Dear Roger Soya
I'm fascinated by the concept of 'editorialising' you introduce in your response to my email. Would this be in the same vein as reporting 'maverick' MP George Galloway (1) or 'leftwing Venezuelan firebrand' Hugo Chavez (2), who 'to his detractors...is a populist demagogue with a patchwork quilt of political beliefs.' (3) However, I'm also interested in your presumption that journalism can be totally objective, an idea that I would like to take issue with.
The fanfare and applause happened. You were reporting what happened. The point is that you chose not only to report it but to relay this segment in all its pomp and circumstance. Not only that but you decided to devote around 10 minutes of the programme to coverage of the speech. As you are well aware, there is no shortage of newsworthy events happening around the world. Yet close to a fifth of an hour-long programme was dedicated to Obama and his speech. Thus BBC News made an 'editorial' decision to give extended coverage to this particular story at the expense of other news. Why? I would suggest the answer is because Obama is a spokesman for the power and privilege of the few over the many. The lengthy inclusion of Brooks Newmark, clearly an awed, star-struck admirer of the president, was also an editorial decision. It would have been straightforward to find a more sceptical member of the audience to give some sense of balance - a Caroline Lucas or a George Galloway, for instance. However, no such editorial decision was taken, a case of 'editorialising' by omission. Bolted on to the onslaught of rhetoric exercepted from the speech, there was barely any need for the kind of 'editorialising' you suggest that I am proposing.
You're absolutely right to characterise me as a partisan critic of the chief spokesman for a military-industrial combine that kills, maims and blights the lives of millions of innocents across the world, actions which are frequently either under-reported or not reported at all by your organisation. However, my personal views are obviously not what are at issue here. As a public-funded, public service broadcaster, you have an obligation to provide coverage that gives the public a fighting chance of making up its own mind on world affairs. What I am objecting to is your programme's propaganda role in shoving the benevolence of Obama down listener's throats until they choke on his virtue, and by extension that of his bellicose administration and its warmongering little brother on this side of the Atlantic.
Subject: RE: Unbalanced BBC coverage of President Obama's address
Date: Wed, 8 Jun 2011
The fanfare and the applause happened. We were reporting what happened. To have failed to include that would have been to create a false impression. It would have ben editorialising.
I completely disagree with your assertions as to Norman's tone. He was reporting in a normal voice, the same as he does with all his reports. The excerpts were chose to reflect what Obama said, not to create a false impression. Which excerpts would you have had us use to 'create' a negative impression, as that is what you seem to want?
Norman was reporting the speech. He was not there to analyse it, but to report what President Obama had said through clips and reported speech. If there had been points of fact that he knew were wrong, he would have mentioned that, but he is not there to pass comment. You seem to take a lot of what is merely reported speech as eulogising.
We reported the speech in the same way that we report any major speech. We report what is said and the reaction to it. So, for example, if a minister is jeered or applauded during a speech to a union conference, we say: "Mr Blogs said blah blah blah, which was loudly applauded/booed by the delegates". What we do NOT say is: "Mr Blogs said blah blah blah, which is clearly nonsense (by the way it was applauded by conference, but we won't play you that bit of applause because it might counter MY partisan analysis of the speech)".
So yes, I completely stand by my comment that this was simply reporting what was said. What you appear to have wanted us to do was to adopt a partisan and negative attitude to a speech so that Norman's/PM's reportage mirrored and reflected your personal view of it.
That's not what we are here to do. If Obama had been booed, shouted down, jeered, we would have reported it.
The link for taking your complaint further is: www.bbc.co.uk/complaints
To: Roger Soya
Subject: RE: Unbalanced BBC coverage of President Obama's address
Dear Roger Soya
Many thanks for your swift response to the email I sent to PM yesterday. However, I find it absolutely astonishing that you can describe the coverage of President Obama’s speech as ‘simply reporting what was said’ – as if there was any semblance of objectivity or balance.
The item opened with a trumpet fanfare and the breathless introduction of the Westminster MC, followed by a passage of enthusiastic applause for the entrance of the president. The excerpts from Obama’s speech, interspersed with Norman Smith’s commentary, delivered in a thinly-disguised admiring tone, were carefully selected to present an overwhelmingly positive impression. “Mr Obama began with a generous tribute to Britain’s role in fostering freedom and democracy,” Smith began approvingly, “and he noted that what was central to both Britain and America was our tolerance, our willingness to accept argument and diversity...”
“Mr Obama’s central theme this afternoon was leadership at a time of change – it was, he said, a new era after a decade of war and recession,” Smith declared in a similarly upbeat vein.
The overwhelmingly positive impression given made it clear the inference listeners were to draw – that here was a world statesman bestriding the narrow confines of Westminster like a colossus. Smith appeared simply to take the rhetoric at face value with no analysis of Obama’s high-flown pronouncements. Would the same approach be applied, I wonder, to the rhetoric of the ‘bad guys’ – the Gaddafis, Kim Jong Ils and Ahmedinejads of this world? Smith showed himself completely unable to distinguish between ‘Brand Obama’ (high on soaring rhetoric) and President Obama, who has just approved the largest military budget in world history.
“Alongside their economic leadership, Britain and America will be at the forefront of encouraging the spread of free enterprise and free markets, ensuring international security and the spread of democracy – with no let-up in confronting terrorism,” Smith cooed, seemingly blissfully unaware of the implausibility of his words given the disastrous recent record of ‘the essential relationship’ in bringing mayhem to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the following excerpt, Obama promised his adoring throng: “As Osama Bin Laden and his followers have learnt, as we fight an enemy that respects no law of war, we will continue to hold ourselves to a higher standard - by living up to the values, rule of law and due process that we so ardently defend.” That this could statement could pass without comment, let alone ridicule, in the aftermath of Bin Laden extra-judicial killing was telling indeed.
Smith finally lingered on the personal chemistry between Obama and Cameron in the “sun-drenched garden” of Lancaster House - where both men appeared “decidedly relaxed”. After a jokey Cameron aside about grillings at the BBQ, Obama “sketched out his vision for the challenges facing the West”, like an artist poised deftly with his palette at the canvas of history.
To hear Brooks Newmark gush sycophantically about Brand Obama - “a breath of fresh air when he took office” – and his ‘inspirational’ speech was utterly cringe-making. ‘A superstar in action’; ‘a master act’; Blair, Brown, Major and Cameron all “rapt with attention”. Newmark simply dismissed fellow-MP Mark Pritchard’s comments on the reluctance of Obama to fully commit to the bombing of Libya, a campaign presumably self-evidently assumed to be benevolent.
Are you really suggesting that this sequence of uncontested platitudes represents ‘simply reporting what was said’? If so, this is a depressing state of affairs indeed.