Bias at the Beeb? 

2 September 2007

Stephen Hopkins wonders if the BBC has lost its way…and if so, why.

On the way home one Friday evening, I heard The Now Show take a pot-shot at ITV, among other targets. One of the comics spoke about a visit he’d made in 2003 to Las Vegas, Nevada. The taxi driver said, “We love you Brits because you like war. Not like the French, pas du tout. Not like those faggots.” He went to this 1950s-era diner, lovingly re-created with James Dean posters on the walls, Buddy Holly on the juke box, ‘No Blacks’ signs in the door an’ all. (The last one might be apocryphal.) He wanted a burger and French fries. Oh no, sunny Jim. They’re ‘Freedom Fries’ now. This is the invasion of Iraq. The Americans were boycotting all things French. America wanted French support for a UN Security Council resolution supporting the war. France said non. Payback’s a bitch.

Anyway, the comic ordered his hamburger and ‘freedom fries’, then remarked to his friends that they’re still selling hamburgers, the eponym being a town in an ‘old European’ country that, like France, said (in its case) nein. At which point the waitress (who clearly knew more about McDonald’s television commercials than history or geography) asserted that the hamburger was named after the baddie in the TV ads!

Only in America. The crux of his little talk was how ridiculous boycotts are. After all, he said, the Israelis are hardly going to change their policies just to rescue some teacher training places in a far-away land. No, all boycotts do is to make ignorant people even more ignorant. A bit like giving cocaine to a drunken comedian, he said – just makes an already pathological situation worse. Two exceptions. One was South Africa, when the rugby boycott really did hit ’em where it hurt. The other? We should all refuse to use our phones after midnight. That way, ITV would be forced to scrap its late night quiz shows and replace them instead with Edward Woodward and repeats of The Equalizer. We’d all be a lot better off and the world would be a better place. Little did he know then that – set to a chorus of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the London Television Centre, as LWT’s iconic Kent House is now known – the various premium-rate phone-in scandals would duly answer his wish.

Oh, he said, he was very much against the second Gulf war, but for the sake of balance he was also very much for it. That dates it: the major media story of the week was best summed up in a single phrase: the BBC isn’t representative of the population it serves. It is noteworthy, also, that much of the media commentariat reacted to this fairly significant story with nothing more than an embarrassed, studious silence. This example of bias by omission as opposed to bias by commission (a comment on The Times message board claimed that no major media outlets in the States picked this up) is interesting but far from surprising – after all, it queers Auntie’s precious halo.

The trigger for all this fuss was the eventual publication by the Corporation of a detailed internal report that concluded that the BBC was failing to be completely impartial. It didn’t admit to overt institutional political bias, but it did suggest that factual and fictional programming were dominated by a liberal consensus.

This really places in a quandary those of us who value very highly the BBC as a national institution. I think the Corporation has been badly served by its current generation of managers. I have never thought of the BBC as overtly biased, although it is perfectly true that the arts section of society has a reputation (which it may or may not deserve) for being left-wing. While Auntie might not be permitted to recruit on the basis of political or cultural outlook to redress the balance, all employees, regardless of their own background and outlook, must be aware that many of the people they are supposed to be serving have views, backgrounds, ways of life and opinions that do not conform to what some critics call its own ‘comfortable consensus’.

The liberal consensus alleged to exist at the BBC is mirrored not only in the media in general, but across the wider creative arts – I was quite surprised that the EMC MediaBlog virtually ignored this story, save for my own blog entry on which this article is based. Contrast this with anything usable as a stick with which to beat Fox News and other bêtes noirs du jour.

It is worth reminding ourselves what the main thrust of the allegations is. Concerning the Make Poverty History campaign, the BBC was said to be an active cheer-leader rather than a disinterested observer. Among other things, the BBC One comedy The Vicar of Dibley promoted the campaign by giving undue coverage to television footage connected with the event and having the vicar urge her parishioners to support it. Now, there’s nothing controversial about watching Geraldine watching the telly, but we don’t usually see what’s entranced her. It must have been, of course, entirely co-incidental that Richard Curtis, a writer on The Vicar of Dibley, was also a campaigner on behalf of the cause.

Another anecdote that I’ve heard concerns attitudes of executives towards religion. Some staff members were discussing humour aimed at religious faiths, and it soon became clear that jibes against Christians and Jews, which might pass without comment, soon caused discomfort when the Bible or Talmud was replaced with the Koran and the church or synagogue a mosque. Again, entirely co-incidentally, The Now Show featured recently a brilliant sketch by Marcus Brigstocke laying into the three Abrahamic faiths. This Google search should bring up links to audio and transcripts if you’ve got about seven minutes to have your sides split or nose put out of joint, but the gist of his argument was: when those three faiths have finished destroying each other and demanding special privileges while they do it, could the rest of us, like, have our planet back? He was right: the letters did come, although, according to Roger Bolton on Feedback they were uniformly supportive. He should worry: the last thing that any genuine satirist wants is a vote of praise.

Perhaps I’m a bit too cynical for my own good, but would he have dared had someone not drawn the embarrassing parallel between Islam and artistic timidity? Was the BBC really that scared of a small handful of nutters that it daren’t follow its instincts and lampoon Islam like it was quite happy so to do with Christianity or Judaism? What were they scared of? That Ayatollah Khomeini might issue a fatwa against the Corporation? Pity they didn’t think twice about Jerry Springer: The Opera. Perhaps the Vatican should send an envoy to ask Osama bin Laden for advice.

Flippancy aside, there is a serious point here. One of the problems facing the BBC, if what Andrew Marr says is correct, is that the Corporation is “a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large”. Translation: the people (and their attitudes) who work as skilled craftsmen or manual labourers, read The Sun or the Daily Mail, are middle-aged to elderly, or are middle-class rural, slightly socially conservative voters, are not adequately represented by the Corporation.

This is something that dawned on me only recently, and might go some way to explain why those two papers in particular seem to have the knives out for Auntie. A couple of years ago, I ventured into the world of the “Anglosphere” community: neo-conservative, pro-Bush, pro-America, pro-Israel, anti-homosexual, anti-“left-wing” BBC, anti-Europe (of course)… you get the picture. The typical denizen there would have criticized The Sun for being left-wing. In short, a community that stood for much that I despise and against much that I hold dear. My appeals to logic and reason got me nowhere. It took me some time to realize why: their centre of political gravity is such that what a centrist deems to be right-wing an “anglospherian” (to coin a word) would take as political orthodoxy. This isn’t just people identifying themselves as left or right of an agreed centre; they don’t even agree with society at large on where the centre is.

This is what I suspect has happened at the BBC. The Corporation employs thousands of very talented and able staff, and I do not for one second think that there is any policy (official or unofficial) of endorsing or giving air-time to some groups or opinions at the expense of others. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the BBC and its personnel, and I am sure the staff believe themselves to be impartial. However, I think that without an even spread across the political and cultural spectrum, there isn’t the plurality of opinions that would help to prevent one world view becoming entrenched as the accepted norm. The consensus among the majority of the staff becomes the political centre, and notions such as “left” and “right” are interpreted relative thereto. The fact that the “centre” might be no such thing doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.

What you’re left with, in the words of Mr Marr, is “an innate liberal bias inside the BBC.” Jeff Randall, the BBC’s former business editor who’s since joined Joshua Rosenberg, another ex-colleague, at the Daily Telegraph, put it thus: “It’s a bit like walking into a Sunday meeting of the Flat Earth Society. As they discuss great issues of the day, they discuss them from the point of view that the earth is flat. If someone says, ‘No, no, no, the earth is round!’, they think this person is an extremist. That’s what it’s like for someone with my right-of-centre views working inside the BBC.”

What this means is that both the Corporation and its critics have a plausible claim to be speaking the truth. No, a few slip-ups aside, the BBC isn’t consciously biased; of course it isn’t. I do not believe that it actively promotes a political agenda; it would not survive if it did. However, the charge sheet proffered by Michael Buerk in the introduction to The Moral Maze on 20 June 2007 is damning enough: according to the report, he says, “certain kinds of people and viewpoints were routinely excluded, and the Corporation operated within a mildly leftish, passingly politically-correct comfort zone.

“There are lots of examples,” Mr Buerk continued. “The uncritical promotion of Geldolf, Bono and Live 8. The shying away from debate, until recently, on immigration and multi-culturalism. Proselytizing on climate change. Critics have a much longer list, of course.

“What does seem to be true is that the BBC’s world view, on what is moderate and what is extreme, on what is acceptable and unacceptable, is somewhat at odds with that of the population as a whole, reflecting the backgrounds and pre-occupations of those who work for it: typically urban, educated, youngish middle-class arts graduates. Conservatives – big- and small-c – the countryside, business, America, faith, don’t feel they get a fair crack at the whip.”

Peter Whittle, director of the New Culture Forum, went further. There was a general attitude within the creative industries, he asserted, that assumed that its practitioners are on-message: that they are anti-nation, hold an internationalist outlook and distaste for the concept of the nation state, are pro-EU and pro-multiculturalism. Whether the unashamedly tub-thumping and patriotic Last Night of the Proms was just the exception that proved the rule he was neither asked nor answered.

I mean, let’s face it: there is nothing wrong in being pro-British. There is nothing wrong in having a nationalist as opposed to an internationalist outlook. There is nothing wrong in being patriotic and flying the flag for your country. There is nothing wrong in being pro-American. There is nothing wrong in being anti-Europe. There is nothing wrong in being anti-immigration. There is nothing wrong in supporting a free market economy. There is nothing wrong in fostering a British identity, based around values rather than race; a shared, common British culture built on its Judaeo-Christian heritage to which all can subscribe regardless of ethnicity or religious belief. And, speaking as one who finds much to criticize in both papers, in particular their Europhobia and anti-BBC bias, there is nothing wrong in reading the Daily Mail, or The Sun. Perhaps some of these creative types should give those papers a read. Might do them good to be exposed to material that challenges rather than reinforces their prejudices, just as it’s good for those of a right-wing bent to read the Guardian or Independent from time to time.

There is also nothing wrong with upholding small-c conservative values and common sense. It is to the BBC’s credit that it gave over a heavyweight discussion programme to dissect some of the issues the report raised. Any organization that puts Melanie Phillips on air can’t be accused of muzzling dissenting voices, the more so when she asks you to imagine the BBC making a programme supporting the Iraq invasion, or opposing change in the Conservative party or the Ulster peace process. (She might also have added climate change to the list.) That’s the BBC’s illiberal consensus, according to Melanie Phillips.

Finally, while I’m still on my soap-box, it was telling listening to Any Questions the same week, coming from – of all places – an arts college, which reliably hissed Ruth Lea for suggesting that climate change might not be man-made after all. After all, six, eight thousand years ago it was warmer than it is today, according to Ms Lea, and how many smoke-belching factories or cars were there then? You’d think she was denying the Holocaust. Earlier, the MP David Laws quoted a remark he’d heard while in conversation with Paddy Ashdown. While serving as Bosnia’s UN representative, Mr Ashdown said what a nightmare it was doing anything in the EU that involved the Brussels government. They could never make up their minds, and the only people who were any use were the Americans, because they could say yea or nea at short notice. Predictably, he did not get a round of applause.

What really saddens me is that the post-Reithian BBC is a shadow of its former self. The Corporation’s glory days are long gone, and – with a few notable exceptions (step forward, Radio 4) – it no longer commands the respect it once did. Has the BBC got worse? Or has the rise in competition just made its failings more noticeable?

And failings (real or perceived) there have been over the past few years. The Gilligan affair and claims of weapons of mass destruction and “sexed-up” dossiers; David Kelly; Hutton; resignations at the highest levels; Butler. Then the Blue Peter phone-in incident (and resulting Ofcom fine); the publication of the Balen report into the Corporation’s Middle East coverage; the report under discussion in this article; a spate of premium-rate competition scandals; and the dodgy trailer that misrepresented the Queen. Add to that a less-than-favourable licence fee settlement and the upheaval caused by the transformation of the Board of Governors into the Trust, and you could be forgiven for thinking, to quote another EMC article, that post-Hutton, Auntie had been terrified into mute acquiescence by Government-sponsored hoodies banging on her windows shortly after six each morning.

Sorry, this probably reads like an embittered whinge against a vulnerable national treasure. I continue to have a great deal of respect for the concept of the BBC, and I think that many of us who value the Corporation’s incalculable contribution to the nation’s cultural life but who believe that Auntie has stumbled several times recently, retain a lot of residual support for the BBC thanks to its history, along with a burning sense of outrage that the BBC deserves much better than this. The Corporation always commanded, and without question must again command, the loyalty of the vast bulk of the nation and a sense in the public of itself as a unifying force, like Parliament and the Crown, that transcends the cut-and-thrust of political life. I personally find it heartbreaking to be writing in this vein about the BBC and I am quietly furious at all those, in Government, in the Corporation and elsewhere, who have, through their words and deeds, through what they have done and what they have failed to do, allowed this state of affairs to arise. I despair when the Corporation makes the news in this way as opposed merely to reporting it, and I weep at what has happened to a once-great national institution.

Whose fault is it? Is it the Corporation itself? Have its managers negligently allowed it to slip on one banana skin too many? Did it perceive itself too much as leaning one way or the other, and over-compensate, as it did over the Gilligan affair and accusations of political bias then? Or has it just succumbed to the onslaught from its detractors in the anything but liberal and balanced right-wing press, and an apathetic (or worse) government?

Whatever, the Corporation needs to regain its sense of purpose, its ability to command respect from the population at large, a wider, more inclusive and representative outlook on the realities of life including in white, aspirational working- and lower-middle class neighbourhoods, and confidence that its broader output is as free from bias as its news has long been acknowledged to be. If it can’t, I am in two minds whether it might not be kinder to administer a coup de grâce so that, in the long view at least, the BBC will retain in the verdict of history its reputation for greatness that, for most of its life, it so richly deserved.

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Liverpool, Friday 19 July 2024