor apparently said: "Please can we make sure that we don't describe this – in our own scripts, headlines, etc – as the referendum on 'electoral reform'. When the [BBC's] Guidance is published ahead of the referendum period, it will make clear that, in the context of the referendum, that is not an impartial term – 'reform' explicitly contains a definition of 'improvement'."

Spare a moment for Paul Sinclair, director of communications for the 'Yes2AV' campaign, who must be close to madness by now. "Adopting the alternative vote is electoral reform," he said simply. "There is no other way to describe it."

Sinclair was also smart enough to mention that the BBC has spent the last week talking about NHS reform, which it must evidently approve of.

You might also like to ask what the BBC will replace it with. Reform is what it is. The fact that someone wants to change something implies that they believe the status quo is unfavourable. But that relates to their sentiment, not that of the speaker. Mistaking those two things is as basic an error as grasping for a gun when describing a shooting.

Interestingly, the BBC's judgement stems from the fact that people want change. There is such widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo in politics, economics and pretty much every other area available for comment, that any and all change is quickly assumed to be A Good Thing. But that's a change in the world, not in semantics.

At least we get some decent word-gymnastics out of it. Firstly, there's the challenge of discussing an electoral reform referendum without using the word, like some twisted political version of Taboo. Then there's future coverage. Now they've written 'reform' off in this respect, they'll face pressure to avoid it on other matters, for fear of looking partial. And best of all, they'll be doing it under one of the most reforming governments of the modern era. Constitutional reform? NHS reform? Education reform? Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


It's the word which ruined Gordon Brown's general election campaign, but I can't think of a better way of describing the people I met in Oldham East and Saddleworth yesterday.

Later on today I'm going to contrast my experience at a Muslim community event hustings earlier in the week, which you can read about here, with the conversation I had in a pub somewhere in the constituency yesterday lunchtime.

But for now here's a summary of the views of this bunch of white men spending a Wednesday lunchtime in the pub, proving that the racial divide in this seat is as big as ever. Let me make this very clear: I am appalled by every single one of these opinions, which are definitively NOT my own.

The men in the pub thought that:

- Things have got "much worse" since the Oldham race riots of 2001
- Muslims are "smelly"
- Muslims don't help community relations because they refuse to work on Muslim holidays, unlike Christians who do work over Christmas, Easter etc
- Muslims are bent on global domination and eventually all British people will be subject to their rule
- Muslims cluster together, squeezing white people out of communities
- Jack Straw is completely right when he says Pakistani men prey on white girls

And, most shockingly of all:

- The only way to solve community tensions is to "kill all Muslims"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them were interested in voting in the by-election taking place today. Labour are definitely going to win, they argued, and in any case politicians won't make the slightest difference to their problems. I don't think I've ever felt so sickened by other people's views.

The big divide in Oldham East and Saddleworth isn't political. It's racial. It's ugly. And it hasn't been addressed near enough during the by-election campaign.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

News! Just outside the window

I've just done a strange thing, even for a journalist: write about something that's literally under my nose.

Well, almost literally. Parliament Square would be under my nose if I stood up and walked over to the window. We're based in the Houses of Parliament, which as you can imagine is quite handy for political journalists. No surprises there.

The last time I wrote about Parliament Square was during the final tuition fees riot last year. It was a case of seeing what was happening; returning to my desk, typing up a paragraph in the news story and clicking 'publish'; and then return to the window again. That cycle went on for five hours. Fun times.

Not so fun in the new year, with a drab and dreary view replacing the excitement of anger and violence. Yesterday I was writing about the pessimistic outlook for Brian Haw and his semi-permanent demonstration on the pavement. The tents looked dishevelled, the signs scruffy, the flags pathetically defiant.

But this could be the last year they're there. The police reform and social responsibility bill contains provisions to outlaw the tents for good, a decade after Haw began his vigil. It's hard not to admire the man for his tenacity – but does he deserve the right to remain there, when, as ministers point out, him doing so prevents others from making their case?

Make up your own mind and let me know your thoughts. You can read my feature here.