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Black Sky Thinking

Keeping An Eye On Auntie: The BBC & Pro-Tory Bias
Phil Harrison , May 5th, 2015 12:24

Phil Harrison looks at BBC reporting of the general election campaign and asks if - and for what reasons - the corporation might be abandoning public service impartiality for pro-Conservative viewpoints

It's the same with ants. At first, you see one or two, scuttling around at the edge of your peripheral vision. But once your mind has become attuned to the reality of their presence, suddenly you realise they're everywhere. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of them. So it is with the BBC and its increasingly contentious interpretation of the notion of political impartiality. Around a year ago, I wrote an article for the Quietus exploring the idea that - contrary to the received wisdom perpetuated by Britain's legions of disgruntled post-Thatcherite ideologues - the BBC actually lent increasingly to the right. The subsequent months have teemed with increasingly obvious confirmation.

In terms of examples, it's hard to know where to start. This bias has sometimes been subtle - like assistant political editor Norman Smith's commandeering of Conservative attack lines to undermine Ed Miliband on the NHS. And sometimes it's been blatant, like Newsnight presenter Allegra Stratton's relentless cheerleading for David Cameron and all of his works - "to my mind," she editorialised randomly on the night of the Conservative manifesto launch, “David Cameron has the upper hand".

Often the lack of balance manifests itself as a sin of omission. There's been a general failure to report the gradual but inexorable privatisation of the NHS. There's an unwillingness to adequately interrogate prevailing trends - for example, ballooning house prices have generally been treated as an unambiguous good news story rather than the politically-motivated creation of another dangerous debt bubble. There's also been a tendency to abandon stories once they drift in certain directions - the media storm surrounding Miliband's questioning of Tory treasurer Lord Fink's tax arrangements abated almost immediately once Miliband called Fink's bluff by repeating his allegations. Fink essentially folded his weak hand but having initially presented the story as an example of Labour's 'anti-business' streak, the BBC utterly lost interest and relegated it to afterthought status.

Of course, everyone thinks the BBC has it in for them. It wouldn't be doing its job if they didn't. For all UKIP's self-professed keenness on robust plain-speaking, the party has become increasingly paranoid about criticism, even attempting to involve the police after taking exception to the contents of a recent edition of Have I Got News For You. The BBC reported this, as they have various other UKIP attacks, with admirable calmness and balance.

There's an argument that the BBC's current philosophical position represents less a bias to the right than a bias in favour of the status quo. The distinction is simultaneously crucial and nugatory - currently the status quo means the Conservative party, but in a wider sense, it means capitalist realism and all of its small-state, plutocratic, tax-averse, individualistic pathologies. This might explain, for example, why the BBC took a letter signed by 140 medical professionals protesting about the Conservative party's treatment of the NHS so much less seriously than it took a letter signed by 100 businessmen damning Labour economic policy. Even on the edition of Newsnight broadcast on the evening the doctors' letter was published - and even during a report on the NHS in the course of that programme - it was mentioned only as an afterthought. By the time of the following day's Today programme, it had disappeared almost entirely. Maybe this is simply the current socio-cultural reality. Maybe the successful among us now see themselves as masters (such as captains of industry and broadcasting executives) rather than righteous servants (such as NHS doctors). Maybe that's all that counts at the moment.

But it's still very sad, because the notion of public service was always the point of the BBC. Its ethos, at best, has always embodied a self-perpetuating acknowledgment of our mutual and reciprocal relationships as a community rather than a scattering of atomised individuals. It's also represented an unspoken commitment to the idea that some things were too valuable to be left to the whims of the market. Particularly, for obvious reasons, current affairs. And culturally, this is the nub of the BBC's problems. As an organisation, it's become overwhelmingly inward-facing and nostalgic. It's curdled into the Great British Broadcaster of Great British Certainties, Great British Clichés and Great British Prejudices. It's lost its ability to face the present and the future and struggles to conceive of alternatives to our current hamstrung, stymied stasis. The controversy surrounding the BBC's coverage of the Scottish independence referendum is a perfect example of this future-anxiety.

Meanwhile, the Conservative party's response to the BBC's timidity has been counterintuitively brilliant. Are we getting what we want? Yes? Then we should ask for some more and scream blue murder if it's not forthcoming. When Grant Shapps accused the BBC of bias because they'd refused to accept and confirm Conservative central office's judgement that David Cameron won the Paxman-helmed interview/non-event that Cameron himself had somehow had the nerve to orchestrate in lieu of a debate, he fired the starting gun on something truly audacious. Reluctantly leaving aside how peculiar it must feel to be accused of dishonesty by Grant Shapps, this was a level of cheek that could only be knowingly perpetrated by a party who truly believed they had the right to rule and truly didn't care what they might have to do to maintain that position. Still, this almost demented sense of entitlement is hardly surprising, given that the likes of Shapps somehow remain at the heart of government despite everything we now know about them. They must feel like they can get away with anything.

The crazy thing is, it might well work. Confirmation bias has been unleashed on an industrial, democracy-beggaring scale. Because everyone knows the BBC leans to the left, right? They sacked Clarkson, didn't they? Bloody metropolitan do-gooders. Most of all, the Conservative party know that everybody knows this. And accordingly, they've used the myth to construct a new reality. In possibly the most cynical and disreputable gambit of a truly bankrupt campaign, the Tories have taken a phantom, given it flesh and then let it loose to do their haunting for them. The Conservative party are treating the electorate like Ivan Pavlov treated his dogs. Thus, the BBC appears to feel it cannot address any aspect of the Conservative party's campaign or record in government in a truly critical spirit. Instead, it must invite Michael Gove on to Newsnight, sit him opposite a smiling Evan Davis and let him speak. And this is being allowed to happen by the nation's broadcaster of record, which is letting Conservative central office run rings around it. This is now how power works.

The most far-reaching implications of this strategy will, unusually, probably only be seen after the election on May 7. Even despite the Conservatives' massive advantages in campaigning resources, their grotesque dominance of the print media and their annexing of the heart of British news broadcasting, the election result is almost certain to be inconclusive. What will really count in 2015 is the aftermath. The post-election coalition-building process will be about two or three of the parties establishing consent. It will be about what feels right. Or, to put it another way, it will be about how the British media interprets the result and reflects it back to the electorate. Accordingly, in the event of anything other than a Labour majority, we can confidently expect The Daily Mail, The Times and The Telegraph to be filling their front pages with artfully backlit photographs of David Cameron jogging purposefully through St James' Park, looking like a youthful adonis who could run the country and a marathon at the same time. Meanwhile, it'll be about now that The Sun photoshops Ed Miliband's face onto the body of a student protester, the better to suggest that he's about to start illegally occupying 10 Downing Street.

Obviously, the BBC will be crucial in composing the national mood music during this period. And it's now that we must consider its likely acquiescence. The BBC's next charter renewal is looming. The Conservatives have already made their overt hostility to the BBC plain and codified it with another licence fee freeze and a promise to decriminalise the non-payment of same in their manifesto. Faced with these threats, will the Beeb have the nerve to present every side of this coming argument? At this most pivotal of elections, this is surely a moment of existential self-definition for the BBC. It should be an opportunity to renew and reassert.

Instead, the BBC's condition is starting to look dangerously like Stockholm syndrome. Might the Corporation be dying in a peculiarly and uniquely feeble way? Could the BBC die, not because it's finally caused the right to run out of patience, but because its natural allies in the centre have ceased to regard it as an institution worth defending? However anyone might feel about Ed Miliband, if elected, he'll be the first British prime minister in almost half a century to reach Number 10 despite having actively made an enemy of Rupert Murdoch and The Daily Mail. That, in itself, would represent a seismic - and surely healthy - shift in the relationship between the media and the political classes in Great Britain. By taking this stand, Miliband has bravely and quite consciously made life difficult for himself. How unfortunate then, that the organisation representing his last but best chance of getting a fair crack of the whip seems to have decided it wants to suck up to the big boys after all.