BBC finds new way to admit bias: Paxman guilty of “over-compression”

John Rentoul

Untitled 16 300x187 BBC finds new way to admit bias: Paxman guilty of over compressionI don’t know which is more entertaining: Jeremy Paxman making fun of the BBC bureaucrats who tell him off; or the BBC bureaucrats’ long-drawn-out contortions as they try to pretend that Paxo is just having a jolly impartial jape.

My friend Stan Rosenthal complained four months ago about Paxman – in the Daily Mail – describing Tony Blair as “the multimillionaire messiah”. (I wrote about it at the time.) Now Stephen Mitchell, Deputy Director and Head of Programmes, BBC News, has written to him saying:

The reference to “messiah” was perhaps an over-compression – a somewhat oblique way of referring to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation – and I think that, taken in isolation, it would have been better not to have used that one word. But the emphasis of the paragraph as a whole was on different times, different fortunes and I do not think that the inference you have drawn – that Jeremy Paxman was calling the former Prime Minister a “hypocrite” – is the meaning that would have been taken by the average reader. Even if the phrasing was less than ideal, this does not amount to a serious breach of standards.

Paxo has been told at least once by Helen Boaden, head of whatever it is at the BBC, to be careful about sneering about a political leader (more here and here).

Rosenthal had initially had a reply to his complaint after a mere three months, accompanied by a flurry of apologies for the BBC missing its targets for responding to such things:

The reference was very much in keeping with Jeremy Paxman’s trenchant and humorous style. We are sorry if you found the word “messiah” offensive and open to misinterpretation but it was meant as a joke. We would point out that no-one else has complained or even raised it as an issue as far as we are aware so we believe that most people would have taken it in that spirit. Clearly the teasing reference did not work for you but we do not think there was any suggestion of hypocrisy, as you suggest.

With regard to the authorisation of the article, it followed and elaborated on remarks Jeremy had made in an in interview organised and sanctioned by the BBC as part of the publicity around his “Empire” project. We do not believe that Jeremy Paxman has broken any Editorial Guidelines.

Unsurprisingly, Rosenthal pursued the complaint further and has now secured the weaselly half-apology from Mitchell. Mitchell at least had the decency to quote the Editorial Guidelines, so that everyone could see that Paxman had indeed broken them (but not, of course, “a serious breach”):

15.4.2 Regular BBC news presenters should not undertake promotions, endorsements or advertisements for any company, outside organisation or political party.  In exceptional circumstances, with the prior approval of the BBC, they may undertake promotional activities for books which they have written.  Any such activity must not jeopardise a presenter’s reputation for objectivity and impartiality.

Mitchell went on:

The key test has to be whether what he [Paxman] wrote would be acceptable if he said the same things on air … To this end, it is important to see the phrase, “multimillionaire messiah” in its context. This is the paragraph:

“Our parents had Clement Attlee, perhaps the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century, who died leaving an estate worth £7,000. We have Tony Blair, the multimillionaire messiah.”

In my view, the phrase “multi-millionaire messiah” is in keeping with the sometimes acerbic and humorous style that many viewers appreciate – though clearly his style doesn’t work for you. Jeremy Paxman was ruefully contrasting the fortunes of the two prime ministers and any sarcasm in the piece was generally directed at baby-boomers and the nature of our times. I do not agree that he was suggesting that Tony Blair was a hypocrite or delusional.

Wonderful. Comparing Attlee, “perhaps the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century”, with Blair, “er, not”, was merely “ruefully contrasting the fortunes of the two” and in no way jeopardising the presenter’s reputation for impartiality. (Mitchell obviously hopes that hiding behind the modern secular myth of the sainted Attlee will save him, and Paxman. But Paxman’s historical knowledge does not inspire confidence.)

Another friend, Blair Supporter, has also commented on this Alice in Wonderland reasoning.

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  • robertinjapan

    BBC finds new way to admit bias:Actually the BBC have not admitted to being bias. As for the BBC when are people going to start to realize the BBC it’s the best ya gonna get! You are not going to get any where close to it from private industry no matter how much you legislate, no matter how many safe guards you put in place. Some of the news I’ve seen around the world I’m telling you would put Hitlers propaganda machine look like a warm up pantomime act.As to Mr. Paxman I find him well suited at the BBC he’s articulate, he’s got a wicked sharp sometimes very fast paced wit and sense of humor which is brilliant.I have to admit though I love the beeb so I’m as it were biased in its favor.

  • Paul Ward

    The most viewed online newspaper in the world because they scare readers with tomato sauce causing cancer stories and immigration stories but most of all, full of soft porn – that website is a disgrace. No wonder all the little hitlers have to keep trotting off to the garden shed.

  • RaeMcG

    I stopped taking your article seriously once you said you had a friend who wrote for the Daily Mail … 

  • vanzetti

    That in its news and current affairs coverage, the bbc practices systemtic disinformation and obfuscation through omission, editorialisation, legitimised with referecne to sanctioned conformist ‘experts’  -  is beyond serious dispute. Yet, out of a catalogue of gross transgression/breaches of its charter, rentoul picks  paxman’s accurate depiction of blair   as indicative of bias!  What a pathetic apologist for mass murder!

  • timberanddamp

    Its not a matter of how I feel, how do the relatives of all of the soldiers who have been sacraficed and deformed in Iraq and Afghanistan feel, after the up to date revelations of this syncophantic war monger? I have been in the wards of Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, Have you? or Blair recently?

  • timberanddamp

    When I was young I played with young and foolish things, now that im older, I put those things away !!!!!!!!!

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