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Why BBC News ignored the People’s Assembly march

russell_brand_parliament_slide_siteBy any common sense measure, a large protest ambling through London should be big news. The Graun covered it. Twitter was all over it. And yet, the many thousands who turned out on the People’s Assembly March Against Austerity got nary a mention on BBC News bulletins. All it merited was a postage stamp of an article on the website. And to think, more or less simultaneously, the rolling news channel was gurning over the annual summer solstice hippy fest at Stonehenge. We say cutback, they say, erm, “Look at the sun rising behind the Heelstone!” So yes, some people are pretty peed off. When the BBC eagerly cover Nigel Farage opening a toilet door and ignore the largest demonstration to have taken place in London this year, a lot of the marchers and their supporters are crying foul. Quite rightly too.

Yet, is it a simple case of rightwing BBC bias againContent analysis shows its current affairs coverage dresses to the right. My own number crunching of Question Time found there was a bias toward rightwing guests. In this instance, is the BBC’s reportage, or lack, underscoring a straightforward Tory bias? Well, it does speak of pronounced lean to, but the reasons aren’t as simple as one might suppose. We’re going to have to grub around in the political economy of BBC news production once more.

There is the BBC’s cognitive bias. If there is an establishment, you don’t get much more establishment than Auntie. And being an institution who, along with government, parliament, the monarchy, the police, the armed forces, is a pillar of official society means it finds certain things worthy of coverage, and other items not. It’s an unstated rule, a disembodied set of preferences and attitudes journalists imbibe from the moment the employment contract is signed.

The news reports on a) what the establishment finds interesting, and b) what it thinks the people will find interesting. Which is pretty similar to what the establishment finds interesting. Official events get the wall-to-wall treatment. Politics, understood in narrow, Westminster terms – the BBC is there. When it comes to events that disrupt the smooth running of official Britain, it gets covered. The coverage, however, is skewed.

Consider reports on tube strikes. Compare the attention given to the reasons for and against the strike with the reporting of the disruption. The viewpoint is never about the issues at stake. All that counts is whether one can get to work on time. This framing occurs because the BBC thinks people don’t like strikes, but also they are extra-parliamentary political actions. They exist entirely outside its very strict constitutionalist frames of reference. That also means demonstrations, unless they are super-large, violent, or feature Al-Mahajiroun types, don’t get a look-in. They’re not “proper” politics.

Parked not a million miles away is simple newsworthiness. Yes, the BBC should be about balanced reporting and cover a broad spectrum of stories. It is suppose to inform the nation, after all. Yet it fails to do so. Compare it with its competitors. Channel 4 News, France 24, Al-Jazeera, Russia Today, CCTV, whatever one thinks of their output the tendency is to cover a wider range of stories that, for whatever reason, the BBC chooses not to cover.

It’s quite regular to find, say, an uncontrolled outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, or the plight of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan featured on one of the other news stations while the BBC keeps schtum. They’re simply not newsworthy enough. And you can say the same about the People’s March.

Austerity has been damaging. The human cost is appalling, and the economic damage depressed the economy a couple of years longer than “necessary”. Despite this, the anti-austerity movement has not had the kinds of impact the anti-war movement, and the anti-poll tax movement before it did. Polling shows backing for cuts, explicitly anti-austerity parties polled poorly in May. Sad to say, austerity has not become a political hot potato. Because it hasn’t made itself felt through conventional, Westminster-centric politics, and in the absence of a groundswell of opinion, the movement challenging the cuts isn’t on the BBC’s radar. Small wonder they ignored Saturday’s mobilisation.

Finally, while these are important the BBC has to always play a canny political game. Its interests are clearly served by the status quo. It gets its annual bung through the television tax, and so enjoys the kinds of resources other channels can but aspire. It does not want to surrender to commercial pressures. It does not want the licence fee to be scrapped. And so, ever since 2003’s Gilligan/Kelly/dodgy dossier affair, the BBC have shown a bend toward the government, whoever is in power.

They know perceived anti-government reporting might call unfavourable reforms down upon its head. Hence why you have theBBC’s love-in with UKIP, the establishment’s anti-establishment party. They do not represent an existential threat as such, and are often portrayed as menacing the three main parties equally, though, of course, we know that’s not true.

It also touches distinctly second order issues – Europe, immigration, anti-politics animus. Anti-austerity, like the anti-war movement, however offers a challenge to a central plank of government policy. As Iraq is the pivot on which Blair’s governments will forever be judged, the Coalition have invested their political capital heavily in a demented cuts programme in the belief it will get the wheels of Britain turning again. The Tories call this a long-term economic plan. With a BBC looking out for its institutional interests while a rabid pack of Friedmanite wolves, there is just no way they would give an anti-austerity protest proportionate coverage.

That’s what it comes back to, the web of institutions, interests, and habits of mind the BBC are a constitutive part of. Getting a feature is not the be all and end all of protesting. Anti-austerity campaigns have been carrying on regardless since the Tories’ first round of cuts. There’s no reason to believe that’s going to change. However, the only way the BBC will report the anti-austerity message is by making it, if you pardon the ugly word, unignorable. And come the TUC-backed march against austerity in the Autumn, we have every chance of making that happen.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: People’s Assembly against Austerity

9 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    Politics for you…

  2. Rod says:

    The People’s Assembly would achieve a higher profile if, as UKIP have done, they become electorally active.

    There’s no point in campaigning against austerity and then, come election time, voting for the pro-austerity, ‘tougher than the Tories’ Labour Party.

    1. William Jones says:

      Well we all have these choices to make!

    2. Rod says:

      What I prefer is an alternative to Tory policies.

      Simples.

  3. Pauline Sharp says:

    I am tot.ally outraged by the BBC not giving this coverage the night it happened. On Sunday morning they had on the news an article on the Ugly dog of Anmerica. If this country has 50,00 people marching in our capital peacefully, I want to know about it. BBC is a corrupt organisation and I will boycott my licence fee as they do not play fair with the people of this country.

  4. Robert says:

    The BBC has always followed the party in power, just look at Labour welfare reforms it started in 1995/6/7 then labour had meeting with the BBC and of course each of labour green papers were followed by the BBC Scroungers or Saint and Scroungers, today we have the same only now it’s the Tories.

    So the BBC catches five or six people cheating, that five or six out of ten million we have ten Million disabled people not five or six.
    The BBC has always been known as the tool of the sitting government and this sitting Government would like the BBC gone.

  5. Jenny Smith says:

    We in the South West have noted that the political reporter for our Region is related to Tory MP’s in our area. Has anyone every decided to work out who the current Media reporters, and presenters are and who they are related to. I think that the Tories have worked hard to pack the BBC with their young and the next generations so that who ever wins next years election if Labour will have a hard time, if Tory will have an easy ride to even more draconian laws. Sad, a Society is always stronger when their is a healthy debate.

  6. Dave Roberts says:

    It’s been like that as long as I can remember.

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