The Mid-Atlantic Blog

February 22, 2006

Ethics & The BBC

This poor chap, innocent journalist that he is decides to move job. He's delighted to join one of the premier news shows on the BBC: Newsnight. What does he get as his first major assignment?

He's told he has to become "ethical man" for a year.

Now, this isn't "Judeo-Christian ethical man": do unto others and all that. No, this is the Church of Gaia "ethical man": the established Church of the BBC. Listen to him describe his current lifestyle...

I reckon my family already tick a few "ethical boxes" - admittedly, largely thanks to the influence of my wife, Bee.
We get organic fruit and vegetables delivered each week (by an LPG powered vehicle, the company assures us). The same company supplies us with locally sourced eggs, bacon and milk. Other food and household supplies we get from the supermarket and I'll pick up a few extras from a convenience store on the way home from work. By the end of the week our council recycling box is usually full.
We do have a car - a two litre petrol estate - but we hardly ever use it; just for shopping and trips on the weekend with our two young daughters, Eva and Zola. My wife and I take public transport to work and the girls walk to school. We usually have two foreign holidays a year but, since the girls were born, more often than not these will be in Europe.

Ah, but you see, he's not a true adherent to the faith. No, Mr Rowlatt has discovered an expert, Leo Hickman. Now, children, let's guess what Mr Hickman does in the real world? Yup, that's right, he's a journalist. At which newspaper I hear you ask... ? How about I let his bio tell us:

Leo Hickman is 31. He grew up in Cornwall about 400 metres away from what was to become Eden. He is a journalist, editor and the consumer expert at the Guardian. He lives in south London with his wife, two small children and 3,000 worms. He is also the author of How to buy and the editor of A Good Life: the guide to ethical Living.


Of course. The Guardian. Silly me: I had presumed it would be the Telegraph. And he lives with 3000 worms. Shame the Beeb didn't tell us all of that of course (although, come to think of it I'm not sure which is worse: writing for the Guardian or living with 3000 worms). And it gets better. It turns out that Mr Hickman had a project on the go for a while, around the beginning of 2004. Can we guess what it was? I quote from the first article in the series he wrote about it:

It was against this backdrop that I was set a challenge by the Guardian. Could I - someone living a typically comfortable and routine life in a city suburb - take a step back from my daily habits and consumer choices, and try to understand their true impact? Could I, over the course of a few months, start to lead a more ethical life, in which I reduced, to use a popular axiom, my footprint on the earth", as well as being a more positive force both to myself and those around me?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the poor BBC journo has been asked to rehash a Guardian idea of 2 years ago. Apparently advised by the journalist that did it at the Guardian. Without mentioning to us that this is a direct rip-off of an idea from a newspaper with a somewhat, shall we say, ideological take on the issues concerned.

And somehow I don't think that the idea of reducing his footprint on the earth means that he should only walk on the tarmac, so he doesn't leave footprints...

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. The ethics that this poor chap are going to be asked to live by are no doubt the usual mish-mash of well-meaning but ineffective and universally-agreed good sense and idiocy that you find on the left. On the right, of course, we disagree with many of them: in fact we tend to work on the basis that many of them are actively damaging. Saving energy in sensible ways is a great idea, for example. However, over-regulation to meet over-high safety standards or, worse, harmonisation across the EU can increase costs and price goods out of the reach of the poor: products made under those regulations are hardly ethical, are they? How ethical is organic food produced within CAP - doesn't CAP produce huge disparities in the global farming market that have the result of killing thousands of people a month in the third world from under-development? Isn't promoting the advance of capitalism and the rule of law the best (non-religious)ethical approach that any individual could take? Does that mean he should model himself on George W who, love him or loath him, does seem to spend most of his waking life trying to spread capitalism and the rule of law? You get the general idea.

The problem is that the BBC have gone that extra mile, and they've asked us to contribute ideas to suggest how he could best perform an ethical audit of his home - and over the course of the year on each area of his life. Hmmm...

You can find the link here. A modest suggestion to everyone reading this: go to the site and make some suggestions (positive ones, mind you), as to how he might improve his life ethically. Some suggestions:

  • In his job as a journalist look at the funding and political activity of the NGOs, and whether they end up, by promoting economically foolish policies, causing thousands of deaths around the world. Talk to both sides of the argument for once.
  • In his job as a journalist look at the behaviour of the scientific community on global warming research. To what extent is the environmental change community able to quash research that they disagree with, and are their proposals really the best way forward? As part of this, look at the Copenhagen Consensus, and similar approaches.
  • Rather than continuing to accept employment as a public sector employee, why not try setting up his own company, or becoming freelance, thereby contributing to the economy directly?

I'm sure you can think of many many more. Go for it!

My favourite part of the whole darned thing, though, comes from his bio from his Panorama days, where he did a programme on drugs. I quote...

Making the programme involved a journey into his own past as he was a regular dope smoker when he was a teenager. The evidence the programme uncovered made a very convincing case that that cannabis can have much more profound psychological effects than most people believe.

Really? You couldn't make it up, could you.

UPDATE (23:35 Wednesday Evening):

Well, I've just watched the segment on the show this evening. My reactions?

First, Mr Rowlatt is clearly a likeable chap: you couldn't help but warm to him (and indeed his family, who featured significantly in the package). A minor point, but quite important in an area that's too full of pomposity.

Second, a surprisingly good discussion in the studio - much better than the package. Lomborg was there, so my comment on the Copenhagen Consensus above was already in the mix. The dilemmas involved were given a good airing, and the benefits of free trade were at least discussed seriously (although the chap from Innocent smoothies appeared somewhat, er..., innocent).

Third, some delightful moments during the conversation - certainly the first time I've seen Gandhi and composting lavatories being compared to each other, for example.

Fourth, nice to see the BBC actually referring to viewer opinions. About 20% of the hits on this site between the time I finished the above post and the start of the package were from the BBC searching for Newsnight. They referred to a range of views from viewers from the internet during the discussion.

My conclusion? If he gets out of his comfort zone, and explores all sides of the arguments, then Mr Rowlatt could, in fact, produce some memorable television. If he stays in the Gaia-zone, without confronting the much broader issues of free markets, free trade and the wide range of serious opinions in this general area then it will be a wasted opportunity.
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