Anti-gay marriage protests prompt ire of the BBC

The BBC has an extraordinary report on its website detailing Sunday’s march in the French capital by opponents of a government bill to create same-sex marriages. Fact free, disdainful of opponents of gay marriage, incurious as to the intellectual and moral issues at play, lacking in balance, padded out with the author’s opinions and non sequiturs — this report entitled “Mass rally against gay marriage in France” is a poor outing for the corporation. It has the feel of a rush job written in the back of a cab on the way to the airport — or at the hotel bar.

Written in the one sentence paragraph style favored by British tabloids, the article opens with the news of the protest, where it took place and why:

But the demonstrators, backed by the Catholic Church and the right-wing opposition, argue it would undermine an essential building block of society.

The BBC then plays the Million Man March game. (For those unfamiliar with this sport, the Million Man March game is one way a news outlet telegraphs its opinions. If it favors the event it accepts the numbers given by the organizers. If opposed, it plays up the numbers offered by the police.)

The organisers put the number of marchers at 800,000, with demonstrators pouring into Paris by train and bus, carrying placards that read, “We don’t want your law, Francois” and “Don’t touch my civil code”.

Police said the figure was closer to 340,000 and one government minister said the turnout was lower than the organisers had predicted. A similar march in November attracted around 100,000 people.

Where the reader in any doubt as to where this was going, the sentence structure should clear that up. The BBC offers the organizers’ numbers first, but undercuts them with police numbers and the claim of an unnamed government minister who poo-poos the turnout. Absent from this is the news that this is the biggest mass protest in France since 1984 or that the organizers were hoping to have at least 100,000 people in the streets. That is called context and that is missing.

We then move to ridicule, or in modern parlance “snark.”

The “Demo for all” event was being led by a charismatic comedian known as Frigide Barjot, who tweeted that the “crowd is immense” and told French TV that gay marriage “makes no sense” because a child should be born to a man and woman.

A charismatic comedienne shall lead them, the BBC reports — even though the story opens with the news that the march is backed by French religious leaders and the opposition (the right wing opposition the BBC reminds us).

Hiss and boo here.

The French press and Reuters reported the presence of French archbishops, the head of the Protestant Federation, the chief Imam of Paris in the march. Gay leaders who oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it is an imposition of bourgeois heterosexual norms on homosexuals — by backing gay marriage French President Francois Hollande is condescending and homophobic some gay activists claim — were marching also. And what does the BBC offer as the face of the opposition? The “muse” of the march, as she is called by La Croix, Frigide Barjot.

The article notes:

Despite the support of the Church and political right, the organisers are keen to stress their movement is non-political and non-religious, and in no way directed against homosexuals, BBC Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield reports.

In its broadcast, the BBC’s Paris correspondent states the organizers of the rally are being “clever”.  They wanted to give a “clear message”.  They “don’t want to be typecast as homophobes and they rather resent the way that what they would see as the ‘left wing liberal establishment’ has tried to paint them as reactionaries and homophobic types.”

Or, the clear message might be, “they don’t want a law passed creating gay marriage” and resent the false caricatures offered by the left wing press. Watch the report to hear that English classic — a harrumph — offered by the BBC’s correspondent when saying “left wing liberal establishment.”

The reporter also mentions the presence of anti-gay marriage gay activists — but tells the audience they are a minority within the French gay community. How does he know this? Is this not a “man bites dog angle” that is news worthy? Evidently not — for the BBC tells us to “move on, nothing here to see.”

The next trick used to rubbish the marchers is the use of selective polling.

An opinion poll of almost 1,000 people published by Le Nouvel Observateur newspaper at the weekend suggested that 56% supported gay marriage, while 50% disapproved of gay adoption. The poll also said that 52% of those questioned disapproved of the Church’s stand against the legislation. Earlier polls had indicated stronger support for the legalisation of gay marriage.

Would it have made a difference to report on other polls showing a shift in public opinion away from gay marriage since the Church began to rally the opposition — or that a majority in France are opposed to passage of both the marriage and adoption bill?

The article closes with this gem.

As the marchers began arriving in the centre of Paris, four Ukrainian activists staged their own protest in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican in support of gay rights. The women from feminist group Femen appeared topless while Pope Benedict recited his traditional Angelus prayer. Police moved to restrain the activists, one of whom was attacked by a worshipper brandishing an umbrella.

Nice photo of a topless blonde being savaged by an old Italian women wielding an umbrella — but apart from the opportunity to use that photo in the story, what purpose does adding four Ukrainian activists in Rome to a story of several hundred thousand Frenchmen protesting in Paris?

Perhaps I am as the psychologists say, “projecting”, seeing in the actions of others my own sins? Perhaps there is some of that behind my ire. But I’ve been at this  long enough to recognize the tricks of the trade.

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  • Darren Blair

    Can anyone remember the last time the BBC got it right when it came to covering stories like this?
    I can’t.

  • Mme. Chantal

    Excellent analysis. By the way, the newspaper cited is La Croix (not Le Croix).

    • geoconger

      Thanks for noting this silly mistake — the perils of late night writing are many

  • Dave

    For my money the big story here is the cooperation between Catholic and Muslim leaders in France to organize this thing. Given the friction over immigration (anyone remember Algerian schoolgirls’ headscarves as “cultural aggression”?) that is imho an important development.

  • chrisH

    Lucid and perceptive.
    Reckon you could continue to analyse the BBCs predictable techniques to “massage” their version of the narrative that they want the rest of us to “buy into”.
    The BBC are sly and despicable-and their methods to harry their opposition, as well as their “hidden” approval of the likes of gay marriage advocates is now endemic.
    Why the hell are paying to get our faces slapped like this on a daily, perpetual basis?
    Time to critique all that the BBC chunder out for us, and to stop paying until they start to speak for the whole nation-not their metropolitan chums slumming it up in Salford for as long as the drugs are cheap and easy to obtain.

  • Mariusz

    Well, that’s the BBC for you. By the way, weren’t they sheltering a serial child abuser for years?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The BBC used to have somewhat of a good reputation for news coverage. But are they now aspiring to be the NY Times of London??? Is there a connection developing between the two??? Methinks there is more criss-crossing the Big Pond than today’s version of captains of the HMS Titanic–as in personnel exchanges.

  • Geoff Watts

    “Written in the one sentence paragraph style favored by British tabloids,”
    Written in the one sentence paragraph style favored by accessibility and online writing experts.

    “The BBC offers the organizers’ numbers first, but undercuts them with police numbers”
    Someone had to go first. As an experienced journalist you will know about the pyramid of facts. The bigger number is given first.

    “We then move to ridicule, or in modern parlance “snark.””
    Or we move to report the facts.

    “the right wing opposition the BBC reminds us”
    Again, reporting the facts.

    “The next trick used to rubbish the marchers is the use of selective polling.”
    Selective in that it reported the latest figures you mean?

    Now there are some key omissions from the BBC report which you do highlight:
    * “Absent from this is the news that this is the biggest mass protest in France since 1984.”
    This is a highly relevant piece of context.

    * “The French press and Reuters reported the presence of French archbishops, the head of the Protestant Federation, the chief Imam of Paris in the march”
    The presence of key religious figures, while not particularly surprising, is germane and should have been mentioned. The presence of the Imam is particularly noteworthy.

    * “Gay leaders who oppose gay marriage”
    Possibly, although how significant is this group?

    “Perhaps there is some of that behind my ire”
    I think your ire has rather clouded your judgement. This BBC piece is not a very good piece of reporting, you correctly highlight the places where the report is lacking, but in some of your comments you have, I fear, allowed the conclusion to drive the facts.

    That being said, this is my first visit to your site. I am not a fan of organized religions, but I think this is a good site that does a great job in holding stories to account and does it from what is a level-headed, well argued point of view. Maybe this one story just got your goat?

    • Kevin Swartz

      All religions by definition are organized.

    • Mr. X

      “Or we move to report the facts… Again, reporting the facts.”

      Erm, you are aware aren’t you that it’s possible to report facts in such a way as to create a misleading impression?

      • Geoff Watts

        “it’s possible to report facts in such a way as to create a misleading impression?”

        Of course, however this woman did lead the parade (Le Monde did a profile of her) and the opposition is right wing.
        What false impression do either of those create?
        The main complaint by the author appears to be bias by omission. That the BBC willfully left out information with the purpose of misleading the reader. Missing out the fact that it was the largest parade since 1984 is certainly a key fact and one that would have helped the reader make sense of it. Crowd numbers are anyone’s guess and to be honest most readers have no concept of what 300,000 people is. Can you really tell the difference between a crowd of 200,000 and one of 400,000? Since no one ever seems to agree on numbers they are, largely, meaningless.
        But there was no doubt that this was a huge rally, nor who it was backed by, so I am not sure that a claim of bias is that strong.
        But like I say, I am really impressed by the overall tone of the site and the level-headed approach it takes. Too much debate on the internet is conducted by people shouting at each other; this site is a very welcome change.

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  • Avery

    I just checked the Japanese news out of curiosity. They use the same Million Man March tactic as the BBC, even putting “800,000″ in scare quotes. When anti-nuclear protests are reported, the organizers’ numbers are never questioned. Their protest coverage caused much amusement to right-wingers when protests of fewer than 100 people got eager page-2 coverage.

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  • Tim Harmon

    It may be interesting to note that since the vote in Parliament on same sex marriage, the BBC has basically dropped the story almost completely from their mainstream National bulletins. Now it seems that the powers that be want to brush the issue under the carpet, away from public view. The fear is that by continuing the story they would have to talk about the possible consequences of the ratification of said legislation and also report on how UK society is now coming to feel a little bit more uncomfortable with the vote now that it has become a little bit more real after the party is over. The door has well and truly been opened, like Pandora’s Box and even Liberal minded people are sitting down and wondering if it is such a good idea after all. The fact remains that Homosexuality will never be considered ‘normal’ behaviour, no matter the change of the packaging.

    • Charles Groves

      I noticed this but this is the only time I have seen it mentioned anywhere. It was like a deafening silence after the frenzy of the days before.

      The BBC and ITV, TV and radio were the same. But this is not at all usual. Usually with a story the media has made such a thing of there’s a follow up, even if just for the sake of it.

      I couldn’t help having the feeling that it is to try and avoid any chance of the Lords, or anyone else, being influenced to block the law in any way.

      This would be typical of the left’s undemocratic way of always having to get what they want.

      • Donalbain

        That is brilliant! Yes, it would be typical of the undemocratic way of doing things for the democratically elected body to pass a policy that is supported by a majority of the people. Whereas the unelected House of Lords blocking it would be democratic!

        Thank you for that chuckle.

    • dangus

      “The fact remains that Homosexuality will never be considered ‘normal’ behaviour, no matter the change of the packaging.”

      Maybe not to you. I’ve never really had a problem with it.

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