Posts Tagged ‘bbc’

Generally I quite like Adam Curtis’s documentaries. I admire the fact that at a time where expository documentaries presenting wide scale socio-cultural arguments are hugely out of fashion he makes films which probe big issues around power, politics and history. I hugely enjoy the aesthetic of his work, the heavy usage of archival material to visually illustrate the points the narration makes. In All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace I also particularly enjoyed the soundtrack (it was mainly a collection of Nine Inch Nails material) which combined excellently with the visual material to provide an affectively potent piece of media.

However while I found the argument made in part one of the documentary to be somewhat partial and lacking, I was immensely disappointed by the contents of the second part. The central argument the documentary makes is that from the 1950’s onwards there was a movement which began with cybernetics and sought to reduce humans to mere nodes in complex networks of matter and energy rather than following the enlightenment view that humans were distinct from the rest of the world, and unlike the determinate automatons of nature, that humans and humans alone possessed free will. Curtis appears to regard this idea as a dangerous proposition which de-emphasised the sanctity of individualism, and which undermines analyses of power and politics presenting instead the notion that systems can self-organise without a command and control hierarchy being in place.

Now the first thing which is crucial to point is that the Enlightenment view of humans as being ontologically distinct from the rest of the natural world as championed by Curtis is of course complete nonsense. It is based on on the nature/culture dualism which has roots in monotheistic theology and has no basis in fact. The notion which stemmed from the cyberneticists that humans, other living creatures, and machines could be understood as complex systems governed by circular causality – that is, feedback – is not a dangerous ideological myth, it is factually correct. The utility of the cybernetics movement, and indeed the disciplines which grew out of it such as systems biology, complexity theory, autopoiesis, connectionist AI, cognitive sciences etc all did so because the basic premises that feedback is a crucial process in dynamic systems was correct.

One of the places where Curtis goes hopelessly wrong was his definition of feedback. Curtis explored negative, or self corrective feedback, which was one of the two types of feedback loop discovered by the cyberneticists but completely omits positive feedback from the film. While the majority of the early cybernetics was dominated by issues around reducing noise through negative feedbacks, positive feedback has played a crucial role in contemporary understandings of how change occurs in dynamic systems, particularly within the domains of chaos theory, complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics. Indeed, current understandings of open systems, systems which are dynamically balanced at a point far from equilibrium, and maintain this dynamic balance through taking in flows of energy (such as food for many living systems) are largely predicated on knowledge which can be traced back to cybernetics. Yet Curtis’s film fails to mention anything about this. Probably because it totally undercuts the narrative he portrays.  What makes this ironic is that while claiming that the natural world is too complex for the analyses derived from cybernetics to provide useful models, we see images of swarming creatures to illustrate this argument. Swarming is of course an emergent behaviour which can be simulated and replicated using just three very simple rules; 1) Keep moving in the same direction as your neighbours 2) Keep close to your neighbours 3) Avoid colliding with your neighbours. This is a classic example of the kind of self-organisation which Curtis is trying to argue does not occur.

Similarly Curtis goes on to argue that unlike humans, who have free will and so can make choices, machines are purely determinate automatons, whose every action can be predicted. Which is true of many kinds of simple, linear and closed machines. But which is clearly not true of cellular automata, artificial neural networks or other systems which are based on emergence. Presumably the reason these types of system are not mentioned is that they would undercut the nature/culture dualism Curtis seeks to maintain which imbues humans with special properties not found elsewhere in the universe.

While the majority of the film presenting a very misleading picture of the legacy of cybernetics, the final section then deals with alleged examples of contemporary self-organising systems and protest movements. Which was so utterly woeful that it actually made the rest of the film appear competent. I was expecting to see the Zapatistas, the alternative globalisation movement, the Peoples Global Assembly, the World Social Forum or a range of other organisations who have organised in non-hierarchical ways to present a political alternative to the discredited radical politics of Leninist vanguardism, whereby a small elite violently seizes power in order to then create an egalitarian democracy. The motivation behind the movements which have used these types of democratic, grassroots organisation to mobilise pro-democracy movements has largely been to organise in a way that reflects the kind of politics a group seeks to achieve, rather than to attempt to create an egalitarian society via dictatorship.

So what did Curtis have to say about this? Sadly the answer was nothing. Instead of focusing on the methods of these types of movement we instead were told that the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine was an example of self-organisation and a leaderless non-hierarchical movment. The Orange movement was in fact a movement heavily funded by groups such as the US State Department, who according to the Guardian had spent $67 million in the Ukraine in the two years before the disputed Presidential run off. It was a ‘leaderless’ ‘self-organising’ movement which was centred around trying to get one particular corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yuchenko, elected over a rival, corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. Largely it was a struggle between the western half of the country, aided by western governments who wanted Yuchenko to prevail pitted against the eastern half of the country and Russia who wanted Yanukovich to prevail. In other words it had nothing to do with spontaneous self-organisation, non-hierarchy or systems thinking. It was a great example of corrupt politics as usual.

The only reason I can muster for Curtis to use such a ridiculously awful example to illustrate the point is that using a more relevant example would have undercut the epic narrative he sought to explicate. Which ultimately is a big part of why the kind of grand narrative based expository documentary is so out of fashion, while its easy to make a compelling argument based on affective manipulation through audiovisual means, an hour (or even three one hour parts) just isn’t enough time to really explore complex issues in any amount of depth. Which means that documentary filmmakers end up creating narratives which are hugely misleading, which is exactly what Curtis does here.

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During the time that I’ve not been writing, the so-called Climategate ‘scandal’ has been one of the major talking points regarding climate change and the media. In a fairly sickening way it’s a really interesting example of how communication can be distorted by a combination of willing idiots and paid PR people who have an agenda to push – in this case right wing think tanks linked to fossil fuel industries who are hell bent on opposing any kind of binding international agreement or national laws which will curb the emissions of their industries. It’s an issue I’ll probably spend some more time analysing here sometime soon, but today I briefly wanted to look at the latest developments and how the BBC in particular chose to cover them.

So firstly, what was the conclusion of this report… well

We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it.

Given the hysterical claims made by the global warming denial lobby over the CRU email hack that is pretty unequivocal. The data was not fudged, made up, or invented and the CRU was not involved in a duplicitous process of scientific malpractice and fraud aimed at deceiving the public and the world’s politicians into taking action on a non-existent problem.

This is the second report into the CRU hack which has now reached the same conclusion following the publication of the UK Parliament’s Commons Science and Technology Committee report into the affair. So after months of mainstream media and right wing blog speculation and hearsay about how anthropogenic climate was a fantasy concocted by conspiring climate scientists, which just happened to coincide with the UN COP15 confere4nce on climate change, it turns out that all of these claims were absolute rubbish.

So how does the BBC website cover this story? Well they start well with a headline of ‘No Malpractice by Climate Unit’ and briefly cover the actual report and it’s contents with a quote from Lord Oxburgh stating that

We found absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever. That doesn’t mean that we agreed with all of their conclusions, but these people were doing their jobs honestly.

The article then goes on to to state that sceptics have criticised Oxburgh’s appointment as the panel’s chair as he ‘is currently president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and chairman of wind energy firm Falck Renewables. Critics say clean energy companies would benefit from policies to tackle climate change.’ Which is fair enough – revealing the economic interests of interviewees which may impinge on their judgements ought to be a part of journalism. They don’t however mention that Oxburgh was only one of a seven man team of experts who oversaw the inquiry.

What really irked me about the BBC piece however is its concluding section in which we find

Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, criticised the panel for producing a report that was “not even-handed” and appeared to be the product of a “rushed job”.

He said: “This has produced a very superficial report. The panel should have taken more time to come to more balanced and trustworthy conclusions.

“They should have heard evidence from critical researchers who have been working in the same field for many years.”

First of all, for those who aren’t familiar with Benny Peiser while he is indeed an academic, simply describing him as a Dr within an article concentrating on science and scientists is somewhat misleading. Peiser is a senior lecturer in social anthropology and sports sociology. Yup that’s right, instead of getting information about climate science from climate scientists, or maybe physicists or atmospheric chemists the Beeb turns to a sports sociologist. Right… Well he has published peer reviewed papers. Three in fact, in the following journals: Sports Medicine, 2006; Journal of Sports Sciences (2004); and, Bioastronomy 2002: life among the stars (2004).

Peiser’s main claim to fame, is that in 2005 he tried to publish a response to a paper published by Naomi Oreskes in the journal Science which carried out a survey of 928 abstracts of peer reviewed papers on the ISI database which contained the keywords ‘global climate change.’ Oreskes found that of these 928 papers, none of the abstracts contradicted the IPCC position, which was used as evidence corroborating the strength of the scientific consensus on climate change. Peiser couldn’t get his response published in Science, but did publish in the Daily Telegraph and online. He claimed that Oreskes had lied about the number of abstracts that her search should have turned up, and claimed that he found 34 abstracts among these which directly contradicted the IPCC position.

Firstly it turned out that Peiser had a different number of abstracts because he had entered different search terms, Oreskes had excluded journals which were not peer reviewed whereas Peiser had not, leading to one of his 34 abstracts being an un-reviewed industry publication by the American Society of Petroleum Geologists. Thats right, the oil industry.

Following his online publication of the 34 abstracts he claimed contradicted the consensus position, Tim Lambert who writes the Deltoid blog published the list and dissected whether or not they turned out to support Peiser’s claims. By October 2006 Peiser’s initial 34 abstracts had shrunk to one, making him a mere 97% wrong.

So not only do the BBC decide that they should be getting opinions on climate science from sports sociologists, but that they should get them from from sports sociologists who can’t use a search engine or comprehend the abstract of a scientific paper.

What about the official sounding Global Warming Policy Foundation which the BBC states Peiser is a director of? It’s an anti-global warming group launched by that scientific colossus Lord Nigel Lawson of Blaby, the former Tory chancellor who prior to becoming a politician had been a financial journalist.

If the Beeb really feel the need to include the views of sports sociologists and retired Tories on scientific issues it would seem professional courtesy to at least state what these sources really are rather than simply presenting them as a rival group of experts who disagree with the both the scientists at the CRU and the scientists who carried out the Oxburgh report.

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The Guardian has posted the statements of three eyewitnesses who all claim to have seen first hand the Police violently attacking Ian Tomlinson minutes before he collapsed.

A riot officer came up behind him and grabbed him. It wasn’t just pushing him – he’d rushed him. He went to the floor and he did actually roll. That was quite noticeable. It was the force of the impact. It was all from behind. The officer hit him twice with a baton [when he was] on the floor. So it wasn’t just that the officer had pushed him – it became an assault. And then the officer picked him up from the back, continued to walk or charge with him, and threw him. He was running and stumbling. He didn’t turn and confront the officer or anything like that.
Anna Branthwaite, 36, freelance photographer, south London

I saw a man approaching the police line from my right. He was quite tall with a beer belly and short hair. I later recognised him from a picture. He was on his own. He walked up to the police across the Royal Exchange Building, towards the centre left of their line. He did not appear drunk – he was walking normally. I saw him suddenly fall back as though flung down with force. It was as though he had been spun. He fell and hit the top of his head hard. I was shocked. He lay on the ground for around 30 seconds without moving before a protester helped him up. The police did not help him at all.
Kezia Rolfe, 27, NGO researcher, Stoke Newington

Police got into scuffles with people. They were pushing the line forward. When he got hit, police were coming forwards. He got hit near the head with a baton. I saw him fall so I moved back. But I saw him on the floor and someone picking him up – that’s when I took the picture. After that, I was taking pictures of police and the dog line, and a girl came and said ‘This guy needs help’. He was further back down the road.
Amiri Howe, 24, actor/musician, west London


Meanwhile if we take a look at the BBC, we find an article which states that

Witnesses have told the IPCC that the newsagent, who was not part of the protest, had “contact” with police officers before collapsing.

Followed by a quote from IPCC commissioner Deborah Glass saying that

“Initially we had accounts from independent witnesses who were on Cornhill, who told us that there had been no contact between the police and Mr Tomlinson when he collapsed.

“However, other witnesses who saw him in the Royal Exchange area have since told us that Mr Tomlinson did have contact with police officers.

Amazing how eyewitness testimony that riot police assaulting someone and striking them with a baton can be spun into ‘having contact.’ While technically yes, it is contact with someone, it’s a cleverly phrased piece of proaganda by the police commission seeking to downplay the extent of the unneccesary violence which was entirely characteristic of their approach this week.

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While the mainstream media has mainly presented the current wildcat strikes in the UK as a nationalist phenomena, concentrating on the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers,’ they have seemed to largely ignore what the workers themselves have been saying.

For example one of the Lindsey Oil Strike refinery unofficial elected strike committee leaders wrote on UK Indymedia ‘The workers of LOR, Conoco and Easington did not take strike action against immigrant workers. Our action is rightly aimed against company bosses who attempt to play off one nationality of worker against the other and undermine the NAECI agreement.  THE B.N.P. SHOULD TAKE HEED, U.K. CONTRUCTION WORKERS WILL NOT TOLERATE ‘ANOTHER RACIST ATTEMPT’ TO SEVER FRATERNAL RELATIONS WITH WORKERS FROM OTHER NATIONS’


Similarly Unite, the union which has underpinned much of the action has been issuing posters procaliming ‘Its TOTAL discrimination by a greedy corporation. Workers of all countries Unite.’ Hardly akin to any nationalism I’ve ever known.

Here’s an example of the BBC deliberately misrepresenting the opinions of the strikers last week. On the more heavily watched news at 10, an interview is spliced so that a statement about the difficulty of integrating with workers who are housed in temporary accomodation and privately bused in to work appears to be outright xenephobia. By quoting the worker out of context the BBC continue the wrongful portrayal of the workers as right wing nationalists. the 2 different versions can be viewed at the following link http://www.vimeo.com/3065190

BBC News at 10
Reporter… “beneath the anger ministers fear lies straightforward xenophobia”
Striker… “These portugese and Ities, we can’t work alongside of them”

BBC Newsnight
Same Striker… “These portugese and Ities, we can’t work alongside of them, they’re segregated, and coming in in full companies”

Finally… Here’s an online petition for the upcoming trade union congress, it can be signed at http://www.petitiononline.com/jobs0209/ looking through the signatories you’ll see that this has support from many of the unions which the mainstream media is accusing of xenophobia and BNP stlye politics.

‘An injury to one is an injury to all – unite to save jobs.

Thousands of construction workers have been out on unofficial strike at major sites across Britain. As the jobs slaughter continues many working people are rightly worried for the future. The behaviour of the sub-contracting bosses, in housing Italian workers separately, adds to this fear and division.

Across the whole of Europe, including Britain, thousands of jobs are being lost every day with no end in sight. Governments have handed hundreds of billions of pounds to the bankers but have told working people that they must pay the price for the crisis. But there is resistance. Last week a million French workers were out on strike against Nicolas Sarkozy’s “reforms”, Greek workers and farmers have been fighting to defend their livelihoods, in Ireland 400 workers are occupying Waterford Glass. In all of these examples of a fightback, the anger needs to be focused on those responsible -the employers and bankers out to protect their profits, and their allies in government.

We oppose the spread of neoliberalism across Europe, and support the unity of all workers to defend jobs and living standards, equal pay, binding national agreements negotiated by trade unions, and equal legal status for all, regardless of nationality. We oppose the ‘contracting out’ and privatisation system that uses competition to drive down wages and conditions.

We can sense the mood for a fightback in Britain. However, the slogan “British jobs for British workers” that has come to prominence around the dispute can only lead to deep divisions inside working class communities. The slogan, coined by Gordon Brown in his 2007 speech to Labour’s conference, is being taking up by the right wing press and the Nazi BNP. These are forces that have always been bitterly hostile to the trade union movement.

That is why, while supporting action to defend jobs, we believe that the action has to be directed against the employers and the contracting firms, not against migrant workers. We congratulate those strikers who ejected the BNP from the picket line at Immingham, and we urge other strikers to do the same. We support the demands of the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike committee.

We need a massive drive to unionise all workers, and a campaign to defend all jobs and create new ones. Every worker will benefit from a campaign to unionise overseas workers in order to prevent employers from using them as a weapon against fellow workers. Most importantly, we have to have unity if we are to fight back against the effects of the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s. “British jobs for British workers” is a slogan that focuses on what divides working people not what can unite them.

Every worker is facing the same horrors in the face of recession. We can’t let ourselves be divided. We should fight for well-paid jobs with decent conditions for all.

We support:

• The march for workers’ rights, and for global and environmental justice on 28 March in London on the eve of the G20 summit. This protest is supported by some 40 organisations including trade unions, the TUC, and campaigning groups. It is a protest against the neo-liberal policies that have encouraged ‘contracting out’ and competitive wage cutting.
• The protest called by Stop the War, CND and others on 2 April at the G20 summit itself.


The Undersigned’

In conclusion then, despite the attempts of the mainstream press to purvey these strikes as a right wing, nationalist phemonenon, it is clear from looking at the material published using alternative forms of new media such as Indymedia, blogs and online petitions, that this is far from true. This does however emphasize the importance of alternative media in allowing subaltern groups a channel for communications which bypasses the business funded and owned mass media, and allows these groups to directly communicate their message to a broad audience.

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Debates over Anthropogenic Climate Change deal with probability in complex nonlinear dynamical systems. The issues are difficult for lay people to understand at the best of times due to their complexity, however any understanding of ACC is likely to be undermined by poor quality journalism.

In debates over media democracy stemming from Internet based telecommunications, professional journalists have consistently argued that their value lies in providing reputable, well sourced analysis, which they hold in contrast to the often heavily biased, unsourced, amatuerish blogosphere and independent media.

Imagine my surprise then, when browsing the BBC’s website I found this article


In what is currently the third most popular news story on the BBC website, this rather odd text appears…

‘Switching from beef to kangaroo burgers could significantly help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says an Australian scientist.

The gas produced by sheep and cows through belching and flatulence is a huge contributor to global warming – much more than carbon dioxide.’

According to the IPCC’s 4th report, carbon dioxide emissions currently have a far greater radiative forcing  (contribution to global warming) than methane. In fact, no one, anywhere currently claims that methane from animal belching and flatulence has a greater radiative forcing than global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Except for a blundering BBC journalist that is.

What then was this professional journalist trying to say? He may have meant to communicate the fact that an amount of methane will have a greater radiative forcing than an equal amount of carbon dioxide. However as carbon dioxide emissions dwarf methane emissions this cannot be extrapolated to give the conclusion the BBC journalist draws.

Such inaccurate, unsourced nonsense coming from a public service broadcaster will simply confuse people who look to professional journalists to communicate complex scientific issues in a clear and accurate way. If professional journalists want to maintain their place in the 21st century their standards have to improve significantly.

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