Bias and Trust
Let me say, right here at the beginning, I think the ideal of the BBC is a noble , indeed inspiring one. In a democracy like ours, a source of information that is rigorously impartial, available to all, free from bias and comprehensive is highly desirable. The provision of impartial information is a prerequisite of free and fair elections ; free debate which includes opinion from across the political spectrum is the lifeblood of democracy. And the BBC’s defenders will say ‘We have just that. The BBC is all that you describe.’
I’m afraid I can’t agree. On the contrary I think the BBC news services can now be placed accurately on the political spectrum; they inhabit a specific point on that spectrum and that has led to a deep-set bias which has coloured all its output.
How do I know this? I could answer that it is from my lived experience as a BBC reporter for 25 years; but you might rightly object that my opinion can hardly be definitive. It is after all , only my view and who is to say I am not myself biased? This points to the difficulty of proving bias and this difficulty has been used by the BBC itself to deflect criticism and delay much-needed reform.
However I think there is proof of bias out there; specifically on Brexit. Twenty years or more ago some Eurosceptics, fed-up with what they perceived as the BBC’s bias against them, put money behind a media-monitoring outfit whose sole purpose was to analyse BBC news output on the European issue. The work is done meticulously, using methodology widely employed by academic social scientists.
The work is still carrying on and the reports have steadily accumulated over the years so they now represent a respectable research archive. What they show – right up to the most recent one – is a consistent bias in terms of number of interviewees and time allotted in favour of the pro-European case. And that bias runs at a steady rate, of roughly two to one against the Eurosceptic position. And it’s not just about mathematical unfairness: it’s also about tone and the BBC’s tone on Brexit has been – remorselessly negative.
I should say in passing that if you want to have a look at this research it is easily found online at News-Watch UK.
The Brexit case is important because of the centrality of the European issue to British political life for the past forty years. It is an issue that split opinion across class and party lines and it is exactly the sort of issue where a steady flow of impartial information would have been enormously beneficial to the whole country. Instead of which the BBC served up a steady diet of one-sided coverage.
So the question arises: how did the BBC mislay its duty of impartiality on the most important political issue of a generation?
I think I have an explanation; when I was a Radio News reporter in the mid 1980s BBC News had what amounted almost to a ‘cult’ of impartiality. In those days ‘news’ saw itself as separate from ‘Current Affairs’; - ‘current affairs’ meaning , essentially, news talk-shows like Today and Newsnight.
To reporters of my vintage ‘news’ was something strictly defined; when my colleagues and I wrote a bulletin piece it was all fact, no comment – even adjectives were suspect; it was very much a question of reporting ‘ who? What? Where? When?’ - we left the task of explaining the ‘why’ to the current affairs people.
This probably made for rather dull news bulletins; none of the sexy speculative stuff was included in our pieces. However they were factual and reliable. But change was in the air and in the mid 1990s , John Birt merged News with Current Affairs into one huge department . And that’s where the rot set-in because a crucial, though subtle, distinction had been lost.
Before we knew it the age of the BBC in-house pundit had arrived. BBC News bulletins today have become part-news, part-comment and ‘impartial commentary’ is almost a contradiction in terms : a comment always expresses an opinion
This would not matter much if there was an equal balance of opinions within the Corporation; if there was one Eurosceptic BBC reporter for every pro-European; but alas it is not so. Though the BBC preaches endlessly about ‘diversity’ it interprets the word in a very narrow way; it’s all about skin-colour and sexual orientation – it ignores political diversity.
I suspect every large organisation recruits people who it thinks will ‘fit-in’ and be ‘one of us’. The BBC is no different in this regard and it has developed over the years a pronounced and coercive internal political culture. That culture coalesces around a set of liberal-left , ‘progressive’ values and it is, believe me, quite intimidating. Those who do not ‘fit-in’ and who are clearly not ‘one of us’ do not thrive within the Corporation’s embrace.
I have talked quite a lot about Brexit but this question goes much wider than that one issue. Though the BBC tries hard to disguise its biases they shape its views on every issue. The BBC quite clearly champions certain ideas and campaigns, and gives them prominence and favourable treatment. The BBC has used this great power to help effect a social revolution in Britain over the past forty years and more and the country we live in now, the culture we inhabit, has been shaped and formed like clay on the BBC potters’ wheel.
I can list some of those areas where the BBC follows an explicit agenda; the promotion of multiculturalism – which is central to its core belief ; as is feminism which it treats as an unquestionable good; Climate change, in which the Corporation devoutly believes; Secularism – the BBC considers all religion to be superstition and seems to have a particular animus against Christianity; socialism and the public sector- the BBC generally starts from the position ‘public – good; private – bad’ ; And Donald Trump – against whom the BBC mounted a four-year long campaign of smears and detractions.
And I could go on; but I don’t want to weary you. And anyway, you can probably work it our for yourself.
The question is what is to be done? The BBC’s new Director-General has spoken of ‘reform’ and it is easy to see why; the BBC has few friends in the government and some powerful enemies. There is a growing appetite for the Corporation to be cut down to size.
Which would be a good thing but there is something more important even than that and it is for us to be clear sighted about what the BBC is. It is part of , and I quote:
“...an international subculture composed of people with western-type higher education that is, indeed, secularised. This subculture is the principal ‘carrier’ of ‘enlightened’ beliefs and values. While its members are relatively thin on the ground they are very influential as they control the institutions that provide the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication and the higher reaches of the legal system.’
These are the words of an American sociologist Peter Berger: he doesn’t mention the BBC by name but he could have been thinking of it, so precisely does he describe it. The BBC is indeed, secularised, it is staffed by people who have degrees and higher degrees, and who think of themselves as ‘enlightened’ and they have little sympathy for those who don’t agree with them – like all the millions who voted for Brexit.
This is the point that must be grasped; the BBC proclaims its impartiality and because it is a big and powerful broadcaster which has dominated the media in this country for nearly 100 years people have been indoctrinated with that idea. But – as Brexit so clearly shows – the BBC has its own view which often differs from that of the majority of citizens.
I said at the outset that the ideal of an impartial national broadcaster is a fine thing. But what we have is a national broadcaster that is funded through taxation, as though it were truly impartial and unbiased. But it isn’t. What is more this false concept of ‘impartiality’ has become obligatory on all the other broadcasters…. Which are all now pale imitations of the BBC. Channel 4 News and Sky, for instance, were both anti-Brexit in tone and coverage. It’s time the scales fell from our eyes. We should see the BBC for what it really is: a subtle propaganda machine for a particular view of the world. We should demand that the BBC lives up to its promises – and if it can’t then it should lose the license fee privilege. The BBC’s version of impartiality is a con perpetrated by an arrogant intellectual liberal-left elite. It’s time for change.