Tag Archives: bbc

BBC bias and repetition and repetition and repetition

I don’t think the BBC is deliberately biased. I think it’s often daft, over-cautious, suckered, pressured, or naïve. Some of this is a result of the Hutton Inquiry, which resulted in several high-ranking BBC defenestrations and a collective case of the jitters which has yet to fully dissipate. Some is the infinite badgering of the Murdochs and Desmonds and Dacres and their broods, the right-wing tabloids.

I’m a huge fan of the BBC. Look, here’s me saying so in a piece I recorded for the BBC Newswatch programme on 3rd February (full programme, might not be visible in your country, or mine if it evaporates due to expiry, policy change or acts of Trump). Or here’s the full piece I recorded:


Where I struggle is with things like this image. I first saw it last night and it’s just been replaced as I’ve been writing this post, which means it was the main image on the BBC News front page for around twelve hours.

This image repeats the Tory’s election slogan three times.

Is this proof of bias? No.

Is it stupid/naïve? Yes. Oh, so very much yes.

I have to assume that some editorial process took place to select this image from the semi-infinite number available. I have to assume it wasn’t simply dropped in by a passing Tory. I have faith that the editorial process is designed to take the independence and impartiality of the BBC into account, because I believe most if not all BBC employees feel strongly about those factors.

I suppose I should explain why I think it’s inappropriate. It’s because of the repetition. It’s because of the repetition. It’s because of the repetition.

Here’s a quote from the US Office of Strategic Services, describing the profile of a certain moustachioed wartime loon:

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it (source)

I’m not saying ZOMG TORIES ARE HITLER!!1! VOTE THERESA FOR A STRONG AND STABLE REICH or anything like that. I’ll leave it up to you to compare Hitler’s primary rules to how modern politics is conducted. But look at that last point. “If you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

Ooh, look, I’ve repeated it. No, that doesn’t make it a lie, that’s wonky logic. It means it reinforces the idea in your mind.

The principle of repetition can’t make us believe things we know to be false. No amount of repetition of “CATS ARE JUST SARCASTIC DOGS” convinces us. But “strong and stable” isn’t provable and it’s talking about the unknowable future anyway, so this caveat doesn’t apply here.

Here’s a better exploration of the ideas from – ahem – the BBC.

Why was this image selected and used for so long? Perhaps someone thought they were using it ironically to mock the constant repetition. Perhaps someone didn’t see the repetition. Perhaps someone didn’t care. Perhaps someone didn’t know about the underlying psychology at work.

But the psychology is at work, whether anyone knew it or not.

And it’s important to recognise that most of the population are barely aware of politics even now, in the most politically bonkers period in my life. Some people are not even aware there’s a general election on (most likely including the current resident of the White House).

These people see newspaper front pages and headlines about politics: and often no more than that, as they skip to another story. They might see BBC News website front pages, as they scroll down to the weather or the sport or the twelve surprising facts about earthquakes. And before they turn or scroll the page they see the repetition in the image: strong, stable, strong, stable, strong, stable.

It reinforces the idea in their minds.

The Tory party knows this. This is why Tories repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. They don’t care if they’re mocked by people on Twitter, or if the HIGNFY audience laughs at it, or if a random builder shouts out “Oi oi, I’ll give you strong and stable” at a passing candidate (well, it might happen). That shows their plan is working. Their long-term economic plan – oh, no, that was used at the last election two years ago. You still remember it? Well, fancy that.

How’s that plan working out for you?

(In 2010, the Tory plan was to balance the budget by 2015. In 2017, the Tory plan is to balance the budget by 2025.)

Repeating a political party slogan helps that party, whether you intend it as mockery or satire or not. (I’ve thought about removing the S-words from this post for exactly this reason.)

It is not the job of the BBC, or any reputable media organisation, to help a political party of any hue by repeating their slogans for them: especially not on the front page of their news website, multiple times in a single photo.

I don’t believe the BBC is deliberately biased. Here, I think someone’s been stupid or naïve. However, it is surely not possible that nobody in the BBC understands the psychology of repetition. Where are they? What are they doing? Why aren’t they trying to counter it?


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Avaragado’s 2016 predictions

Hello again. Pull up a pixel. Dismantle that podcast. Relax your weary mince pie repository. Pay heed, oh gentle reader, for Avaragado has rattled his brain to wiggle out the earwax of foretelling and is pleased to interpret the oily runes ambiguously below.

Those of you familiar with this annual nonsense will spot a new category. I’ve retired Celebrity Deathwatch as the predictions started to come true and, quite frankly, The Medusa Touch still gives me the shivers (WHIP PAN to polystyrene rubble falling onto gurning worshippers). In its place, You’re Celebrity Fired.

Here they all are. Perhaps the rain will have stopped by this time next year. Perhaps.


  1. In the thrilling Euro referendum that I hope to god happens in 2016 so we don’t have to suffer another whole year of it, the tedious British public votes 53% to 47% (±1%) to remain in the EU.
  2. Bacon-worrier David Cameron resigns as prime minister.
  3. Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential election.
  4. 2016 is the warmest year globally on record.
  5. The Bank of England leaves interest rates at 0.5% all year.
  6. The price of oil doesn’t go above $50 a barrel all year.


  1. In the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Team GB win 20±2 gold medals in total.
  2. In the Euro 2016 football championships, England finish in the top 4.
  3. Oxford win the men’s University Boat Race.
  4. HRH Prince Ali Al Hussein is elected the next president of FIFA.
  5. Wales win the Rugby Union Six Nations.
  6. Europe retain the Ryder Cup.

Science and technology

  1. The iPhone 7 (pedants: or whatever Apple calls the next major iPhone revision) has no 3.5mm headphone jack.
  2. Apple releases a Mac with an A-branded (ARM, not Intel) processor.
  3. Google buys Signal.
  4. A major security breach at the NHS leaks hundreds of thousands of patient details.
  5. Physicists confirm the first evidence for gravitational waves.
  6. An out-of-control drone causes a major incident (eg a collision with an aircraft).


  1. To save money, the BBC decides to close BBC Four.
  2. Peter Capaldi announces he is to leave Doctor Who.
  3. Oscar for Best Picture: The Revenant.
  4. Oscar for Best Director: Ridley Scott, The Martian.
  5. Oscar for Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl.
  6. Oscar for Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room.

You’re celebrity fired

  1. Piers Morgan leaves Good Morning Britain.
  2. Marissa Meyer leaves Yahoo.
  3. Louis van Gaal leaves Manchester United.
  4. Chris Evans (not that one) leaves the role of Editor of the Daily Telegraph.
  5. Philip Hammond leaves the role of Foreign Secretary.
  6. Sir Lord Alan Sugar leaves The Apprentice.

And that, my friends, is that. I wonder if I’ll post anything else on this blog before next year’s results?

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Anecdata on media, science and society


Data Point: On Newsnight recently Cambridge’s Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, David Spiegelhalter, stunned Jeremy Paxman by informing him that unemployment figures are an estimate, not a count, and they’re only accurate to ±100,000.

Do you remember ever seeing an error bar when unemployment figures are announced? Or hearing any journalist correct a politician crowing that unemployment has dropped by a number like 27,000, well within the margin of error?

Data Point: Barely any mainstream publications or news shows have covered the Edward Snowden/NSA/GCHQ revelations properly. Even “GCHQ is watching you and your children on webcams and storing images, including sexual content” didn’t make the TV news that day. I asked the Channel 4 News editor why not: he didn’t reply. One of the presenters did, though:

That edition did find room, however, for an interview about the Daily Mail’s attempt to smear various Labour politicians for events of almost 40 years ago. And they also ran a report on the decline of the barn owl population.

As far as I’m aware only the Guardian covered that story on the front page the next day. Not even a single “Big Brother is watching you” headline.

Data Point: Channel 4 News ignored the Guardian’s report that PA Consulting uploaded 27 DVDs of NHS England hospital data to Google. That’s the entire NHS hospital database for England, tens of millions of patient records, uploaded to servers outside the UK, by management consultants, without patient consent.

While I wouldn’t expect it to have led the news during the Ukraine/Russia standoff the same day, I certainly expected a report before a story about an athlete on trial for murder, or about the previous night’s Oscars. Instead, Channel 4 News made no mention of it at all. Again, I tweeted the editor. Again, no response.

Data Point: Broadcasters including the BBC often insist on a false balance when covering climate change. Nigel Lawson is not a climate scientist, and can only bluster and assert when debating an actual climate scientist presenting actual evidence, but still their positions are presented as equally valid by the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, as if climate change is a matter of political opinion rather than scientific observation and method. At least the BBC isn’t as bad as some other media organisations, which have an editorial policy of man-made climate change denial.

Nigel Says Relax

Data Point: By my countQuestion Time has included only three scientist panellists for the entirety of the parliament so far — Colin Blakemore once and Robert Winston twice (I’m not counting tech-related entrepreneurs like Jimmy Wales). That’s three scientists from 147 editions at time of writing, or 0.004% of all 743 panellists.

(In the same period, Question Time has featured two singers, four poets, seventeen comedians, twenty actors, thirty-five businesspeople and over 120 journalists. Yes, I’ve counted. Nigel Farage has appeared ten times — the same number as Kenneth Clarke. Farage does well belonging to a party with no MPs, doesn’t he?)

End of anecdata!

What to make from all that? Gell-Mann Amnesia applies, as it always does. Journalists misrepresent everything, yet we only seem to think they misrepresent subjects we’re familiar with. The chances are the reporters overlooking the City of London and outside the Old Bailey are bluffing their way through to hit a deadline just as much as the Technology Correspondent is.

But I have to say: I think mainstream media’s lack of understanding of science and technology is actively harming society.

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Avaragado’s 2014 predictions

Here they are: the 2014 predictions literally everyone hasn’t been waiting for. Please return regularly to check my progress and coincidentally bump the readership stats on my blog to make me feel better.


  1. In the referendum on independence, Scotland votes No.
  2. Brazil grants asylum to Edward Snowden.
  3. The Lib Dems replace Nick Clegg as leader.
  4. UKIP wins more MEPs in the European Parliamentary Elections than the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems.
  5. An iconic building or monument is damaged in a freak/climate change weather event.
  6. Paul Dacre leaves his position as chief bigot/editor at the Daily Mail.
  7. More than 50% of Daily Express front page main headlines are about the weather.


  1. Brazil win the World Cup. England don’t qualify from the group stage.
  2. Liverpool win the FA Premier League.
  3. Team GB win exactly one medal at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
  4. Andy Murray loses in the semi-final of the men’s singles at Wimbledon.
  5. Wales win the rugby union Six Nations tournament.
  6. Johnny Brownlee wins the ITU World Triathlon Series.

Science and technology

  1. Steve Ballmer is replaced as CEO of Microsoft by Satya Nadella.
  2. The crew of the International Space Station is evacuated because of orbital debris.
  3. Apple announces a “revolutionary” (in their words) new TV device.
  4. The Nobel prize for physics is won by someone in the field of quantum computing/communication.
  5. Google buys Oculus VR.
  6. Webcam video of a celebrity, obtained covertly by an intelligence agency, leaks on the internet.


  1. Best picture at the Oscars: 12 Years a Slave.
  2. Best actor at the Oscars: Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave.
  3. Best actress at the Oscars: Emma Thompson for Saving Mr Banks.
  4. Bruce Forsyth stops presenting Strictly Come Dancing.
  5. The BBC reboots a classic 1970s sitcom (eg Dad’s Army).
  6. In one of those “celebrities doing stuff” shows (Splash, Strictly, Dancing on Wolves, etc) a celebrity does stuff that results in a nasty injury on live TV.

Celebrity deathwatch

  1. His Racist Highness Prince Philip, 92
  2. Nobel Peace Prize winner and war criminal Henry Kissinger, 90
  3. Thatcher defenestrator Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, 87
  4. Swivel-eyed Ulster firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, 87
  5. Oh no, it’s Yoko Ono, 80
  6. Fifties teen idol and Half a Sixpence crooner Tommy Steele, 77
  7. Much better than the last one Pope Francis, 77
  8. Founder of CNN and all-round not-Murdoch Ted Turner, 75
  9. Nobody did it better than Carly Simon, 68
  10. Free software evangelist and beardy gnu-lover Richard Stallman, 60
  11. Wayward ex-gurner and Gazza Paul Gascoigne, 46
  12. Apprentice self-firing rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins, 38

Based on the pattern of previous years I’m expecting to get about 40% right. Join me this time next year to find out whether I’ve got that prediction wrong too.


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Avaragado’s 2013 predictions – results

Here we are again. New Year’s Eve, fireworks, and celebrations filmed several weeks ago presented as if live TV. And most importantly, the results of my fabulous 2013 predictions – as marked by Chris Walsh, as usual. Commentary etc in square brackets.


  1. ✗ The Assad regime in Syria will fall. [Bashar al-Assad still President of Syria]
  2. ✓ There will be no changes in US federal gun-control laws. [Obama has called for tighter gun control, but no actual laws yet]
  3. ✓ The Duchess of Cambridge will give birth to a human boy. [21-Jul: Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to the future king]
  4. ✗ At least one Tory MP will defect to UKIP. [Plenty of councillors defected, and one UKIP MEP defected to the Conservatives, but this specific prediction proved false]
  5. ✗ The equal marriage bill for England and Wales will pass in the Commons but not the Lords. [15-Jul: Equal marriage bill for England and Wales has passed its Third Reading in the House of Lords]
  6. ✓ Dangerous idiot Michael Gove will be involved in a scandal over the exam board selection process for the new EBacc exams. [07-Feb: Education Secretary to announce dramatic climbdown over plans to scrap GCSEs]

[Score: 3/6]


  1. ✓ Manchester United will win the FA Premier League. [22-Apr: Manchester United won their 13th Premier League title by defeating Aston Villa 3-0 at Old Trafford]
  2. ✗ Chelsea FC will change manager at least twice. [Only one change of manager in 2013: Benitez -> Mourinho]
  3. ✓ At least one British person will win a Wimbledon title. [08-Jul: Andy Murray wins Wimbledon 2013 men’s singles final with straight sets victory over Novak Djokovic]
  4. ✓ Mo Farah will win at least one gold medal at the World Athletics Championships. [10-Aug: Won the 10,000m. Also 16-Aug: Won 5,000m]
  5. ✗ Rory McIlroy will win at least two majors in golf. [Wikipedia: “McIlroy began 2013 with high aspirations, but mostly did not fare well in early tournaments… 25th place at the 2013 Masters Tournament… won the 2013 Emirates Australian Open]
  6. ✗ At least one footballer playing in the UK will come out as gay or bisexual. [Robbie Rogers, but he plays in the USA]

[Score: 3/6]

Science and technology

  1. ✓ Microsoft will buy Nokia. [03-Sep: Microsoft to buy Nokia’s mobile phone unit]
  2. ✗ Scientists will announce the synthesis of one or more atoms of element 119 or higher. [Ununseptium remains the most recently synthesised transuranic element, in 2010. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned]
  3. ✓ NASA will declare that Voyager 1 has left the solar system and entered interstellar space. [12-Sep: Voyager 1 departs to interstellar space]
  4. ✗ Scientists will announce the discovery of an ‘Earth twin’ – an Earth-sized exoplanet within the habitable zone of its star. [Kepler 78b is the same size as Earth, and has same proportions of iron and rock, but is so close to the sun that its year lasts 8.5 hours, rendering it a little too toasty to be habitable]
  5. ✓ The year will be one of the ten warmest years in the global record, and warmer than 2012, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. [13-Nov: “The year 2013 is currently on course to be among the top ten warmest years since modern records began. January-September 2013 was warmer than the same period in both 2011 and 2012.” We’re catching up with Kepler 78b!]
  6. ✓ Archaeologists will confirm that the bones dug up in a Leicester car park are those of Richard III. [04-Feb: DNA confirms bones are king’s]

[Score: 4/6]


  1. ✗ Lincoln will receive the Oscar for Best Picture. [Feb-24: Argo]
  2. ✓ Daniel Day-Lewis will receive the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Lincoln.
  3. ✓ Jennifer Lawrence will receive the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook.
  4. ✓ The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who will involve appearances (in newly filmed scenes) from at least one former Doctor. [23-Nov: Tennant and Baker T, plus future Doctor!]
  5. ✗ The BBC will cancel The Sky at Night (probably while pretending not to). [Still running – Maggie Aderin-Pocock announced in December 2013 as a new presenter]
  6. ✓ The UK entry will finish in the third quarter of the rankings (ie, top half of the bottom half) in the Eurovision Song Contest. [1pt. 18-May: 19th out of 26 puts us 73% of the way down the leader board]

[Score: 4/6]

Celebrity Deathwatch

[We decided to award half a point per death to make the scores more compatible with predictions from previous years, since I included double the usual number of names in this section. We also abandoned the idea to score based on ages.]

  1. ✗ Denis Healey (95)
  2. ✓ Nelson Mandela (94) [Died 5-Dec aged 95]
  3. ✗ Mickey Rooney (92)
  4. ✗ Nancy Reagan (91)
  5. ✗ Richard Attenborough (89)
  6. ✗ Robert Mugabe (88)
  7. ✗ George H. W. Bush (88)
  8. ✓ Richard Briers (78) [Died 17-Feb aged 79]
  9. ✗ Barry Humphries (78)
  10. ✗ Shirley MacLaine (78)
  11. ✗ Bill Murray (62)
  12. ✗ Piers Morgan (47)

[Score: 1/6]

[Total score: 15/30]

A staggering score of 50%! This makes 2013 officially my most successful year ever for predictions. And if the trend of alternating better-worse but generally rising is anything to go by, my predictions for 2014 are on course for 40%. Though I can reveal that’s not one of my official 2014 predictions, otherwise we’re adrift in a glittering sea of meta.

Anyway, return soon for the 2014 predictions in all their 40%-likely glory.

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Embracing the obsessives

Broadly, a subject has three types of audience: uninterested, interested, and obsessive. There are probably nuances here and Gartner would undoubtedly conjure up a four-quadrant chart and charge you several grand for it, but humans like things in threes so that’s where I’m going.

Each of us occupies one of these roles for a subject (the role might change over time). I count hate as interested: you have an opinion. I’m uninterested in Eastenders; I’m interested in X Factor (I want to kill it with fire); I’m obsessed with the Olympics.

Where this gets interesting is how these partitions are considered by content producers.

In almost all cases, newspapers and TV news programmes aim at the interested, ignoring obsessives and uninteresteds.

Consider TV news coverage of football. It assumes you follow the game — it never explains offside, or the league format (unless it changes), so it’s not for the uninterested. It doesn’t have three people arguing over the merits of a free kick, so it’s not obsessive either.

It’s similar with economics: if you don’t understand what GDP actually means (as opposed to the acronym’s expansion), you’re out of luck. But I bet economists regularly scream “it’s not as simple as that!” at the screen. The uninterested and the obsessive aren’t the targets.

The exceptions in news programming seem to be with science and to a lesser extent technology. With coverage of space exploration and physics, the target seems to be the uninterested almost exclusively. Mars is described as the fourth rock from the sun, cold, etc, almost every time, and Higgs is “the so-called God particle”.

Imagine if BBC News said: “Today in the Premier League, which is the richest and most important football league in England, the Liverpool FC club, which plays at a large stadium called Anfield…”

Producers might argue their coverage is as deep as the audience’s knowledge, and the audience knows more about football than about Mars. True, up to a point: but I think the audience knows far less about economics (and politics) than correspondents assume.

With science, it seems the interested and obsessive audiences are deliberately left adrift. The recent coverage of Neil Armstrong’s death was mostly lightweight, and the BBC’s online obituary leads with this excruciating paragraph:

In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon and arguably the most famous man in the Universe.

As Wikipedia would say: citation needed.

Even a specialist, nominally interested-aimed show like Horizon often fails: there’s too much enforced drama, and the target appears to be someone who progressed only recently from uninterested. I can’t help but think this reflects the status of the production team.

The obsessive science audience is today not considered at all on TV, with the possible exception of The Sky At Night. I think this is very much down to its longevity and to Patrick Moore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, once he leaves us, the show is quietly shelved as “coming to a natural end”.

Earlier in the year Professor Brian Cox gave a televised lecture on quantum theory. At last, I thought: targeting the high-end interested and the obsessive. And yet, amidst the actual science, there had to be celebrity involvement — Jonathan Ross doing maths, etc. I can picture the production meetings, where confused barely interested TV bods desperately tried to drag the target towards them.

A journalist I follow on Twitter was nevertheless confused by the lack of footage of Cox silhouetted by sunsets and wondered in a tweet whether he had now jumped the shark. I gave her the 140-character version of this post. She didn’t reply.

Irritatingly TV can cater for obsessives. The Big Brother auxiliary shows (such as Big Brother’s Little Brother and its Desmondesque successor on Channel 5) and similar spin-offs are targeted at hard-core fans. And for this year’s Olympics the BBC provided, for no additional cost, up to twenty-four channels of uninterrupted sport. If you wanted fencing prelims, you could watch them (and you still can, until January). BBC1 and BBC3 dipped around, catering for the interested with blanket coverage. (The uninterested had the even-numbered channels.)

The medium that has embraced the obsessives like no other is the internet, of course. (There are obsessive magazines too, like Maximum Carp and Carpology and so on, but the net out-obsesses these comfortably.)

Which brings me back to to Mars.

The seven minutes of terror before Curiosity’s touchdown were just before 6.30am UK time. The interested might’ve watched BBC News in the hope of some coverage. I’m an obsessive and watched NASA TV online, which showed the action from the control room live. Even this, annoyingly, cut away later to clumsy interviews, when all I wanted to do was listen to the mission control loop. (That was available on the net, Roger told me later. He’s a hardcore obsessive.)

But NASA’s usually great at cultivating obsessives. I can watch and listen in to Curiosity briefings and teleconferences live, uninterrupted by a journalist talking over the science. The Curiosity team also took part in a Reddit AMA that produced a bunch of intelligent, occasionally high-end obsessive questions.

Does it matter that mainstream TV doesn’t cater for science obsessives? I don’t know. I’d like to think it matters. The BBC argues that BBC1 and BBC2 have a general remit, and then dedicates sixteen days of BBC1 6am-1am to sport for the Olympics. Is it too much to ask for an hour of proper, obsessive science a week? A month?

But then, I’d probably have read it on the internet already.


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