Cut the bullshit and back the BBC.

It seems that I’ve been ‘tagged’ by Tom to give the once over to a Fox News Lite video ‘report’ (posted on Conservative Home) about Robin Aitken‘s claim that the BBC is guilty of an “unconscious, institutionalised Leftism”

Mmm… Do I want to spend 15 minutes or so of my life listening to the same old hackneyed Tory whinging about the Beeb? Not really. Not when I’ve already seen Aitken on the box shilling his book for all he’s worth and the best he could come up with was that he was ‘shocked’ to hear a BBC journalist say something to the effect of ‘Its about time’ when Thatcher quit.

All that proves is that Aitken needed to get out more – there were millions of people who felt that way at the time and you only had to travel a hundred miles of so North of London to find them in their droves.

Helpfully, Fox News Lite have provided a neat little summary of what Aitken’s whining about, which contains all the old favourites…

Institutional Bias

He says that he is not questioning the good faith of his colleagues but like the institutional racism of the Police, the internal systems of the BBC are biased in favour of left wing views.

Well, yes he would say that, wouldn’t he.

Public spending

He argues that the BBC makes left wing assumptions about public spending. For example, they never ask why is the government spending so much on a particular project? Rather they ask if the money spent is too little.

For instance?

Look, the BBC’s function is to report on public policy and not make it, which means that its perfectly natural for the Beeb to ask questions about whether the government is spending enough on a particular project if the contention of the government of the day is that if they spend X on Y it will lead to Z and Z doesn’t materialise as expected.

It’s not the BBC’s job to propose alternatives to government policy, that’s the job of the opposition parties.

Take the London Olympics, for example. The projected costs are already increasing are serious question marks already about how much it will actually cost when all’s done and dusted, in which case its quite right that the Beeb should pose the question as to whether the government’s cost projection are sufficient to the deliver the project as specified.

Whether or not the project could be delivered more cheaply if an alternative approach was taken is not, however, a question that lies directly in the BBC’s brief as a public service broadcaster. If the Tories want such questions asked then they need to be the one’s posing the questions, not the Beeb – the Beeb can then report what the Tories are saying and both sides of the argument should get an airing.

If, say, David Cameron makes such a challenge and it doesn’t get reported, then you’d have cause for complaint, but not otherwise. The BBC is not the public’s financial watchdog, that’s the job of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, so if you want criticisms of government spending to be aired then its there you should start, not with the Beeb.

BBC employees
The employees of the BBC are usually arts graduates with progressive agendas such as promoting anti-racism, internationalism, opposing moral conservatism and being in favour of multiculturalism.

Yeah, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the TV station that employs people with qualifications relevant to the nature of their core business, isn’t their?

D’oh!

The left sets its agenda

The BBC only feels comfortable challenging certain issues when politicians from the Left question those issues. For example, it was only after the CRE questioned multiculturalism that the BBC felt empowered to do so.

Judging by the amount of bandwagon jumping from the right when Jack Straw made his comments about the wearing of the niqab, its not just the Beeb who only feel comfortable in challenging certain issues when those issues are raised by the left.

Chutzpah, so the classic joke goes, is the quality of a man who murders both his parents and then asks for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan, and that rather nicely sums up the nature of the Tories complaint here.

It would be perfectly true to say that for quite some time certain issues have effectively been off-limits to right-wingers, especially around race and ethnicity, where any attempt to raise those issues would result in a reflexive charge of racism and ‘playing the race card’.

However, it would also be true to say that that situation is largely one of the right’s own making, dating right back to Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘River’s of Blood’ speech – in the past the Tories have conspicuously played the race card and earned themselves a poor reputation in terms of their handling of race relations issues – it’s the classic ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario writ large on political culture.

Now that something that the Tories are consciously trying to change – and fair play to them for their efforts, although it’s apparent that some Tories haven’t quite figured it out yet:

A RACE row has broken out at South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) just a week after members were branded discriminatory in a Government report.

Councillors attending an “improvement planning” workshop were shocked and appalled when Coun Ted Pateman, who represents Bourn, used an old-fashioned and offensive racial slur. Many councillors had been upset by the Audit Commission’s recent finding that “there is a clear perception amongst some stakeholders that some councillors’ attitudes and behaviours are racist and discriminatory”.

But just days later 79-year-old Conservative Coun Pateman said: “There are all different sorts of wogs here, I don’t differentiate between them but treat them all as though they were English”.

I’m sure that’s not quite what the Tories have in mind when it comes to being more inclusive of black communities and Pateman’s almost certainly marked himself as suitable candidate for retirement with that remark had he not already decided to stand down, but then I have to admit that, even as a ‘leftie’ I find it difficult to find too much in the way of moral opprobrium to direct at Councillor Pateman if only because his comment has such a gloriously absurd Alf Garnett quality to it.

Yes, what he’s said is wrong and he has apologised for his remarks but in this case the mental picture this story conjures is one of Pateman surrounded by a volcanic eruption of spluttered coffee from his colleagues, and I just can’t help but find that funny. Whatever else he may be, at 79 years of age Pateman is no more than a dopey old dinosaur and this all a bit of non-story, but it does illustrate an important point about perceptions. For a long time the Tory Party has been perceived to have ‘a problem’ with race and ethnicity and until it manages to shake off that perception it will be somewhat limited in the kind of approach it can legitimately take on such issues without falling foul of its own past history.

That’s not the Beeb’s fault, that’s all down to the Tories themselves and they just need to convince the public that attitudes in the party have genuinely changed and changed for the better, all of which takes time – at the very least, they’re going to have to get through a general election campaign without falling into the old trap of making immigration a central platform of their campaign and over-egging the rhetoric on Daily Mail/Express lines before anyone is likely to be fully convinced that the party has caught up with the modern world.

No Tories in the room

If the team responsible for programmes like Panorama were sat in a room there would rarely be any one in the team who expressed conservative views. The end result is that these programmes are slanted towards the left wing perspective.

Its difficult to comment on this without seeing a response from the team behind Panorama, but one point I would make is that programmes like Panorama are somewhat different to the BBC’s main news output – the very nature of the programme itself is one in which there is a little more scope to editorialise its output as opposed to the kind of straight factual news broadcasting in the Beeb’s main news bulletins.

I can’t say whether Aitken’s criticisms have merit, but what I can say is that ‘magazine’ type programmes like Panorama need to regarded a little differently from other news broadcasting.

Sinn Fein

The Unionists were portrayed as the people who blocked the peace process. This was despite the fact that anti-discrimination laws had been passed in Northern Ireland which met Sinn Fein’s demands. He also alleged that information that was critical of Sinn Fein was suppressed because they did not want to offend the Republicans.

Sorry, but there’s rather more to the peace process and the necessary quid pro quo that its entails than simply the matter of one concession on anti-discrimination laws that met Sinn Fein’s demands.

Look, the situation in Northern Ireland is unlike anything else that exists within the domestic political arena, in fact I would strongly argue that the guiding principles of the peace process have little or nothing to do with conventional domestic politics and belong more correctly to the arena and mores of foreign policy. In short, the ‘rules of the game’ are fundamentally different to anything that the majority of the domestic audience is, or will be, used to and that alone is cause of significant misunderstandings as to how the peace process works in practice.

Take the whole question of early prisoner releases – that is just something that one would undertaken in a purely domestic arena and yet, in dealing with a cessation of hostilities in terms of foreign policy, prisoner releases (or rather exchanges) are a standard feature of any peace negotiations.

It’s a complex situation all around, and one made more complex for the British media by the fact that its taking place right on our own doorstep and not several thousand miles away as is usually the case.

Has the BBC been biased in its reporting of the peace process? No, I don’t think it has – or rather I don’t think its quite that simple.

While its true that as the process has developed, more and more attention has fallen on the Democratic Unionists as the main ‘blockers’ of progress, the truth is that this has far more to do with astute handling of the peace process, and the media, by Sinn Fein than any real bias on the part of the BBC or any other UK media organisation.

What Sinn Fein have been doing, cleverly, is using the static position of its DUP opponents to play out a very effective game of ‘bait and switch’.

The game works like this.

1) In order to move the peace process forwards, a particular action is required of Sinn Fein – most recently this has been a commitment to work with the police – one that Sinn Fein know full well they’ll have to give ground on.
2) Sinn Fein deliberately bait the DUP by stalling on taking this action as long as possible but without ever ruling it out – usually some minor objections are thrown up or its stated that some sort of internal consultation has to take place. Whatever. The net effect is that Sinn Fein’s position is put over as one in which they’re not quite happy with the situation but they could give ground eventually as there’s room for negotiations and a few wrinkles still to be ironed out.

3) The DUP take the bait and start issuing ‘demands’ – whatever it is that at issue, Sinn Fein must do it and they must do it now or the whole deal’s off, blah, blah, blah…
The impression this creates in one in which the DUP is visibly seen to be inflexible and obstructive, while Sinn Fein are the one’s who being flexible, considering things carefully, etc.

4) At the last minute, Sinn Fein make the concession they knew they’d have to make all along, but usually not before there’s been a dire warning or two from the British government and, more often than not an emergency summit between the British and Irish governments. Whatever the exact details of the scenario are, generally the denouement comes after there’s been some form of representation to Sinn Fein from the Irish government which has been the ‘difference maker’ as far as the situation is sold to the public, almost as if to suggest that the concession, when it comes, has been granted as a favour to the Irish government because they desperately want to keep things on track.

What this achieves, in terms of public perception, is a situation in which Sinn Fein are perceived to be the one’s behaving reasonably and making concessions, which the DUP is isolated and intransigent in it demands, when, in reality, they’ve been suckered yet again by a very effective game of political ‘rope-a-dope’.

If the BBC does sometime soft-pedal material that upset Sinn Fein, the effect of that is marginal at best by comparison to the effectiveness of Sinn Fein’s own tactics and their ability to exploit the negative public image of the DUP and its leaders. Whatever else Ian Paisley may be, he’s not someone who engenders a great deal of public sympathy and readily comes over as aggressive and domineering, and its that that Sinn Fein exploit to great effect.

BBC closed to criticism

They refuse to believe that they can do wrong. Thus when someone writes in with a complaint, they regard the person as a ‘looney’.

To be fair there may well be some measure of truth in this, although in mitigation one should note both that this kind of thing is fairly commonplace in all bureaucratic institutions and that, by its very nature as a public broadcaster, the ‘signal to noise’ ratio is complaints to the BBC is likely to be poor even by comparison to other public institutions, i.e. the Beeb, I would suggest, does get more than its fair share of ‘green ink’ missives from its viewers and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.

They are not honest about Islamic fascism

The BBC decreed that violent Islamism should not be described as terrorism. They also believe that they have a public role to play in promoting harmony between Muslims and the rest of society. This has led them to suppress certain stories about Islam in order not to create friction in society. He argues that whilst these are well meaning gestures, they affect their duties to publish the truth.

Ah yes, this old chestnut again.

Yes, the Beeb did appear to get itself tied up in knots over the semantics of some its reporting of the July 7th bombing of London, a situation that Roger Mosey, the Beeb’s head of television news, addressed in an article published in the Guardian’s Media section on July 13, 2005:

Finally, we are never immune from accusations of bias. It goes without saying that there is nothing more sensitive than matters of life and death, and the BBC’s audience response has been massively supportive and understanding about the dilemmas we face in reporting terror. There have been two main exceptions. From a smattering of radical websites comes the argument that we are being hypocritical in mourning the dead of London when we allegedly gloried in civilian deaths in Iraq.

This utterly misrepresents the BBC’s reporting of Iraq, where we have always sought to portray the whole picture of events in that country. The second exception is principally Fox News in the United States. A contributor to Fox said after the London bombings that “the BBC almost operates as a foreign registered agent of Hezbollah and some of the other jihadist groups”. On the Fox website today there is an opinion piece, “How Jane Fonda and the BBC put you in danger”. I am writing this in a building which was bombed by Irish terrorists. My colleagues and I are living in a city recovering from the wounds inflicted last week. If I may leave our customary impartiality aside for a moment, the comments made on Fox News are beneath contempt.

Then there has been a controversy about our use of language – particularly the question of whether the BBC banned the word “terrorist”. There is no ban. It’s true the word is contentious in some contexts on our international services, hence the recommendation that it be employed with care. But we have used and will continue to use the words terror, terrorism and terrorist – as we did in all our flagship bulletins from Thursday.

As it was with Fox News, so it is with Fox News Lite.

Selective use of facts

He accuses the BBC of being selective with their reporting of facts. For example, when the BBC reports that the majority of stop and searches were performed on young black men it fails to inform us that the majority of crimes were committed by young black men.

This is sheer and utter nonsense.

The most recent Home Office statistics on crime and ethnicity (for 2005) are published here, and while they do make for fairly depressing reading, the picture they paint is rather different from the claim made here by Fox News Lite:

At a general level, all Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups have a higher representation as users of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) when compared to their representation as members of the population as a whole. This is especially true for Black and Asian suspects and offenders. Black and Asian people experience a greater likelihood of being stopped and searched. Moreover, Black defendants are more prominent in the Crown Court caseload, although this is partly due to a tendency to elect for jury trial more often than other ethnic groups, including White. Furthermore, Black people are also overrepresented in the prison population reflecting, at least in part, the longer average sentences imposed upon them.

Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System – 2005

Got that?

Black and Minority Ethnic groups are over-represented in the Criminal Justice System in proportion to the their UK population – that much is true – but that’s still a long, long way from being a situation in which the majority of crimes are committed by young black men.

Black communities – which I take to mean people of African and African-Caribbean descent – make up 2.8% of the UK population and, in 2005, accounted for 14.1% of all ‘stop and searches’, 8.8% of all arrests, 6.4% of all cautions, 6% of youth offences, 13% of defendants in Crown Courts (as noted, Black defendants are more likely to take their chances with a jury that with a, usually white, magistrate), 13.5% of the prison population (getting longer sentences on average) and 10.5% of prison receptions.

Looking now at white communities, the parallel figures are 91.3% of the population, 74.7% of ‘stop and searches’, 84.3% of arrests, 83,8% of cautions, 84.7% of youth offences, 75.7% of defendants in Crown Courts, 76.8% of the prison population and 80.8% of prison receptions.

So who, exactly, is committing the majority of crimes?

Okay, in the interests of accuracy, a concept entirely lost on Fox News Lite, the statistical table from which these figures are drawn does have a couple of relevant ‘qualifying’ notes appended to it, specifically:

(3) Information on ethnicity is missing in 22% of cases; therefore, percentages are based on known ethnicity.

(4) Proportions for Mixed not shown above. Equivalent percentages for Prison population 2.7%; Prison receptions 2.4%; Youth offences 2.3%

Obviously, of most interest/concern here is the relatively high proportion of cases (about a fifth) in which the ethnicity of the offender is not recorded, with the result that the ‘blanks’ have been filled in by extrapolation from the general proportions extant on the other 78% of cases. Quite how valid this may be is a little open to question as the report does not make it clear exactly how this extrapolation was undertaken (i.e. using the aggregated national statistics or on an area by area basis) and this may skew the results a little – but definitely not so much that young black men would come out as being responsible for the majority of crimes.

Also absent from the data are area-based population demographics and this, again, makes it rather tricky to assess this information accurately as one cannot accurately compare the data on arrests, etc. to the demographics of the local population, which is is important as the one thing that is clear is that the figures are heavily skewed by statistics from the main urban centres.

Only once do the figures show the black community as the majority source of a particular offence – 57.8% of those arrested for robbery in London are black, so the statement that the majority of street robberies in London are committed by young black men (and women) would be a reasonable one, but not the statement that the majority of crimes were committed by young black men.

The moral of this story is simple that if you’re going to criticise someone for making selective use of facts then you’d better get your own facts straight first.

A mad right-winger?

He says he is not a mad right winger but an insider who has seen things going wrong and wants to make changes.

Disgruntled ex-employee, then?

To hell with it, you make your own mind up.

This all follows on, naturally enough, from Paul Dacre’s recent green ink febrile rant Cudlipp Lecture in which he accused the BBC of having “become a closed-thought system operating a kind of Orwellian Newspeak” – yes, it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ time again – ho hum.

What’s the real issue here? What have the right got in for the Beeb so badly?

I guess that the obvious thing to suggest is that there is a concerted effort under way to try and pressure the Beeb into a shift to the right. Possible, perhaps, but unlikely.

In reality I think there’s something more fundamental at work here, something that’s not actually about whether the Beeb exhibits any particular political bias but rather more about the role and function that the BBC, by its very nature, plays in British culture – and the key to understanding what the issue is lies to a considerable extent in these remarks for Dacre’s lecture:

How instructive to compare all this with what is happening in America. There, the liberal smugness of a terminally worthy, monopolistic press has, together with deregulation, triggered both the explosive growth of rightwing radio broadcasting that now dominates the airwaves and the extraordinary rise of Murdoch’s rightwing Fox TV News service. Democracy needs a healthy tension between left and right, and nature abhors a vacuum. If the BBC continues skewing the political debate, there will be a backlash and I predict that what has happened in America will eventually take place in Britain.

This is not about political bias within the BBC, but rather about the effect that the BBC’s very existence has a public service broadcaster has on the UK’s ‘news market’.

Within the UK, the BBC performs an important sociological function inasmuch as it serves to ‘anchor’ the whole of Britain’s news/factual media. This is not, primarily, because the BBC is politically neutral. True neutrality is a difficult trick to pull off at the best of, although a good test of whether the Beeb has got it right is often whether get attacked for being biased from both sides of the political divide at the same time. Rather, the BBC and its style of news reporting defines public perception of what is ‘reasonable’ in terms of news broadcasting. It marks out and anchors the ‘centre ground’, the median position on any given story and one in which any evident bias is relatively small and of marginal importance.

Dacre is fulsome in his praise of the US and its overtly right-wing media including Fox News, which is, of course, owned by Rupert Murdoch, just as Sky Television (and Sky News’ are also owned by Murdoch – and yet Sky News and Fox News could not be more different. For all that it is noticably more right wing than either the BBC or ITN, Sky News is nowhere near being right-wing to the extent that Fox News is, or would be if its editorial style and slant were imported to the UK.

Why is that?

Well, in part, this clearly has to do with how television news in regulated in the UK, by OFCOM, whose code of practice does apply stringent rules on due impartiality, accuracy and undue prominence of views and opinions. But is that all there is too it?
I don’t think it is. There is something more at work here than simply a set of regulations and a Quango to watch over them and that something has to do with the sociological role of the BBC as anchor for the news media as whole.

Even if OFCOM’s regulations were relaxed sufficiently to permit a Fox News-style broadcast operation that was overtly right-wing in its agenda, I really do not think it would catch-on in the UK, let alone thrive and flourish as similar operations have in the US. In part that’s a function of cultural differences between the two countries, but more importantly I think its also a function of the existence of the BBC.

The reason that the political right have such an issue with the BBC is not that the BBC is markedly biased against them so much as, in defining the middle ground in news journalism – not what is neutral but what is reasonable – it provides a clear benchmark against which the biases of other news outlets can be readily assessed and evaluated by the general public.

In short, it effectively prevents the rest of the news media – and not just TV and radio, but also newspapers and magazines – from toppling over in becoming nothing more that propaganda vehicles for the political views of their owners/proprietors, and it does so simply be making that propaganda obvious to anyone who cares to look for it. Even if broadcasting regulations were amended in such a way as to allow something akin to Fox News to broadcast in this country, it still wouldn’t work and would fail to draw a significant audience simply because it would seem rather bizarre and over the top to most people by comparison to the BBC and its broadcasting standards.
Okay. so the obvious comeback to that last statement, as I’ve included print media in the mix, is, ‘But what about the Daily Mail/Express/Sun – aren’t they openly right-wing?’Well yes… obviously… but within limits.

There is nothing in law to prevent a newspaper adopting and pushing the same kind of overt right-wing editorial stance as that in use by Fox News in the US – many would argue that newspapers like the Daily Mail and Express are already there anyway, but by providing a benchmark for what is ‘reasonable’ in terms of news coverage what the BBC does is make those biases obvious to the reader. Simply compare and contrast the BBC’s take on particular story with that which appears in the Daily Mail and it becomes perfectly apparent within seconds exactly where and how the Mail is editorialising the story and adding its own politically motivated spin to events.

But even the likes of the Daily Mail and Daily Express can only go so far into the realms of blatant right-wing paranoia without exposing themselves to outright ridicule – who really takes the Diana-obsessed Daily Express seriously these days – and such constraints as do exist are derived in the main not from regulation, and especially not from desperately ineffectual Press Complaints Commission, but rather from the presence in the news market of a largely unbiased and eminently reasonable middle-ground purveyor of news – the BBC.

That’s why some on the political right have got it in for the BBC at present – and for public service broadcasting more generally. It’s not because the BBC is biased but because one of the ways in which it does serve the public is as a kind of large scale bullshit detector; one that places curbs and limitations on their ability to push their propaganda through Britain’s mainstream media.

9 thoughts on “Cut the bullshit and back the BBC.

  1. Slightly off topic I know, but I get particularly incensed whenever any broadcaster starts talking about the topic of stop-and-search and the race of those stopped and searched. The whole of the news media, the BBC included, could do with a short, sharp education in reading and using statistics. Another downside to the arts graduate “bias”.

  2. Sweet jesus. Another lengthy one. Where do you find the time?

    Worth it though, you can say it far better than I ever could.

    Nice redesign, by the way.

  3. Solid article, Unity. And if 18DS (BS, more like) wants to publish and support round-ups of articles that moan about organisations ‘Closed to Criticism’ maybe they should let anybody post on their website, like your good self, instead of requiring registration. Charity begins at home, after all…

  4. Hear hear.

    The other day, I tried to sum up some of the above up as being “part of a concerted effort to move the centre to the right”. If I’d had your energy and attention to detail, I’d have written something like the above.

    The attacks on the BBC are really attempts to undermine the BBC’s authority, to destroy it’s reputation as the “clear benchmark” against bias. If this is successful, then that would make it possible for right leaning media types to move the centre to the right.

    It may also make it easier to propose removing the BBC’s funding at some future point. If memory serves, Dacre hasn’t gone that far but others have explicitily called for that.

    The question is, are they succeeding? Is the BBC’s credibility being damaged by these politically biased attacks? My worry is that it may well be.

  5. We see the same sort of politically-motivated, groundless attacks made against the ABC here in Australia.

    Unfortunately, the ABC doesn’t have the same level of independence that the BBC does, and there’s been a great deal of erosion commited by the current conservative government in the past few years.

  6. Cracking post… as always.

    My two cents worth: It’s not that the beeb is institutionally biased as such (any large institution is bound to lean towards the majority viewpoint within its own walls), it’s just slightly left of centre; which is where i think it should be. If you take that as read; and can understand the nuanced leanings of other media outlets, by looking at a variety of sources, the normal reader should be able to make a perfectly reasoned conclusion from the facts.

    I think the main problem with the BBC is that it is funded by taxpayers and as such, generates a huge amount of waste – as all large, taxpayer-funded institutions generally do!

  7. Unity,

    Good post as ever – I find it easier to read with the new format as well.

    I feel that the BBC do a good job of being pretty neutral, maybe a little left of centre.

    The pressure they are under from politicians however is huge, I would imagine that under the current regime where spin and presentation are seen to be everything I would imagine must be intolerable at times.

    Hutton did the Nation in general and the BBC in particular a huge dis-service. The story of ‘sexed up’ documents was pretty nearly totally accurate – Hutton effectively allowed the BBC to be censored by a totally partisan judgement.

    The way the BBC acted at the time was certainly honourable but I’m far from sure it was wise – they should have stuck to their guns and to my mind they would have been seen to have defended their independence.

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