Saturday, 13 September 2014

BBC remember me? Letter to BBC complaining about Robinson / Salmond editing


Please note, I have of course seen the existing BBC response to different complaints relating to this report, which has recently appeared online [...] I don't know the substance of those complaints, so I can't form an opinion on whether this statement responds adequately to them, but of course I'll assume it does. However it does not address my complaint, and I therefore kindly ask that you give my complaint separate attention.

I must also apologise that my complaint is rather meticulous; however, this level of clarity is necessary to precisely state the way in which the report was in breach.

The part of the segment which I am interested in ran as follows:

VOICE OVER: [Alex Salmond] needs to reassure the voters at home.
NICK ROBINSON: Why should a Scottish voter believe you, a politician, against men who are responsible for billions of pounds of profits?
VOICE OVER: He didn't answer. But he did attack the reporting of those in what he called "the Metropolitan media."

My complaint is best broken down into two parts.

1) The report is highly misleading about the question which was put to Mr Salmond. The claim that "he didn't answer" is therefore correspondingly highly misleading.

In the unedited footage, it can be seen that what is shown in the report is actually the second part of a second question, which is itself a follow-on, closely related to the first. It is reasonable to assume these two questions are closely connected, in the absence of any wording along the lines of, "and on a separate topic," and in view of the similar subject matter. I will refer to the two halves of Mr Robinson's questioning as "the first question" and "the second question" for convenience, but it is clear that the second question does not stand alone, and that its meaning changes significantly when it is isolated and edited down as in the broadcast footage.

When we watch the unedited footage, we find that the first question is, "Are you suggesting that the decision of RBS has no consequence, or do you accept that by moving their base to London, tax revenues would move to London, in other words, Scottish taxpayers would have to make up the money they would lose from RBS moving to London?" The follow-on is, "And on a more general point: John Lewis's boss says prices could go up, Standard Life's boss says money will move out of Scotland, BP's boss says oil will run out; why should a Scottish voter believe you, a politician, against men who are responsible for billions of pounds of profits?"

It is conceivable that Mr Robinson believed himself to be creating a distinction with the phrase "and on a more general point," but if so he was mistaken, and the BBC should bear that in mind in formulating its response: the reasonable interpretation of the phrase "and on a more general point" is that it maintains a strong linkage between the two halves of Mr Robinson's questioning.

Of course, no one can have any problem with the paring down of journalists' questions in principle. In most circumstances, we are not obliged to hear every word which went into prompting a politician to making some statement. A balance must be struck: meticulous, sometimes lengthy questioning for the politicians, and a snappy but not misleading version for the viewers back home. What was unusual in this case was the claim that the edited question was not answered.

What did Mr Robinson actually ask as his "more general point"? Mr Robinson recognised that Mr Salmond was highly unlikely to accept that owing to RBS's relocation "tax revenues would move to London, and Scottish taxpayers would have to make up the difference," at least certainly not in such stark language. Mr Robinson's follow-up therefore asked Mr Salmond to make a case for the credibility of a politician's perspective, measured against the perspective of business leaders who warn of the economic consequences of independence. (Casting doubt on the credibility of those business leaders is thus certainly one of the strategies Mr Salmond was fairly explicitly invited to adopt). The main context in which Mr Salmond was being asked to establish his credibility was that of tax revenues from RBS, although it would certainly have been legitimate for him to pick up on the statements from John Lewis, Standard Life, and BP as well. Whether or not this is what Mr Robinson intended to ask, I believe it is the most reasonable interpretation of what he did ask. At the very, very least it must be construed as one reasonable interpretation.

Mr Robinson was exercising his instinct for forceful, rhetorically effective questioning, and a laudable desire to go behind the comparatively predictable position-taking of political and constitutional debate and explore how such positions build and sustain credibility. In many circumstances such questioning can be very heartening to watch. However, we were not asked to watch it.

In the edited report, the voice-over begins, "He needs to reassure the voters at home." This is the context in which we then hear the fragment of a question, "Why should a Scottish voter believe you, a politician, against men who are responsible for billions of pounds of profits?" Watching the report, the viewer is asked to believe that Mr Salmond was asked, in quite general terms, why he should be trusted over business leaders, and perhaps in particular asked to defend the legitimacy of politicians in offering reassurance to Scottish voters. Some might see this as quite a soft line of questioning, at least insofar as its generality would have permitted Mr Salmond a very wide scope in his response.

The implications of not answering such a general question would be completely different, compared to those of not answering the specific questions which were actually put to Mr Salmond. Furthermore, the implications of using such a general question as an occasion to attack "what he referred to as 'the Metropolitan media'" would have been completely different, compared to the context in which Mr Salmond's comments actually arose.

Above all, the question which appeared in the report is sufficiently different from what Mr Salmond was actually asked that the statement "he didn't answer" is necessarily incorrect. No one who watches only the unedited footage can be in any doubt that the second question is still very closely related to the question of RBS and corporation tax; and no one who watches the edited footage could have guessed that it does. In view of this difference, there can be no shared valid basis for making the judgment "he didn't answer."

2) But I'd also like to consider whether the statement "he didn't answer" would have been correct, even if viewers had been shown the full two questions. It is clear that, in view of any reasonable interpretation of the questions which were actually put to Mr Salmond, and of what reasonably constitutes an answer, Mr Salmond did answer these questions.

First, there has been no question mark over whether Mr Salmond addresses the first question (and as a side note, it seems quite right that he should devote the bulk of his response time there).

Mr Salmond also speaks very directly to the second question, which shifts the focus to trust in politicians and/or businessmen, on a number of occasions: particularly in sentences such as, “[...] there is clear evidence that while the Prime Minister was busy telling us what a wonderful nation we were, his business adviser was busy desperately trying to get any business he possibly could to say something negative about independence.” Whether or not one agrees with Mr Salmond on this point, it is a quite straightforward answer to the point which Mr Robinson raised. Mr Robinson draws a distinction between the credibility of politicians, in particular Mr Salmond, and that of business leaders, in particular those associated with the RBS, John Lewis, Standard Life and BP. Mr Salmond criticises Mr Robinson's distinction, pointing out the involvement of politicians in public statements made by business leaders. This is answering.

As well as several such moments of exceptionally direct response, it is clear that Mr Salmond is tacitly tackling Mr Robinson's second question throughout, primarily in the context of RBS tax revenues. This is also answering. Identifying a false dilemma -- such as the supposedly exhaustive choice between categorically trusting business leaders or politicians -- certainly constitutes a valid answer. But Mr Salmond goes further than simply identifying a false dilemma. He discusses at some length how such a false dilemma is produced in the first place. This is where his discussion of the press comes in. As the perspectives of business leaders and of politicians are brought to the public through the press, the credibility of different aspects of the media is certainly centrally at issue in this question, and Mr Salmond is not at all off-topic to bring it up explicitly. I am aiming to be meticulous in my description here, but I think even on a relatively casual viewing, anyone will sense its relevance. Mr Robinson's second question is therefore also answered by the tacit argument that the Scottish voter's trust should not be apportioned fully either to politicians or to business leaders, and that the Scottish voter should consider (and do consider) the media context in which the views of politicians and/or business leaders appear. This may not yet constitute a comprehensive and satisfying answer for everyone, but it is certainly enough to falsify any claim that "he didn't answer."

Mr Salmond furthermore answers the second part of Mr Robinson's question in a complementary way, which speaks to the question of trust in him specifically. The gist of this part of Salmond's response -- again, whether or not one agrees with it -- is fairly straightforward. He contrasts "scaremongering" and "evidence," and suggests that the Scottish voters can tell the difference well enough to move beyond the scaremongering and look at the evidence. The consolidation of recycled quotations, Mr Salmond argues, is suggestive of scaremongering: the time when these quotations really were news has long passed. By contrast, the RBS statement to staff released the same morning constitutes relevant evidence, which can help Scottish voters to form a judgment. The argument given is that this hypothetical Scottish voter should trust Mr Salmond for reassurance only insofar as Mr Salmond is able to provide clear evidence.

Mr Robinson may have felt that Mr Salmond did not answer his question because he did not specifically bring up John Lewis, Standard Life, or BP. I don't feel this interpretation would be correct. Furthermore, the broadcast segment did not include Mr Robinson's mention of John Lewis, Standard Life, and BP.

It is also not clear from any of the footage what Mr Robinson was saying during his later informal questioning; perhaps here he may have clarified, reformulated or stressed some aspect of his earlier question, which Mr Salmond did not answer. This may have formed Mr Robinson's impression that he had been stonewalled by Mr Salmond. Again, even if that is the case, it has no bearing on the inaccuracy of the report which actually went out.

In summary:
(a) The edited footage gives a misleading idea of the question which Mr Salmond was asked, and then goes on to claim that he did not answer it. Given that Mr Salmond was asked a somewhat similar but ultimately crucially different question, it is inevitable that confusion should arise. Whatever Mr Salmond said -- that is, whether or not he answered the question which was actually put to him -- he can hardly be expected to give a precise answer to a question which he was never asked. An apology and/or correction is therefore in order!
(b) As it happens, the full footage shows Mr Salmond answering both of Mr Robinson's questions, under any reasonable interpretation, which takes into account the connected fashion in which these questions were presented, and the mention not only of RBS, but also BP, John Lewis and Standard Life. An apology and/or correction is therefore again in order!

Three final notes.
(a) It is perhaps worth establishing a general principle of extra diligence, when the claim is made that a question has not been answered, that this question is very accurately portrayed. A somewhat greater margin of error is perhaps appropriate if a question is edited down as a lead-in to the response.
(b) Just as an informal litmus test, it is perhaps worth imagining whether anyone who was presented with the edited footage, and asked to speculatively and uncynically reconstruct the situation which gave rise to it, would be likely to come up with anything resembling what took place. I think that highly unlikely.
(c) I am ambivalent about Scottish independence, but not about the BBC's independence. While I can see that such a report could go out with the best of intentions, it is not right that you should fail to apologise for it once you've been called out. We all make mistakes, but yours are more important than most.


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