Paul Tims lays into the BBC's right-wing bias.
In this article, you’ll see that there are all sorts of valid political and cultural reasons for my personal distaste of the BBC. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also admit that I may have been soured by the declining quality of Doctor Who and the mere existence of Strictly Come Dancing (a tedium-filled televised berk-scape with the subtlety and grace of a 3am foghorn). But I’m also deeply concerned, angry, embarrassed, angry, revolted and angry about the insidious right-wing bias within the public service broadcaster. Did I mention I’m angry?
Of course, before I can dissect the BBC’s right-wing bias, I have to prove that it’s really there. To that end, let us consider Exhibit A… or Andrew Neil as he probably prefers to be called. Until quite recently, the BBC’s flagship political discussion program was The Daily Politics. It’s been cancelled for largely non-political reasons, but throughout its run it was hosted by Andrew Neil. Now, the purpose of a show devoted to discussion and political analysis is to provide an unbiased platform on which individuals with different political views can put forward their arguments and be met with robust-but-fair critique. This isn’t possible if the host of that show is openly and explicitly aligned with a particular party or ideology.
Andrew Neil is a raving-righty, dyed-in-the-wool Tory, misogynist and climate change denier. He was once editor of the right-wing paper The Sunday Times. During his tenure, he hired a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist to write on the discovery of Goebbels’ diaries, see here. He has also been directly involved with the Conservative party itself - he once helped them to select a successor to Michael Portillo by personally hosting an evening of interviews. This man was the supposedly unbiased, balanced host of the BBC’s supposedly unbiased, balanced flagship political show. For fifteen years. Give that a minute to sink in.
Naturally, Andrew Neil is only the tip of a very large, very Tory-blue iceberg. He’s a good example, because everyone knows who he is and recognises his face (if only from nightmares in which they’re trying to cross a bridge and he emerges from beneath it wielding a bone-club). However, the real scope of the BBC’s bias only becomes apparent when you look at its higher-ranking but more-easily-overlooked personnel and former personnel.
For example, Robert Gibb (who used to be the Beeb’s political editor) has recently been appointed as the Director for Communications to the Tory PM Theresa May. Meanwhile, Nick Robinson (the BBC’s current political editor) used to be the chairman of the Young Conservatives. Chris Patten (chairman of the BBC Trust) is a former Conservative cabinet minister. Kamal Ahmed, who succeeded Robert Peston as the BBC’s political editor, formerly worked for the explicitly right-wing paper, the Daily Telegraph.
The BBC presenter John Humphries declared his bias on-air with a political programme so right-wing that even the BBC Trust (which is chaired by a former Tory cabinet minister) had to admit it was at fault. The programme was ‘The Future of the Welfare State’. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, it “failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a ‘dependency culture’ in which unemployment… is the fault of the unemployed”. By the BBC’s own admission, it failed to provide appropriate statistics that would have allowed its viewers to arrive at informed opinions.
It’s also worth noting that, when the Beeb uses panels of pundits in its political shows, an overwhelming preponderance are right-wing, according to an article published in The Independent.
The BBC’s right-wing bias isn’t just in its appointment of high-ranking staffers and show-specific speakers, however. It’s ingrained into the language and rhetoric that proliferates across the network. In one article about the BBC’s pro-establishment leanings, Owen Jones describes how he has frequently been introduced as a “left-wing firebrand”, while equivalent language is never ascribed to right-wing guests who appear on the Beeb. The article is also my source for the names of BBC right-wingers.
Perhaps the most compelling proof of the BBC’s bias, however, can be found in its treatment of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. A study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition and published recently by the universally-respected Birkbeck University found that the mainstream media (which, of course, includes the BBC) has consistently given more time and prominence to Corbyn’s critics than his supporters. In fact, they’ve given his critics twice as much airtime. In this way, the BBC has supported right-wing bias against Corbyn without making direct statements against him itself.
This is a particularly dangerous form of bias, because it allows the broadcaster to keep its hands clean and therefore keeps it free of accountability. You can read the full report here.
But what about BBC comedy and drama?
Of course, there is a counter-argument to all this. The BBC has provided a platform for many left-wing writers and presenters. It’s showcased the comedic talents of such varied lefties as Frankie Boyle and Stephen Fry, for example. Some of its dramas have a fairly obvious left-wing subtext, such as The Night Manager (which used a sadistic arms dealer as a personification of capitalist greed and western callousness) and The Line of Duty (which wasn’t afraid of showing incompetence and corruption in the British police).
But that’s the problem: the BBC only really entertains left-wing political views in its comedy and drama. It’s happy to include left-wing ideas, provided they can be safely contained in whimsy or fiction. However, when it discusses the real world in its serious news shows and political analysis shows, the Beeb reels inexorably and inevitably to the right. The bias is baked in from the start because the people in charge have very specific, very right-wing views. The subtext is unequivocal: the BBC doesn’t mind giving the left fantasies and rants to divert us, but it won’t take us seriously in real discussions.
It’s also worth noting that, though the BBC does occasionally allow leftist thinking to enter its dramas, this is by no means the norm. A quick Google search for ‘BBC dramas’ reveals that most of their prime-time dramatic output has consisted of crime dramas. That’s not always indicative of right-wing bias (hence the excellent Line of Duty), but it usually is. Detective shows tend to perpetuate the myth of an infallible police force and an irredeemable, uncomplicatedly evil criminal underclass. I love a good detective yarn as much as the next person (though I prefer the old Poirot series to anything the Beeb has to offer). However, the preponderance of shows with clear authoritarian leanings should trouble anyone with an eye on the shape of our culture and society.
The BBC’s right-wing bias is particularly disappointing because of its position as a state broadcaster. As an organisation that exists outside the profit-motive paradigm of the free market, one might expect Auntie Beeb to provide a haven for alternative, unprofitable ideas.
In my last ‘Culture Punch’ article, I talked about the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and suggested that breaking it down into its component studios would be a good step towards ending this dominance and creating a polyphony of different voices. After the article went up, a very wise person pointed out that all the newly-created media companies would still be profit-motivated, because they’d still be part of the capitalist system. As such, their voices and ideas might not be as varied as one would like to imagine. In an ideal world, organisations like the BBC should be the answer to this problem. State broadcasters should provide a space for ideas and viewpoints that would never find favour among people who want to earn a fast buck. In particular, they should offer a platform to leftist thinkers in order to counteract the right-wing bias intrinsic to the private sector.
Clearly, this isn’t the case. The BBC has the same ingrained bias as its private-sector counterparts. It is free from the profit motive, and thus perhaps lacks the Randian, libertarian aspects of right-wing ideology. However, it still clearly cleaves to a socially and politically conservative world-view. It postures about impartiality and feints at left-wing ideas in its fiction and comedy, but the most cursory glance at the people controlling it exposes its Tory affiliation. A flick through the TV schedules demonstrates its authoritarian undercurrent.
The key to the BBC’s bias – and to what the broadcaster could be without it – lies in its founding principles. The BBC’s original mission statement is grounded in Reithian values. In other words, it seeks to “enlighten and educate” the public. This mission statement sounds noble. Indeed, in the early days of the broadcaster, it made perfect sense. Before the internet and the proliferation of other TV and radio channels, information didn’t flow particularly freely. Learning about the world, its history and its political landscape, was difficult. Not everyone had the time or energy to sit in a library for hours, reading influential academic texts and comparing the reports of different newspapers with different biases. Synthesising a coherent and self-consistent opinion or world-view required non-trivial effort. By offering factual programming and news, the BBC provided a guiding light and made it easier for people to stay informed.
However, there’s a problem with Reithian values- a problem that has become ever more apparent as the world has entered the information age. Reithian values are fundamentally paternalistic and conservative. They enshrine a hierarchical relationship between the ignorant viewer and the all-knowing Establishment broadcaster.
Small wonder, then, that the Beeb’s top brass and institutional outlook fall firmly into the Tory camp.
So what can be done?
What, then, can be done about the problem of BBC bias? First of all, I’d like to see an incoming Labour government clean house. British governments have historically kept the BBC at arm’s length in order to preserve its impartiality. Since that was clearly a massive waste of time and effort, I think it’s about time the BBC and the BBC Trust were forced to retire editors, executives and trustees who have explicitly affiliated themselves with political parties. People with such transparent biases have no place in a broadcaster whose role is to be as impartial as possible. If the BBC appointed a Morning Star columnist to a position of political editorship, the public and the mainstream press would be up in arms about leftist bias. Yet the broadcaster employs multiple personnel who worked for Tory-affiliated or explicitly right-wing newspapers, alongside people who have actually been involved in the Conservative Party itself.
The double standard is self-evident and needs to be done away with. Ideally, I’d like to see the BBC’s top brass drawn from the ‘front lines’ of culture. For example, the BBC’s political and news editors shouldn’t be the patriarchs of newspapers and other outlets who have just moved from one desk to another. Perhaps, instead, they should be experienced journalists and reporters who have involved themselves in political and global events as they’ve unfolded, have challenged powerful interest to report the truth and have a real sense for what is and isn’t important. Meanwhile, the people in charge of drama and comedy and soaps should be drawn from the arts – people who are dedicated to the act of creation, not just filling a schedule.
Secondly, the BBC’s Reithian ideals need to be re-examined by whoever takes charge of the organisation following the Great Cleansing… er, I mean, upper-management restructuring. It makes very little sense for a broadcaster to dedicate itself to “educating” viewers who already know the facts surrounding world events. Perhaps a better goal would be to offer insight. Simply giving viewers an incomplete set of factoids (the selection of which betray a certain bias) is no longer enough. In order to justify its existence, the BBC needs to provide detailed analysis of issues and events from a wide variety of different political standpoints. This needs to be enshrined in an updated mission statement.
Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to create more state-backed broadcasters with different remits. One already exists. Did you know that Channel 4 is a state broadcaster, even though it funds itself with advertising? Well, it is, and it has an explicit remit to push boundaries and provide a platform for alternative ideas. It’s actually been a huge success, giving us forward-looking speculative dramas like Humans, Black Mirror (which has since moved to Netflix) and Utopia. I also regularly watch both BBC and Channel 4 news and Channel 4’s news shows typically challenge received wisdom more frequently and offer more unbiased reporting than the BBC’s.
Yes, Channel 4 isn’t what it used to be. It’s become less radical in recent years, possibly due to its need to attract advertisers. While its funding model isn’t perfect, however, in principle it represents a genuine alternative to the BBC. However, Channel 4 and the other, associated ‘4’ channels represent one modest network. Compared to the BBC and the ocean of privately-controlled channels, the Channel 4 group is miniscule. However, the existence of Channel 4 does prove that state-backed broadcasters with alternative remits and the freedom to operate more independently than the BBC are viable. Creating a few more of them couldn’t possibly be a bad idea. The state could even fund their creation by taxing private broadcasters and taking money from the BBC’s own inflated budget.
None of these ideas are particularly radical. Getting rid of self-serving, biased shot-callers, re-evaluating the BBC’s mission and putting money into an already-proven alternate broadcasting concept are all things that can be accomplished quite easily. What’s more, they would benefit everyone.
As a socialist, I obviously dream of a world where the BBC leans left instead of right, but I’m not suggesting turning the BBC into a paradigm of leftist thinking. Getting rid of its Tory infestation wouldn’t turn it into a radical leftist organisation, it would simply help dispel the pall of bias that hangs over the broadcaster. It would be a step to abolishing the Beeb’s (barely) hidden agenda, so that it could be trusted again. A credible, trustworthy BBC is something you should want, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum.
Creating new broadcasters is a good way to open up the cultural stage to new voices, which is always a good thing. Obviously, the project of Cultural Democracy demands more platforms for more voices, but creating new broadcasters does more than that: it provides a space which creates more culture. The capacity of the human race for creating ideas and telling stories is infinite, and allowing our culture to reflect that is nourishing to the soul.
The BBC should be a home for an enormous range of ideas. Its news shows and political programmes should give equal time and attention to views from across the political spectrum. Its dramas and comedies and serials should be drawn from genuinely daring concepts that privately-owned, privately-funded broadcasters would never dare to touch. And when it fails us – as it has by inflicting its rightwing bias on the public – it should be held accountable.
What’s more, it shouldn’t be the UK’s sole state-backed broadcaster. A healthy culture is one where countless ideas are allowed to flourish. At present, the BBC holds a privileged position as the media voice of the UK. As a result, it gets to filter which ideas, narratives and world-views make it into the wider public consciousness. Frankly, that needs to end. The BBC needs to take a more democratic role, as one media voice amongst many.