Lambs' tales: let's all bash the BBC
Monday 7 April, 2014
This looks like a nice place to stay for a few days if you need to be up in Scotland. An 18th century castle with a couple of golf courses, spa, gym, swimming pool, tennis courts.
You could get married here, stay in the honeymoon suite and have a champagne wedding breakfast with 30 guests for a couple of grand.
Or if you just fancy a weekend away, you could have a couple of nights' bed and breakfast, with dinner thrown in when you arrive, for £130.
Not only that, but if you'd been there the week before last, you might have run into Kate Humble.
This is the Dalmahoy Marriott hotel in Edinburgh, home from home last month to the crew behind the latest series of Lambing Live which pulls in an audience of around 2m a night for BBC2. There were 65 of them - presenters, four camera teams including cameramen, soundmen, make-up artists, technicians, crane operators, electricians, grips, caterers and so forth - who were ferried by bus between the hotel and South Slipperfield Farm 20-odd miles away, where 1,500 lambs are due this spring.
Seems a reasonable arrangement. Especially given that the hotel is amenable to group discounts and special deals.
First there were too many people - how many do you need to run a few cables round a shed?
Second, they should have stayed in local B&Bs, of which there are nine in West Linton, the village nearest the farm. At least one landlady is on record as saying that she'd have been thrilled to offer accommodation.
Margaret Thain has three rooms at the Meadows (left). So that should have sorted six or seven of the crew. For between £20 and £35 a night per person for bed and breakfast, the BBC crowd could have taken advantage of free parking and wi-fi, and used the hairdryers and "tea and coffee making facilities" that are available in every room.
Guests who have stayed there are complimentary, particularly about the Scottish breakfast, although one commented online that there were limited places to eat or drink nearby.
Would this have been as practical or as good value for the licence payer as the deal at the Dalmahoy, which charged £58 a night for Auntie's block booking?
This is not a question that troubled the Telegraph or the Mail or the Western Morning News, which ran virtually identical reports railing at the squandering of public money. The story appeared first in the Telegraph, and the Mail, with its usual slick operation, swiftly caught up. Here's Keith Parry in the Telegraph:
The BBC has been accused of extravagance after it hired luxury accommodation for a 65 strong team - including presenters Kate Humble and Adam Henson - to film a documentary about lambing.
But that headline says £279 a night. Where did that come from?
Heaven knows. SubScribe spent hours on the Dalmahoy site trying to find a room even approaching that price. The hotel has a number of turret suites, but these were booked solid; the most expensive room we could find was £120, the average price £107.
So why is this a story? Again, heaven knows. Maybe someone rang up the Telegraph to have a moan, maybe the reporter decided to do some digging.
The report quotes the head of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, who lives locally, and the chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance Jonathan Isaby, who questions the "lavish" use of a "luxury country club" at licence-fee payers' expense. It was the gamekeeper Alex Hogg who suggested that the BBC needed only a dozen people "or 20 max" to run some cables round a shed.
The Telegraph is persuaded by this argument - without checking staffing requirements with anyone who knows anything about live outside broadcasts - and runs the "jolly" third leader with the egregious pun heading shown with the news cutting above.
It really is shabby, particularly the pointless last bit about BBC Three, since the programme is shown on BBC2 and took four of the top ten slots for the week it was broadcast.
The Mail version, below, has all the same words and quotes but in a slightly different order.
So what did the BBC have to say about all this? Both pieces quote Helene Fox as saying that the Damahoy was the most economically sensible choice and that the hotel offered a 50% discount on their standard price. That seems to add up, given that the most regularly quoted price SubScribe could find was £107. What doesn't add up is that neither paper (nor the Western Morning News or the Sun) said anything about £58. Didn't they ask how much the BBC had paid?
Apparently not. Perhaps Ms Fox should have been more specific. Both websites eventually ran a full quote from "a BBC spokesman", giving chapter and verse:
The crew stayed at the Dalmahoy Marriott, paying a rate of £58 a night. This was the closest hotel to the filming location that was able to accommodate this number and is located on a main road, which is necessary in case of bad weather. This was an economic and practical option which was within BBC policy guidelines.
So no, in answer to the earlier question, there is no story. Unless you regard "BBC gets best deal it can to film popular programme" as a news story. Given the corporation's reputation for parsimony (unless you're Graham Norton) this could appear almost any day of the week.
Newspapers don't like the BBC very much. Their owners see it as subsidised competition. James Murdoch, when in charge of the old News International, said as much in the most explicit terms in his address to the Edinburgh Television Festival five years ago. That was fair enough. He's entitled to his opinion. He was talking to an industry audience.
But this distorted, sloppy reporting is something else entirely. It is propaganda disguised as news and it is made even worse by the fact that other news outlets (forgive me) have simply lifted the Telegraph's story without doing their own research or attributing it as the source - in other words, they have de facto endorsed the copy.
You may have noticed there's been a lot of BBC about recently. Decriminalisation of licence dodging, a suggestion that everyone should pay even if they don't have a television (I think we call that a tax, as in everyone pays for education even if they don't have children). The Times runs a comment pages piece today by the Economist's deputy editor Emma Duncan arguing against the licence fee in which she admits that she is beating a familiar drum.
Why the sudden interest? Because the BBC's charter comes up for renewal in 2016 and negotiations are likely to begin in earnest the moment the election is out of the way. This is the phoney war, with the various interested parties jostling to get their view out before that election.
All of which is well and good. It is a legitimate area of discussion. What isn't legitimate is to present false information as fact in the news pages. The Mail, to its credit, not only ran the BBC spokesman's full quote online, but also published a clarification reinforcing it underneath. The Telegraph also ran the quote on its website and removed the price from the heading to read "luxury", but otherwise left the original story unchanged.
I'm all for luxury at £58 a night, how about you?
The most encouraging aspect of all this was the 500+ comment thread at the foot of the Telegraph's online story - overwhelmingly ridiculing the coverage. The Mail, which stuck with the £279 in its heading, had 150+ and they were also largely supportive of the BBC in this case.
It's impossible for an organisation such as the BBC to achieve universal approval. It is constantly being bashed for its perceived left or right-wing bias. SubScribe is generally a fan, albeit a little perplexed by the extended puff in tonight's 10 o'clock news for the Who Do We Think We Are project, which was essentially Mark Easton walking up and down a shopping arcade.
In the meantime, other newspapers made a more sensible choice of photograph for the lambing season. Time to meet Goliath:
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