Monday, 30 September 2013

Backbone of the BBC

Here's the ever-inspired Clive James on the BBC's best-known silverback:
So successful are the vertebrates that one of them is making huge television programmes at the age of 87. David Attenborough was back yet again with Rise of Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates (BBC Two). Every vertebrate has a backbone: the device which best expresses “how you and I came to be what we are”.
That statement might apply to Attenborough but I’m bound to say that the spectacle of his undying energy left me with no backbone at all. Dissolved by envy, I just lay there like a puddle of plankton while he climbed rocky hills in China, current scene of all the most interesting new fossils. One of these was the fossil of the very first vertebrate, dating from 525 million years ago, when Bruce Forsyth’s career had barely begun.
Genuinely caring for nature, Attenborough has always been consistent with his message that our beloved Earth is producing too many people, but it should be noted that the message is getting a bit shrill in his old age. He is against food aid for Africa, for example: an opinion that sounds perilously like “let them starve”. Luckily he confines most of these notions to press interviews, and leaves them out of his TV programmes. But when they occasionally creep in, they can sound a bit chilling. He still has a nice smile, though.

The Story of the Jews (Part 5)

The BBC Two continuity announcer introducing last night's final episode of Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews described it as "a very personal journey".

The four earlier episodes were always prefaced by the word "personal", but this was the first time the phrase "very personal" had been used. Why?

Well, perhaps because this was the episode the BBC most wanted to keep itself at arm's length from and the use of the words "very personal" made it very clear that 'THIS IS SIMON SCHAMA'S VIEW, NOT THE BBC'S!!'

Sadly, a personal take on the history of the modern state of Israel was always likely to be contentious. Pro-Palestinian activists had complained about the series even before it began, following Simon Schama's description of himself as a Zionist. Others would be watching intently to see if Simon was critical of current Israeli government policies. I suspect we all brought our own 'very personal' views to bear on this programme.

What we got was most definitely a very personal view: The view of a left-wing Zionist, passionately pro-Israel (calling the country "a miracle") but anxious and regretful about recent trends in the country - especially (inevitably) settlements and the security barrier - and deeply nostalgic for the idealistic socialism of Israel's kibbutzim.
"I've always thought that Israel is the consummation of some of the highest ethical values of Jewish traditional history, but creating a place of safety and defending it has sometimes challenged those same ethics and values". 
It was also 'very personal' though in its interweaving of Simon Schama's own life experiences with the history he was telling, from his birth in 1945 to his work experience on a kibbutz, etc.

The programme opened though by allowing us all to experience the sirens and silence of that day in Spring, each year, when Israel halts to mark the Holocaust - over one-and-a-half remarkable minutes of lump-in-the-throat TV.

As for the country itself,
"Today around half the Jews in the world live here in Israel. 6 million people. 6 million defeats for the Nazi programme of total extermination."
Simon Schama then told us about Szmul Zygielbojm, a Polish Jew who had escaped from the Warsaw ghetto who tried in vain to rouse the Allied Powers to come to the rescue of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. Broadcasting on the BBC, he said, "It would be a crime and a disgrace to go on living, to belong to the human race, unless immediate action is taken to stop the greatest crime ever known to human history." Soon after, his wife and son were killed during the crushing of the Warsaw uprising. At the same time the Allied Powers were convening to discuss the plight of refugees. The words 'Jew' and 'Jewish' were banned from the proceedings, and the Allies decided to do nothing. Zygielbojm committed suicide in protest at their indifference soon after.
"The Holocaust put paid to the idea that when, facing annihilation, the Jews had any reason to expect much in the way of protection, succour or asylum from anyone. So it was not just what the Nazis did to the Jews. It was what everyone else failed to do that made the moral case for Israel."
After the war, "a desperate exodus from the blood-lands of central Europe, where two-thirds of Jews had been wiped out" made the perilous journey to the coast of British-mandate Palestine. 
"There was no returning to that continent of phantoms. Some who tried to go back to what had been their homes in Poland and Romania were harassed, assaulted, sometimes even killed."

A judicious telling of the history of the run-up to the re-birth of the State of Israel followed, moving from the arrival of the Holocaust survivors and back to the Chaim Weizmann and the Balfour declaration, through the bitter inter-communal conflicts in the interwar years and onto David Ben-Gurion, pausing to reflect on a 1919 letter from Prince Faisal (later King Faisal) of Iraq, leader of the Arab Revolt, to a leading American Zionist:
"Dear Mr Frankfurter, I want to take this opportunity of my first contact with American Zionists to tell you what I've often been able to say to Dr Weizmann in Arabia and Europe. We feel the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race and suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves. We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. We will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home."
"This is the document of what might have been," said Simon Schama, "and, you know, what might still be."

A 'very personal' narrative on two of the main strands in Israeli politics took shape as the programme proceeded.

On one side (the side Simon doesn't like) stand the "intransigent," security-minded nationalists, personified by the figure of Ze'ev Jabotinsky [whose ideas eventually, long after his death, flowed into Likud] - the side of the settler who Simon met [and clearly felt uncomfortable with] later in the programme, the side of those who support the security barrier.

On the other side (the side Simon likes) stand the the left-leaning, secular Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, the kibbutzim, and the liberal novelist he met [and clearly felt comfortable with] later in the programme.

To the accompaniment of poignant music, Simon Schama made his feelings clear:
"There has been a dramatic shift in Israel over the past decades. The secular, outward-looking Israel I remember from my days in [a kibbutz] has been eclipsed by one that insists - in the name of religion, nationalism or security - on separation and difference."

Jabotinsky's essay Iron Wall and Simon Schama's expressions of distaste for his ideas were accompanied by images of the present security barrier, and when Simon arrived at the security barrier itself, he merged his distaste for Jabotinsky with his distaste for the barrier. He did observe, however: 
"I want to say that nobody, including me, ultimately has the moral right to say 'That shouldn't have happened. The wall shouldn't have happened.' Before the wall happened hundreds of people were dying every year from terrorist attacks, after the wall happened, very, very few."
There's much more to say about about this episode, but I'll just mention a few more things and ask you to watch it for yourselves and discover all the rest.

Yes, we heard from an Arab refugee (Yacoub Odeh) from the time of independence,  but - unlike in nearly all other BBC programmes - he was powerfully balanced by the testimony of a Jewish refugee (Levana Zamir) from the Arab world.
"But there are other memories, and other catastrophes, dating to these same fateful years. Hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Muslim countries for centuries discovered suddenly their home was no longer their home."

The deeply-rooted Alexandrian Jewish community, with its Shamas, was the example Simon Schama used. After 1947 came "assaults, riots, murders, arrests, show trials, public hangings, expropriations, expulsions."
"The same story was repeated across the Muslim world, not just in Egypt, but in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. At least 700,000 Jews left or were expelled, many reduced to destitution, taking with them only what they could carry. Some went to America, others - in the North African world - to France, Iraqis to Britain, but many came to Israel, most of them Zionists by necessity rather than chose. The exodus of Jews from Muslim lands almost doubled the population of Israel in just a few years - the first but not the last demographic tidal wave to engulf this tiny country.
"In the decades that followed millions more would come when they could, from places as far apart as India, East Africa, the Caucasus and Russia. This was a country for Jews, but it also became one of the most diverse in the whole world." 
This final episode was as strong as any of the other episodes in this wonderful series, but it was also the most thought-provoking, and the most challenging. Many will, perhaps, strongly disagree with parts of it. 

Part of the challenge stems from that 'very personal' standpoint of Simon Schama. It's a 'very personal' standpoint which, I suspect, tallies quite closely with that of many at the BBC - when it comes to the issues of Jewish settlements and the security barrier. To have had a 'personal view history' from someone who would come out in support of Jewish settlements and the security barrier is still hard to imagine from the BBC; indeed, it's close to being unthinkable (which surely isn't as it should be, is it?)

Still, the whole series was a powerful and sustained argument for the necessity of the State of Israel, a moral vindication of the country's existence, a robust justification of Zionism. And that's something you don't usually get from the BBC. 

So thank you Simon Schama.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Party Conference Watch 2013: The Labour Party

Brace yourselves for this one, the fourth in a continuing series...

The Today programme's coverage of the fourth of the party conferences, the Labour Party's, got underway on the first day of the conference, much as their Liberal Democrat conference coverage began, with the highlighting of a key policy announcement - Labour's decision to get rid of the spare room subsidy ('bedroom tax'). Sarah Montague and BBC political correspondent Ben Wright began (at 7.09 am) with a three-minute preview of that, plus some childcare proposals from Yvette Cooper.

A 7-minute interview with Hilary Benn, the shadow minister responsible for the spare room subsidy policy, followed at 7.34. Sarah Montague raised the perception that Labour favours spending on welfare (given that the polls are deeply sceptical about spending on welfare) and plugged away at that issue, as well as asking about whether people earning £60,000 are rich, and about the Damian McBride revelations about Labour infighting. John Humphrys then intervened to ask him about his dad's health and to ask him to convey their good wishes to him. I counted just three interruptions.

The coverage really got underway on Monday, with Justin Webb reporting from Brighton though the Islamist terrorist attack in Kenya naturally meant that Ed Balls lost the prestigious 8.10 interview spot. Still, there was plenty of Labour Party conference coverage.

Justin Webb and the BBC's Gary O'Donaghue previewed Ed Balls's conference speech at 6.36 (for about three minutes), discussing two Labour announcements - one saying they would like to involve the Office for Budget Responsibility in the drawing-up of the party's spending plans (before the election), other about extra childcare. GO'D said the OBR announcement was "an attempt to neutralise the usual Tory attack on 'You can't trust Labour with the money'". As far as the OBR's present remit stands, that "doesn't look as if it's possible. And Labour knows that, attempting to put the Tories in a particular position where they effectively refuse to allow an independent body to do this." After all, he said, there's already the Institute for Fiscal Studies, "a well-respected outfit out there who does these sort of things anyway, so you do wonder if this is a slightly manufactured row." This seems an example of a BBC reporter unspinning the spin, and not to Labour's advantage.

At 6.53, Justin gave his own (5-minute) report, talking to Graham Stringer MP, David Blunkett MP, Eddie Izzard, Stella Creasy MP, and then contrasted all their "happy talk in a hotel bar" with "ordinary people" on the pier - various vox pops. One didn't know who Ed Miliband is, another said he'd no personality and they're all the same, and a third said he isn't convinced by him, thinks he's a puppet and is "desperately disappointed by him." (Ouch!)

At 7.16 Justin talked to Paul Johnson of the afore-mentioned Institute for Fiscal Studies about Labour's spending plans (for around four minutes). Mr Johnson sounded sceptical, saying that Labour's OBR plan would only work (after a change in the law to alter the body's remit) if the opposition party in question gave them its manifesto many months before an election, not just "dumping" it on them a month before an election - given that most manifestos are pretty vague and the OBR would need to go to-and-fro between the parties seeking clarification. As for his own assessment of Labour's spending plans, Mr Johnson said that "as ever" there's nothing "terribly precise" about them, and that it's a "slightly odd" for Labour to be focusing on these "little changes" when the OBR say that, if they win in 2015, they will have to make another 10% public spending cuts from 2016-17. - "a really, really big change relative to the relatively small tax-and-spending plans that the Labour Party's talking about at the moment." [A bit of a thumbs-down for Labour there].

Ed Balls arrived for interview at 7.35. Justin asked him about Labour and socialism, and that OBR plan ["that's a stunt though, isn't it, because you know it's not going to happen?"]. Ed Balls did exactly what Gary O'Donaghue predicted he'd do, and launched a party political point against the Conservatives for playing party politics. Justin then asked him why all his announcements seem to be about either spending more or reversing present cuts, rather that being about the big spending cuts or tax rises that "will be necessary if the deficit is to be brought down". He then pressed him on the pace of Labour's deficit reduction. Damian McBride was the final topic. Ed Balls was shocked, shocked I tells ya, about what Damian McBride had done. There were 12 interruptions in a nine-and-a-half minute interview.

At 8.25 Today discussed  the play 'The Confessions of Gordon Brown' - a play being performed at the Labour Party conference, though which its creators say Labour banned from being advertised in the conference brochure. Justin Webb went to see it nonetheless. After a clip, he talked to its director Kevin Toolis and to Gordon Brown's pollster Deborah Mattinson. She found it "quite poignant", "accurate" and "very fair". Mr Toolis described Mr Brown as a "morally good man" but also as "our greatest failure as prime minister in two hundred years", saying that "in office he was an abysmal failure". Justin raised Damian McBride. Deborah agreed that something "nasty" was going on in politics at that time, said that Gordon Brown's role in that was unclear but that he certainly "turned a blind eye" to the "terrible things" that were going on. Kevin Toolis compared him to MacBeth, and said that he didn't just allow these things, he "directed them - him and his lieutenants". 

At 8.37 Nick Robinson chatted to Justin Webb about the "danger" of having policies too early, and about the OBR announcement and Damian McBride: "When you asked Ed Balls whether he knew about Mr McBride's excesses and he said he knew nothing about it at all until the worst came out, I could sense a collective eyebrow not so much twitching as hitting the ceiling around Brighton. There will be deep scepticism about that." [Ouch!]

Finally, at 8.55 came a chat with Steve Richards and the Independent and Rachel Sylvester of the Times. Justin introduced it by noting what he'd found when talking to people on Brighton Pier, namely "that they had no political views at all, no interest, no knowledge" and "if they did have a scintilla of a view, it was that Ed Miliband wasn't up to the job." Both guests backed Labour's OBR proposals. As for Ed Miliband "not being any good", they said the issue matters "hugely". Steve Richards says Ed is more experienced than any other recent election-winning opposition leader (namely, David Cameron and Tony Blair) having been a cabinet minister, and a Treasury adviser before that. 

Tuesday's edition saw another 4-minute discussion between Justin Webb and Gary O'Donaghue at 6.34, previewing Ed Miliband's conference speech. They talked about a Labour proposal about changing business rates for small businesses, and a commission on housing stock [headed by the former head of the BBC trust, Sir Michael Lyons]. Justin described the former as "small bore" but the latter as "a bigger deal". GO'D said, "The previous Labour government promised to build two million new houses over a ten-year period, and didn't really get started on that in a proper way." They also talked about Damian McBride and the roll of Ed Balls. Justin and GO'D said Ed Balls must be pretty confident to justify his 'I know nothing' position.

At 6.50, Justin talked about Labour's attitudes to nuclear weapons. Nick Brown, former chief whip, says Britain shouldn't renew Trident, so Justin interviewed the relevant shadow minister Kevan Jones about that. Mr Jones wants Trident renewed. Justin pressed him quite firmly (from an anti-Trident stance) [4 interruptions in three and a half minutes].

At 7.14 Labour's policy on HS2 come up for discussion, after Ed Balls sounded a sceptical note about it. Justin reported from a fringe conference, and heard first from two pro-HS2 delegates, before pressing Labour advisor Sir John Armitt (another supporter of HS2) of the Olympic Delivery Authority on whether Ed Balls is playing party politics with HS2. [No Labour opponents of HS2 were heard from here].

Harriet Harman was next up for a seven-and-a-half minute interview (at 7.50). Justin asked her about HS2, quoting Bob Crow's "sell-out" accusation to her, and tried to get to grips with her jelly-like wobbling over the issue. He then asked about Labour's "airy-fairy" housing announcement, including new towns and garden cities, and about Labour's position on house prices. (HH wobbled again over that). [9 interruptions].

Nick Robinson popped up at 8.19, talking HS2 and the upcoming Ed Miliband speech (for about 5 minutes). "Move along here, nothing to see, nothing has happened" was Nick's verdict on Harriet Harman's interview, before suggesting that Ed Balls was being populist and raising the concerns of business leaders that Mr Balls was creating the atmosphere for the doubts about HS2 to spread. On Ed Miliband's speech, Nick previewed the small business rate cut proposal and housing.

Finally, at 8.46, Justin talked to John Cridland of the CBI about Labour's small businesses proposal. Sir John, who described the proposed tax changes as "not particularly pro-business", was largely critical of the "divisive" measures. [Not a fan at all.]

The coverage on Wednesday's programme kicked off with another (three-minute) Justin Webb-Gary O'Donaghue chat, introduced by a clip from a senior executive at British Gas warning that Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy bills could lead to the lights going out in Britain. Then came a clip of Chuka Umunna describing that as "absurd" and attacking the energy companies. Gary said Labour want this fight, thinking it will "resonate out there". He then read from Ed Milibands's letter to the energy companies. On the wider picture, Justin said the papers didn't reckon much to Ed's speech, but that Labour's minders "are pretty pleased to be in the position they're in". GO'D described it as "a gamble", with echoes of the 1970s. [Sounds fair enough to me].

Justin Webb then reported from Crawley (at 7.33 - a five-and-a-half minute report), one of Labour's target seats. Justin began by describing the "style" and "substance" in Ed's speech, but would it convince people that he was a credible prime minister? The first vox pop said "I don't even know who he is". The next batch said they'd never voted and weren't interested in politics. Justin then went to a pub to watch the speech with five locals. Though they found a few things to like - the business tax proposal, his views on women, what he said about leadership, they didn't think there was any substance behind his speech, one calling it a "pantomime" performance, another "a tick-list speech". They didn't like his jokes either. As for his energy freeze proposal, one of  them called it "a rabbit out of the hat", another said it was "easy for him to say it". They were also "confused" about his position on fracking and the environment. One liked his housing proposal, one called it appalling. To Justin's closing question, "Does this speech in any of you make you more able to see him as a prime minister?" got a resounding and unanimous chorus of "no"s. [Ed must have been choking on his muesli at this point! - which calls for another 'Ouch!']

At 8.10 came the big interview between Justin Webb and Ed Miliband. Justin pressed him quite hard. It was much tougher that Evan Davis's interview with Nick Clegg, really grilling him over Labour's energy freeze policy and quite strongly over deficit reduction. The interview lasted exactly 15 minutes (to the second), and contained 26 interruptions. It dealt with just four issues, which I'll break down, along with the percentage of the interview spent on each topic:

1. Was Ed's speech a throw-back to the 1970s? (15.7%)
2. Labour's energy price freeze proposal (43.1%)
3. Deficit, debt reduction (17.6%)
4. Ed's poor poll figures and the fact that people don't think he's prime ministerial (23.6%)

This was much less belittling than the interview John Humphrys conducted with Nigel Farage, but it wasn't an easy interview for the Labour leader. Far from it.

Ed's interview no sooner ended than Nick Robinson popped up again to give his post-match analysis. I found Ed pretty boring. Nick found what he said "fascinating". Nick finds everything fascinating. [I bet he'd even find this post fascinating!]

Now, I found Ed Miliband's performance during this interview dire - and I'm not alone in thinking that.

This edition of the programme ended with a discussion between Justin, Simon Hoggart of the Observer, and Mary Ann Sieghart of the Independent. Mary Ann said Labour had gone back the 1970s, and described Ed's interview as "unconvincing". Simon said he was "terrible". Mary Ann thinks his energy freeze policy will fall apart and said that Ed couldn't even answer Justin's questions about it. Simon was more positive about the energy freeze policy, though not about Ed, saying he lives "in a bubble" of people obsessed with policy and finds it hard to reach out to ordinary people. [A final 'ouch!' is called for there.]

Thursday's programme could be said to have had a short coda on the Labour leader's conference speech. [Actually two, if you count Sarah Montague and Chris Mason's reporting of Lord Mandelson's criticisms of Ed Miliband's energy price freeze policy as a throw-back to Old Labour at 6.37]. Here's how the Today website describes it:
Ed Miliband, in his conference speech, used an yachting analogy - saying the recovery was not going to float everyone's boat, only those with yachts. Sir Robin Knox Johnston, one of Britain's most successful sailors and the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world, and Shirley Robertson, a Scottish sailor and double gold Olympic medallists, discuss whether the sport suffers at the hands of such depictions.
Both said it did. That said, Ed Miliband and his speech weren't really discussed here.


Today's coverage of the Labour conference was extensive. The last time I covered the party conference season in detail James Naughtie was reporting from the Labour conference, and I found him rather too cosy with the party. That certainly couldn't be said of Justin Webb this time. Today's coverage of the Labour Party conference in general was not biased towards Labour. I will admit that I would have expected it to have been biased towards Labour, going off past experience, but, no, it wasn't. Tough interviews and critical voices from beyond the party, plus the programme's own reports and commentaries, saw to that. [For anyone who's skipped to the conclusions, the evidence is outlined above in some detail!]

So there you go. The Conservatives are up next. Who will they get from the Today programme? How will they fair?

The Europium Union

Here's a curious fact which I thought I'd pass on to you (courtesy of Hugh Aldersey-Williams's Periodic Tales), just for the fun of it.

When the eurocrats designed their euro bank notes and decided on which luminous dyes would be added to help detect counterfeits, it was decreed that compounds of an element discovered in 1901 should be used. That element was the rare earth metal europium. 

This was, naturally, kept a secret. 

A couple of inquisitive Dutch scientists, however, decided to perform a spectroscopic analysis on a €5 note and discovered the truth, before stopping their research lest it broke the law! They were intrigued by the fact that if you hold one under an ultraviolet light, the yellow stars in the Classical arch start glowing bright red and the Roman bridge (on the back) turns ghostly green and the river below it indigo.

The process behind the decision to slyly infiltrate a chemical element named after the continent of Europe into euro bank notes remains an official secret, but it was obviously a political one - done, probably with a big smile, to celebrate the dawning of a new European age of unity. 

Aren't they droll, those Brussels bureaucrats!

To quote John McEnroe....

For those of you eagerly following the 'Scottish independence/BBC bias' debate, you might enjoy reading BBC in cahoots with SNP? – You cannot be serious from the pro-independence, pro-SNP Newsnet Scotland website. 

Labour are getting in on the act vis-à-vis accusing the BBC of bias - in this case pro-independence bias. Newsnet Scotland, who spend a good deal of time and energy chronicling what they see as the BBC's anti-independence bias, are incredulous.

One of the commenters there makes a point you might find familiar from other contexts:
This latest accusation is as transparent as it is cynical. It is designed to give the BBC monopoly a 'get out of jail free' card to divert accusations of bias by declaring both sides have accused the BBC of bias.
Whether Labour or the SNP or the BBC are right in this instance, debates about BBC bias often seem to go down this route: One side complains heavily for years. The other side then starts complaining too, albeit less strongly. The BBC calls it a draw, and declares its impartiality proven as a result.

Déjà vu

Another Sunday morning, another Sunday and another review of Sunday....

7.10 Introduction by William Crawley

7.11 UK government cuts. An interview with the Dean of St Paul, Dr David Ison [the man who replaced Giles Fraser], on whether disabled people are suffering - including dying (committing suicide) - because of the government's welfare cuts. Dr Ison has signed a letter by campaigning charities criticizing the government, and joined a prayer session in Parliament Square yesterday with Occupy-related groups. I've noted, on several occasions before, that Sunday only ever interviews critics of the government's benefit reforms. We've not heard a single supporter of the reforms making an ethical, faith-based case for them on the programme, which - given BBC guidelines on impartiality, which state "We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected" - cannot be right.

7.16 Suicide bombing on an Anglican church in Pershawar. We heard from Wilson Choudary, a British Pakistani Christian, who lost relatives in the terrorist atrocity. He has been banned from visiting Pakistan after protesting about the treatment of Christians there. 

7.19 Christians in Pakistan. An interview with Mustafi Quadri from Amnesty International. Mr Quadri painted a grim picture of life for non-Muslims in Pakistan:
"What usually happens is that Christians are more likely to be accused of blasphemy after a dispute. They are more likely to have their women and girls kidnapped and raped, and have forced conversions. They face systemic prejudice and discrimination. For example, under Pakistan's constitution Christians and other non-Muslim cannot be president or prime minister. The value of evidence from a Christian or other non-Muslim is less than that of a Muslim. So there is all sorts of discrimination. There's all sorts of violence against Christians. But even despite that the attack last Sunday was unprecedented." 

7.22 Sister Teresa Forcades. A report on the radical far-left [Occupy-style] nun and Catalan independence campaigner by the BBC's Matt Wells. Sister Teresa is challenging the Spanish government and the world economic order. Matt Wells has something of a crush on her, by the sounds of it. He did a For Our Own Correspondent about her a few weeks ago. This was their second meeting. Everyone Matt talks to seems to have fallen for her too, though he did quote a sceptical professor to her saying that she was naive. She disagreed. 

7.29 England is running out of cemeteries. You may have seen the report that almost half of England's cemeteries could run out of space within twenty years. Sunday decided to make the response of the Muslims community its lead angle. Muslims don't allow cremation, and they aren't happy about it. Still, the BBC reporter, Alex Strangways-Booth, did then discuss what the impending grave shortage might mean for the Orthodox Jewish community and for followers of the Church of England. 

7.34 The Big Society. "And is the Big Society still the Tories Big idea? As the Conservatives gather in Manchester for their annual conference, the minister for civil society Nick Hurd debates with Steve Bobb, who represents the chief executives of voluntary organisations."  [Sunday website blurb]

This was the third of the programme's party conference-based interviews. Unlike those with the Lib Dems and Labour over the last couple of weeks, this one didn't allow the party spokesman in question to discuss his party's relationship with faith or to make a positive case to Radio 4 listeners; instead, it brought in a critical voice to share the interview and put the Conservative minister on the defensive. 'Steve Bobb' turned out to be Sir Stephen Bubb. Sir Stephen and William Crawley worried away about whether "cuts" are damaging the vision of the Big Society, and Sir Stephen attacked the Lobbying Bill too. Compared to Steve Webb of the Lib Dems two weeks ago and Labour's Stephen Timms last week, both of whom got full-length interviews to themselves, Conservative Nick Hurd got a raw deal here.

7.40 Modern Slavery. Last year there were 2,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK, a quarter of whom are children. Trevor Barnes talked to various faith-based charities who are campaigning on the issue. 

7.47 The Church of England invests in RBS. A topic close to Sunday's heart, this one: The banks and bankers. Andrew Bryant, from the Church Commission, was interviewed by William about the Church's buying of a 10% stake in RBS, with the aim to help create "a good bank", and to generate some revenue for the Anglican Church. Executive remuneration, bonuses, will be decided in line with the Church's ethical guidelines, Mr Bryant said. 

7.52 National Poetry DayTo mark National Poetry Day (3 October) the programme ended with Love III by one of my favourite poets, George Herbert.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
        Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
        I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
        "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
        "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
        So I did sit and eat. 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

"We don't ban any particular word"

This week's Newswatch began with this commentary by presenter Samira Ahmed:
Last weekend saw an Islamist attack by terrorists, which left scores of people dead. I'm talking about Sunday's suicide bombs in Pakistan, which killed at least 80 people, but you'd be forgiven for thinking I was referring to the four-day siege at a shopping mall in Nairobi. That was much more widely covered in BBC News - a disparity which irked several viewers, including Alan and Pat Pitt who wrote:
'I would be grateful if someone could explain why there was virtually no coverage of the suicide bombing outside a church in Peshawar. The Kenyan attack received, rightly, a great deal of wall-to-wall attention but there were only brief mentions of the Peshawar attack'.
The reporting of the Nairobi siege also attracted a lot of criticism for the language the BBC used to describe the attackers. Charles Louis McMahon spoke for many when he e-mailed:
'The insistence of the BBC to refer to 'militants' implicitly shows some sympathy and support for those people. They are TERRORISTS. Please stop supporting them or mincing words. Please don't use the 'unbiased' excuse. This is not a matter of bias, it is a matter of fact.' 
Samira then talked to Mark Hockaday, head of the BBC news room, and began by asking her if there's a BBC policy to call such people 'militants' rather than 'terrorists'.

"No, there isn't," replied Mary Hockaday, firmly. "We don't ban any particular word and nor do we insist on other words". 

Oh really?

Now though the BBC have (as both Sue and myself have noted) finally started using the 't word' (albeit patchily) since the Kenyan outrage become too outrageous to downplay, this is something new - and welcome. 

Prior to the last week or so, the BBC had in fact stuck pretty rigidly to what - despite Mary Hockaday's assertion - still remains a BBC editorial guideline:
There is no agreed consensus on what constitutes a terrorist or terrorist act. The use of the word will frequently involve a value judgement.
As such, we should not change the word "terrorist" when quoting someone else, but we should avoid using it ourselves.
How does Mary Hockaday's claim tally with that BBC editorial guideline?

Well, of course, it clearly doesn't. She was, I believe, being very disingenuous. 

On the Peshawar issue, she insisted the BBC had covered the story "on the day" and that they "revisited" the story on Wednesday. 

In other words, the BBC got it about right - the boiler-plate response of all BBC editors on Newswatch.


Nothing to do with BBC bias (again), but I've very much enjoyed Radio 4's Book of the Week this week. 

Written by Jung Chang (of Wild Swans fame - which I've never read), Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China has been a fascinating and thoroughly revisionist take on the extraordinary woman who (unofficially) ruled Imperial China for some fifty years (up until 1908).

Having listened to Jung Chang's highly sympathetic, admiring interpretation (or re-interpretation) of Cixi (pronounced 'Sir' [as in Sir Elton John] and 'shi' [as in the word 'ship', without the letter p on the end]) as a shrewd, well-meaning and modernising ruler (a sort of Chinese Iron Lady), I was taken aback to read (on Wikipedia) the conventional view of the Empress Dowager as a corrupt, reactionary despot who helped destroy her own dynasty (the Manchu Qing dynasty). 

I prefer Jung Chang's version. 

BBC (un)trust

According to OFCOM, more than half of the British people receive their news from the BBC. 

52% use the BBC website, as against 19% who use Facebook and 10% who use Twitter. BBC One is the most popular news source (52%), followed by ITV (13%), BBC News channel (6%), Sky News and the BBC website (both 5%).

However (in less good news for the Beeb), as regards bias and impartiality, BBC TV was beaten by Sky, ITV and Channel 4. 

Oh dear. So, the BBC may be Britain's dominant news outlet, yet the corporation is regarded as more biased and less impartial than all of its main broadcast rivals. 

Hmm, the tide may be turning. 

Friday, 27 September 2013

New Chair Updated

On Harry’s Place one of everyone’s faves is the blogger with the evocatively Roy Lichtenstein-like handle, Lucy Lips. 

Her (?) latest post about the insufferable Mo Ansar was somewhat highjacked by a torrent of comments about last night’s Question Time. 

Inspired by the Islamophobia theme, “Paul” sparked it off by abruptly asking if anyone watched last nights’ episode from Ilford. He noticed a ‘dead-eyed’ woman in the audience complaining about people linking Nairobi with Islam.

The subject of Will Self interested many commenters. Then I felt an overwhelming need to watch it on iPlayer. Just the bit about Nairobi.

In fact it wasn’t any worse than usual. Par for the course. The audience was quieter than it normally is, and there seemed to be less jeering when a right-wing view was tentatively ventured, and I thought less hysterical applause when a leftwing view was offered.

Michael Gove’s spat with Will Self was quite fun, and I think Gove succeeded in deflating some of Self’s hot-air. He seemed to be slowly deflating afterwards. Like a helium balloon with a slow-puncture he had a sort of shrivelled air.

Now they’re telling me that Will Self is Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. I don’t know his fiction, but the type of thought he expresses on QT seems distinctly out-dated, like conceptual art. The non-shock of the not-new. Are there any other professors of contemporary thought? No, it’s a new chair.

Don’t forget common or garden psychosis, will you Will.

Also joining Brunel is Feminist Campaigner and Journalist Julie Bindel so they could sit together in the refectory and jointly make contemporary conversation.

Update about an update.
Because the paywall prevented H/P from reproducing David Aaronovitch’s Times article about his experiences of antisemitism I omitted to mention it in the above post. Now there is an update, including no-charge extracts from the piece.
The Times comment editor, Tim Montgomerie, asked me two questions when I told him about this piece yesterday. The first was if I thought this kind of thing was getting worse. All I could say is that I am far more aware of it now than I was, say, 20 years ago. Some of this is clearly down to social media making it far easier for people to communicate with me and me with them.”
He then takes inspiration  from Simon Schama.
“An Austrian Jewish journalist called Theodore Herzl, attending the show trial in Paris of the framed Captain Alfred Dreyfus, concluded that the Jews were not safe in non-Jewish countries. Herzl is widely regarded as the founder of Zionism. And when it came to most of the countries of Europe, by 1945 his deepest misgivings were discovered to have been hopelessly optimistic.So all the things said about Jews when they were “stateless” is now said about them — about us, about me — in relation to Israel. Only now you say “Zionist” not “Jew”. But you apply it in exactly the same way. Divided loyalties, unwonted use of money and influence (beyond that exerted by any other group, natch).There was an extraordinary moment in Schama’s fourth programme when, sitting in an old synagogue he told the viewers: “I am a Zionist.” Straight out. Just like that. I thought that for many of today’s viewers he might as well have said he was a drinking buddy of Jimmy Savile’s. So many out there these days are anti-Zionist and thus anti-Schama.As for me, I have never been a Zionist. Nor committed to Israel. But I can tell you this. Every time I get one of those comments, or those e-mails, or those tweets or hear those insinuations, I begin to think, why not, David, why not? Why not wear the cap that so many are so keen to fit you out with?”
Indeed. There is a particular feeling one gets in Israel. Of relief. You might be a stranger there, a visitor from England, but you will not be  judged or treated patronisingly “as a Jew”. David Aaronovitch sounds like I used to be in the olden days. Not a Zionist, nor committed to Israel; but I never had to ask myself “Why not?” because it was before the media’s relentless campaign of delegitimising Israel had properly taken hold. 
However  there was plenty of low-level antisemitism around, which was particularly prevalent in provincial areas where there were no Jews, particularly if one happened to be, unbeknownst to ones acquaintances, a Jew. Or a “Jewess” as people would say, and the only Jew in the village to boot. The fewer Jews people knew, the more they casually denigrated them. 
It was only after returning home after a random visit to Israel that I ...**saw the light**.
If David finds himself torn between his Britishness and his Jewishness, he’ll have to start being a Zionist, and proud.

Clever clogs.

Earlier this morning on radio 4 someone complained that the BBC makes a habit of placing opponents on any topic head to head in order to make sparks fly, regardless of the merit or expertise of those involved, a tactic that usually generates more ‘heat than light’; all for fear of committing the deadly sin of boring the audience.

"Hello. I'm Dom Joly. I'm a comedian, and I've also done quite a bit of travel round the Middle East"

The supercilious tone of this programme  “OBJs (sic) Guide to the Middle East” indicated that this programme must have been based on the News Quiz,  i.e. partisan pundits giving their patronising interpretation of the complexities of the Middle East, aimed at an audience with limited intelligence and a short attention-span. They clearly hoped to entertain and enlighten with their wit and wisdom. 

It was as if they were saying “Look at those amusingly naughty boys over in the Middle East. All pointlessly scrapping with each other, like one of those crazy epic movie battle scenes, or those cowboy bar brawls where everyone pitches in without quite knowing why! What are they like? Harharhar”

No, Dom Joly, it’s not like that really. You’re the ones who don’t quite know why. 
And as for the squawking harridan 
who almost sabotaged the whole fiasco with her incessant high pitched cackling that made the already unlistenable all but unbearable, you forgot to mention that she is an apologist for the Iranian regime and a dedicated Israel-basher. 

The Cackling Baroness 

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Dangerous Delusions.

These days everyone seems to have noticed that the BBC is biased. 

And at last it does seem to have started listening to reason. For example I heard the words ‘Islamist’ and ‘terrorism’ uttered together in a news bulletin. 

Admittedly  it has taken several acts of terror to bring this about, though the perpetrators themselves articulated in no uncertain terms that their atrocities were carried out in the name of Islam. 

That, and several high profile articles in the press protesting at the BBC’s increasingly incongruous policy of banning the T word. Someone on high must have come to their senses.

However the more unbiased the BBC becomes, the more credible will be the oft heard claim that “we get complaints from both sides” and accordingly the conclusion that “we must be getting it about right” would start making sense.

At such a time logical, reasoned and  legitimate complaints about the BBC’s inexcusable pro-Islam / anti-Zionist and left-wing biases would be redundant.
Then,  perhaps the BBC would no longer need to equate the hate-filled antisemitic rants they get when, say, someone smells the blood of Mark Regev, with genuine complaints about bias in the disingenuous manner it currently does in order to even up the tally.

So spotting Peter Oborne’s strange article in the Telegraph complaining about John Humphrys’s biased interview on Today this morning (scroll to 1:33) with Mark Regev, I’d be the first to agree. But from a different side of the fence.  

Yes it does seem that Humph referred to a ‘nuclear weapons programme’ in his intro, and we all know that Iran insists that it has no such thing. Not officially. But that Intro was read out by Humph in the manner of a script, so perhaps it was someone else’s error.
So although it might have been a slip of the tongue to call it a nuclear weapons programme, It certainly is a nuclear programme, and very likely one with the ulterior motive that Oborne and appeasers of the Iranian regime seek to overlook. Even the BBC’s QA on the topic is unequivocal about that.

His second point concerned Mark Regev, a person who Israel-bashers pretend is a bullying apologist for the despicable Zionist state. In this interview I thought Regev sounded tired and weary. The bully was Humph.
Oborne thinks Humphrys should have challenged Regev’s allegations that the IAEA is being denied access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Oborne thinks is untrue, apart from one small matter
 “(True, Iran has not granted the IAEA access to the Parchin military site,)” 
but that’s okay with Oborne because Iran’s refusal isn’t “breaking any agreement” “since it isn’t a nuclear site declared to the IAEA.” 

But the real thing that gets Oborne’s goat is the fact that Regev mentioned that Iran violated Security Council resolution 487. “A bit rich”, says Oborne,  “pot calls kettle black”. He is of course alluding to what he calls Israel’s  “world record in violating Security Council resolutions.” 
It was unwise of Regev to bring that up because he must have known his opponents would always come out with that when there’s little time to refute it in all its complexity. It’s cheap, tiresomely out of context, but too predictable an elephant trap for Regev to have allowed himself to fall into; a blunder that made me think he sounded tired and weary. 

Oborne forgot to mention Humphrys’s even cheaper, even more out of context pot-kettle-black cliche. The one that goes “Israel has nukes, so why shouldn’t Iran?” That’s like saying “the warders at Broadmoor have keys, so why shouldn’t the inmates?”

Anyway Oborne’s got a book out. It’s called “A Dangerous Delusion.” Good title, for an autobiography, and one I’d be the first to agree with. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Party Conference Watch 2013: UKIP

So far Is the BBC biased?'s whirlwind tour of the Today programme's coverage of the 2013 party has covered the Greens, who received only about six minutes' worth of coverage on a single day but got a helpful interview with their party leader, free of interruptions and challenges. We've also covered the Liberal Democrats, who got two and bit day's worth of fairly extensive coverage, a good-natured interview with their party leader and generally positive coverage.

Next up came UKIP, whose coverage was held last weekend (as 'Bloomgate' broke). [Again, sorry for the delay!]

Friday's edition began (before 7 o'clock) with a 4-minute report by BBC political correspondent Robin Brant. We heard Robin asking Nigel Farage if he needed to step back so that the party wouldn't seem like such a one-man band, and from two 'talking heads' from Thurrock. The first, a lady in a video shop, said [on the subject of immigration], "If they want to come over here and work, yes, like if we went over to their country, we'd have to work and support ourselves". The second, a Muslim doctor, was stopped in the street by Robin and asked, "Is he brave or do you think actually Nigel can be a very divisive figure?" [something of a leading question that!], The doctor replied [again on the subject of immigration], "I think it's quite a nuanced argument though. I don't think it's a very black and white issue."

An 4-minute interview with UKIP MEP Roger Helmer came at around 8.45. John Humphrys interviewed him about the party's energy policy, particularly fracking. Mr Helmer advanced the case for fracking. John Humphrys posed questions from a standpoint sceptical of fracking. Fair enough.  

Saturday's edition gave over the prestigious 8.10 spot to a 9-minute interview with Nigel Farage. John Humphrys did the honours. 

If you recall the gentle interview with Natalie Bennett of the Greens, where she was allowed to make a positive case for the party, and the good-humoured, non-too-tough interview with Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems, then you will immediately spot the difference between those interviews and this one. Partly that can be explained by the presence of John Humphrys as an interviewer, but both Sarah Montague (who interview the Green leader) and Evan Davis (who interviewed the Lib Dem leader) can be tough interrogators when the mood takes them. 

The interview between John Humphrys and Nigel Farage was certainly was considerably tougher than either of the previous interviews with party leaders. [I counted 19 interruptions]. While Evan Davis kept saying that things were going well for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem conference, John Humphrys prefaced this interview with the words, "It has not going well for UKIP - and that's a bit of an understatement!"

What stood out though was the nature of the questioning. Breaking it down, these were the topics John Humphrys chose to ask Nigel Farage about - and the percentage of the interview devoted to each issue: 

1. Godfrey Bloom's suspension (7.3%)
2. How UKIP are seen as "loonies" and "a bit of a weird old party" (16.7%)
3. How Nigel Farage 'doesn't want' to be prime minister (7.6%)
4. How Nigel Farage is seen as "a bit of a joke figure", "a bit of a comic figure in lots of ways" (27.1%)
5. How "a lot of people think you're a bit racist" (13%)
6. How UKIP are seen as "anti-feminist" (3.8%)
7. How UKIP will take votes from the Tories and allow in Labour and the Lib Dems (21.2%)
8. Whether UKIP would do a deal with the Tories (3.3%)

Isn't that an extraordinarily negative set of questions? 

Over 60% of the entire interview was given over to questions predicated on the assumption that UKIP is a weird party led by a joke figure, a party that a lot people think is racist and sexist. 

Now, I suspect the Greens will not be happy that they got a mere 6 minutes or so of coverage on Today while UKIP got some 18 minutes worth of coverage in total, but they can at least console themselves that Sarah Montague's line of questioning didn't attempt to systematically rubbish them!

Is this evidence of anti-UKIP bias on the part of the BBC? Well, I think so.

Reviews of the programme's coverage of the Labour conference (just finished) and the Conservative conference (still to come) will follow. How will those parties fare? How will their party leaders face? Will anyone face as belittling an interview as Nigel Farage?

"And remember: you pay for this."

When I wrote the other day
The BBC are, as ever, calling the perpetrators "militants" and avoiding the use of the word "terrorists". That may make some people feel queasy (and angry), but they are going to keep on calling them that no matter how often people like us complain about it. They think they are right to do so. 
maybe I was being a bit too pessimistic. 

More and more people appear to be getting angrier about it, and the criticism is spreading into the mainstream media.

Take Damian Thompson's blistering blog post in the Telegraph yesterday:
Kenya terror attack: disgracefully, the BBC still won't call these murderers 'terrorists'
Let's get this straight. There is nothing wrong with using the term "militants" to describe the al-Shabab gunmen. But they are terrorists, by any criterion, and that word should also be used.
The Beeb won't do it, however. It virtually bans the word from reporting, lest it be used "inappropriately". Many BBC journalists, who are overwhelmingly on the Left, support the causes for which armed gunmen fight in, say, Palestine. Therefore there's no question of describing Hamas as a terrorist organisation. This I can just about understand, given that Hamas is also a powerful political party, though I don't agree with the policy.
But in what universe are Islamists who spray women and children with bullets in a shopping centre not terrorists? The BBC may say: we have a rule and we have to apply it universally. This is nonsense. That's what editors are for.
But hang on. On re-reading a BBC report, I see that it does use the T-word:
Kenyan officials said earlier that three "terrorists" had been killed, and that 10 people had been arrested.
Those inverted commas are more contemptible than not using the word at all. And remember: you pay for this.
I couldn't agree more with that. The top-rated comment below the line sums up what seems to be the growing mood of disgust:
Amazingly, comments are allowed.
Your sentiments are entirely right. ( I remember when Palestinian terrorists held up women and children, and killed indiscriminately, yet the Left seems to support them whatever their bloody, murderous past.)
If the BBC has 'cleansed' the word in their reports this weekend, then some explanation should be expected, pretty quickly.
Have just heard the 1pm BBC Radio 2 News - no mention of Terrorists, but ten or so references to the "ISLAMIST MILITANTS"!! UNBELIEVABLE Orwellian double-speak!
Whoever wrote that news bulletin should be named and asked for some respect for all those murdered by those revolting, sick terrorists. They were not 'killed' by militants, but MURDERED by Islamist terrorist thugs.
Even a juggernaut can be turned around, and I must be less pessimistic. The BBC can be shamed out of this absurd and shameful policy the more people like us complain about it, especially if more people like Damian Thompson complain about it too. When MPs and ministers start complaining, things could start moving. I shall write to my MP.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Story of the Jews (Part 4)

Chagall, Russian Wedding

Simon Schama's The Story of Jews is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the best things the BBC has done in years.

A good deal of the credit for that goes to Simon Schama himself. As a story-telling historian, few can match him. 

This week's episode, Over the Rainbow, took us from Eastern Europe to the United States and back again - from the Pale of Settlement to The Wizard of Oz, and then (leaving a lump in this viewer's throat) to a village in Nazi-occupied Lithuania - homeland of Simon Schama's own family, on his mother's side. Just one Jewish survivor lives there now, surrounded by his own carvings evoking the lost world of Lithuania's Jews. 

The early stages of the programme vividly conveyed the extraordinary variety and vitality of Jewish life in the Russian Empire (at that time including Lithuania, of course) - despite the oppressive restrictions imposed upon the Jews who lived here and the extraordinarily vicious pogroms periodically flung against them. Simon Schama's enthusiasm for this vibrant and diverse culture was infectious, and he fairly threw himself into his descriptions of it.

It was out of this rich culture that much of the best of American 20th Century popular culture sprang, as large numbers of Jews fled the increasingly savage anti-Semitism of Europe's east for the chance of a better, freer life in the United States of America, and brought the many strains of their culture with them, transplanting and transforming them, giving us many of the crowning glories of Tin Pan Alley (Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, etc) and leading and shaping the creation of Hollywood.

The programme opened in the ruins of Zvonárska Synagogue in Košice, Slovakia [above], where the sense of desolation and absence was tempered somewhat by "the rainbows coming through the [stained] glass." "Out of the dust burst the colours", said Simon. And so did the memories, as he imagined the former congregation gathered there. In the spring of 1944, all 15,700 Jews in Košice were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz, but "this wasn't a place that sat passively waiting for its death sentence."

And it was that final thought which spurred the first part of the programme, as Simon Schama conjured up the "thriving, confident, noisy" Jewish life which existed right across Eastern Europe before the Holocaust - "a world that lives and breaths, and dances and sings". And the switch of focus to America was then viewed in this light:
"That this world somehow flourished despite all the pounding storms that would come its way is an escape act so epic that it counts as one of histories all-time redeeming miracles. Even when systematic annihilation overwhelmed the people the world that had nourished them survived. This is the story about how this unique culture of faith and ferment, of poetry and music, of the search for deliverance from brutality and oppression did not get pulverised by the hammer of history. It just changed its address." 
The story of the Jews living in the lands ruled by Tsarist Russia is, perhaps, less familiar to us in the West - or at least it is to me - so I was particularly struck by this part of the programme.

Eastern Europe used to be the home to over 5 million Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, the largest population of Jews in the world. They came from France and Germany, fleeing persecution, around the 13th century, and settled in the huge, tolerant Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. The Polish kings allowed the Jews to prosper, using them to collect their taxes. The carve-up of Poland at the end of the 18th Century saw most of the Jews falling under Russian rule. Russian merchants took against this new competition, and the Russian government expelled the Jews from all their main cities and restricted them to the Pale of Settlement.

We heard what life was life in the shtetls (little towns) of the Pale, and it was often harsh. Jews were forbidden from the cities, the professions and the universities and not allowed to own land, and Jewish boys as young as twelve were forcibly conscripted into the Russian army for up to 25 years.

Yet they formed real, solid communities, looking inward, out of necessity, towards the treasures of their own culture, they did a remarkable range of jobs and they certainly knew how to celebrate a wedding!

We heard of the emergence of Hasidic Judaism, with its ecstatic, joyous mysticism [an especially fascinating section of the programme], and of Odessa, the city where Jews, modern Jews, who found the shtetls too claustrophobic, could find a place. Among them Leon Pinsker, whose proto-Zionist pamphlet Auto-Emancipation urged the Jews towards independence and national consciousness, and mooted a Jewish homeland - possibly in the Holy Land.

That pamphlet was published in the year following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the left-wing terrorist group The People's Will. One of the plotters was a Jewish girl, and within a month a tidal wave of pogroms (from the Russian word meaning 'destroy') began across the Pale of Settlement. These waves kept on coming, culminating in the massacres of 1903-1905 - massacres so extreme in their violence that many Jewish intellectuals despaired of ever obtaining equal rights in Tsarist Russia. They also noted that non-Jewish leftists didn't rush to their side. Some, including Pinsker, founded Hovevei Zion (The Lovers of Zion) in response - the first Jewish nationalist organisation.

It was at this point that things got a little confusing (for me) as Simon Schama's narrative would, I suspect, lead many viewers to assume to the organisations that comprised Hovevei Zion sprang up after 1905. Similarly, those viewers might also have assumed, from the way Simon described it, that Auto-Emancipation was published after the latest pogroms in Odessa (also around 1905). As far as I'm aware though (as I wrote earlier), Auto-Emancipation was published in 1882, just after the 1881 pogrom in Odessa, and Hovevei Zion societies first arose at that time too.

This was the period when many of the Jews of the Pale decided enough was enough, and began leaving for 'the Golden sanctuary', America.

They joined an earlier wave of Jewish emigration to the United States, dating from the 1850s, when Jews from Germany arrived in the country and began working their way up, building railroads and great businesses, becoming mayors of cities, achieving the dream. Their extraordinary success was illustrated by the magnificent Temple Emanu-El of uptown New York.

Most of the new wave of Jewish immigrants, though, ended up in the "mega-shtetl" of New York's Lower East Side. "Of the 2.5 million Jews landing in America between the 1880s and the 1920s, more than 60% of them began their new lives here, stuffed into a patch of land just one-and-a-half miles square. This lot were deeply different from the uptown Jews of Temple Emanu-El - proletarian, drenched in old world superstitions or radical politics and - worst of all - Yiddish! And, in the many ways, the New World was just a high-rise version of the old world they'd left behind."

It was this world to which Simon Schama devoted the next portion of the programme - especially the fusion of shtetl idealism and popular art - focusing on Yip Harburg, the left-wing lyricist behind that "anthem of the Great Depression", Buddy, can you spare a dime? (which may have helped Franklin D. Roosevelt defeat Herbert Hoover in 1933) - its tune based on a Jewish lullaby.
"What America had taught the Jews is the dream that they could be both Jewish and part of the wider culture in which they lived - a dream that was impossible in the old world of Russia - did actually have a chance of working out."
And it was to the dream-world of Hollywood - most of whose great studios were owned by the boys of self-made Jews - that Simon Schama took us next - and Yip Harburg too.

Harburg wrote the words for "the song that would come to define the Golden Age of Hollywood" - Somewhere Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz ("this universal song of hope")The song ended up in the film almost by accident, having failed to appear in the 'book' and striking the studio as unsuitable to be sung by the character of a young girl, but getting in because of Harburg and composer Harold Arlen's enthusiasm for it.

Then came the lump in the throat moment.

"I wish the story could end there," said Simon Schama, "with the collective success of America's Jews and the dream-world of Oz, but it didn't. Remember the date of that triumphant night at the Oscars [for Harburg and Arlen]. 1940."

It was to Plungė in Northern Lithuania we were taken, and to the fate of the three million Jews who had stayed behind. There was Jakovas Bunka, the last Jew in Plungė and his carvings of Jewish figures from before the Holocaust, and his memories. In 1941 the shtetl of Plungė was emptied of Jews in the most unspeakably brutal manner imaginable. Unspeakable? Well, Simon said, "As the grandchild of a Lithuanian Jewish family, I need to tell you what happened."

Which he did. Heartbreaking. You must watch it for yourselves - and for Simon Schama's closing words.


Next week will be the final episode, contending with the Holocaust itself and the State of Israel.

I will be watching.

James Naughtie: Mr Impartiality?

Last Wednesday marked the start of a year's worth of BBC coverage of the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Leading Radio 4's coverage of the story will be Today's very own Scotsman, James Naughtie. He will still be doing Today, as well as presenting a twice-weekly stint on Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland, and acting as Radio 4's chief reporter on the story. So a busy year for him then.

Last Wednesday's Today kicked things off Jim's big year, and gave Radio 4 listeners their first chance to here how even-handed James Naughtie would (or wouldn't) be in reporting the story. 

Jim is known for his Freudian slips (if that's what they are). There was, of course, but also his classic "If we win the election..." to Ed Balls in 2005 (hastily amended to "If you win the election"), suggesting (to many) where his sympathies lie.

Would his interviews with two leading figures from either side of the independence argument on that morning's Today demonstrate that James Naughtie is likely to be scrupulously unbiased over the coming year - barring Freudian slips?

Please listen for yourselves to both interviews:

The interview with Alistair Darling, Labour (anti-independence)
The interview with Nicola Sturgeon, SNP (pro-independence)

If you have listened to both interviews, you won't need me to tell you that they were very different types of interview. The one with Alistair Darling was gentle, almost cosy, nearly a fireside chat compared to the tough, interruption-laden scrap with Nicola Sturgeon which followed. 

That was down to James Naughtie, and the tone he chose to adopt with each guest - collegial with Mr Darling, antagonistic towards Ms Sturgeon.

You would have thought that he would have sought to showcase his even-handedness on this of all programmes. He chose not to.

It doesn't bode well, does it?