Why BBC bias claims make me want to scream
Comments like the ones above are all over twitter. Granted twitter is not always known for its nuanced and reasoned debate, but BBC haters do seem particularly prolific. And it’s not only twitter. I hear it from callers all the time when I work there, I hear it from people at parties and I even hear it from my own friends from time to time – the BBC is biased.
This week Lord Adonis, the former Labour Transport Secretary, got in on the action, arguing that the BBC has a pro-Brexit bent.
In a later tweet, he said BBC stood for Brexit Broadcasting Corporation.
A couple of weeks ago social media was in full-on outrage mode at the fact the BBC wasn’t covering a march against NHS cuts, offering that as definitive evidence that the BBC is in the government’s pocket.
Let me confess that I had to look up 'pusillanimous'. But it’s clear that plenty of intelligent, rational people vehemently believe the BBC is hopelessly and irreparably partisan.
I find that a painfully lazy, short-sighted and ill-informed argument. It’s so easy to trot out when you see something you don’t like hear or somebody you disagree with, but it makes me want to scream.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say I have worked as a freelancer on The Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 for a few months. If I saw institutional bias at the BBC I would say so. But what I see, not just on our team but across news and current affairs, is people alive to any possible bias, and doing everything they can to anticipate it and counter it. That’s not to say the BBC never gets it wrong – of course it’s fallible. But it is to say that the notion of an institutionalised bias is barking up the wrong tree.
The first reason the bias argument drives me mad is that the BBC is enormous. A few thousand people work at the Broadcasting House site in central London, with thousands more in Salford and that’s before you take in all the nations and regions, the Westminster office, and all the international bureaux, let alone the independent production companies the BBC uses. The idea that that many people could be shoe-horned into adopting the same collective opinion is cuckoo.
Much of the current rage is focussed on the fact that Nigel Farage gets air time. The argument goes that he’s a former leader of a minority party, he himself wasn’t elected an MP, he’s odious and shouldn’t be allowed on. All this completely ignores the fact that he played a major – arguably the major – role in the biggest political decision in a generation. He was the one who was calling for a referendum on Europe long before Mr Johnson had made up his mind or Mr Gove had nailed his colours to the mast. What your or my opinion on him is doesn’t matter. You can disagree, find him repugnant, feel he’s the anti-Christ – the point is he has a legitimate claim to airtime.
The switchboard lights up any time Nige is on with people apoplectic that he’s being given the time of day. But it does so equally, if not more so, every time Nick Clegg or any other prominent remainer comes on. People swear blind that the BBC is on a mission to thwart Brexit, claim Clegg is a traitor to the people, assert that they’ll be withholding their license fee until the BBC stops its intentional bias by allowing him on. The point – and it’s a slightly hackneyed but nonetheless true one – is that for every person who would stake their life on their belief that the BBC is pro-Brexit, pro-Tory and a government lapdog, there is another who believes unstintingly that it’s anti-Brexit, anti-Tory and run exclusively by left wing zealots. Check out this response to Lord Adonis as an example of the phenomenon.
The conclusion this brings me to is not earth shattering, but it does seem to me that staggering numbers of people don’t get it. There will be people that you disagree with on the BBC. Sometimes you’ll disagree with them passionately. Sometimes their view will go against everything you stand for. That doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to airtime. It doesn’t mean the BBC is biased for putting them on. It just means that we live in a healthy democracy where people have the right to disagree. Reading that back I know it seems blindingly obvious, but so many people don’t get it. Rob Burley, the excellent outgoing editor of The Andrew Marr Show has to answer criticism like this every day. This is how he phrases it.
On the issue of the NHS march, the first important point to make is that the BBC did cover it, here, twice on the BBC News Channel and on radio bulletins. But the more important point to make is that it’s crazy to say “the BBC didn’t cover x, y or z on its six o’clock bulletin, therefore they’re biased”. One thing you do see working in news is that what makes it on air depends so much on what’s going on in the world. On a slow news day, smaller stories stand more chance of making it. On a day when there’s a cabinet resignation for example, or a major natural disaster, those stories will fall by the wayside. On that day, as it happens, there was a council going bankrupt, a driveby shooting in Italy, two more women reporting Harvey Weinstein to the police... This was undoubtedly a big protest, and newsworthy, but there was a lot of competition for stories. There’s a judgement to be made about what stories should make it to air, but the key factor influencing that decision is what else is going on in the world.
There’s also a wider point about the art of disagreeing respectfully. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect this on social media, but wouldn’t it be nice if people could listen to someone they disagree with on the TV or the radio and think “I disagree for this reason…” rather than jumping straight to thinking they’re a terrible person, they have no right to an opinion and it’s the fault of the BBC for letting them on. I mean Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, reportedly needed security at a party conference for goodness sake. With issues like Brexit, it just seems that so many people believe that they are unquestionably right, and anyone with a different view causes them personal offence. The truth, I’d suggest, is that remainers aren’t traitors, and neither are leavers racist or stupid. People just disagree about what the best thing for our country is.
In the age of social media, where anyone can claim anything is the truth, broadcast news outlets like the BBC, ITN and Sky, which genuinely strive for accuracy and impartiality, are more important than ever. The difference with the BBC is that it is funded by the licence fee payer, so of course it must listen to its audience, constantly reflect on its output and challenge itself to do better. It does and will get it wrong from time to time. But, blimey, we'd be worse off without it.
These are entirely my personal views and not the BBC’s.