Monday 17 March 2014

BBC Bias and Balance

Congrats to Duncan Weldon on his appointment as Newsnight's economics editor. But not everyone is wishing him well. The Tories have made their displeasure known. The Daily Mail aren't happy either. They're carrying on as if Yevgeni Preobrazhensky has been appointed. This is Buggers Broadcasting Communism, after all. Replying, Owen Jones has highlighted some evidence that shows far from being a hive of socialist counter-hegemony, the BBC is pro-establishment and mainly rightwing. The response from The Speccie is "yeah, but the BBC is suffused with liberal bias" - characteristically producing nothing to back it up as per usual. Then Tom Chivers has a stab at being reasonable, noting that the left moan about rightwing bias and the right gripe about lefty bias.

First off, you can't wish away inconvenient evidence based on a rigorous examination of news (especially political) programming and the affiliations of BBC guests. That research has been done and shows a clear privileging of conservative talking heads. Labour did not experience a similar preponderance when it was in power. And, of course, conservative-inclined people are welcome to repeat the research - they will come up with the same results. The same is true of BBC Question Time, in which the number of rightwing commentators and business people outweighed lefty writers, celebs and trade unionists.

The rightwing reply to these facts, that can be checked independently through content analysis, tends to dismiss them. In Question Time's case, on Twitter and the Biased BBC site the response to my little piece was that filming tended to take place in leftwing areas, with leftwing audiences asking leftwing questions and applauding leftwing statements. Naturally, no support was or could be cited to back up these claims.

But this begs the question, while the right may find its people popping up on the BBC more often, does this mean content is necessarily biased? And how would you define biased content anyway? What proportion of rightwing guests are given free reign to vent their views. Or to consider it another way, is Andrew Marr only nice to the Tories?

While I am supportive of the view that the BBC bends to the right, this is more of a gentle curve rather than a sharp turn. A lot depends on what you think an unbiased BBC should look like, whether its output should be impartial or balanced. This is a crucial distinction. I have seen plenty of rightwingers crying about bias on Newsnight because a Tory minister got a good going over, completely oblivious to how, immediately afterwards, a Labour representative came in and got their arse handed to them by Paxman. Is that bias, really? Of course not. It's balance, and it makes for much better viewing than the dull, impartial and neutral reporting of current affairs. Ratings daahling.

As far as I'm concerned, striking a balance is exactly what the BBC should be doing. I'd go further. The BBC should be encouraged to be more independent to better hold the government of the day to account regardless whether it's Tory, Labour or some horrible lash-up with the LibDems. And to do the job it needs a team of journalists from across the political spectrum.

Yet the real scandal of bias comes not so much from what the BBC reports and features, but what it doesn't. Look at Al-Jazeera, CCTV, France 24, EuroNews, even (gulp) Russia Today. A great deal of global stuff goes unreported - and this is unforgivable considering the resources BBC News gathering has at its disposal vs the competition. Likewise at home, as Owen notes, the reportage of the government's further marketisation of the NHS has barely been covered and myths around social security fraud are uncritically transmitted. When will Paxo congratulate IBS for reducing the criminal manipulation of the benefits system to less than 1% of the total spend?

If there is a systemic bias to the BBC, it is towards the establishment as a whole - the ruling configuration of business and political elites. This is not just a question of personnel, though that is important. It's a matter of the broadcaster's political economy. Dependent on the Royal Charter and therefore government largesse it has a clear material interest keeping the ruling party and its wider circle of elite chums happy. Probing into, say, business links between sitting Tory MPs and the opening up of the NHS to "any willing provider" (i.e. private health concerns) is as much as a no-no as the BBC's pursuit of Blair's dodgy dossier. This dependence needs to end.

It's quite clear. Attacking the BBC and highlighting bias is well and good. It's fine and dandy clickbait. But that is nowhere near enough for the left. We need to defend the principle of the BBC's writ to inform, educate and entertain. But we should be the strongest guardians of its independence and best advocates of its role to hold a critical mirror up to government and society - to acquit the democratic responsibilities Britain's declining rightwing propaganda sheets eschew. If the left doesn't champion freedom and accountability against powerful establishment interests, who will?


Anonymous said...

I think the BBC is struggling with Scottish independence. From London there is an assumption it can't happen and a lot of circular arguments to justify this which engaged Scots got bored of hearing decades ago. The less engaged are hearing these for the first time and the assumptions do tend to lead to a bias against understanding. Pretty poor value for money for Scottish licence fee payers though of course the press are even worse

Anonymous said...

is it just a question of bias, even when that bias is rather blatant? do you really think that most journalists, especially television journalists, make good critical thinkers? or even good critical observers? that's not really what they're trained for, is it? especially in a medium where presentation will always outweigh any other consideration. and this is not to mention all the other issues that emerge from a heavily competitive, yet oversaturated 24/7 news cycle where everyone assumes the flashiest graphic will bring in the most number of viewers.


p.s. and of course, this is ignoring the whole role that the media plays in maintaining and reproducing the status quo. ISA, anyone?

Anonymous said...

I spent 13 years in and around the Newsroom at TVC and, while it is true that, for personal preference, many journos read the Guardian; for editorial purposes most take their framing from the Mail. It is easily the most read newspaper in the Newsroom.

This is simply because they genuinely believe that the majority of their audience are Mail rather than Guardian readers and feel they must conform to those prejudices when pitching the angle they take.

SimonB said...

The truly stringing feature of BBC news coverage is the difference between foreign and domestic coverage. The almost universal excellence of foreign correspondents show how truly wanting domestic coverage has become.