20.5.10

BBC News Fails To Score

I watch the BBC every couple of weeks when I return from my work abroad and approach the main news programmes with something like fresh eyes, hoping to learn from carefully-observed reports made by people who are lavished with time and money in order to know more about the globe than I do.

I want to see and hear the world. After all the BBC has 44 foreign bureaux and generates 120 hours of radio and television output every day. I want to learn something about my own country that isn’t already staring me in the face.

So what did I see on Wednesday, 19th May, 2010.

The programme managed to spend half an hour, assuring the viewer there was not much going on.

CARTOON CHARACTER

First, constitutional changes proposed by the new government: a straightforward report but one that merited some serious analysis.  What we got was a casual report to camera by political editor Nick Robinson which assumed the viewer either already knew the background or didn’t care.

Most of his effort seemed to be going into his polished and professional delivery – as a cartoon character, eyebrows twitching above ill-fitting glasses, a great performance, no doubt, but one better suited to an episode of Wallace and Gromit. Form over susbstance, cuddly appearance over content. Sugar not salt.

Second story: the battle for the leadership of the Labour party, with more than a minute dedicated to a flattering portrait of Ed Balls. An odd editorial decision in the first week of a new government battling an almighty crisis. You might think BBC reporters would cover the strategy of the winning team rather than the management changes of the team that’s just been defeated.

Yet we had images of the young, determined-looking Balls, the brains behind then Chancellor Gordon Brown; pictured with his wife; video of Balls being  teased by Heseltine.  Flattery, no hard information, questions or answers.

Then the Thailand crisis, in my view, the worst report of the night with no explanation, no context. Opposition leader Thaksin, former PM and controversial telecoms billionaire, was introduced by the BBC as “the poor people’s favourite”. 

You don’t have to know or care much about Thailand to ask why these protestors in red shirts seem willing to die by the dozen to oppose the government. Something must be going on. Did the BBC tell us?

STRAIGHT REPORTING

James Robbins, diplomatic correspondent, lazily described them as mobs and middle-class (presumably, but the BBC did not ask or tell, these include entrepreneurs and business people who can't afford an equally-corrupt government). He was mostly concerned about whether the protesters would leave us tourists to enjoy their country in peace.

Fourth up, the news of the day: the crisis threatening to collapse the euro. There was nothing to learn from this report as the Germany correspondent simply reeled off an account of Chancellor Merkel’s new law against speculators. This report required a knowledgeable reporter able to comment on the tensions between the EU members, how the markets reacted and what’s the outlook for our economies.

Then the jewel of the night.

John Simpson’s report on Uganda’s churches calling for the imprisonment or execution of homosexuals was very straight reporting, albeit on a topic that obsesses the BBC more than the rest of us.

The Ugandan vicar’s diatribe must have struck a cord or truth with many viewers: you British (the former colonial rulers, Simpson might have reminded the viewer) are obsessed with allowing gay marriage, while British society falls apart and the only religion that's thriving is Muslim. Pretty observant, I thought.

SENSE OF WONDER AND MYSTERY

As this was not a news report but another issue-based feature it could not lead to any conclusion so it ended with a whimper as Simpson pondered oh, how different are attitudes in Africa from those in the US or UK.

At this point a declaration of interest: I am a former BBC producer.  Far from ill-feelings towards my former employer I still hanker after the radio reports of the much-diminished BBC World Service and the great work I witnessed at first hand in BBC radio during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What is produced now is a consumer product, designed to be easily digestible to the broadest swathe of the population. Like all news output that’s driven by marketing people it assumes that people have no interest in the lives of others, no sense of wonder or mystery.

A good journalist can make any story interesting to his or her audience. The key is to know your audience, to know how to ask questions and, above all, to be interested.  The BBC fails on every count.

5.5.10

Euro Crisis Terror Risk

Is the EU’s response to the Greek crisis about helping the country to put its spending and income back into balance and pay off its debts, or is it about halting a crisis of confidence in the eurozone?

Despite what the politicians imply, these are not the same thing.

Greek politicians and commentators admit the country has lived beyond its means, paying similar salaries to those available in Brussels or Paris while producing less than 3% of eurozone output.

Protestors are on the streets of Athens because they fear even more dramatic cuts to pay and services. Greece is grappling with uncomfortable truths: work harder or earn less.

EU DITHERS


Athens isn’t burning yet, but European policymakers are fiddling, preferring European mood music to answering difficult questions: Can northern and southern Europe afford a similar lifestyle?

The uncomfortable truth is that northern Europe can afford to borrow more to enhance its lifestyle for objective reasons such as wealth-creating industries as well as subjective ones like reputation for competence and the long history of its financial centres.

The euro project famously was intended to promote the convergence of debt levels between governments. Instead, governments fiddled the fiscal numbers while wages and house prices converged.

There are huge differences in wages and the price of property and other assets across the United States. In the eurozone, a decade of low interest rates encouraged prices to converge upwards.

As the Greek protests show, Europe’s voters now believe this apparent wealth is theirs by right.

SAVING THE EURO

By dropping $146 billion into the Greek government’s bank account, the EU is more likely to support the lifestyle of Europe’s bankers but is it enough to satisfy them?

Looking at the possible outcomes: Let’s assume the 110 billion euro currently on offer stabilizes Greek finances. It would still require banks to respect caveat emptor in the case of Italy or Spain and hold the risky bonds which they willingly bought, rather than seek taxpayer bailouts. It may still require eurozone governments to print the money to bail out Greece.

As the crisis rolls on, politicians seek to rebrand the crisis as further integration of the euro, around a central treasury which they should have created at the start of the euro project. Unfortunately, half the eurozone countries now have black holes rather than gold to contribute to the central treasury so, in effect, Germany would play treasurer to the eurozone. This is precisely what it seeks to avoid.

A Greek default could leave European banks with 30 cents for every euro they’re owed. The consensus in Europe’s press is to exclude the possibility of such losses. That assumes the hurricane doesn’t move on to Italy and Spain. The amount of money required to settle their debts would require massive printing of money, creating inflation, undermining one of the core premises of the euro, the German-inspired commitment to long term stable prices.

The wealthiest nations face a choice of quitting the euro, allowing poorer nations to devalue the single currency to reflect their wage prospects. Alternatively they create a two-speed eurozone, forcing austerity upon southern Europe, cutting wages and services and requiring them to pay reparations, over decades to repay the bailout.

Germany and the other eurozone leaders will demand somebody pays and the choice will be seen as laying waste to Greece or to Europe's banks.

FROM TRAGEDY TO TERROR

As Greece enters a long and painful austerity, the country’s vulnerability to political extremism and ability to resist will be tested. Terrorist groups such as November 17, small but fired by a hatred of capitalism and the United States, could find fertile support. These groups date back to protests against the autocracy of the Greek colonels and have never been convincingly uprooted.

At stake in this crisis is not just Greek membership of a currency union. David, Lord Hannay, the UK’s permanent representative at the European Economic Community until 1990, once told me in an interview to remember the EEC, now EU, is not primarily about trade or even currencies. It is an alliance intended to ensure that Europe’s leading nations never again go to war with on another.

The euro project raised the expectations of citizens in countries like Greece and Portugal that they’d rejoined the first world. Failing to hold the eurozone together risks splitting Europe and undermining its fundamental purpose.

In launching the single currency without fully understanding what they were doing, Europe’s politicians find themselves in the same camp as the Goldman Sachs trader ‘Fabulous Fab’ Tourre, who created and sold investment products based on sub-prime mortgages.

The hapless Fab admitted in emails that are now subject of multiple legal cases, that he was “...standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!"

The European economic community was an undoubted success. The single currency may have been a step too far.