Thursday, 28 August 2014

Kitchen Sink Drama

By now, people all around the world are familiar with Patronising BT Lady. M&C Saatchi have done it again - they have created a viral advert distributed even by those in opposition to the cause they are supporting. The theory behind advertising strategies like this is that they raise the profile of a movement and help it connect with new people, so that even if initial impressions are unfavourable, those connections can be productively exploited in future. It has, however, misfired for Saatchi clients in the past, and it looks like it's doing so again.

In the case of Better Together, which has just three weeks in which to try and persuade the Scottish populace not to vote for independence, the adage that all publicity is good publicity really doesn't apply. People who switch allegiance or make up their minds at this point are very unlikely to switch back. A number of women of my own acquaintance have told me that they have moved from an undecided position or even an outright unionist position to a pro-independence position because of this advert, and I have not met any who have moved in the other direction. I have also talked with women who were already intending to vote Yes but were not very assertive about their politics who have started speaking out and trying to change the minds of those around them specifically because this has made them so angry; and I have met firm No-voting women who feel deeply embarrassed that they have been represented in this way.

Why do they feel like this? The message is pretty consistent, regardless of political position. Women feel that they are being treated (a) as if they're idiots, (b) as if they don't respect other members of their families, (c) as if they're expected to exist in a domestic space that eschews politics, and (d) as if their sincere voting intentions must be based on gut feelings rather than reason. Many of those who are or recently were undecided are far from apolitical - if anything, it's their awareness of political nuance that has kept them from taking firm decisions earlier in the campaign, though most of them do intend to vote. No voting women who thought they were part of something are now wondering if, all along, they've been thought of as pawns.

It is of course worth noting that there are some very capable women involved in the No campaign, and one can only conclude that they lacked the marketing savvy - or confidence therein - to prevent this advert from going ahead. The Saatchis have long had a bad reputation when it comes to the representation of women, so arguably something has been imposed on Better Together that doesn't fairly reflect what's going on inside it (I'm happy to attest that I have friends within the campaign who have done solid work on women's rights in the past).

Desperate attempts to justify the advert haven't really helped, however. "The woman [in the advert] is of course not representative of all women – no one woman is – and I think it has been unfairly distorted into an illustration of what the campaign thinks of women. I can confidently say that is not the case. I wouldn't be involved in such a campaign," Talat Yaqoob told the Guardian - which, of course, is tantamount to an admission that she finds the character objectionable. It has also been argued that the representation is fair because "all the quotes are verbatim from women we've met on the doorsteps." Well, sure, I can see how that might seem like it makes it okay, but whilst any one woman feeling confused about one or two issues is understandable (and a sensible reason to seek advice), combining all that confusion in one woman creates an idiot, and to have her decide how to vote on the basis of her confusion is still more deeply problematic. it's the antithesis of political argument.

How could Better Together miss something so fundamental? Some have argued that they couldn't - that they contain a fifth column secretly working for Yes, or that this is pat of a more sophisticated Saatchi strategy yet to be revealed. Well, possibly - but then there's Hanlon's razor to consider.

There's also a worse possibility - and that's that the advert genuinely reflects what influential people in the No campaign think of women. One can only hope that such attitudes are not widespread. Whatever position one takes in the great debate, it ought to be apparent that hoping people don't exercise thought before they vote is loathsomely anti-democratic. The best thing about the past two years has been the political awakening taking place in Scotland, where people with diverse political perspectives have been engaging in debate like never before. it's opening up new possibilities for us as a nation - whichever way the big vote goes - by contributing fresh insight and energy into our political system and reviving our democracy. Women must be a part of that, and their contributions must be respected. It is way past time to get out of the kitchen. Scotland may choose to be independent or it may choose to stay in the union, but whatever it decides, there will be no place in it for those seeking to deny women a political voice.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Making the news

Early in the morning of the 23rd of May this year, I contacted the BBC to raise my concern about its coverage of the local elections in England and Northern Ireland. Now, I'm not a party political person (I tried that at one point and it didn't work out), but I wouldn't have needed my research degree either to identify the bias in this coverage: the Green Party, despite making impressive gains throughout the night, was almost completely ignored. I counted just three mentions of the party before midnight, there were a couple of minutes devoted to their story later on, and there was an interview with leader Natalie Bennett (looking impressively chipper) after 3am, when most viewers would have already gone to their beds. In expressing unhappiness with this situation, I was joined by people from across the political spectrum, and a substantial petition was later presented to BBC headquarters.

Today I finally got a reply from the BBC. It reads as follows:-

Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We understand our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we are sorry you had to wait on this occasion.

We are committed to impartial, balanced reporting but we appreciate that not everyone will agree with how we choose to cover a particular story.

In the case you have highlighted we felt it most newsworthy to report on the results of the three 'major' parties and UKIP, who finished second. The Conservatives won the election whilst Labour came third.

As you've pointed out, the Liberal Democrats were sixth, behind the Greens and an independent candidate. However, the fact remains that are [sic] a party in government which came third in the popular vote in the last General Election. Therefore we felt their performance to be both editorially relevant and of interest to our audience. But as explained above, such decisions are judgment calls which we recognise not everyone will agree with.

Let's address the issues this raises one at a time.

Firstly, that apology. It's notable that no reason is given for the delay, though I had been contacted briefly earlier to advise me that investigation would take some time. How long does it take to find out about an existing policy? If the explanation is so obvious, why couldn't it have been provided immediately?

Secondly, that commitment to balance - what exactly does it mean? Running the numbers (votes, percentage growth, comparative positioning, poll comparisons) makes that lack of coverage look distinctly unbalanced. As the letter goes on to explain that newsworthiness, not balance, was the prime consideration, it sees rather disingenuous to mention balance here.

Thirdly, whilst I acknowledge that UKIP did come second, the increase in their share of the vote was lower than that of the Greens and, notably, they had significantly fewer elected representatives in senior positions. If being in government is enough to give the LibDems consideration although they came sixth, ought not being represented in parliament to be a consideration when it comes to balancing coverage of the Greens against that of UKIP?

The most glaring point here, however, is this: that coverage of the Greens was missing right from the start of the programme, when they were several time lumped in with 'others'. At that point, the BBC did not know what the results of the vote would be. They made the decision to run extensive coverage of UKIP's story (actually disproportionate in relation to the major parties, too) and to exclude the Greens before the programme began.

There's another major point at issue here which the BBC's letter does not even try to address. Newsworthiness can sometimes explain not having room to mention something or someone in a short article. But this was a broadcast over six hours long. In that context, there is no need to make hard choices between subjects. There would have been ample room to properly cover the Greens' story and that of UKIP and the major parties.

It's generous of the BBC to explain to me that I may take a different point of view. As a commissioning editor (at Eye For Film and KaleidoScot) I understand the issue of editorial lines. As a sociology graduate, I understand the importance of anticipating bias in one's own work and work one is reviewing. The problem is that the BBC does not, as an organisation, acknowledge any of that. Rather it passes itself off as a neutral arbiter, delivering straight, unbiased facts. That makes slanted coverage like this deeply problematic.

On the night of the elections Natalie Bennett pointed out an interesting fact (which, from what I can determine, seems to bear up): the Greens were getting more new members per minute of airtime than any other party. In other words, there are a lot of people out there who are drawn to their politics once they know it's out there and know what it's about. in a context where overall levels of voting are falling lower and lower, doesn't the BBC owe it to potential voters to let them know what their options are?