Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

11 November 2009

Complaint about BBC coverage of Britain’s new nuclear power stations; and reply regarding the One Show

Below is the text of an email of complaint I sent to the BBC yesterday:

I am complaining about the fact that the BBC’s reporting on the government’s plans for ten new nuclear power stations, announced yesterday, failed to explain why almost all of them (nine) are to be built in England and none in Scotland. This is because the new ‘streamlined’ planning regime, brought about by legislation passed in 2008, relates mainly to England, and to Wales only with respect to energy installations and harbours. The same applies to the quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, set up to oversee the new planning system.While the reports on BBC radio, TV and online news did indicate that none of the new nuclear plants were to be built in Scotland, they failed completely to explain why. Instead, government spokespersons (e.g. Ed Miliband) were quoted referring to the energy needs of ‘the nation’; and references were made to the IPC and its framework guidance on ‘nationally significant infrastructure’ projects, in such a way as to imply that policy in such matters is being formulated and applied on a consistent UK-wide basis. This is, however, not the case, and the vast majority of the planning framework documents that the IPC is currently formulating will apply to England only; and the one regarding nuclear power under which planning applications for the new plants will be handled relates to England and Wales only.So whereas the UK government does have responsibility for energy strategy across the UK, the system under which it is attempting to drive through controversial developments is largely restricted to England. This is a critical fact that should have been mentioned given the concerns over the environmental impact and safety of nuclear power. Indeed, some of the proposed plants are situated close to major population centres, such as Bradwell in Essex (very close to London) and Oldbury in Gloucestershire (near Bristol). By contrast, Scotland would really have been a much more suitable location for some of these plants given the remoteness of some of its coastline and its greatly inferior population density.

The reason why Scotland is excluded is of course devolution: planning in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, which is refusing to authorise any new nuclear plants. So the BBC’s lack of rigour in reporting on this issue is another example of its failure to be critical and explicit in making clear whenever UK-government policy applies to England only or mainly, as in this instance. This relates to previous complaints I have made about this more general failing on the part of BBC news coverage, and to a reply I received from Paul Hunter dated 25 October 2009.

By the way, while I’m on the subject, the website for the Infrastructure Planning Commission is a classic example of the way many websites for England-specific government departments or quangos contain very few up-front references to the actual name of the ‘nation’ they’re supposed to be serving. If all you look at are the home page and the general ‘about’ pages, often the only way you could be sure these are UK organisations of any sort is by looking at the web address or by other indications such as language and web-site design. Other classic examples of the genre include the (English) Department of Health and the Department for (English) Children, Schools and Families, whose website proclaims: “The purpose of the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to make this the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up” – ‘this’ being the way they refer to England. I wonder what cyber visitors from other countries make of this shame-faced way of suppressing references to your own country, whereas their government websites plaster the name and symbols of their nations all over the place; contrast the French Health Ministry or the German Environment Ministry. I suppose at least they have the decency not to stick the Union Jack on all the pages and refer to ‘the country’ as Britain on these websites; instead, they avoid explicitly naming the country at all.

Yesterday, I also received a reply to my earlier complaint about an episode of BBC1’s ‘One Show’:

Dear Mr RickardThank you for your e-mail regarding ‘The One Show’ on 28 October and for your comments on the report about proposals to begin giving children career advice at the age of seven..

 

While a Government proposal, limited to England, may have been the topical trigger for this report its focus was the general idea of giving children careers advice at this young age; something which although perhaps not a reality for any part of the UK at the moment the programme felt was an interesting idea to explore.

Ruby Wax set out to look at the wider issues and to gauge reaction to such an idea. This encompassed looking at some of the concerns about children’s aspirations in life which prompted the proposal, as well as the likelihood of people growing up to do the jobs they wanted to do when they were seven years old.

I note however that you would have appreciated some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment and would like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback we compile daily for the programme and senior management within the BBC. This ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

Stuart Webb
BBC Complaints
__________________________________________
http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

In essence, this response amounts to dismissing my complaint about the programme’s failure to clarify that the government’s proposal related to England only as a personal preference rather than a substantive criticism that the lack of such an indication was fundamentally misleading: in this instance, perpetuating the ignorance of English viewers that the government’s education policies apply to England only; and, in the case of non-English viewers who are not especially well versed on the effects of devolution, potentially alarming them about something that in fact does not affect them. Note the sheer ignorance and complacency of the sentence, “some mention of the fact that the Governments proposal is limited to England at the moment”: no, it’s not ‘at the moment’, you utter ignoramus – any UK government proposal on these matters can only ever relate to England only, unless there are plans to reverse devolution. Trouble is you can’t reply to these BBC emails, but you have to do a whole new complaint. So this is effectively my response.

I also note that Ruby Wax talked only to people on English streets and English education specialists. Why not go and talk to people in Glasgow or Cardiff if the programme was merely mooting a general idea? Well, that’s because this would make the (intended?) implication that the government’s ideas were relevant to the whole of the UK far more explicit; and hence would make the programme more vulnerable to accusations of misleading inaccuracy when reporting on England-specific affairs.

Clearly, the item was relevant to Britain only in one of the modern meanings of the word ‘Britain’, which is ‘England’. But the One Show is predicated on the lie that there is still just One Nation in political terms.

Oh well, we’ll keep chipping away.

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28 October 2009

Email of complaint to the BBC over tonight’s One Show

Below is the text of an email of complaint I’ve just sent to the BBC regarding tonight’s One Show programme on BBC1:

“I am complaining that the feature in tonight’s One Show about the government’s proposals to provide elementary careers advice to seven-year-olds in schools completely failed to clarify that the proposals affect England only. Schoolchildren in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not have such ridiculously premature careers guidance imposed upon them; but this was not mentioned. Nor was it indicated that the direct activities of the ‘National’ Children’s Bureau (a name implying UK-wide responsibilities), whose spokesperson was interviewed in the feature, relate to England only.

“The subject matter of this specific complaint relates to a general complaint about the failure of the BBC to indicate when policy matters being discussed relate to England only, for which I received a reply from Paul Hunter only this week. Evidently, this is an endemic issue at the BBC.”

 

The reply to my previous complaint to which tonight’s email referred was the Corporation’s final response to my Open Letter to the BBC calling on them to ensure that English policy matters are clearly indicated as such during coverage of the forthcoming general election. It read as follows:

 

"Dear Mr Rickard
 
"Thank you for your recent e-mail.  Please accept our apologies for the
delay in replying.  We know our correspondents appreciate a quick response
and we are sorry you have had to wait on this occasion.
 
"I must explain that your original complaint contained a link to your open
letter, as featured on an external website.  However as this was you own
material and published on an external website, we aren't obliged to open
the link.
 
"Despite this, I can assure you that we have noted your comments on this
issue and I fully appreciate that you feel strongly about this matter. 
Therefore I would like to assure you that we have registered your comments
on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which
we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives
within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your
points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered
across the BBC.
 
"Thanks again for taking the time to contact us with your views.
 
"Regards
 
"Paul Hunter
BBC Complaints"
__________________________________________
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

I’m going to keep on sending these complaints Paul Hunter’s way from now on. Feel free to do the same!

12 January 2008

This department relates to ‘England’

Call me obsessed – well, I am a bit – but I was just looking out of curiosity. I was thinking that the way the BBC has recently been getting round the problem of reporting on legislation and government policy that relates to England only (e.g. in education, health, housing, planning, etc.) is to add the words ‘in England’ at the end of the headline. For instance, two days ago, when the BBC News on Radio Four reported the story that one-fifth of English state schools were still failing to meet the government’s minimum targets for GCSE attainment, the fact that the item referred to English schools was indicated by sticking ‘in England’ at the end of the sentence. I thought this was a bit invidious, in that it suggested that the problem of inadequate performance itself was limited to England; as if there was a special failure on the part of English schools or pupils in particular that did not apply to Scottish or Welsh schools, and that this was somehow a reflection on English social failings. If this had been put the other way round, i.e. if the sentence had begun by saying “20% of English schools are failing . . .”, this might have made it clearer that the government has direct responsibility for English educational matters – in fact, that its competence in education relates only to England; and that if anyone should carry the can, it’s the government.

To be fair to the BBC (or, as I like to call it in such matters, BBC England), their report on the story on their website does start with the words, “Almost a fifth of England’s state secondary schools do not yet meet the government’s new ‘floor target'”; although that is the first and last time the report mentions the fact that the newly released figures concern English education only. In addition, I myself did post a blog a couple of months ago urging the BBC and the media in general to make more of an effort to indicate when political stories were relevant to England alone by, for instance, adding the phrase ‘in England’ somewhere in the sentence.

So, I thought to myself today, hat tip to the BBC for at least spelling out when stories are unique to England a bit more. I wondered whether they’d taken a lead from the press release on the (English) Department for Children, Schools and Families website. I thought the department must surely state fairly prominently that the new statistics related to England only: what’s the point of a set of statistics if you don’t know to which unit of population or organisations they relate?

But oh no, the facts were even worse than I expected, or should that be ‘suspected’? Have a look yourself: the only reference to England in the entire press release was in a footnote carrying the obscure words, “This press notice relates to ‘England'”. I kid you not, the apostrophes around ‘England’ are there in black and white for all to read. What is ‘England’, we might feel entitled to ask? If they actually mean England – a real country, geographical territory and statistical population group – why put it in apostrophes, as if it was something unreal or unofficial? If you weren’t alerted to the facts, you could actually completely fail to grasp the whole import of this sentence, which is that all the information and statistics you have just been reading concern English schools only, not those of the UK as a whole. Up until that point – and apart from the obscure meaning of this footnote, you might not see it at all if you don’t get to the end of the press release – there’s been nothing to indicate that the figures weren’t those for the UK, or at least for England and Wales (which they’re not: the Welsh Assembly Government looks after Welsh education matters).

The reason why I say you have to be alerted to the facts is that you need the contextual knowledge that educational issues have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be aware not only that individual press releases deal with English matters only but that the whole Department for Children, Schools and Families is an English government body, not one with UK-wide responsibilities. The Department itself certainly isn’t going to tell you. I think of myself as being reasonably well informed in these matters. But even I was slightly foxed by the ‘Cymraeg’ link in the bottom frame of the web pages, which takes you to information on the Welsh Language Scheme. I thought, does the Department have any responsibilities for education in Wales after all? Well, maybe it does have some residual, strategic involvement or at least a point of view. But that’s it. Look at the Department’s page about their regional office structure: nine English regions there (hmm, don’t get me on to that one!) but nothing in Wales. But nothing in the ‘About us‘ page about England, either. At least, they don’t go on about Britain or the UK there!

For me, the phrase “This press notice relates to ‘England'” is symptomatic of the denial of any official, formal status to England as a nation; and moreover, as the nation whose education services and standards represent the entire domain of responsibility of the Department itself. What other implication could there be in putting ‘England’ in inverted commas? This says, ‘the area informally known as England but which is not an official term’. It’s the only way they can refer to the territory and population to which all their statistics (indeed, their work as a whole) relate without making themselves look ridiculous. Otherwise, they’d have to say something like, “This press notice relates to the regions of the UK administered by the central UK government”, or “This notice does not relate to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland”.

Well, if the DCSF (or whatever acronym they eventually adopt) think it’s OK to add ‘England’ as an unofficial footnote, then I feel entitled in adding ‘England’ unofficially to the name of the department itself, which shall henceforth be known as the ‘English’ Department for Children, Schools and Families. After all, as they say themselves, it is a UK department that relates – despite itself – to ‘England’ only.

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