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We have a cultural problem…

Posted by Richard Friday, January 21, 2005

So, according to The Daily Telegraph, the BBC is to be made to sign up to a specific commitment to broadcast news that is "balanced and fair" as part of its new royal charter.

This clause, we are told, will be the first time the corporation's editorial obligations in news have been explicitly included in the charter and will inevitably raise concerns of government interference following the David Kelly affair.

On the face of it, this appears to be good news, but the initiative is doomed to failure. No least, it again represents the lamentable tendency of politicians – on all sides of the House – to believe that problems can simply be legislated away.

Even this week I came up against a graphic illustration of the scale – and nature – of the problem, which demonstrates quite simply why this approach simply will not work.

The event arose on Monday when I was contacted by a researcher from the BBC Radio 4 "You and Yours" programme. They planned, I was told, a feature on recycling and she (the researcher) had seen my website. From this, she had concluded that I was against recycling – would I like to come on to the programme and explain why?

My response was that, far from being against it, I actively supported recycling. It was just, I felt, under the malign influence of the EU, we were going about it the wrong way. Recycling, I said, should be demand-led.

The way to make it work was through fiscal incentives (tax-breaks) which encouraged the collection and – especially – the use of recycled material. Create that framework and the market would sort the problem out.

As an example, I told her about the US "Car donation program" which gave tax breaks to car owners who donated their old cars to "qualified organisations". Driven by this incentive, charities throughout America have set up car collection systems and will collect you car – running or not – from the door. There is no charge and the charities are making a fortune out of selling cars, and savaging wrecks.

Not a few years back, you could read in the local US papers, stories of streets littered with abandoned wrecks. With scheme, they have largely solved the problem, unlike the UK where it is a growing and increasingly expensive problem.

To cut a long story short, it then turned out that there was a case of mistaken identity. The researcher had not looked at my website – where I had waxed lyrical about the failure of the UK/EU recycling programme – but at the site of my namesake, Richard D. North. He indeed was "against" recycling.

The researcher said she would come back to me, and she did – to say I was not wanted. The programme shape had already been set up. They wanted to give a touchy-feely puff for recycling and, in the way they so often do – wanted it to set it up with a "nutter" (sorry Richard) arguing the proposition.

My pitch simply did not fit the narrative, and therefore could not be entertained. The story had already been written – all they wanted was the "talking head" to say the right words for the slot that had already been pre-determined.

As a result, the listeners were presented with a cut-and-dried situation. You were either for or against recycling and the arguments against it were so preposterous (or inadequately expressed, given the time allowed) that it would have been irrational to be against the proposition.

The BBC deals with EU issues in exactly the same way. For the EU, we have speakers of stature and gravitas, who are allowed to expound their propositions, with minimal and reverential intervention from the interviewers. Then they let on the licensed "nutter" - the Eurosceptic - to speak against the proposition. And they will use this technique freely during the referendum campaign.

It is this type of bias – where it is not so much what is said, but what (and who) is left out – which is, as we have remarked in an earlier Blog, so difficult to detect and counter. A "fair reporting" clause in the charter is not going to make the slightest bit of difference.

Once again I resort to Lord Pearson and his comment that: "We are up against a large, self-satisfied and introspective culture". We have a cultural problem, and dealing with that is going to need something altogether much more radical.