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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for the ‘BBC’ Category

Cop TV – BBC’s creepy crime porn

britain-on-fiddle[Update: My email exchange with the programme's presenter]

Nov 7, 2013 – BBC1’s Britain on the Fiddle – yet another of those “cop” documentaries, filmed from the viewpoint of the authorities. Good cops vs bad people. Bad individuals. Not bad systems, bad government/institutions, bad concentrations of wealth/power.

Part 1 was shown at 9pm last night, and lasted an hour. There are more to come – all about good authorities vs bad people (specifically, in this case, “benefits cheats”). I see it as porn for petty authoritarians – people who get off on the Daily Mail. Some of its “factual” claims seemed dubious to me, but I’ll leave that for other commentators to unravel. What I’m interested in here is the conceptual frame which affects our thinking on “the authorities”.

As I’ve noted before, a ‘good authorities/bad people’ frame has been beamed into our skulls for years by primetime TV shows:-

Traffic cops, Crimewatch UK, Drunk and Dangerous, Car Wars, Sky Cops, Customs & Excise Cops, Forensic Cops, On the Fiddle, Motorway Cops, Clampers, The Tube (London’s underground police), Animal Cops, Airport (airport police), A Life of Grime, Traffic Wardens, Rogue Traders, Bailiffs, Transport Cops, Seaside Rescue, Cops, Robbers and Videotape, Girl Cops, Shops, Robbers and Videotape (variation on a theme), War at the Door (housing officers & RSPCA), Dumping on Britain (Environment Agency), Rail Cops, Cops with Dogs, Cars, Cops and Bailiffs, The Planners are Coming (Planning Police), Saints and Scroungers (investigating benefits claimants), Cars, Cops and Criminals, The Lock Up (on police station’s custody suite), Send in the Dogs, Car Crime UK.

crimewatch2That’s just a partial list of actual TV programmes and series – there have been many more variations on the theme over the last two decades, mostly on BBC1 in the primetime evening slot when people are relaxing after a hard day at work (unless they’re “benefits cheats” out joyriding in their new BMWs).

If this sounds like a “conspiracy theory”, then I’m happy. But, really, it’s no more so than Noam Chomsky’s claim that power-elites want to distract everyone from the important issues with spectator sports (actually, that does sound like a conspiracy).

The thing is, I’ve been conducting informal polls ever since I noticed the preponderance of this primetime ‘emergency services’ porno. I quiz people on whether they’ve watched the latest ‘Motorway Cops’ or ‘Clampers’ or ‘Cops with Dogs’. And nobody will ever admit to liking this stuff (the only exception was one person who guiltily confessed to enjoying ‘Crimewatch UK’).

So who in the BBC (or MI5 or NSA – I’m joking, of course) decides that we’re going to watch this tedious authoritarian drivel on such a regular basis? Who commissions it on our behalf? We rarely – or never – see programmes about rampant government fraud, corporate tax avoidance or high-level corruption in the city (as documented for years by Private Eye magazine). We don’t get regular documentaries on how much the banks are costing us in bailouts right now (the bailouts didn’t end, they just continued). Of course we don’t.

crimewatch_ukWhat we get is good authorities vs bad people. Bad individuals – not so different from you and me (except for the real crooks, the “scum”. Of course). And if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are UP AGAINST the authorities (even on a relatively minor matter, and perhaps through no fault of your own) you will see the frame in action – but not in an entertaining or enjoyable way like on ‘Girl Cops’ or ‘Shops, Robbers and Videotape’. Because the frame has certain entailments which are not in the best interests of individuals minding their own business. I’m understating things here.

“Good cops/authorities” frame

Here’s the frame logic: We’re all victimised or disadvantaged by the actions of bad, criminal, irresponsible, antisocial people. The “authorities” come to the rescue, in the form of police or other official types with police-like powers. The cops deal with the bad people and protect the good people. Frame inferences: The cops/authorities are essentially good; the accused and suspect are bad; the victims are usually innocent. The authorities maintain order and harmony; the villains disrupt it. Order is a system; bad individuals disrupt order (note the good system / bad individuals dichotomy).

Police-tvA common occurrence in the above TV “documentaries”, which dramatise this frame, is that an accused or “suspect” individual, or somebody shown as under investigation, “is” always “obviously” “guilty”. I’ve never seen an exception to this – it seems to be a “game rule”, a condition of the frame. It works dramatically, as the cops chosen to appear always seem nice, decent, reasonable people, whereas the “suspects” apparently get chosen for their potential resemblance to Daily Mail stereotypes of bad people (“cheats”, “spongers”, “migrants”, “druggies”, etc).

Another creepy aspect of this BBC Police Porn is that when the “suspects” are shown complaining, they’re typically (and convincingly) presented as unreasonable, hostile or slightly insane – as if you must be mentally disturbed (and probably a danger to society) if you object to the way the authorities are “assisting” you. This is “good TV” for armchair fascists – you can almost hear the target audience’s resonse: “The pathetic, despicable whining, whinging scum – get a fucking job, and stop using your disability as an excuse”. I don’t think the BBC presenters realise what Frankenstein’s monster they are creating with the regular evocation of this frame.

But, hey, I’m sure many BBC viewers get a nice masturbatory thrill from watching bureaucrats and cops spy on suspect people with sophisticated surveillance technology – before closing in to arrest or caution them (the “money shot” in porn terms). And I wouldn’t want to spoil their fun. It’s like a British Establishment version of 24, but with Alan Partridge replacing Kiefer Sutherland, and with poor, struggling, stressed-out people on benefits as the terrorist threat.

Written by NewsFrames

November 7, 2013 at 9:34 am

Government “hits” BBC

I_Newspaper_12_9_2013Sept 12, 2013 “Government hits BBC with threat of regulation” (today’s i headline). What’s the story here? Well, a government minister wants the National Audit Office (NAO) to scrutinise the VAST sums of PUBLIC MONEY paid in severance deals to BBC executives.

A few things you should know:

  • 1 in 10 prosecutions in the UK are for non-payment of TV licence.
  • Last year, 180,000 people got a criminal record for non-paid TV licence.
  • BBC execs got a total £60m payoff – equivalent to 412,000 licences.*
  • Some BBC execs got more than £1 million in severance deals.
  • Meanwhile, PRISON for many people who didn’t pay their £145 TV licence.

The_Daily_Telegraph_22_8_2013Now we know what it’s about, let’s return to that headline: “Government hits BBC with threat of regulation”. I’ve previously written about the “hits” metaphor (for direct causation), which seems to be common in headlines which contain abstract nouns and institutions-as-actors.

From today’s i headline, you might think the BBC was independent of government and currently relatively unregulated. And the idea that “regulation” is generally bad and threatening might be reinforced (any takers for unregulated cops/banks/corporations?). All of which seems ironic and darkly amusing to me, given what we know about the BBC.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about “hits” as news metaphor for direct causation, let me give you some more interesting examples…

Causal news frames**

News headlines often use direct causation metaphors to frame complex social issues. All such metaphors have their own logic, which is transferred from the physical realm of force to the more abstract social realms of institutions, politics, beliefs, etc. The effect is inescapably “reductive”, but not necessarily invalid (some metaphors – and their imported logics – are more appropriate than others). Here are some examples of such metaphorical causal expressions:

  • Public generosity hit by immigrant wave
  • 72% believe Iraq on path to democracy
  • Obama’s leadership brought the country out of despair
  • Majority fear Vietnam will fall to communism

Each of the causal logics here is different – for example, the notion that one country “falls” to communism, while another takes the right “path” (to democracy). Of “falling to communism”, Lakoff & Johnson remark (Philosophy in the Flesh, p172) that the ‘domino effect’ theory was used to justify going to war with Vietnam: when one country “falls”, the next will, and the next – unless force (military might) is applied to stop the “falling”. The metaphor of taking a “path” has very different political entailments. A nation might not even resemble a democracy, but if it chooses the “right path”, it “deserves” US military and economic “aid”, to help overcome any obstacles put in its “way”. (Incidentally, rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

The different types of causal logic resulting from each metaphor may seem obvious when spelt out like this. But the point is that the reasoning in each case is evoked automatically by the metaphorical frame; it takes effect without being spelt out, without being “made conscious”. Rather, the logic – including political inferences – is an entailment of a frame that’s simply activated by the language used.

* Some reports say that £396m total (in severance deals) was paid to BBC staff, with £25m going to its 150 top managers.

** I’ve copy-n-pasted most of this from an earlier long post. You probably don’t remember – even if you did read that far in the earlier post, which seems unlikely. And, hey, journalists get paid for recycling old, sloppy material. I do it for virtuous reasons.

Written by NewsFrames

September 12, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Framing poll questions & results

crimepollJuly 10, 2013Research has shown that metaphors shape the way people reason about social & political issues – with most folk having no awareness that metaphors are influencing their thinking. This is relevant to polling, of course.

For example, one study found that if crime is framed metaphorically as a “virus”, survey respondents proposed “investigating the root causes… eradicating poverty and improving education (etc)”. But, when crime is framed as a “beast”, participants prefer enforcement and punishment.

Notably, in this study, there was only a one word difference (“virus”/”beast”) in the questions asked. Most participants said the crime statistics (which were included in the question, and the same in both cases) influenced their reasoning most. The authors of the study remarked: “These findings suggest that metaphors can act covertly in reasoning.”

“Majority say X”
“Majority say NOT X”

YouGov tested how a question’s wording shapes responses by asking different groups essentially the “same” question (but with different wording). For example:

  • “The BBC licence fee costs £145.50 a year. Do you think this is good or bad value for money?”
  • “The cost of the BBC licence works out at 40p a day. Do think this is good or bad value for money?”

Since 40p x 365 = £146, you’d expect roughly similar responses. In fact there was a massive difference. The poll asking the first question found that twice as many people thought the BBC was bad value (27% good, 54% bad). The poll using the second question found a majority saying the BBC was good value (44% good, 36% bad).

There’s no obvious difference in terms of metaphor here, but the large shift in response suggests that different cognitive frames are activated in each case – perhaps the larger (yearly) sum “reminds” people of money they need (eg to pay utilities bills). Work in ‘behavioural economics’, by the likes of Dan Ariely, has catalogued similar examples.

Here’s another example, reported by the New York Times, of a simple change in poll wording that dramatically changed the responses:

“Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly [in the military]. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly.” (NYT, 11/2/2010)

As has been commented, this example probably isn’t surprising, as the wording evokes different frames, one about human rights, and the other about sex.

Framing poll results

So, small changes in wording can produce very different responses. And that’s just in the question asked. What about different framings of the results (eg by the news media)? Peter Kellner, the journalist & President of YouGov, makes the following comment:

The results frequently arouse media interest. Indeed we are often commissioned to ask stark questions in order to generate bold headlines and stark findings [...]. It’s not that these headlines or allegations are wrong, but they are often too crude. A single question, or even a short sequence of questions, will seldom tell us all we need to know. (Peter Kellner, 24/10/2011)

But it’s not just the mass media which promotes simplistic conclusions based on crude polling. The “public interest” website, Spinwatch (of all people) recently did something similar…

Even SpinWatchers spin?

A Spinwatch blog commented on a poll which asked people in the UK to estimate the number of Iraqis who “died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003″. The poll itself seems genuinely shocking: 59% of the respondents estimated that fewer than 10,001 Iraqis died as a result of the war.

An obvious question: Where did these low estimates originate? – since they are far lower than figures reported from Iraq Body Count or the Lancet-published surveys, etc. (Or were they just ignorant guesses from people too embarrassed to select the “Don’t know” option?)

Unfortunately, the poll doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, as it was limited (for cost reasons) to just two poll questions, neither of which indicates sources of estimates or media preferences of respondents, etc. But this didn’t stop the Spinwatch blogger from making a sweeping conclusion:

“The poll results are a striking illustration of how a ‘free press’ imposes ignorance on the public in order to promote war.” (Spinwatch, 4/6/2013)

Of course, it doesn’t follow. The poll says precisely nothing about the press. The blogger’s conclusion that the press “imposes ignorance” is based on his own presumptions (whether valid or not) – not on the poll results.

(Spinwatch published a follow-up piece with some media searches, apparently showing unbelievably few mentions of the Lancet Iraq studies – eg only 13 results for “All English Language News”, since 1/12/04, from a Lexis-Nexis search. This is clearly wrong, and, in fact, the last paragraph – of an addendum to the piece – briefly notes that “searching ‘Lancet AND Iraq’ with Lexis Nexis turns up 2602 articles since December 1, 2004″. But the Spinwatch author doesn’t present this as a correction to his earlier seemingly botched search-term format which yielded just 13 articles. Rather, he writes: “As with any search, the results can be tweaked by modifying search terms slightly”!)

Causal metaphors – a digression

Reports of poll results (in common with headlines in general) often use direct causation metaphors to frame complex social issues. All such metaphors have their own logic, which is transferred from the physical realm of force to the more abstract social realms of institutions, politics, beliefs, etc. The effect is inescapably “reductive”, but not necessarily illegitimate (some metaphors – and their imported logics – are more appropriate than others). Here are some examples of such metaphorical causal expressions:

  • Public generosity hit by immigrant wave
  • 72% believe Iraq on path to democracy
  • Obama’s leadership brought the country out of despair
  • Majority fear Vietnam will fall to communism

Each of the causal logics here is different – for example, the notion that one country “falls” to communism, while another takes the right “path” (to democracy). Of “falling to communism”, Lakoff & Johnson remark (Philosophy in the Flesh, p172) that the ‘domino effect’ theory was used to justify going to war with Vietnam: when one country “falls”, the next will, and the next – unless force (military might) is applied to stop the “falling”. The metaphor of taking a “path” has very different political entailments. A nation might not even resemble a democracy, but if it chooses the “right path”, it “deserves” US military and economic “aid”, to help overcome any obstacles put in its “way”. (Incidentally, rightwing ideologues regard any “move” towards “free market” economics as taking the “path” to democracy).

The different types of causal logic resulting from each metaphor may seem obvious when spelt out like this. But the point is that the reasoning in each case is evoked automatically by the metaphorical frame; it takes effect without being spelt out, without being “made conscious”. Rather, the logic – including political inferences – is an entailment of a frame that’s simply activated by the language used.

“Imposes ignorance”

The notion that the press “imposes ignorance on the public” is also metaphorical (although this perhaps isn’t as obvious as in the above examples). The question is whether we regard it as valid and appropriate for 21st century media – given the increasing levels of information access. It takes less than a minute, for example, for anyone with an internet connection to google “Iraq war deaths”. Such a search immediately returns the BBC article, Iraq war in figures, which cites Iraq Body Count, UN-backed IFHS, and Lancet studies, and their figures.

(BBC headlined with the 2006 Lancet study – on BBC1 News and BBC2 Newsnight - on the day of its publication, published a “question and answer” piece with one of the study’s authors (Les Roberts) and conducted an investigation – using a Freedom Of Information request – showing that the government’s scientific advisers privately stated that “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area”.)

None of this fits the notion of a media which “imposes ignorance on the public”. That’s not to say that the “news” media isn’t a determining factor in “public ignorance” (in various complex ways – several of them explored in the cognitive framing literature and in the work of Tversky, Kahneman and others on heuristics and biases, etc). But to conceive of it as forceful restriction (“imposes”) seems a fundamental misunderstanding of how the media works in the 21st century – not to mention how people acquire knowledge and form opinions in an information-saturated world of competing frames.

The Spinwatch piece notes that “Rumsfeld AND Iraq” yielded more search results in a 3-week period than “Lancet AND Iraq” did over 8.5 years – and the author concludes that, “There is simply no honest way to absolve the establishment media for imposing ignorance on the public”. But if there were a simple (inverse) correlation between number of media mentions and public ignorance, you’d expect the “public” to be relatively knowledgable about what Donald Rumsfeld said and did regarding Iraq.

That would take another poll to determine, but I suspect that public indifference/ignorance on Iraq (if that’s what the above poll illustrated) extends to what Rumsfeld said and did – regardless of the media’s apparent over-representation of Rumsfeld.

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

July 11, 2013 at 8:02 am

Establishment TV – BBC’s “authority” frame

bbc-news-fearJune 13, 2013 – It’s comforting to know there’s enough money available for states to build giant secret surveillance systems, even though there’s not enough for less important things like healthcare, transport and social security.

On the creepy, disturbing spying thing, politicians have assured us that “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to worry about. They say this with a straight face, which must take some doing. I’d like to think most people are wise to the “joke”, but I doubt that’s the case. A recent poll shows high public ignorance (and/or indifference) regarding Iraqi war deaths, and I suspect the same may be true with the authoritarian “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” stuff.

Or, to put it another way, most people I talk to in the statistically “real” world – ie away from the minority of Guardian readers, leftwing academics/activists, contrarians, kinky weirdos, Zen masters, eskimos, etc – seem to welcome more CCTV, more police, more surveillance, more control, more authority…

Why? Presumably because they feel more threatened by criminal or “antisocial” individuals than they do by state or corporate institutions. To be more specific, they fear being burgled, mugged, knifed, spat at, terrorised, etc, more than they fear being herded, coerced, arrested, incarcerated or surveilled by employees in uniforms or suits. This is possibly due to a nurtured form of trust in the “essential goodness” of the authorities (more on this below).

Much has been written about the contributing effects of sensationalised tabloid crime “news” on people’s psyches – ranging from a tendency to overestimate the risk of crime (and “terrorism”), to anxiety disorders such as the fear of going outside. (It should be noted in this context that the Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, Express, etc, have far higher circulations than the Guardian, which broke the NSA whistleblower story).

Less has been said about an equally important facet of the above: trust in authority (whether state or corporate). And, as far as I’m aware, nobody has documented a particular speciality of the BBC: the “good cops – good authorities” framing. So, I’ll attempt to do that here…

BBC’s “Good Cops / Trust in Authority” frame

The sociologist, Erving Goffman, found that social situations and institutions are shaped by mental structures (frames) which determine conventionalised behaviour in those situations/institutions. So, for instance, the hospital frame has certain roles (doctor, nurse, orderly, patient, visitor, etc), locations, props and expected actions (taking temperature, reading charts, operations, etc).

Such frames have a logic defining relationships, hierarchies and appropriate/inappropriate behaviour and procedures. Visitors bring flowers for patients, surgeons perform operations, but they don’t empty bedpans. Occupied hospital beds are in wards, visitors wait in the waiting area, not in the operating theatre, etc. Even if you’ve never been in a hospital, you acquire a large part of this frame through depiction of “hospital life” on TV (in dramas, documentaries, etc).

So, what frames do we have for the policing activities of “the authorities”, and where do these frames get reinforced? Well, we have several, but one in particular seems to be reinforced much more frequently than the others. Here it is in a nutshell:

Good cops/authorities

Frame logic: Individuals are victimised or disadvantaged by the actions of bad, criminal, irresponsible, antisocial types. The “authorities” come to the rescue, in the form of police or other official types with police-like powers. The cops deal with the bad people and protect the good people. (There’s also a “terrorism” variant of the frame, with similar structure, but differently defined roles).

Frame inferences: The cops/authorities are essentially good; the perpetrators are bad; the victims are usually innocent. The authorities maintain order and harmony; the villains disrupt it. Order is a system; bad individuals disrupt order (note the good system / bad individuals dichotomy).

Here’s a partial list of TV series I’ve compiled. They’re “fly on the wall” documentaries, and are usually shown in prime time (mostly on BBC). They all strongly reinforce the above frame. Such series have been broadcast on a regular basis for decades. To repeat: on a regular basis for decades. Literally hundreds of hours of ‘prime time’ TV beamed into our skulls:

Traffic cops
Crimewatch UK
Drunk and Dangerous
(police tackling drunks)
Car Wars
(Tactical Vehicle Crime Unit)
Sky Cops
(helicopter patrols)
Customs & Excise Cops
Forensic Cops

On the Fiddle
(welfare fraud policing)
Motorway Cops
Clampers
(car wheel clampers)
The Tube
(London’s underground police)
Animal Cops
Airport
(airport police)
A Life of Grime
Traffic Wardens
Rogue Traders

Bailiffs
Transport Cops
Seaside Rescue
Cops, Robbers and Videotape
Shops, Robbers and Videotape
(variation on a theme)
Girl Cops
War at the Door
(housing officers & RSPCA)
Dumping on Britain
(Environment Agency)
Rail Cops
Cops with Dogs
Cars, Cops and Bailiffs
The Planners are Coming
(Planning Police)
Saints and Scroungers
(investigating benefits claimants)
Cars, Cops and Criminals (series of hour-long documentaries)
The Lock Up (about officers in custody suite of police station)
Send in the Dogs (police & their dogs)
Car Crime UK

Framing effects

The above TV shows often seem like the state equivalent of TV ads for banks – friendly, “you can trust us” PR. “Coercion is something that only bad individuals do to you. The system is there to protect you from it”. As always, repetition of the frame is key, together with relative absence of frames with fundamentally different inferences (eg the system itself as threat). So, Magna Carta is being dismantled, illegal wars are fought in your name, video surveillance is everywhere, your internet activity is monitored, you’re lied to by government on a daily basis – but you needn’t fear, because you know that the authorities are essentially good.

One thing I find disturbing about these programmes is that when “members of the public” are shown complaining, they’re typically presented as unreasonable, hostile or slightly insane – as if you must be mentally disturbed (and probably a danger to society) if you object to the way the authorities are protecting you.

Robert Anton Wilson once remarked that TV is full of cop shows, and that you never see shows about landlords. Before you think the reasons for that are “obvious”, you might want to pause and think some more… Anyway, the above phenomenon (all those fly-on-the-wall cop documentaries) is rarely commented upon by media critics, even though – like tabloid crime sensationalism – it probably fills up a lot more “public” head-space than does Guardian commentary on state abuses of power.

Written by NewsFrames

June 13, 2013 at 8:36 am

Media on Racism: Part 2 – Framing

Media on Racism - FramingJan 23, 2012Top Gear’s “lazy Africans Mexicans” routine was broadcast to millions. It made minor news, with no repercussions. Luis Suarez’s dialogue with Patrice Evra was heard by nobody and unrecorded, but it led to a media frenzy of blaming ‘n’ shaming – with many journalists mistaking their own carelessness for a moral high horse.

The different outcomes can be explained partly by the N-word and partly by a confused application of “zero tolerance” framing, both of which featured in the Suarez coverage, but not in the Top Gear case.

Racism framing & the N-word

No word is racist in itself – it depends on context/frame. Conceptual “frames” for racism include:Top Gear - "lazy Mexicans"

  1. Racial stereotyping/abuse
  2. Ironic slang
  3. Comedic mockery of stereotyping/abuse
  4. “Quoted” use in reportage, novel, film, etc

BBC and Ofcom initially dismissed the Top Gear incident as category #3 – but a later BBC investigation effectively placed it in category #1 (assuming that “Mexicans” connotes ethnicity – see part 1). That’s supposed to be serious – but you wouldn’t have thought so from the media coverage, or the lack of penalties for Top Gear’s producers.

The Suarez case was different, as it involved the N-word. In English (current usage), both “nigger” and “negro” imply a racist frame. “Negro” in Spanish is a different story, particularly in Latin American usage. The linguistic experts brought in by the Football Association (FA) stated that:

“The term can also be used as a friendly form of address to someone seen as somewhat brown-skinned or even just black-haired. It may be used affectionately between man and wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend, it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech, it may be used to identify in neutral and descriptive fashion someone of dark skin” (para 172my emphasis)

And the FA’s experts went further, pointing out that Suarez was innocent of racial abusiveness if his account of his use of “negro” was accurate:

“…the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190)

Of course, this assumes that Suarez’s account (eg that he said “negro” only once) was true. Evra claimed he used the word multiple times, and in a way that the FA’s language experts agreed would be considered offensive. The initial reaction to Suarez’s defence, from some commentators, was that whatever meanings the word had in Suarez’s country, there was “no excuse” for it in the United Kingdom“…

“Ignorance no excuse”

The Spanish word sounds different – and has different meanings – than the English version. Is it widely known that friendly use of the Spanish word may be mistaken for its racially-offensive use? Is it widely acknowledged that the friendly usage should therefore be avoided? The “ignorance is no excuse” objection doesn’t quite capture the logic – since the speaker might be aware that “negro” is usually offensive in English-language use. A conversation in Spanish is different. A whole cultural/linguistic can of worms is opened up (see “Whose Ignorance?” section below).

The FA’s panel effectively had two choices for “finding” Suarez guilty – they could accept Suarez’s claim of inoffensiveness, but punish him anyway (based on the “ignorance is no excuse” reasoning), or they could accept Evra’s version – ie direct racial insult. By choosing the latter, they effectively freed themselves from entanglement in cultural/linguistic issues – but they also gave themselves a seemingly impossible burden of proof, given the lack of evidence corroborating Evra’s account.

I say seemingly impossible – we shouldn’t forget the media’s role in making extraordinary things possible. (Let’s see… A war with Iraq based on zero evidence of WMDs, a single uncorroborated source and a dodgy dossier?)

Media distortion

Guardian's Stuart James on SuarezSo, how did the “quality” press report the crucial matter of Suarez’s use of the Spanish “negro”? First, here’s Stuart James in the Guardian (on the FA panel’s 115-page report):

And then we come to Suárez, whose own statement screamed his innocence and flew in the face of everything the linguistic experts told the FA panel when they analysed what the player said to Evra at Anfield, the context in which it was said and how his comments would be interpreted in his homeland and beyond. The experts’ conclusion, lest it be forgotten, was that Suárez’s remarks would be “considered racially offensive in Uruguay and other regions in of Latin America”. (Guardian, 3/1/12)

This is wholly misleading. Stuart James presumably didn’t read the section of the report which describes how the FA’s linguistic experts agreed with Suarez about non-racial use of the Spanish word “negro” (eg paras 190, 194). The line from the report that’s quoted by Stuart James (taken from the summary, para 453) refers not to “Suarez’s remarks”, but only to Evra’s uncorroborated account of them. The report is quite clear about this. The FA’s experts concluded that:

‘If Mr Suarez used the word “negro” as described by Mr Suarez, this would not be interpreted as either offensive or offensive in racial terms in Uruguay and Spanish-speaking America more generally’
(para 194 – my emphasis)

The question that Stuart James and his media colleagues should perhaps be asking is: why was this important part of the report not cited in a single newspaper report or commentary?

Meanwhile, here’s James Lawton commenting in the Independent:

You cannot do what Suarez did – as proved by video evidence and confirmed by linguistic expertise, including a knowledge of the nuances of references to race in the player’s native Uruguay – and get away with some implausible argument that you were innocent of the charges against you. Not when you have been found, irrefutably, to have said, without the interruption of any other word, “black, black, black…” (Independent, 2/1/12)

This is disturbingly inaccurate and misleading. Three falsehoods in one paragraph (the “confirmed by linguistic expertise”, “proved by video evidence” and “found, irrefutably [...] black, black, black” claims). Lawton not only makes the same mistake as Stuart James regarding the “linguistic expertise”, he also seems unaware that the crucial Evra/Suarez dialogue is not on any video recording. His use of the phrase “found, irrefutably” seems bizarre in the extreme, referring as it does to one man’s unsupported, uncorroborated claim (para 378).

Sadly, this was typical of most UK media coverage. The important point about the FA’s language experts agreeing with Suarez over N-word usage (thereby reinforcing the stance taken by Liverpool FC) was lost beneath the misleading statements and moralising.

Framing wars & PR

In the days following the FA’s Dec 20th verdict (minus reasons, which came later), various news frames jostled for dominance. John Barnes was widely quoted, labelling the case a “witch hunt“. Ian Wright (in the Sun) criticised the FA: “I think the punishment – on all public evidence – is ridiculously harsh…”. (Some reports had already alluded to a previous FA hearing which decided that Patrice Evra’s evidence was “exaggerated and unreliable”). And, of course, there was Liverpool FC’s statement (critical of the FA verdict), which most media described as “strongly worded“, “forceful“, etc.

The coverage was mixed. But this appeared to end after the Guardian pushed hard with a framing of Liverpool’s “shameful” handling of the issue – triggered (it appears) by a seemingly trivial piece of non-news (T-shirts – more on this below). As an outsider, with no affiliations to Liverpool, fan-wise or otherwise, I observed the “respectable” media’s outpouring of vitriol (over nothing very much) with puzzlement. It was almost as if there were some kind of PR/lobbying going on behind the scenes.

Backlash against T-shirts!“Backlash” against T-shirts!
(& other faux “news”…)

In a match warm-up on 21 December, Liverpool players briefly wore T-shirts printed with a picture of Suarez. This reinforced the message of Liverpool’s earlier statement – and said nothing that wasn’t already articulated in the statement.

The Guardian constructed a “news” story around the T-shirts. In an article headed with the word “Backlash”, it cited a total of three people who objected to the T-shirts. It was a three-person backlash! The Guardian then ran another piece (headed with the word “shameful”) which cited the same three people (footballers Paul McGrath, Jason Roberts and Olivier Bernard). Bernard, now an anti-racism campaigner, offered his reasoning:

“I really didn’t think it was fine to wear the T-shirts. I can understand the club’s side of it, but in society we can’t accept racism and give support to a player who has used racist words” (Guardian, 22/12/11)

Which, of course, makes a pretzel out of logic. The T-shirts (and statement) were to indicate precisely that Liverpool doesn’t accept that Suarez used “racist” words.

The Guardian also ran a tabloid-style “poll” titled: “Were Liverpool’s Luis Suárez T-shirts distasteful?”. Other media ran with the T-shirt story, soon creating a perception that there was “widespread” condemnation of Liverpool’s “handling” of the issue.

Too Much Doubt

Troy Davis T-shirt campaignI’m reminded of another T-shirt gesture to protest a man’s innocence. It’s a different type of case, but the underlying logic (of protest) is exactly the same. Amnesty International published a statement about the flawed evidence against a man (Troy Davis) convicted of murder. There was a campaign (‘Too Much Doubt’) to raise awareness of problems with the evidence and the legal process.

The Guardian supported the campaign (T-shirts and all). Nobody, to my knowledge, argued that, in so doing, they were supporting the crime (rather than the man and his claims of innocence). The logic of protesting wasn’t drowned out with cries of “shameful” or “beyond the pale” – at least not in the UK’s “liberal” media.

“Zero Tolerance”

“Zero tolerance” on racism has been cited as justification for harsh criticism of Liverpool’s “handling” of the Suarez case. For example, the Guardian’s “Backlash” article stated that:

‘The T-shirts provoked criticism that the gesture conflicted with football’s anti-racism campaign Kick It Out, confusing its zero tolerance message’ (Guardian, 22/12/11)

The “zero tolerance” message has certainly been confused. It’s supposed to be zero tolerance of racism itself, not of the right to dispute somebody’s verdict. “Zero Tolerance” can be a dangerous thing when it’s used to stifle dissent and nullify claims of innocence – it diverges from civilised notions of justice, if one isn’t careful. Instead of being alert to such dangers, media commentators (as usual) seemed in thrall to “official” “authority” (in this case the FA and its “independent” 3-man panel). Unquestioning churnalism resulted.

Whose ignorance?

A cultural/linguistic can of worms is sometimes opened when a word is mistaken for a racial insult. How does one apply “zero tolerance” in these – often ambiguous – circumstances? There are several cases (mainly in USA) of the word “niggardly” being interpreted as a racial slur. In one incident, an aide to the mayor of Washington DC resigned after a complaint that he’d used the word “niggardly” when speaking with two African American employees.

Although this sounds like one of those absurd “political correctness” stories which the Daily Mail likes to make up, it’s true – and it has interesting implications. “Niggard” means ”miser” – it’s unrelated to the racial N-word. But it can be used as a racist code-word. (In March 2010, a billboard appeared in California that referred to President Obama as “niggardly”).

Steven Pinker, the linguist and best-selling author, comments:

‘… it is impossible for anyone to hear “niggardly” without thinking, if only for a moment, of the ethnic slur. [...] Worse, the context is of little help in squelching the wrong meaning. [...] After the various associates of a word light up in the mental dictionary, the rest of the brain can squelch the unintended ones, thanks to the activity that psycholinguists call “post-lexical-access processing” and that other people call “common sense”.’ (New York Times, 2/2/1999)

The ambiguity of “niggardly” among English speakers is different in kind to that of “negro” among Spanish speakers. But ambiguity is ambiguity, and the same question applies in both cases: if offence is taken mistakenly, does responsibility lie with the speaker or the offended party? In the case of the Mayor’s aide who resigned (he was later reinstated), most US media commentary suggested that the offended person’s ignorance was to blame (ie ignorance of the dictionary meaning of “niggardly”). But the reverse seems to be the case with the Suarez incident, even though Patrice Evra initiated the conversation in Spanish.

Conclusion

I’ll now attempt to answer a question posed in part 1 (“Is national stereotyping necessarily less serious than racial stereotyping”). When people are perceived as mere units of a group stereotype, dehumanising horrors can result (as history shows) – whether the stereotyping is racial or national/ethnic. So, I can think of no good reason why the Top Gear case should be seen as less serious than racial use of the N-word in a football match. But the point was probably best made (as Steve Coogan suggested) by imagining the Top Gear presenters doing a routine about “lazy Africans” rather than “lazy Mexicans”.

‘If you are arguing for racial equality with a man who
keeps using the word “nigger”, you will eventually discover
that you are making no headway and that some barrier
prevents clear communication’
— Robert Anton Wilson

Written by NewsFrames

January 23, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Media on Racism: Part 1 – Churnalism

Top Gear - "Lazy Mexicans"Jan 6, 2012 – 2011 provided some “high-profile” news stories about racism – but even the “quality” press provided little more than churnalism. No doubt it’s safer for reporters to recycle established or “official” views than to delve deeper (or, Editor forbid, to reframe the issue for greater insight). This type of churnalism has its own dangers, as we’ll discover…

Two cases, in particular, are worth looking at (and comparing): BBC2’s Top Gear and Luis Suarez (Liverpool FC footballer). Part 1 considers churnalism and misreporting. (Part 2 will address the media framing).

Top Gear & “Lazy Mexicans”

In January 2011, Jeremy Clarkson and his fellow Top Gear presenters did a routine about “Mexicans”. This led to a trickle of news coverage after a complaint from the Mexican ambassador, but it didn’t become a “proper” story until after Steve Coogan wrote a comment piece (for the Observer) which pointed out that Clarkson & co would never target Africans, Pakistanis or Jews with comparable group-stereotype jokes. When I say it became a “proper” story, I don’t mean penetrating, insightful coverage… I mean: “Celebrity A blasts Celebrity B”.

The official officials who officiated in this case were the BBC and Ofcom. First, the BBC:

‘In a letter to Mexico’s ambassador in London, the BBC said it was sorry if it had offended some people, but said jokes based on national stereotyping were part of British national humour.’

Coogan commented: “The BBC’s initial mealy-mouthed apology was pitiful. It cited the more benign rivalry that exists between European nations (ah, those arrogant French, over-organised Germans), and in doing so neatly sidestepped one hugely important fact – ethnicity [...] The Beeb’s hand-wringing suggested tolerance of casual racism, arguably the most sinister kind.”

The media regulator, Ofcom, then cleared Top Gear of breaching broadcasting regulations:

‘Ofcom said Top Gear “frequently uses national stereotypes as a comedic trope and that there were few, if any, nationalities that had not at some point been the subject of the presenters’ mockery…”.’

Interestingly, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) later upheld a complaint about the show:

“Although the remarks were humorously intended [...] their tone and cumulative effect seemed to the ECU to give the impression of reinforcing, rather than ridiculing, the stereotype”

All of which raises some important questions, none of which (to my knowledge) were addressed by media coverage – certainly not by the BBC. (I’ll attempt to deal with these questions in terms of framing in part 2 of this article):

  • Is national stereotyping necessarily less serious than racial stereotyping, and if so, why?
  • Is national stereotyping okay as long as you abuse all nationalities uniformly and humorously?
  • Does the same logic apply to racial stereotyping, and if not, why not?
  • Should TV celebrities be punished as severely as, say, footballers?

Trial by media – Luis Suarez

(Note: references to “para” are to relevant numbered paragraphs in the FA report)

This incident started during a football match, after Patrice Evra (Manchester Utd) made the offensive remark, “your sister’s pussy”*, to Luis Suarez. It’s alleged (by Evra) that Suarez used racial insults in the dialogue that followed. (*Evra made the remark in Spanish: “Concha de tu hermana” - para 87).

The official officials who officiated in this case were the Football Association (FA) and their “independent commission” (ie three blokes selected by the FA).

Trial by Media - Luis SuarezSuarez denies making racial insults. The case boils down to meanings of “negro” in Spanish (nearest equivalent in English is “black”). Suarez claims he said “negro” once, inoffensively. Language experts consulted by the FA agreed that: “the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190)

Suarez claims he said “Por qué, negro?” (“why, black?” – para 205). Evra claims he said “Porque tu eres negro” (“Because you are black” – para 205). The latter could be taken as offensive according to the FA’s language experts, but the phrase struck them as “slightly unusual” (para 182), whereas the phrase claimed by Suarez “sounded right linguistically and culturally”. (Para 191)

Initially Evra claimed (in English) that Suarez said, at one point: “I don’t talk to you because you niggers” (para 131). He later withdrew this claim, after realising Suarez had said, in Spanish, “negro”, not “nigger”. (The report quotes Evra admitting that he is “not exactly fluent in Spanish” – para 87). As the FA’s experts pointed out, “the Spanish word ‘negro’ cannot simply be translated as ‘nigger’.” (They also point out that “It may be used affectionately … it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech … several famous people in Uruguay are known as ‘el negro’…” (para 172)

These important details (and much else of relevance) somehow went unreported in most media coverage following the FA’s publication of a 115-page report listing the reasons why the 3-man panel found Suarez “guilty” (but not of being “racist” – paras 224, 414, 454). Unfortunately, ‘churnalism’ had taken the place of responsible reporting…

“Racial abuse” churnalism

The report was published by the FA on New Year’s Eve – which probably didn’t help. What journalist wants to spend the last hours of the year reading 115 pages on racial abuse allegations?

The Guardian led the way with lazy, irresponsible churnalism. Three Guardian articles (each by Stuart James, plus another from Andy Hunter) stated as fact that the panel ‘found that Suárez used the word “negro” or “negros” seven times’.

But no such thing was “found” (even though the panel used that word). There was no evidence or corroborating witness statements confirming the number of times Suarez said “negro”. There was nothing but Patrice Evra’s word. (And Evra had altered his account – he initially told Canal+ TV that Suarez used the racial term “at least ten times” (para 154), but later claimed that this was just “a figure of speech”para 159 – with the FA report stating that he later claimed Suarez used the word “negro” five times – para 205).

In fact, what the report clearly shows is that there was no evidence or supporting witnesses to back up either player’s version of the crucial dialogue between them on the pitch. The entire case came down to one man’s word against another’s. This explains why the panel spent so much time trying to establish a case (again subjective and uncorroborated) that Suarez’s testimony was “unreliable”.

Headline churnalism: “unreliable” evidence

Following the publication of the report, the Press Association ran with: “FA: Suarez evidence ‘unreliable’,” and virtually all major UK media followed suit with similar headings. In what way was the evidence unreliable? The report cites two things – firstly, a few inconsistencies in Suarez’s accounts of the sequence/timing of events (although the panel concedes this is understandable given that Suarez, unlike Evra, wasn’t permitted to see the video footage while being interviewed, and thus relied on memory more – para 320).

Secondly, the panel said it was “unsustainable and simply incredible” for Suarez to describe his behaviour as “conciliatory and friendly” given that “the players were engaged in an acrimonious argument”. (Para 453)

If journalists hadn’t been so quick to ‘churnalise’ the report’s key “findings”, they might have noticed the problems with this – its circular, subjective nature. The panel apparently took as given the very premise under dispute (ie the “acrimonious” nature of Suarez’s “behaviour” – which remains uncorroborated by witness statements and video footage. The panel’s interpretations of Suarez’s expressions and gestures – eg the pat on the head [para 243] – remain deeply subjective and contested).

As a result of this churnalism, every major newspaper report covering this “unreliable evidence” story failed to mention one of the most important pieces of “unreliable evidence” – namely Patrice Evra’s withdrawn initial claim that he was repeatedly called “nigger” (he later conceded it was “negro”), and his withdrawn claim that Suarez said the racial ‘N-word’ “at least ten times” (paras 154, 159). These inconsistencies are at the heart of the allegations, unlike the arguably more minor inconsistencies in Suarez’s account.

Inconsistencies in the “official” report

Another thing that journalists might have highlighted (if they hadn’t been in such a hurry to copy-n-paste summary “findings”) was glaring inconsistency in the report itself.

One striking example is the panel’s “rejection” of the claim that Evra was angry throughout the match – that he was “tipped over the edge” by events (para 333), putting him in an agitated/vengeful state of mind. Here’s what the report said:

‘We rejected that submission [...] Mr [Ryan] Giggs described the Liverpool v Manchester United game as the biggest match. He did not consider that Mr Evra was wound up save in so far as everyone was wound up to a certain extent given the fixture. We reject the submission that Mr Evra was unduly wound up such that he was tipped over the edge to pursue vengeance against Mr Suarez.’ [Para 333]

But this conclusion that Evra wasn’t “tipped over the edge” (prior to accusing Suarez) is inconsistent with the testimony of Giggs cited earlier in the report:

‘It was obvious to Mr Giggs from looking at Mr Evra that he was upset. He said that Mr Evra did not seem quite with it, you might call it red mist [...] Mr Giggs then told Mr Evra to calm down and not get himself sent off’. (Para 114 – my emphasis)

The report also states that Evra was “angry” from the very start of the match, “when he was seen to dispute the outcome of the coin toss with the referee” (para 329). (Evra, by his own admission (para 92), threatened to “punch” Suarez during the game). Of course, none of this negates Evra’s own testimony – but it provides a clearly relevant example of the panel’s inconsistent treatment of the evidence.

To my knowledge, not a single newspaper commented on inconsistencies of this type, which are evident throughout the report. The reporters had their easy-to-churn, momentum-propelled story: the “unreliability” was all Suarez’s. He was not only a racist, but a liar (although they wouldn’t word it quite so bluntly as that). Case closed. How could it possibly be otherwise?

“No Excuse”

Argentine players display bannerAn apparently widely-held view arising from the Suarez case (including, it seems, among Guardian writers and editors) is that since Suarez admitted using the Spanish term “negro” (once), he is guilty of racial abuse, that all mitigating circumstances boil down to “excuses”, and that those who defend him are effectively harming efforts to eradicate racism.

This view has far-reaching implications, of course. Even convicted murderers are granted the right to protest their innocence, citing lack of evidence, mitigating factors (such as self-defence, etc). Their defenders are not usually accused of misguidedly supporting murder – at least not by the “liberal” media.

So what explains these “deep” differences in conceptual approach? Was Patrice Evra correct when he claimed that the Spanish for “your sister’s pussy” translates to “fucking hell” in English? (para 87). And are there any meaningful comparisons to be made between the Top Gear and Suarez cases in terms of media treatment? All this will be addressed in Part 2, which concentrates on the media framing aspects…

Click here for Part 2 of this article >

[Update 11/1/12 - Football lawyer, Daniel Geey, has looked in detail
at some of the evidential inconsistencies which I mention above].

Written by NewsFrames

January 6, 2012 at 3:02 am

Posted in BBC, Churnalism, Guardian, Racism

The News – created by TaxPayers’ Alliance

TaxPayers' Alliance on BBC and in Daily MailSept 15, 2011 – The BBC’s Daily Politics gave a platform yesterday to TaxPayers’ Alliance director, Matthew Sinclair (on “energy bills”). Meanwhile, the Daily Mail quoted TaxPayers’ Alliance chief executive Matthew Elliott (in an article on how ‘Union chiefs plot wave of strikes to cripple country’). Elliott also has a Daily Mail blog.

Earlier this month I cited some “newscreated by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (on “benefits cheats”) which appeared in the Telegraph and Mail. Also, on Sept 2, the Express quoted TaxPayers’ Alliance in a front-page story on “scrounging families”. The front page of the Express on August 24 quoted Emma Boon of Taxpayers’ Alliance in a story about public-sector pay rises. The next day (Aug 25) the Mail quoted Emma Boon in a front-page story on Quangos.

As you can see, the TaxPayers’ Alliance is very active and highly successful at shaping the news. Who are they, and how do they get so much media coverage?

“Thinktank” funding & framing

The Taxpayers’ Alliance is a rightwing pressure group, but it calls itself “Britain’s independent grassroots campaign for lower taxes”. In a Guardian article on the secretive ways of so-called thinktanks, George Monbiot lists TaxPayers’ Alliance as one of several groups which refused to provide useful information on the sources of their funding. So, a “grassroots” “alliance” of “taxpayers” which doesn’t want us to know about its funding.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) uses frames which are well-established in the tabloid press: “benefits cheats”, “wasteful EU bureaucrats”, “fat cats” (public-sector variety), “rip-off” energy bills, etc. Emotive issues which get headline coverage. A TPA spokesperson typically cites the “public” “outrage” and “fury” which has supposedly “erupted” as a result of not following “cost-cutting” (and ideological “free-market” rightwing) solutions which TPA recommends.

TPA uses populist language: “It’s shocking that so few benefits cheats are facing serious punishment for their crimes. If crooks think the system is a light touch, with little or no consequences for being caught, then they will carry on fleecing the taxpayer without hesitation.(Matthew Elliot, TPA Chief Executive, in Daily Mail)

TaxPayers’ Alliance Press Release Archive >>

Tweet a “Thinktank”

I’ve created a list of UK thinktank twitter accounts here. Use it to publicly query a thinktank of your choice on the sources of its funding. (This was an idea originally floated on Twitter and promoted here by George Monbiot).

Written by NewsFrames

September 15, 2011 at 11:51 am

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