Friday, 17 December 2010

What Jody Did Right: or talking points we could all use

The spin-doctor and the activist: analysis shows just what Ben Brown did, and just what Jody did to get all his points across successfully, even so.

On Monday 13 December blogger and activist Jody McIntyre was interviewed by Ben Brown, anchorman of the BBC's 24-Hour News.

The topic was the assault on Jody by a policeman, in which he was pulled out of his wheechair and dragged across the street while peacefully demonstrating against increases in student fees on 9th December, a short video of which incident was shown at the outset.

Across the country hundreds of thousands of us watched the interview goggle-eyed, jaws dropping to the floor as we observed the clearest possible articulation of government spin: demonise the demonstrators and avoid discussion of provokative police action (spelling intended).

It was a dismal example of the interviewer's art, and a master class on how to handle negative and manipulative questioning.

Review of the video, and the transcript, reveals that Jody stayed right on message throughout the interview, despite the slurs that characterised it.  And so did Ben, but then that's his job.

Jody's four messages could be summarised as follows - they are very good:
  • This is not an isolated incident
  • The real issue is government policy (specific details according to the topic of the demo)
  • The police strategy is to provoke violence by demonstrators (with examples)
  • The media (in this case the BBC) is supporting this strategy (with examples)

Here is the video in case you havn't seen it already.

Here's what Ben Brown did:
The nominal topic of the interview was the evident police assault on Jody (apparently perpetrated by Officer KF936 of Newington Green manor): the hook in the story was Jody's allegation that this may have been done deliberately in order to provoke violent response among the protestors, particularly so in view of his disablement.

This was political dynamite on Jody's part, I think you'll agree, which required exploration.

This was the story, and this is what Ben Brown (a professional journalist, after all) should have tested. Instead, nighmarishly, in Kafka-esque style, Brown calmly and repeatedly insinuated that in some way Jody himself had violent intent, and this legitimated the assault. 

Perhaps it was his wheelchair, Brown implied, possibly "rolling towards the police", perhaps simply Jody's being there, his revolutionary beliefs, his writings in his blog.  By various flimsy hints Brown suggested that Jody merited the assault, that the officer had behaved appropriately.  No wonder several of the comments described the interview as "shameful".

It was a very weak line of questioning to adopt as Brown manifestly had nothing to go on, so why, one wonders, would a self-respecting journalist do it? Why did he relentlessly pursue this failing line of questioning as if his job depended on it? 

He too was right on message.  And as a spin doctor, it has to be said, Ben Brown is very good indeed, very neutral-seeming. And with a lesser man than Jody it might have worked.

Of the thirteen questions put to Jody:
  • Three (23%) could have been a basis for exploring the context, as is the journalistic obligation.  However, Brown interrupted Jody’s response to two of these questions (see below), and failed to pursue the contextual issues further.
  • One question (repeated four times) addressed whether or not Jody had submitted a formal complaint (this was driven by the police press release to that effect), as if Jody's concerns about brutality were thereby rendered frivolous.
  • Six sought to smear Jody by associating him in various ways with violence.
Thus more than three quarters of Brown's questions explicitly articulated, and appeared to be consciously grounded in, what is evidently the government spin on the demos.

Brown interrupted Jody four times, and these too are instructive. Each interruption occurred when Jody was introducing his very coherent analysis of police tactics at the demonstration.  These interruptions came quite systematically, after Jody had successfully got two complete political statements past Brown.

The interrupted points were nevertheless clear, and perhaps constitute Jody's thesis.  These are what I distilled into the "talking points" above. They were:
  • his experience is not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of unprovoked police violence at demonstrations, which is grossly under-reported;
  • the real issue is not the violence but the political issues underlying all these demonstrations, namely the government policy towards the cuts;
  • the police picked on him precisely because he is disabled, and this would be more likely to inflame the protesters (as it did); and
  • there are parallels between the BBC’s marginalization of discussion of the issues underlying the demontrations with its marginalization of progressive discussion in other fora, such as Palestine in discussion of Middle East Politics.
The last point was clearly confirmed by the John Pilger documentary The War You Don't See, which by fortunate coincidence was aired the following night, making similar points on official concealment of policy (in Pilger's case, warmongering), supported by government spin (which one would expect) and biased reporting (which is unprofessional, at a minimum).  

You can see this important film here until about 14 January 2011.  In his most recent blog post (The Media's War) Jody McIntyre contrasts Pilger's principled career as a war correspondent with Ben Brown's war reporting experience as an uncritical hack embedded with the British Army in Iraq. The latter may also be examined in Ben Brown's Book:   Sandstealers: War is One Hell of a Story 

But there is more than just the wrongness of the interviewing to consider, there is the necessity of responding politically, as Jody demonstrated.

Here's what Jody did:
  • He was prepared
  • He knew exactly what he wanted to say (the talking points)
  • He said them, regardless of what he was asked
  • He knew what the main talking point was (it was a deliberate attack, part of police strategy)
  • He knew that Ben Brown was likely to blame him for the assault he had experienced, and was ready with responses to this line.
  • He responded to Brown's assertion of violent intent on his part, but did not allow this to deviate him from his message that it was the police who were violent in his case, and more generally.
  • He slapped down the interviewer early on ("I am surprised that you have just tried to ...), asserting himself, forcing Brown to become more extreme and ridiculous.
  • He stayed calm (no matter what)
Then of course there were the indefinables - his "presence" on the screen, his charisma, his evident courage and integrity.  All critical to the message.

But there are also two elephants in this room, which we really need to think about more explicitly than we are at the moment.

What really is the BBC's role?

This situation is clarifying the BBC's multi-layered role in the dissemination of the government perspective.  Jody's interview is only a particularly egregious example of a widely observable, and hardening, bias towards the presentation of information that tends to support the ConDem plans for the cuts (that is, to inflate public anxiety about the deficit and divert it into acceptance of a long-desired but not financially necessary re-structuring and partial dismantling of the Welfare State, leading inescapably to greater inequality).  The demonstrations that we have seen so far, and which will continue, are consistently in defense of the Welfare State and to maximise equality in all social indicators

This bias is expressed in two ways, it seems to me. First in failure to explore equivalently the several alternative approaches to the deficit and the position of those who support these alternatives.  Secondly, this bias is  expressed in demonising those who legitimately criticise and peacefully demonstrate. This interview is a perfect example of both of these, most obviously in the attempt to demonise Jody, and flip responsibility for the incident to him, and away from the police officer.  For many, this long term and currently intensifying role of the BBC as state propagandist has been masked or tolerated because of the quality of the programming.  However, such self-deception is becoming less and less tenable.

Part of the mix must be Murdoch and SkyCorp, and there seems to be some kind of Faustian pact to sustain the BBC's broadcasting pre-eminence only at the cost of a closer adherence to Murdochian priorities. I keep thinking of the BBC Director-General walking into No. 10 on the very first day of the LibDem government, only the second appointment in the Prime Minister's diary, even as the first, Rupert Murdoch, slipped un-noticed out of the back door.  And Coulson's presence in the Prime Minister's office must mean that the pact, if such there be, can be closely enforced.

(Update: on 18th December we had the astonishing situation of Director General Thompson advocating a greater role for Fox News in UK broadcasting (owned of course by Murdoch), because the BBC and other should not have "a monopoly"of the airwaves.  This on the very day that the New York Times was reporting that, in the US at least, news tends to disseminate disinformation, the more news people watch the more disinformed they are, and that viewers of Fox News are the most disinformed of all.)

There is question as to whether such a pact, if it exists, makes a substantive difference to the BBC content.  I would say that it is more a matter of degree that actual difference.  The objective relationship  with the state is there, and no doubt there are struggles over it within the BBC (and if so we can hope for leaks in due course). But there does seem to have been a rightward movement in BBC news and comment in particular, whether derived from normal government pressure or an intensified form of it will require research.  At the very least one would think that ConDem pressure is greatly enhanced and focused by spinmeister Coulson in the Prime Minister's office, and reduces the elbow-room of those within the BBC who might otherwise choose to include a wider range of material.

Are the BBC journalists briefed on the governments spin strategy? Are they provided with the messages, as CNN journalists were by the Israeli government during the 2006 invasion of the West Bank? (Democracy Now has a recording of this somewhere).  This is normal practice on a range of issues, and there is no reason to believe that it is not taking place with regard to the anti-cuts campaigns.  I hope that a future leak or leaks will prove it.

I hope also that media monitors are tracking the BBC's apparently intensifying role in advancing the government's line on the cuts, perhaps in the semi-quantitative manner that I have attempted here, and look forward very much to hearing what they have to say.

What really is the police role?
Are undercover police at work among the demonstrators, as one would expect and was admitted by the Met in November 2009 after the G20 demonstrations (Guardian).  More seriously, are any of the violent individuals seen so prominently on television in fact infiltrated thugs? Agents provocateurs?  There is no evidence of this so far, and I have seen no discussion of it,  but it is a question that must at least be asked, and I am staying tuned.  

Furthermore, we need to know who it was who assaulted Jody (and more than one officer seems to have been involved), what group or groups within the police force, covert or otherwise, they belong to, and what training they have received.
    But all in all, it has to be said, this radical, principled, tough and savvy young man, Jody McIntyre, 20 years old, has shown us all how to handle media bias. 

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