Monday 23 June 2014

Why BBC News Ignored the People's Assembly March

By any common sense measure, a large protest ambling through London should be big news. The Graun covered it. Twitter was all over it. And yet, the many thousands who turned out on the People's Assembly March Against Austerity got nary a mention on BBC News bulletins. All it merited was a postage stamp of an article on the website. And to think, more or less simultaneously, the rolling news channel was gurning over the annual summer solstice hippy fest at Stonehenge. We say cutback, they say, erm, "Look at the sun rising behind the Heelstone!" So yes, some people are pretty peed off. When the BBC eagerly cover Nigel Farage opening a toilet door and ignore the largest demonstration to have taken place in London this year, a lot of the marchers and their supporters are crying foul. Quite rightly too.

Yet, is it a simple case of rightwing BBC bias again? Content analysis shows its current affairs coverage dresses to the right. My own number crunching of Question Time found there was a bias toward rightwing guests. In this instance, is the BBC's reportage, or lack, underscoring a straightforward Tory bias? Well, it does speak of pronounced lean to, but the reasons aren't as simple as one might suppose. We're going to have to grub around in the political economy of BBC news production once more.

There is the BBC's cognitive bias. If there is an establishment, you don't get much more establishment than Auntie. And being an institution who, along with government, parliament, the monarchy, the police, the armed forces, is a pillar of official society means it finds certain things worthy of coverage, and other items not. It's an unstated rule, a disembodied set of preferences and attitudes journalists imbibe from the moment the employment contract is signed. The news reports on a) what the establishment finds interesting, and b) what it thinks the people will find interesting. Which is pretty similar to what the establishment finds interesting. Official events get the wall-to-wall treatment. Politics, understood in narrow, Westminster terms - the BBC is there. When it comes to events that disrupt the smooth running of official Britain, it gets covered. The coverage, however, is skewed. Consider reports on tube strikes. Compare the attention given to the reasons for and against the strike with the reporting of the disruption. The viewpoint is never about the issues at stake. All that counts is whether one can get to work on time. This framing occurs because the BBC thinks people don't like strikes, but also they are extra-parliamentary political actions. They exist entirely outside its very strict constitutionalist frames of reference. That also means demonstrations, unless they are super-large, violent, or feature Al-Mahajiroun types, don't get a look-in. They're not "proper" politics.

Parked not a million miles away is simple newsworthiness. Yes, the BBC should be about balanced reporting and cover a broad spectrum of stories. It is suppose to inform the nation, after all. Yet it fails to do so. Compare it with its competitors. Channel 4 News, France 24, Al-Jazeera, Russia Today, CCTV, whatever one thinks of their output the tendency is to cover a wider range of stories that, for whatever reason, the BBC chooses not to cover. It's quite regular top find, say, an uncontrolled outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, or the plight of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan featured on one of the other news stations while the BBC keeps schtum. They're simply not newsworthy enough. And you can say the same about the People's March. Austerity has been damaging. The human cost is appalling, and the economic damage depressed the economy a couple of years longer than "necessary". Despite this, the anti-austerity movement has not had the kinds of impact the anti-war movement, and the anti-poll tax movement before it did. Polling shows backing for cuts, explicitly anti-austerity parties polled poorly in May. Sad to say, austerity has not become a political hot potato. Because it hasn't made itself felt through conventional, Westminster-centric politics, and in the absence of a groundswell of opinion, the movement challenging the cuts isn't on the BBC's radar. Small wonder they ignored Saturday's mobilisation.

Finally, while these are important the BBC has to always play a canny political game. Its interests are clearly served by the status quo. It gets its annual bung through the television tax, and so enjoys the kinds of resources other channels can but aspire. It does not want to surrender to commercial pressures. It does not want the licence fee to be scrapped. And so, ever since 2003's Gilligan/Kelly/dodgy dossier affair, the BBC have shown a bend toward the government, whoever is in power. They know perceived anti-government reporting might call unfavourable reforms down upon its head. Hence why you have the BBC's love-in with UKIP, the establishment's anti-establishment party. They do not represent an existential threat as such, and are often portrayed as menacing the three main parties equally, though, of course, we know that's not true. It also touches distinctly second order issues - Europe, immigration, anti-politics animus. Anti-austerity, like the anti-war movement, however offers a challenge to a central plank of government policy. As Iraq is the pivot on which Blair's governments will forever be judged, the Coalition have invested their political capital heavily in a demented cuts programme in the belief it will get the wheels of Britain turning again. The Tories call this a long-term economic plan. With a BBC looking out for its institutional interests while a rabid pack of Friedmanite wolves, there is just no way they would give an anti-austerity protest proportionate coverage.

That's what it comes back to, the web of institutions, interests, and habits of mind the BBC are a constitutive part of. Getting a feature is not the be all and end all of protesting. Anti-austerity campaigns have been carrying on regardless since the Tories' first round of cuts. There's no reason to believe that's going to change. However, the only way the BBC will report the anti-austerity message is by making it, if you pardon the ugly word, unignorable. And come the TUC-backed march against austerity in the Autumn, we have every chance of making that happen.


Robert said...

Scrap the license fee.

The Realist said...

Maybe the simple reason it got so little coverage was that it was a small-scale demo that achieved little.

Ralph Musgrave said...

I agree with Robert: scrap the licence fee (i.e. scrap the BBC).

We don’t have a nationalised or government produced newspaper and for the obvious reason that it would simply support the establishment. Indeed my local authority regularly distributes a newspaper of a sort telling us how wonderful the local authority is.

Phil said...

Aye. Those local authority papers are required under law. The council here would scrap it but, alas, cannot.

As for the BBC, I think there is an argument for some serious reform but I'm definitely against scrapping it or letting it go commercial. It's not saying much, I know, but there's a reason why the BBC's collective output tends to be better than its commercial rivals.

john r said...

there was 7000 people there at the most

Gary Elsby said...

Here's me thinking that the left has the moral high ground when it comes to social responsibility.

Scrapping the licence fee is one certainly out of 'one flew over the cuckoo's nest'.

When Labour win, the BBC leans towards the Conservative viewpoint (think about it).
When the Tories win, the BBC leans towards Labour (again, think long and hard about it).

After you've thought and considered it, would you have it any other way?
Would you turn the BBC along the path to being over friendly with the Government of the day?
The Tories dominated the 20th Century and would never have got a look in even to this day.

The only hope that the left has in this Country is the licence fee and one not dominated by a big paying advertising company.

Phil said...

I think you;re wrong, Gary. The tendency is for the BBC to lean toward the government of the day, regardless of who's in.

Interestingly, reading your mate Mandy's memoirs, he suggests one of the reasons why the Tories got an easier ride from the BBC in the lead up to the 2010 elections was because Brown was overly abrasive to their journalists. It wasn't a beeb thing, other reporters for other channels felt it too. There's a moral there.