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.

Advertisements

3 July 2009

Government response to swine flu: over-complicated by devolution?

In media coverage yesterday of the change in the official response to swine flu from ‘containment’ to ‘treatment’, I was struck by the usual ambiguity as to whether the information provided related to England only or the whole of the UK. For instance, in the BBC News website’s report, it stated: “Andy Burnham, the health secretary in England, said: ‘The national focus will be on treating the increasing numbers affected by swine flu. Cases are doubling every week and on this trend we could see over 100,000 cases per day by the end of August'”. Pleasing that the BBC correctly characterises Andy Burnham as the English health secretary; but then, is the “national focus” one for England only or for the whole of the UK? Probably the latter, as the 100,000 cases per day figure was being talked of as the UK-wide total. But all the same, this got me wondering: how is the response to swine flu being co-ordinated – if at all – between the UK government and the devolved administrations, with their separate responsibilities for health care? And is the apparent failure of the containment strategy in part a consequence of different approaches having been adopted in the different UK nations?

Unlike the radio and TV coverage, the BBC website article did report that, “Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced similar changes to the flu strategy at a simultaneous briefing in Edinburgh”. So it appeared that there is a single UK-wide strategy and a co-ordinated response across the different health departments. This was even more apparent when I visited the Department of Health [England]‘s and the Scottish Government‘s websites and read their remarkably similar statements on the change in tactics.

After much further investigation, it turns out that the Department of Health [England] has retained the responsibility for drawing up the overall UK strategy for dealing with flu pandemics, along with the lead role in co-ordinating the operational response to any actual outbreak; although the devolved administrations are supposed to put in place their own NHS and civil-contingency systems and resources for responding to any crisis – in line with the UK plan.

As the government’s national framework document puts it: “A ministerial committee (MISC 32), comprising ministers from across central government departments and the devolved administrations, oversees and coordinates national preparations for an influenza pandemic”. Then, in the event of the World Health Organisation declaring that a pandemic has reached phase 4 or higher (currently, we’re on phase 6 for swine flu), the following happens: “the Government’s dedicated crisis management mechanism – the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC) – [is] activated in support of the Department of Health. The CCC will direct central government activities, coordinate the wider response, make key strategic and tactical decisions on the countermeasures required and determine national priorities. The CCC will be guided by input from central departments and agencies and from local responders through Regional [English] Civil Contingencies Committees (RCCCs) and the devolved administrations. It will work with the national News Coordination Centre to maintain public confidence [i.e. manage the news]”.

So we’re currently in a situation where a nebulous Civil Contingencies Committee is co-ordinating the response UK-wide, in keeping with a pre-established plan, and managing the news in such a way as to maintain morale. No wonder that the English-UK and devolved health departments appeared yesterday to be singing perfectly from the same hymn sheet in their media pronouncements in a display of quite exceptional synchronisation and unity! And that, despite the imminent prospect of 100,000 new cases of swine flu per week, we’re being blandly reassured that we’re now moving in a controlled, pre-planned way from containment to ‘treatment’ – implying that it can be successfully ‘treated’ in the vast majority of cases; whereas, in reality, we’re all just desperately praying that it doesn’t suddenly become much more virulent or resistant to Tamiflu.

But, as I said above, one can’t help wondering whether the failure of the containment approach (surely, prevention is better than cure?) is partly the result of the wheels of co-ordination between the UK central government and the devolved administrations not running as smoothly as yesterday’s united front would have us believe. If you read the national framework document, the sheer number of organisations – international, national-UK, ‘regional’ (English), devolved and local – that are involved in formulating strategies and co-ordinating the response is mind-boggling. Amid this already hugely complicated landscape the fact that the NHS and civil-contingency measures are replicated with slight variations in each of the devolved nations and the ‘English regions’ surely cannot help to streamline processes and ensure that everybody knows what everybody else in the chain of command is supposed to be doing.

Take a look at the section that deals with the different organisational elements involved in each of the devolved administrations (pages 49 to 52). This is a masterpiece of bureacracy-speak, and of bureacracy full stop, with departments, committees, sub-committees, groups, sub-groups, directors, trusts, agencies, directorates, etc. etc. all having a role to play. I can’t prove that having these complicated and distinct organisational schemes in each of the devolved countries has contributed to the ineffectiveness of the containment measures; but they surely cannot help. And it is the case that Scotland is one of the ‘hotspots’ of the disease, in part – allegedly – because no Scottish-Government advice for people to stop travelling to Mexico was given out in the early stages of the outbreak.

But, for the time being, we are supposed to be resting assured that all the UK health departments are acting perfectly in concert according to a well-structured plan. But the only reason they’re able to both act in this way, and be on message to such an extent, is that their actions are being centrally directed by a shadowy Whitehall committee, which is also driving the media communications in such a way as to reassure the populace that ‘the government’ has everything under control.

And one of the principal, and well-tried, weapons of media misinformation at the fingertips of the national ‘News Coordination Centre’ is to imply – to gullible people in England, at least – that everything forms part of a homogeneous UK-wide health-care and emergency-response system. Well, the plan may be UK-wide – and the operational direction currently is, too, now we’re in an advanced phase of the pandemic – but the delivery certainly is not.

16 June 2009

Dairy Farmers of Britain: No government bail-out

Just in case you were in any doubt, the dairy-farmers’ co-operative organisation Dairy Farmers of Britain that went into receivership earlier this month operates in England and Wales only, not Scotland or Northern Ireland. You wouldn’t necessarily realise that from the news reports on TV and radio that are covering the story today, though. The one I caught on BBC1’s Breakfast show merely referred to the plight of some dairy farmers in ‘the UK’.

No wonder, then, that there’s been no bail-out for the organisation, whose debts must surely be infinitesimal compared with those of the Scottish banks! The statement on DFB’s collapse by the Secretary of State for the Environment (for England) Hilary Benn rather pathetically just accepted the organisation’s demise as inevitable. Nothing to be done. No action to keep the business going and maintain the thousands of livelihoods in England and Wales that depend on it, such as trying to get supermarkets to pay a decent wholesale price for English milk?

Mind you, the supermarkets I tend to shop in don’t sell ‘English milk’, in any case; just something they stick an insultingly huge Union Flag on and call ‘British’ – meaning that it must be English or Welsh, as you can’t imagine they’d dare to stick the same flag on Scottish produce and call it ‘British’! In fact, I’ve noticed that the Scotland-based Wiseman’s Dairy has been doing remarkably well recently; although, again, you wouldn’t necessarily know they’re Scottish unless you read the small print and notice the Glasgow postcode. No Union Flag on the bottles – the company’s Scottish, don’t you know, so we can’t have the British flag on there, can we? – but also no explicit Scottish markers, in case they put off the English consumers that now make up 66% of their market.

Having said that, it would be fair to observe that Wisemans also now sources much – perhaps even most – of its milk from English farmers. But again, we wouldn’t want to indicate that on the labels, would we? With this partly in mind, I tend to buy Wisemans milk or one of its other brands, ‘freshnlo’, when I can in preference to the Union Jack-stamped, ‘British’ (i.e. English) varieties, simply because of the insult of the flag and the censorship of the milk’s English origins. But how come Wisemans has done so well, particularly since devolution? Could it be that the Scottish milk industry and dairy farmers have enjoyed more support, grants and investment funding through the good offices of the Scottish Government? You can’t, after all, imagine the Scottish Government being quite as casual about the demise of a major Scottish milk producer as the British Government has been about Dairy Farmers of Britain England and Wales.

And I have to say that this organisation, for which I feel sympathy, made a big branding error in attaching the ‘Britain’ tag to its name. I can’t be the only one who would have gone out of my way to buy their milk if they’d called themselves ‘Dairy Farmers of England and Wales’, which would have been in complete contrast to the rest of the market, which falls over backwards to suppress any mention of ‘England’ from English produce.

Blog at WordPress.com.