Note: This piece was written during the election but went unpublished. I’m posting it here given the recent attacks on the BBC from both the Conservatives and Labour.
That the BBC is blatantly biased shouldn’t come as a surprise. Bias is gloriously evident every single time you turn on your TV set and Huw Edwards isn’t barking out Uncle Kim’s propaganda whilst dressed in a kimono. Bias isn’t just revealed in what the BBC chooses to broadcast but in what it doesn’t. Bias is the reason Clive Myrie isn’t providing uninterrupted coverage of Greta Thunberg’s epic journey across the Atlantic on the back of a minke whale. The BBC is chartered to be selective in its biases. It’s there in the very first ‘B’ of its name.
That doesn’t mean it always gets things right, though. Just a few weeks ago, they were accused of “rewriting history” for children, when one of its CBeebies shows, Go Jetters, described the migratory patterns of storks and, in the process, implied that Gibraltar is part of Spain. The story is really about a lack of specificity leading to ambiguity around a hypersensitive subject, but it also amounts to a momentary absence of bias. Impartiality is a myth. If the BBC were about true objectivity, every mention of Gibraltar would probably demand a clarification according to some international standard. “Hey, kids! Aren’t those storks amazing the way they fly all the way from to Africa from Gibraltar (termed by the UN “a Non-Self-Governing Territory” though considered by the British to be an Overseas Territory after it was ceded to the crown in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713)”. What they instead failed to do is remember that their charter (6.5 to be specific) expects them to skew their output “[t]o reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world”. They instead allowed a perceived Spanish alternative to creep in. The problem, then, isn’t that the BBC is biased but that the BBC sometimes forgets which bias it is meant to express. It is hardly a new complaint.
The Corporation was formed in 1922 but really began in 1927 when John Reith was made its first Director General. In the early days the output was very limited to light entertainment. It could not broadcast “expressions of opinion by the Corporation on matters of public policy” or “statements involving matters of political, religious, or industrial controversy”. It was in 1928 when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin loosened the second of those restrictions and it was only a matter of a few years before the matter of the BBC and bias became a staple of newspapers.
In 1937, for example, it was the schools broadcast that became a matter of parliamentary disquiet when the “History in the Making” series ran a lecture by Professor John Holton reportedly “full of fulsome praise for a certain foreign government”. The phrase used was “Soviet propaganda” but, as reported in The Times, the concern spread to “broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corporation [that] were tendentious in so far as they dealt with the political and economic systems of certain foreign countries, and that reports of proceedings in Parliament were tinged with partiality for the Left”. It led the leadership of The Central Council for School Broadcasting to write to the paper to defend the corporation from accusations of bias. “[E]very one who feels strongly either way is quick to suspect the B.B.C. of bias,” they wrote, “unless it confines itself to his side of the picture.”
“His side of the picture” would, of course, be “their side of the picture” today but that only shows how biases are so deep as to be almost invisible. The point, however, is a fair one. Every side thinks the BBC is biased. “Speak to me some more about me” is really what critics of the BBC demand, with Conservatives demanding more Conservative content, Labour more Labour, and the SNP apparently demanding that the entire country taken an interest in even their most devolved problems.
The historian Richard Hofstadter once described the “paranoid style in American politics” in response to the “angry minds” of Barry Goldwater’s right-wing populism and it’s easy to understand why it might take hold in a nation created in the face of one distant threat which it replaced with a somewhat less-distant threat in the form of a federal government. Even the title “United States” embodies the tensions of manifold regions forced to become a singular nation. Paranoia in British politics, meanwhile, is far less common in the mainstream. Our provincial vs national differences are more contained, the Union making diversity more of a feature than a flaw of our political makeup. Rather than paranoia, we have always entertained its opposite which is a self-assured confidence, typified by the word “fairness”. This, arguably, is one of those biases that the BBC found easier to express in a two-party system. “Oh, it must be their turn” is one of those causal remarks about election broadcasts that nearly everybody muttered at every general election.
Once that notional fairness was lost – diluted by these new politics where sides are more amorphous — the paranoid style consequently emerges. With TV time no longer divided equally between the two opposition parties, “representation” became a matter of percentage points and long boring articles, often filled with complicated maths, explaining a notional “fairness” that had previously been obvious. Arguably, of course, the old system was even more biased than it is today but, somehow, we were more relaxed about the old status quo.
How then should the fairness model work for more controversial topics? Should flat earthers get the same time as round earthers? Climate change sceptics the same as advocates of climate change? How much is its role to intervene and check facts, rather than simply allow people to express opinions however ill informed?
The BBC was particularly slow to respond to this new reality. No matter how well it has tried to implement policies that would address these issues, it also faces a rival service in the form of social media which had effectively created a dictatorship of the subjective. Social networks amplify every outraged “I” and, with enough examples, produces a mandate to hashtag every ambiguity and elevate them to a national scandal. Last month, The Daily Express reported that the BBC is under fire because “[s]everal users on Twitter” (always a key phrase) accused the BBC of giving the Labour leader an “easy ride” in a recent episode of Question Time. There are about 16 million Twitter accounts registered in the UK, which means that any narrative you seek to push can be justified if you can find several making the same point. The bias, then, really becomes which bias you seek to push. How much airtime do you give to each bias and what method do you choose to decide that airtime (and which bias informs your decision)?
This, really, cuts to the point that bias is a loaded phrase. It’s really a codeword for something which is closer to methodology. When a methodology isn’t obvious it becomes a bias.
The solution, then, is to ensure that the methodology is obvious. Biases must be made explicit. Take the BBC’s creative editing of Boris Johnson. Asked by a member of last week’s Question Time audience if he could be trusted, Johnson faced laughter from the audience before he could answer. In later broadcasts, the laughter was neatly cut out. The BBC subsequently apologised, blaming “timing reasons” to “edit out a repetitious phrase from Boris Johnson”. The BBC clearly, then, has a bias towards brevity. It would be far more sensible to advocate unedited footage. Editing is a powerful political tool, as Eisenstein showed, and should be used judiciously around sensitive subjects. Similarly, adopting a practice of properly labelling onscreen footage would help make it clear when material was shot. That was the gaff the BBC made around Remembrance Sunday. That’s when they appeared to go out of their way to avoid using footage that embarrassed Johnson, who had laid the government’s wreath upside down. They used footage of Johnson as foreign secretary, laying the distinctive green-white wreath made from the plants and flowers of the Overseas Territories (including Gibraltar, termed by the UN “a Non-Self-Governing Territory” though considered… Oh screw that!)
There is no shame in “biasing” facts, well-sourced material, and accurate reporting. Nor, for that matter, would it be indulgent if the BBC began to regularly foreground the methodologies it employs. Of course, this immediately becomes fashionably “meta” – the news reporting the news – but that is simply a product of living in a culture where everything is contextual, where what we say is important but so too the way we say it. It would mean no more calling some politicians by their first names and others by their formal titles. It would mean identifying commentators by their political affiliations and not passing off every blogger as a “journalist”. It would also mean, as Peter Oborne has so persuasively argued, that “sources in Downing Street” should be treated with caution. It should also mean no more of those ridiculous vox pops whose sampling methodology would make any statistician groan (not all working-class people are found in Labour clubs in the middle of the day and Stoke does not represent the entire UK).
Where bias is concerned, the BBC should really lead by example. When what they do is this important, it really is important that we see how they do it.