Jeremy Paxman in Wonderland. “BBC Trust” findings.

All blog posts 2012 + Original posts list: from 2006 to 2012

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Comment at end

16th March 2012

Below, in blue, is the full text of the letter from the complainant in response to the BBC Trust findings (p31) on the Paxman interview with Douglas Alexander on Newsnight, BBC2 on 21 February 2011, which formed the basis of my previous blog post.  As is shown, the  extra details of the findings are even more outrageous and nonsensical than those included in the Wonderland story.
The complaint is based on the fact that consideration of this case has not followed the basic rules of an appeal process i.e. that the decision should be related to the precise terms of the original complaint, that the objections to a finding should be properly considered and then the decision made on the basis of whether or not these objections are plausible and whether there was evidence to back up any case being made.
In this case the Committee’s decision is not related to my original complaint and your conclusions have been endorsed without addressing my precise objections to them.   No evidence has been provided to support the Committee’s conclusions whereas evidence to support my objections has been ignored. Finally, the reasoning behind the Committee’s decision is quite absurd.  All this can be seen from the following analysis of the Committee’s justification of their findings, which can be summarised as –
  1. it could not be concluded from the substance of Mr Paxman’s questions that they represented his personal views;
  2. most viewers would not have judged that Mr Paxman’s combatitive questioning on this topic went beyond what was expected of Mr Paxman in this respect;
  3. the Committee did not agree that the questions put to the daughter of the murdered Libyan dissident were leading questions;
  4. the style of the interview did not reveal in any way the presenter’s views;
  5. just because an interviewer may hold certain views does not mean that an interview is conducted in a partial manner;
  6. the key question was not the distinction between whether the presenter actually held personal views or gave the impression that he held personal views; it was whether the material  broadcast was impartial. The Committee then declare the evidence that I have provided to support my case to be irrelevant.
The obvious answers to these points, which I have repeatedly made in the correspondence, are
1)  It was not the substance of Mr Paxman’s questions which revealed his personal views or gave the impression that they were his views but the way in which they were put ;
2)  this is simply a matter of opinion, no evidence having been provided. Even if  such combatitive questioning was expected by the audience this does not override the need for Mr Paxman to abide by the guidelines I have referred to about interviewers not revealing their own biased views on a subject or giving the impression of such bias.
3)  this observation flies in the in the face of the actual questions put in this case –
“It was not just a matter of Mr Paxman’s softer tone with Ms Abuzeid but of the way questions were put to her to simply confirm the case that Mr Paxman was making. As I said in my submission to Ms O’Brien, “Mr Paxman then turns to the daughter of a murdered Libyan dissident and gently asks her some leading questions about what she thinks of the pictures of Blair and Gaddafi (as if she’s going to reply, great!) and whether she had any anxiety that the Blair relationship was reinforcing Gaddafi’s position in Libya (as if she’s going to answer ‘no’.)”
4)  this observation also flies in the face of the way the questions were put in this case –
“His lips curling with contempt, Paxman asked Alexander whether he was proud of the pictures of Blair embracing Gaddafi, emphasising the words “proud” and “embracing”.He then went on to refer to “the killing being done by someone who our former PM had clasped to his bosom and whose son referred to him as a close personal friend (with the words “bosom”, “close” “personal” “friend” being almost spitted out. This was followed by “So we have got a despot still in power, having been clasped to his bosom by our former PM (notice the repetition of the bosom clasping reference) and you still show no sign of apologising for this? (with a note of incredulity in his voice). Then in response to an answer from Alexander he almost screams at him “Stop passing the buck to the international community!”
Moreover, putting the observation in this way begs the question of whether Mr Paxman gave the impression that these were his own biased views even if they were not.  As I have already said, giving such an impression seems to go against the BBC guidelines on this matter and although I have provided a link to an ESC finding apparently agreeing with this interpretation of the guidelines the Committee have completely ignored this aspect of my appeal. 
5)  I was not arguing that the interview was lacking in impartiality just because Mr Paxman held certain views about the subject of the interview. My argument was that the interview was biased  because Mr Paxman allowed his attitude towards Tony Blair to be revealed (or gave the impression that this was his attitude) in the manner of his questioning.
6)  this is the most obtuse, convoluted and contentious part of the Committee’s justification of their finding.  First of all they have distorted my argument as explained in my answer to point 5 above (it was not a matter of the presenter just holding certain views etc but of the presenter revealing those views etc in the interview and thus affecting the impartiality of the interview). Second they seem to be saying that the interview was impartial just because they say it was impartial, dismissing the evidence I presented to the contrary as irrelevant. It was like a judge in  the Wonderland of Alice finding someone innocent on the basis that it was not part of his job to consider evidence presented by the prosecution.
As regards the question of the evidence itself in this case, the  Committee’s decision is even more like the logic of Wonderland  in that, as I have pointed out before, the Committee had come to their conclusion on the irrelevance of the evidence even though on a previous complaint I had made  (Newsnight, BBC TWO, 28 September 2009) the Committee had rejected my appeal on the basis that “the complainant had not presented it with any evidence to support his complaint that Jeremy Paxman was presenting his own opinions and as such the Committee was satisfied that in carrying out his role of interviewer Jeremy Paxman had been impartial and even-handed in his approach and style of questioning”.
Thus, as I went on to say, in the previous case the test of impartiality was whether evidence had been provided whereas the test in this case is simply whether the Committee considered the interview to be impartial regardless of the evidence provided. This seems to be a clear case of moving the goalposts in that evidence is crucial where I haven’t provided it but irrelevant where I have. Or in Wonderland terms. “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean…nothing more nor less”.
Finally the Committee seems to have come to a view on this case based on the key question being whether the “material as broadcast” was impartial whereas my complaint was about the phrasing and manner of the questioning, which is a very different thing.
So on all the key elements of handling this appeal i.e. addressing the precise terms of my appeal,  properly addressing my objections to your conclusions, properly addressing the question of the evidence provided (and not provided) plus the need for the findings to stand up to logical analysis, the Committee have fallen far short of what should be expected. In that sense I consider their handling of the case to be grossly unfair and the explanation of their findings not clearly communicated.  To add insult to injury they have also rejected my request that the extracts from my letter setting out the precise nature of those parts of the Paxman interview that I objected to should be included in the published findings. I wanted these extracts included so that visitors to the site could determine whether the Committee’s views on the impartiality of the interview were justified.”
Earlier, 28th July 2011, complaint – HOW THE BBC TRUST BETRAYS OUR TRUST, Part 2  [and prior to that (Part 1, 28th June 2011) and after those (Part 3, 8th August 2011)]
John Rentoul on yet another complaint to said BBC re Paxman bias

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