Sunday 9 November 2014

Pause for Thought

Alan at Biased BBC has written a couple of thoughtful posts, perhaps prompted by our discussion about Steve Rosenberg's Today report on Russian attitudes to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I very much appreciate them, especially their tone - which was much better judged than mine. (Sorry Alan.)

I think we're still going to have to agree to disagree over that particular Steve Rosenberg report, but Alan's point about how BBC journalists can become too close to the subjects they are supposed to  be reporting on (with careful, clear-eyed dispassion) is a well-made one and one that made me think. (Hence this post).

It is certainly a potential risk that having spent so much of his life in Russia among the Russians Steve Rosenberg might have imbibed some of their way of thinking (perhaps without even realising it) and is now reflecting that way of thinking back without sufficiently engaging his professional cynicism. I'll have to listen back to other Steve Rosenberg reports to form a judgement about that.

Still, by citing Jon Donnison and Jeremy Bowen as examples of reporters who have become too close to the subjects they are supposed to be reporting, Alan has proved the possibility of his point by showing it as an actuality. Jon Donnison, especially, seems to identity so closely with the Palestinians that he has come very close to open pro-Palestinian activism. (That doesn't seem to have happened with the Ozzies yet, about whom he seems, if anything, to be excessively cynical). 

Lyse Doucet's commitment to the idea that BBC reporters have to show compassion in their reporting (though I can see why she thinks it's desirable) probably brings that risk even closer. Place an emotion like compassion at the heart of your reporting and you risk toppling into emotive sob-stories and shroud-waving. 

Alan also discusses the Media Lens critique of BBC reporting, conceding certain of their points and disagreeing with them over other of their points. 

It's an important argument for blogs like ours to contend with because the Media Lens perspective has become ever louder in recent years. 

The days when it was only the political Right which objected to BBC bias have gone. Polling evidence from a year ago suggested that as many people think the BBC has a pro-establishment/pro-government bias as believe it to be pro-Left. Social media is full of people accusing the BBC of being a tool of state propaganda.

Media Lens used to be the exception that proved the rule among BBC-bias-related blogs. It was the left-wing, anti-Israel one-off among a sea of right-wing and/or pro-Israeli ones. Now there are loads of them out there. You may not have come across them but I can assure you they're out there. We've had some interesting comments here at Is the BBC biased? from people who think in that kind of way, some of whom run such blogs. 

It's a perspective that puzzled me when it first impinged upon my consciousness. The idea that the BBC acts like an arm of British foreign policy was one I'd not really considered. In my teens the BBC's perspective on issues like Falklands War, the Reagan administration's military campaigns (and our support for them), the British government's policy towards South Africa, etc, appeared (to me) to be less than supportive - to put it mildly. The BBC didn't seem overly supportive of the First Gulf War either. Or of our ally, Israel. 

And when I first came across Biased BBC it was in the wake of the Iraq War - the example Media Lens cites as being a prime example of BBC pro-state bias. I didn't find the BBC to be pro-that-war at all (as Media Lens and those who think like them believe it was). Hugh Sykes' reporting, Orla and Fergal, John Humphrys' questions on Today, the proven dislike of many BBC reporters for Bush, the Blair government v BBC battle culminating in the Hutton report and the resignation of Greg Dyke - those are just some of the things I remember, and they aren't (to me) evidence of the BBC being propagandists for the Iraq War. 

And what of more recent conflicts? Did the BBC support the government over the Libyan intervention? Did the BBC back the government's push for intervention in Syria? Is the BBC supporting the government's reluctance to give in to MPs' demands to recognise 'Palestine'? Is the BBC backing the government's opposition to President Putin's actions in Ukraine? Is the BBC supporting the government's military action against Islamic State? Does the BBC back the government over EU renegotiation? Media Lens types think 'yes' to all of those. I would give qualified 'yeses' to some, clear 'noes' to others, and a couple of 'maybes'/'don't knows'. 

This view that the BBC has a pro-establishment bias may be fairly widely held but those same polls from a year ago showed far less support for the idea that the BBC is right-wing. In the past Media Lens tended to go after the BBC, Guardian and Independent so hard because it saw them as liberal media outlets betraying the Left by being much less left-wing - and 'truthful' - than Media Lens. Only recently has there been a sudden upsurge in claims of right-wing bias at the BBC, from the likes of far-left academic/campaigners at Cardiff University and Owen Jones (and Robert Peston). And Twitter has now taken such claims up en masse (see my previous post for fresh evidence of that). What with the anti-Israel brigade and the pro-SNP battalions massing their tanks on the BBC's lawns, the ranks of the unjustified protestors against the BBC are swelling. 

Media Lens thinks the BBC suffers from groupthink. Like Alan, that's the point at which I agree with them. 

The groupthink in question (in my opinion) is precisely where Media Lens used to (still does?) locate it - in the same area (roughly) as the Guardian and the Independent: socially liberal, economically centrist, pro-EU, pro-immigration, obsessively 'politically correct', vaguely anti-war, pro-urgency on global warming, unsympathetic to Israel, horribly fascinated by UKIP, ultra-fearful of offending Muslim sensibilities (though not especially bothered about offending other religious sensibilities), etc, etc, etc. 

The problem remains the way the BBC has recruited its staff over many, many years. Radical surgery is needed to change that, and the BBC isn't into that when it comes to itself.

Well, that's my thoughts on the matter. If you care. 


  1. Some of us do care, Craig. My response is split into two parts due to character limitations. Part 1:

    It's a common problem for journalists of all stripes to get too close to their subjects, especially when doing in depth and long-term reporting. They're only human (mostly). But the BBC's reporting from the US must surely be the exception, and a glaring one at that. Can anyone honestly say that the entire Corporation hasn't been slavishly pro-Obama at all costs, and virulently anti-Republican and anti-Tea Party? There is no merit to claims that the BBC is slanted to the Right. Anyone examining BBC reporting from Israel would be hard-pressed to claim that it's pro-Israel, considering that stories about conflict are usually framed as, "It all started when Israel hit back". Then there's the hard evidence of the ghoulish Body Count narrative, the false or misleading maps, and the BBC's refusal for a very long time to mention Egypt's blockaded border with Gaza when crying about the "Israeli siege". No pro-Israel organization is going to have its two most prominent reporters from the region claiming never to have seen evidence of Hamas using human shields, or of using civilian homes and hospitals as arsenals. Where are the pro-Israel reports about Hamas using all that humanitarian concrete to build tunnels but never any bomb shelters? A truly pro-Zionist broadcaster would be making regular reports about what Palestinian children are taught in schools and on TV. Have you ever seen a BBC report about the ugliness of the textbooks or the death cult TV shows? Charlie Brooker showed a clip of one once on his panel Wipe show (whatever it was called). It was presented as, "Years of horrible oppression can make people do silly things." Oh, how they all laughed. You can bet that's the mindset throughout the BBC.

    As for the pro-government/establishment charges, the BBC is the establishment. That's part of its legacy, after all. But that's as far as I'd be willing to agree. The establishment, as explained a few years back on an episode of "Coupling", has changed over the years, so even that charge has less sting to it than it used to.

    Nobody can seriously accuse the BBC of being pro- any Tory policy, except for perhaps Cameron's desire to stay in the EU at all costs and "green" taxes. BBC reporting often uses the language of the Left on a number of issues: bedroom tax, migrants, Climate Change, diversity and multiculturalism (no Right-wing broadcaster would have had regular bumpers in between Today segments pushing multiculturalism as a natural state of being), those "student" riots, just to name a few. Then there's our old Rule #1 about innocent, independent voices, proven time and time again. It's simply not credible to say they're pro-government, full stop, like that.

    (continued below)

  2. Part 2:

    Like with the claims of pro-Israel bias, the complaints need to be examined before passing judgment. Of course, we've had that discussion before, but it's worth repeating here. Those usually amount to complaints that the BBC isn't openly stating that every Israeli breath is a war crime and that the country is an illegitimate, rogue state. The pro-war accusations are equally questionable. Yes, the BBC may occasionally err on the side of timidity (management lives in fear of being inundated with complaints), and makes choices that can appear to support Israel (not showing the first Gaza/Hamas appeal, or reporting honestly for once about that flotilla and not ceding all air time to pro-Palestinian voices), or the Iraq War (letting Andrew Gilligan go for his story about Blair sexing up that report). Last year's reporting on Assad slaughtering his own people did make a lot of people think the BBC was pro-war, but that was mostly the "nowt to do with us" crowd on the Right, and the "Western Imperialist intervention never works" gang on the Left, neither of whom appreciated being made to feel bad about the human suffering. To them, the mere reporting of what was going on appeared to be a call for intervention. There was quite a lot of that in the comments at B-BBC at the time, for example. Somebody even accused Mardell of being pro-war. The same can be said about Putin and the Ukraine.

    But in general, those claims are not credible upon thorough examination. We often hear from defenders of the indefensible that we only want the BBC to report our opinions back at us, but the reality is that this is the desire of those who accuse the BBC of being pro-Israel or Right-wing.

  3. Almost forgot: No Right-wing, pro-establishment broadcaster would have shown such love and enthusiasm for the Occupiers. No way. The BBC was practically a propaganda outlet for them. Who can forget Katty Kay explaining that the movement was all about love for humanity, and that they just wanted to sit down and discuss changes with the powers that be? What about Laura Trevelyan's breathless cheerleading, and the censorship of news about violence and anti-Semitism? The contrast between BBC reporting on the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement is staggering, and I defy anyone to claim the BBC was not biased for one or not biased against the other.

    I invite anyone to compare my own humble contributions on the two movements back on B-BBC to the BBC's reporting, and decide for yourself who got it right and who told lies and half-truths and spun fables. I obviously had my own opinions, and was not exactly shy about mentioning them, but my blogging was far more accurate and honest than most BBC reports on the topics.

  4. I myself fall into the camp that says the BBC has a pro-establishment, liberal bias. The establishment basically has a neoliberal (economically), socially liberal (pro-gay, pro-disabled, etc.) pro-immigrant, pro-EU ideology.

    I don't think the BBC is "left wing". It is socially liberal, completely so, but pretty right-wing in economic areas and gives full coverage to every government announcement about the "recovery".


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