The Today programme’s resident grumpy old bull, John Humphrys, took a charge at Prime Minister David Cameron this morning, and ended up with his horns stuck in wood, and his tail between his legs. Cameron, in excellent patroniser-in-chief form, ordered Humph back to school. Humph, unable to extract his horns from the wood, acceded. “I will go back to school,” he said, adding petulantly as only Humph could, “and I will choose my teacher”.
Dr No has for some time been bemused by the media coverage of the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, and, less bemusingly, by the public’s apparent lack of grasp of what is, all said and done, not a difficult a concept to grasp. Certainly, the jargon does nothing to help: ‘First Past the Post’ is nothing of the sort – there is no post, just a brutish my-pile-of-votes-is-bigger-than-yours battle, while the ‘Alternative Vote’ is a first past the post race – the post being 50% of cast votes; but the procedure, serial elimination of the candidate with the least votes, and allocation of those voters’ successive choices until one candidate passes the 50% post, is comprehensible. Or at least should be comprehensible – unless, that is, one is, as Cameron described Humph this morning, the BBC’s ‘lead broadcaster’, a remark which on paper gains the added thrill of plumbic insult.
Kindly commentators have suggested that Humph minced his words, and a broad-minded reading of a transcript does allow this possibility, but Dr No is disinclined to believe this explanation. Humph might be a brute head-butting bull of an interviewer, but as a rule he is not stupid; and yet, instead of rebutting Cameron, by clarifying that what he meant – if indeed he did – was that his first choice got recounted in the second round, he remained horns stuck in wood, and crumpled; and this, Dr No suspects was because Humph was lazy: he hadn’t done his homework. When push came to shove, Humph simply wasn’t sure that he understood AV well enough to argue his case with Cameron; and so he left his horns stuck in the wood.
The reason Dr No has picked up on this exchange is that he sees it as part of a wider BBC, indeed media-wide, malaise, a malaise in which journalists, instead of drilling holes in politicians’ arguments with diamond tipped drills of fact, prefer ill-informed recklessness over rigor, shallow gossip to the grain of truth. And so it is, for example, that we get Science-Lite Justin shunning the science behind the news lest we get bogged down in facts, while Innuendo Nick airily dismisses the facts in favour of sound-bites.
Is it really any wonder that the public don’t understand AV – or, just as importantly, what the Health and Social Care Bill will do to the NHS?