The Andrew Marr Disambiguation
Following the disagreement between Alex Salmond and Andrew Marr on the BBC (16th March), in which Andrew Marr said this about Scotland’s place in Europe “I think it would be quite hard to get back in, I have to say, but let’s move on to the other big question we’ve had this week … …”, which by way of explanation Marr followed with this supposedly revelatory statement: “Having talked to Mr Barroso, which I think you haven’t”: let us attempt to disambiguate the sense of these statements, remembering that disambiguation is best established by examining the context.
The problem Marr and the BBC have is that there is little ambiguity that Marr is stating his own opinion: “I think”, and not merely stating his opinion, but reinforcing it with the gratuitous emphasis “I have to say”. There is therefore very little room for ambiguity. Marr might appeal to a special non-Cartesian use of the words “I think” (it isn’t really me), but since the statement comes with forceful emphasis (“I have to say”), but without any appropriate qualifier – such as ‘I think that Mr Barroso believes… …’ this appeal must fall. The fact that Marr spoke to Barroso does not mean that his own clear statement “I think it would be quite hard to get back in, I have to say” suddenly and decisively becomes the property of Barroso. It is simply not that easy for Marr to evade responsibility for his own words. Of course Marr could claim that he was speaking editorially on behalf of the BBC, but somehow I doubt if that interpretation will survive scrutiny within the BBC.
We know what the BBC thinks because a BBC spokesman wrote on the BBC website that “Andrew himself made it clear on air that he had not been intending to express a personal opinion, or that of the BBC, but was simply putting forward an argument from President Barroso who, as European Commission president, has an integral insight within the debate”. How “I think … … I have to say” can be interpreted as not “intending to express a personal opinion” leaves us with the implication that the BBC, in setting such a standard of proof, has in consequence made the act of making a statement containing a personal opinion almost impossible. What does the BBC propose we do to make sure we are giving our opinion, when we use the words “I think”; given the failure of “I think … … I have to say” to stand as a decisive expression of a personal opinion; perhaps we are now required to say something like “I really, really think…. honestly … I have to say, and this time I mean it”?
This is untenable.
The BBC spokesman goes on to justify his foray into the world of Orwellian Newspeak with the proposition that Marr was “simply putting forward an argument from President Barroso”, which is a remarkably crude, not to say vacuous attempt, simply to assert the matter that is in contention (the fallacy of petitio principii), and that he attempts to justify by reference to Barroso’s status as “President of the European Commission”: an appeal to authority that manages both to commit a logical fallacy – Argumentum ad Verecundiam – and appeals to an ‘authority’, the Commission, that actually has no power (authority) over Scotland’s membership of the EU. Worse than this argument, the BBC spokesman’s justification of this thoroughly bad argument is to claim that Barroso “has an integral insight within the debate”. What exactly does this piece of transparent sophistry actually mean? What is an “integral insight”? Does it mean that Barroso is the final and decisive ‘authority’? I invite the BBC to draw that conclusion. Does it mean that there can be no debate without Barroso’s opinion? I invite the BBC to draw that conclusion. What the BBC requires to do now is define a “non-integral insight”. I invite the BBC to explain itself, if it can.
It is with considerable sadness that I write this because I genuinely believe that Andrew Marr is capable of much better than this; that he is a much better and much, much fairer journalist than this hapless performance suggests. He was an uplifting editor of The Independent.