Politics & Policy

Numbers Racket

If you need a perfect venue for your next big media event, let me recommend London’s Trafalgar Square. Smaller than a Wal-Mart Super Store, you can easily make the place look as crowded as a discount store on Black Friday. Trains and buses lead right to it, and there are several broad avenues approaching the square. This gives TV crews a chance to showcase your stragglers beautifully, turning even the most indolent herd of strollers into a tsunami of outrage. So, not surprisingly, it was the place Britain’s Stop the War Coalition chose to stage their big demonstration Thursday against visiting US president George W. Bush.

Of course, it also gave the BBC another chance to showcase its roster of made-for-radio TV journalists, some of whom were familiar names from the BBC’s glory days a few months ago in Iraq. Like the Iraqi invasion, the Traf Square story unfolded with all the drama of a Murphy bed. The Beeb had been promoting the event on the air for days. The Americans might cross the Iraqi desert in no time to tear down a tyrant, but by God, the British Left could cross London and do something even better: They could humiliate the Great Satan.

The crowds began assembling in Bloomsbury, then marching down Whitehall, then filling the square! I watched it on TV! It was so exciting! I couldn’t wait to see what would happen! Especially to that big paper mache dummy of Bush holding a rocket! I got it–it was a parody of the Saddam statue in Baghdad! And what do you think happened? The crowd tore it down and jumped on it to show their anger and disgust! The BBC’s highly excitable man on the spot, Andy Tighe, got swept up in the fervor of the moment, too. The toppling of the Bush effigy, he said, would be as remarkable an image as the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad. Then he tried to explain the philosophical implications of the protesters’ arguments–summarized nicely today by the BBC who report an organizer saying, “hopefully out of the crowd some ideas will arise”–but instead slipped and started calling Bush a killer. The demonstrators, he said, were a symbol of the alternative to Bush’s warlike policies. Unfortunately, somebody in the crowd chose that moment to unfurl a gigantic white flag, no doubt bringing any visiting Frenchmen to their feet to salute.

More considered, but not necessarily more astute, remarks by BBC reporters were posted on the Beeb’s Very Expensive website (budget: about $100 million, according to dotJournalism) in what the often-brilliant Biased BBC weblog called “a delightful selection of half-baked preconceived ideas…with dashes of wishful thinking thrown in. Until, that is, it was radically stealth-pruned back (these days, stealth editing isn’t enough- stealth-pruning under cover of darkness is the thing). For instance, maybe [BBC reporter] Jules Botfield was right and Mr Bush’s rooms had windows thin enough to have him lying awake hearing the ‘peace’ protesters in their hundreds outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. Then again, Jules, maybe not.”

The big show of course was on BBC’s 24-hour news channel, which covered the protest almost nonstop (breaking away for the occasional Michael Jackson update–”you can clearly see the handcuffs”–and reports from Istanbul, where four Britons, including the consul general, were killed in a terror attack demo organizers blamed on the U.S.). BBC’s nonstop demo show was a perfect example of what has come to be the model for all BBC event coverage, with reporters mixing with the crowd and, in this case, getting it wrong by calling the demonstration a “victory” (over what?) and “a real statement about how Britons feel about the U.S. president.” But, just as they had done during the fall of Baghdad, the BBC’s ideological blinders caused them to miss the real story: The demonstration was a flop because the mood of Britain has changed considerably since last February, when some 500,000 (a number constantly inflated to a million by the Brit press) showed up to protest the coming invasion.

Trends always play havoc with marketing experts, and those selling anti-American hatred had missed this one completely. Organizers had at one point confidently predicted “hundreds of thousands” of angry Brits would show up to howl at Bush when he came to call. I admit I thought the visit would be a fiasco, too, and said so in this space. But I was wrong. Bush’s speech was well-received, and for the most part, well-reported. The fact that he didn’t show up to apologize deeply confused London’s activist community. So by demo day, the Stop the War Coalition had lowered its expectations to a mere 100,000. Sure enough, several hours into the demonstration, only 30,000 had turned up. The BBC began usefully hinting that the numbers would surely grow once people got off work and could attend.

That helped a little, and by the end of the party, Scotland Yard had upped its crowd estimate to 70,000–a fact that was reported by the AP and by Britain’s Press Association, but ignored by the BBC, who dutifully reported on air that the demonstration had drawn 110,000, a number completely mystifying until you realize it’s the number they needed to give them license to report that the demo had “exceeded the expectations of the organizers.”

The BBC wasn’t alone in this kind of misrepresentation. The Daily Telegraph, for example, confused the police estimate with the BBC estimate and reported a crowd of 110,000. The Guardian did a much better job, reporting the police estimate accurately. The Times, both in print and in its subscription-only website, also got the numbers right.

In fact, it was the Guardian who came closest to pegging the story early on, so maybe British lefties should read their own papers (i.e., more than just the Mirror) more carefully. The day Bush arrived, the paper devoted much of its front page to the news that “a majority of Labour voters welcome President George Bush’s state visit to Britain” and that “public opinion in Britain is overwhelmingly pro-American with 62% of voters believing that the US is ‘generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world.’” Yet nobody bothered to ask the Stop the War Coalition–an organization wonderfully captured here on NRO by Amir Taheri–the most obvious question of all: “So why was the turn-out so low?”

Those are Labour voters in that Guardian survey, notice, and none of that apparently relevant information was reported by the BBC in its coverage of that rather profoundly undemonstrative demonstration. By the way, according to the story in the print edition of the Guardian (I couldn’t find it online), Tory voters were less inclined to support the U.S. But given the state of the Conservative party, it’s unlikely pollsters could find enough opposition supporters to make a valid sample.


And he’s stopped beating his wife! Another week of antisemitic violence in France. This time, a Jewish school was destroyed. Within hours, the front page of Le Monde announced that Chirac himself would lead the fight against that most indelible of French characteristics. L’Humanite wondered if it could be possible that antisemitism was once again on the rise in France. The solution demonstrated the government’s eagerness to protect its Jewish citizens against the outrages of its Muslim citizens and their supporters. Chirac announced a commission, and launched on a sea of rhetoric that resembled this typically floral Jacqueism: “When a Jew is attacked, the whole of France is attacked”–something the BBC reported Chirac said 18 months ago, just after a couple of synagogues were torched.

What were they thinking? The European Social Forum wound up its carnival of seminars and speeches in Paris last weekend, with Tariq Ramadan in attendance after all. Ramadan, faithful readers will recall, is the well-dressed face of European Islamic progressivism who embarrassed the leftwing communitarian movement, where he has sacred status, by issuing a document that criticized French Jewish intellectuals for being so Jewish. Because of the ideological conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, Ramadan is also critical to the ESF and the communitarian movement in general–which is why, alone among all the FSE attendees, Ramadan was the only one allowed to convene an individual press conference, covered with some pleasure by the disapproving Liberation. But the real problem the ESF movement is having is that, like the anti-American, anti-Bush demonstrators in London, they don’t have any ideas to put forward, no alternatives that make any sense. That leaves the left largely content to feed its appetite for sentimental romanticism (for the sake of the children!) by railing against whatever offends their quasi-religious convictions, whether it’s the evils of capitalism, the warmongering of the US or the holiness that descends with the grace of Chrysostom on gatherings of two or more trees. In the truest, most practical sense, the Left is reactionary. Sometimes, that causes problems for leftwing columnists like the Guardian’s George Monbiot, who went to the FSE gathering–only to suffer a blinding, forehead-slapping epiphany: “In Paris, some of us tried to tackle this question [of the evils of capitalism] in a session called ‘life after capitalism.’ By the end of it, I was as unconvinced by my own answers as I was by everyone else’s. While I was speaking, the words died in my mouth, as it struck me with horrible clarity that as long as incentives to cheat exist (and they always will) none of our alternatives could be applied universally without totalitarianism.” To quote Homer, “D’oh.”

Just kidding. In the crazy, mixed-up monde where Dominque de Villepin lives, the idea of bragging about a Franco-German marriage seemed like a smart thing to do. In the face of obstreperous and demanding EU upstart nations who might actually make the French and Germans play by the rules, it was, he said, France’s one sure bet. Call it just one more reason to play dollar poker with Dom, but after publishing a “dossier” on the cohabitation plan, Le Monde now finds itself in the position of having to report that the French weren’t serious about the deal, after all. “We’re just friends,” Villepin could have said. (The German press largely ignored the whole thing.) The IHT’s invaluable John Vinocur provides the useful and perceptive gloss to Villepin’s French fairy tale.

Hail, Catalonia! One of the more interesting aspects of political life in the EU is the persistence of separatist movements. When national government surrender their authority to bureaucrats in Brussels, it seems to make it even easier for those who want to carve out their own territory inside a weakened state to flourish. Hence, the strange result of the Catalan elections, outlined here by the Guardian, but explained with greater clarity here, by the bloggers at Iberian Notes (scroll to the November 17 entry).

Help is on the way? According to the Scotsman, billionaire moneyman George Soros thinks beating George Bush “is the central focus” of his life. His solution? To give millions of dollars to those who can help get Bush out of the White House. You might be excused for thinking this means that Soros is going to fund Republican congressional campaign efforts. But no. He’s rich, not smart. So he’s giving his money to groups like moveon.org, where he recently parked $5 million to help fund that particular barrel full of conspiracy monkeys. If I’m not here next week, it’s because my new website–www.hmmmrumsfeldthatsoundslikeazionistnametome.org–has hit the big time.

Denis Boyles is an NRO contributor.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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