During 23 years with The BBC, and 38 years in journalism, our Editor, Welshman Phil Parry would always look askance at ‘news’ that was given as spin, when Russia deny they have conducted an ‘invasion’ of Ukraine, and say the Jewish leader of the country is a Nazi.
Earlier he described how he was assisted in breaking into the South Wales Echo office car when he was a cub reporter, recalled his early career as a journalist, the importance of experience in the job, and made clear that the ‘calls’ to emergency services as well as court cases are central to any media operation.
He has also explored how poorly paid most journalism is when trainee reporters had to live in squalid flats, the vital role of expenses, and about one of his most important stories on the now-scrapped 53 year-old BBC CW TV Current Affairs series, Week In Week Out (WIWO), which won an award even after it was axed, long after his career really took off.
Phil has explained too how crucial it is actually to speak to people, the virtue of speed as well as accuracy, why knowledge of ‘history’ is vital, how certain material was removed from TV Current Affairs programmes when secret cameras had to be used, and some of those he has interviewed.
He has disclosed as well why investigative journalism is needed now more than ever although others have different opinions, how the pandemic played havoc with media schedules, and the importance of the hugely lower average age of some political leaders compared with when he started reporting.
We are seeing more and more instances of spin which is given as ‘news’, and during the unprovoked Russian incursion into Ukraine, we have been treated to the latest example of it.
According to Vladimir Putin, this is not an invasion at all, but an ‘operation’, and the country he has gone into is a nest of Nazis – despite the fact that its leader is Jewish.
Ukrainian soldiers have uncovered horrifying evidence of atrocities which were almost certainly carried out by Russian soldiers, and this disclosure too has been ‘spun’ by them.
The bodies of hundreds (perhaps as many as 410) of civilians were found by the liberating Ukrainian army in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv.
Some were discovered with their hands tied behind their backs, and writing on Twitter, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation that “leads to effective accountability”.
Mr Putin (the arch purveyor of spin) has, of course, denied that it is anything to do with Russia, even though the latest set of satellite images suggests dead bodies have been lying on the streets of Bucha for more than a week.
Further, it seems that the Foreign Ministers of the G7 (a club of mostly rich nations) have no doubt whatsoever about who was to blame.
In a statement about what has happened, they said: “We, the G7 Foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, and the High Representative of the European Union, condemn in the strongest terms the atrocities committed by the Russian armed forces in Bucha and a number of other Ukrainian towns”.
Professor Michael Clarke, a military analyst and former Director General of the security think tank RUSI explained the Russians use of spin and denial.
“They go through three phases”, he told Sky News. “They deny everything, then they try to obfuscate and then a couple years later they often admit it… and say ‘yes we did do that, but you do the same’, pointing to some kind of moral equivalence in the West.
“They did it over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, Sergei Skripal in 2018 and the shooting down of civilian airliners over Ukraine in 2013/2014.”.
All of this comes hard on the heels of Donald Trump condemning ‘fake’ news, with his spokesperson saying that there were ‘alternative facts’.
But there is NO SUCH THING AS ‘ALTERNATIVE FACTS!’ There are only truths, and among those is the reality that Russia IS the aggressor, because it INVADED Ukraine, and a massacre of civilians HAS been carried out, for which all the evidence indicates that Russia IS to blame!
According to a new book called ‘Spin Dictators’ by Sergei Guriev (a Russian incidentally) and Daniel Triesman, autocratic leaders are more sophisticated today than they once were – holding multi-party ‘elections’, but rarely claiming to have won over 90 per cent of the vote, because that would invite suspicion.
A classic case is Hungary’s right wing spinner-in-chief, Victor Orban. Another election has just been held in his country and it may have been rigged.
He is a great admirer of Mr Putin, and takes a lot from his play book. On March 24, the Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky told him to “decide which side you are on!”.
In the latest ‘election’, his Fidesz party gained more than 51 per cent of the vote, while the opposition alliance led by Peter Marki-Zay was far behind with 35 per cent.
In his victory speech, Mr Orban criticised Brussels bureaucrats and Mr Zelensky, calling them “opponents”.
Mr Orban ‘wins’ elections, but does not say that he was victorious by an absurd amount, and in 2018 managed to turn less than half the vote for his party into a two-thirds parliamentary ‘supermajority’.
Closer to home, too, the problems of spin have been highlighted.
The BBC News Westminster Correspondent (who was formerly with BBC Cymru Wales [BBC CW]) Ione Wells, declared on Twitter, that a ‘story’ about Welsh Government (WG) policy which had been featured in several UK newspapers, was a “lesson in spin” because it was actually in the UK Government style guide.
She wrote: “This is a very good lesson in spin for journalism students. This story on the Welsh government was briefed to various leading newspapers including The Times, Sun and Daily Mail. Except there’s a catch – the UK government’s style guide is exactly thge same (see next post). Stories were attached.
This cannot, either, be divorced from the importance of being neutral in reporting, to arrive at FACTS about events that actually HAPPENED, and it has been emphasised for me, by internal rules on impartiality in The BBC.
They state clearly: “If your work requires you to maintain your impartiality, don’t express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or ‘controversial subjects’”.
These rules also say that staff should avoid using disclaimers such as ‘My views, not the BBC’s’ in their biographies and profiles, as they provide no defence against personal expressions of opinion.
But while they may enshrine fine sentiments, it appears the rules might not always have been adhered to.
Incredibly, on the very day that I had stressed the importance of impartiality in news, a huge row was finally reported by The BBC over the neutrality of the corporation’s new head of its News Channel.
Jess Brammar (one-time Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost UK) was appointed to the vital role of overseeing the channel, and its international equivalent, BBC World, with it being stressed that personal views should not be publicised.
In announcing her appointment, the then director of News and Current Affairs, Fran Unsworth, proclaimed grandly: “… BBC News has to be impartial and independent. BBC journalists are hired from a variety of different backgrounds, but while working at the BBC, they leave any personal opinions at the door.”
Yet a little digging might have exposed disturbing details, including that Ms Brammar had used social media to accuse the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, of lying in a television interview, and had compared Brexit to the TV comedy drama series Better Call Saul, but that it was “less funny or interesting or enjoyable”.
In a since-deleted tweet she had also suggested that black people would leave the UK if Mr Johnson were re-elected in 2019, and in another post she recommended buying a book about British imperialism by Sathnam Sanghera “to piss off all the racists having a go at him”.
Apparently endorsing such remarks, it has been reported, that The BBC has a left-wing bias, and is thought not to have even tried understanding what prompted people to vote for Brexit. There has, also, been criticism of the many ‘left-wing’ comics on its panel shows, although the argument is that there are few ‘right-wing’ ones.
Several senior journalists at the corporation including Emily Maitlis and Lewis Goodall, of Newsnight, have been carpeted for being biased, because its charter requires its journalism to be impartial.
The use of social media by some senior figures to comment on political issues has also caused concern. Naga Munchetty, the BBC Breakfast presenter, was found to have breached guidelines over comments about a tweet by then President Trump, but Lord Tony Hall of Birkenhead, the Director General (DG) at the time, reversed the decision. The BBC news presenter, Huw Edwards, was accused of political bias after he ‘liked’ a tweet saying: “Vote Labour for the National Health Service”.
The corporation featured, as well, in a UK newspaper giving readers details of a “brutal” report by its regulator which attacked “bias”, it has emerged. The report by regulator OFCOM stated: “They (audiences) feel that the BBC lacks relevant content for their cohort, or that there is bias in the news”.
Controversies over impartiality (or lack of it) have also long dogged BBC CW, and executives there were forced to say sorry after a tweet was ‘liked’ which had attacked a political party. The tweet from Neil McEvoy MS undermined the Abolish The Assembly (AA) party, and BBC CW said that ‘liking’ it was an ‘error’.
The apology itself, though, caused a storm on social media, with one critic saying officials had “backtracked” after getting “stick”. A formal complaint was made about it, and a critic said on Twitter: “You mean liked and then told it mustn’t be liked. Not liked in error”.
The leader of the Welsh Conservatives (WC) in the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru (WP/SC), Andrew RT Davies, MS, accused, on social media, BBC CW of a “link” with nationalist party Plaid Cymru (PC) and that it was “unhealthy”.
The unbelievable fight over alleged links between PC and BBC CW was soon after growing concern about figures who have joined the corporation from PC, and those that have moved in the other direction.
The political journalist at BBC CW Aled ap Dafydd became PC’s Director of Political Strategy and External Relations. Mr ap Dafydd’s transfer followed the appointment of the former PC Chief Executive Rhuanedd Richards as Editor of BBC Radio Cymru (BBC RC) and the Welsh language online service, Cymru Fyw (she is now ‘Director’).The PC MS for Ynys Mon Rhun ap Iorwerth was also formerly a leading political journalist at BBC CW, joining the corporation in 1994.
Perhaps this sort of behaviour, is what the present Director General (DG) Tim Davie had in mind when he said: “Our research shows that too many perceive us to be shaped by a particular perspective”, and stated that he wanted to stop presenters being “partisan campaigners on social media”…
Maybe more research is needed on how government policy was a “lesson in spin”, and how iron rules on impartiality at The BBC, square with the head of its News Channel having said publicly that the Prime Minister had ‘lied’…
Phil’s memories of his extraordinary 38-year award-winning career in journalism and 23 years at The BBC (when impartiality, and seeing through spin, were always pivotal) as he was gripped by the incurable disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in the major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order it now!
Regrettably publication of another book, however, was refused, because it was to have included names.