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The BBC needs defending as well as attacking

BBC NewsCongrats to the TUC’s 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 no 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 right-wingers 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, accountability against powerful establishment interests, who will?


  1. Mr jeffrey l davies says:

    but they forget us plebbs pay for licence they the tory ministers and mps don’t pay for theirs

  2. David Pavett says:

    I agree that public broadcasting, for all its many faults, should be defended. Quite apart from political issues it is an important source for making historical culture in music, art, literature, philosophy etc available to everyone without being tied to a profit motive. Commercial broadcasting does not do this to the same extent or with the same quality. It is a virtual certainty that without the BBC commercial broadcasters would spend even less time on such things. The private sector hates the BBC just as the right in the US hates public broadcasting. So let’s criticise the BBC but also defend it at the same time.

  3. Mr jeffrey l davies says:

    faults its the right that drives the bbc isn’t they that pay nowt against that licence get to brag more on it yet bbc should be doing left right centre news the real news that weget off other channels they our government shouldn’t get a say in it sorry I just want my real bbc newsback were steping on feet was their job jeff3

  4. Gerry says:

    The BBC, far from being the Leftie haven of Daily Mail nightmares, is in fact a true reflection of the Thatcherite nation Britain became in 1979.

    Taking off the rose tinted glasses, we see the obscene licence fee funded salaries and bonuses paid to thousands of its managers, staff and “stars”…and its in news coverage it is easily as biased and one-sided as Russia Today (a truly Orwellian Putin sock-puppet) and Al Jazeera (the equally Orwelliian broadcast arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, funded by Qatari absolute ruling family).

    And never forget one tiny example of BBC “values” in the 1980s – how it doctored footage from Orgreave to make it look like the striking miners attacked the “heroic” cops first – when in fact it was totally the other way round!

    David – we have never had genuine “public broadcasting” in the UK, and certainly not from the BBC: the nearest we get is (some of) Channel 4…so I wont be expending an iota of energy defending this institutionally biased and corrupt BBC entity and I don’t think you (or any Leftie) should either!

  5. Robert says:

    But of course the BBC is tied to working within it’s means for example now we are told the BBC has to look after S4C which takes adverts and has viewing numbers into the thousand not millions.
    That I did not agree too, taking on this private company which pays some of it bosses a lot of money we already have a Welsh BBC.

    The problem with the BBC we now have the right of choice everything is going to be in the future I’m sure pay to view and to be honest over the years the BBC has not been turning out anything except repeats I do not see the BBC as anything but political junk, each time labour brought out a green paper or white paper on Welfare the BBC obliged with a program on benefits scroungers and cheats so one sided it was a scandal.

    I should have the choice of paying and right now I would chose no.

  6. David Ellis says:

    Noel Edmonds wants to buy the BBC.

    No fucking deal!

  7. Mr jeffrey l davies says:

    I think your licence fee also goes to channel 5 and 4 they all get a look in its a farce

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