Thursday 26 February 2015

Steve Richards on the BBC

In the light of today's parliamentary report into the BBC...

Steve Richards - the left-leaning former BBC political correspondent who went on to become the chief political columnist for the Independent - has written a thought-provoking piece for the Guardian about the BBC. 

Yes, I can guess what some might be thinking ("Steve Richards...the Independent...the BBC...the Guardian. No thanks"), but - as ever - reading a considered argument which goes against your own point of view can only be a good thing, so please give it a read.

Steve clearly still carries a torch for his former employer (which still employs him from time to time), though he's got some reservations - plus some high ambitions for the corporation:
There is no need for newspapers to explain what is happening if they do not wish to do so. The BBC is in an altogether different position. It cannot make waves by picking a side to cheer for. But in the election and well beyond, the BBC could have a distinct role. It could seek to explain, make sense of what is going on and proclaim this as its overwhelming task.
How does he get to that point? Well, recalling former DG John Birt, he has this to say about charges of BBC bias:
What [Birt] captured particularly well was the wilful misreading of “bias” by the BBC’s critics. There is no conscious partisan bias at the BBC. If journalists want to exert influence to the left or right they do not join the BBC, which is much closer to the civil service in its determined non-partisan approach.
When I was at the BBC I had no idea how my colleagues were planning to vote. I discuss little else these days with my fellow columnists. But of course the huge constraints can be frustrating for BBC journalists. They read the newspapers and the Twitter debates and want to be part of the action. As a result there tends to be a bias in favour of the latest political fashions as long as they cannot be defined as “left” or “right”.
For Steve Richards what bias there at the BBC is manifests itself in following "the media fashion". The newspapers set the ball rolling, and the BBC follows. 

The historical example he cites (from the time when he was reporting for the BBC, in the early 1990s, was the way the BBC joined in the fashion for presenting John Major as being "hopelessly weak". The Labour-supporting columnist now thinks the latest fashion is to portray Ed Miliband as "useless", and that the BBC is, again, following the newspapers. 

What the BBC isn't doing, and should be doing (according to Steve Richards), is going beyond what the rest of the media are doing and explaining. 

Instead of going along with the fashionable "cartoon" of John Major as a weakling or of Ed Miliband as goofy - or of Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind as "cartoon characters" ("one moment senior respected ministers and the next a couple of greedy villains") - the BBC should be explaining why John Major's position was difficult (in economic and parliamentary terms), or why Ed Miliband's position is difficult (the legacy of the Blair-Brown feud), or what the Jack/Sir Malcolm story tells us about what we expect from our elected representatives. These are things Steve Richards thinks the BBC tends not to do as much as it should. 

What he feels the BBC needs is "some bias in favour of understanding": 
More ambitious peak-time current affairs, longer sequences in some bulletins for a single issue, discussions that are allowed to breathe.
This Birtian "appetite to explain and analyse" is, he argues, rather lacking at the moment: 
Instead, TV reported one damned event after another, as one historian wrongly described the writing of history. No connections were made or context explored; pictures drove the story, the so-called human interest story topped others, the vox pop was hailed as giving space to real people and panels of public figures or pundits were put together to provoke wholly predictable clashes.

There's a lot to unpack there, isn't there? But how to unpack it?

Take the dodgy ad hom route that a pro-Labour, ex-BBC man would say that, wouldn't he? Or that Steve Richards has long been the lickspittle of the political establishment, its most doughty media defender (even during the Expenses Scandal)? Or that Labour supporters tend to think that - despite the odd grumble about how, say, the BBC reports Ed Miliband?  

Or make the 'populist' point that the popular fashions in the media - that John Major was weak, Ed Miliband is useless, and Jack and Sir Malcolm a pair of less than entirely honourable gentlemen - might, perhaps, have a strong basis in reality? And that a publicly-funded broadcaster attempting to explain - or, as many might see it, explain away - such things might not prove very convincing?

No, maybe it's better to  argue that, though some of the BBC's critics do advance the "conspiratorial" point that there is conscious, partisan bias at the BBC (though it's always been very hard to prove that, except in certain isolated cases), there remains an alternative, more easily demonstrable kind of bias: bias by groupthink, borne of like-minded people working together.

This is the kind of bias described by those many BBC presenters/reporters, past and present, who've admitted the BBC is basically stocked with liberal-minded types, by the BBC senior managers who've 'fessed up to the BBC's biased past (especially on subject like immigration), by that BBC internal survey which showed a massive self-declared bias towards a 'liberal' rather than a 'conservative' way of looking at things), etc.

In party political terms, where (pace Steve Richards) the BBC might very well be consciously aiming at not being partisan, that's the kind of bias that might be measured by 'unconscious' things like how often, on average, BBC interviewers interrupt politicians of a particular party. If (on average) they interrupt politicians of certain parties much more than others then a bias (borne of groupthink) may very well be discerned (as it was in 2009-10).

Anyhow, those who tend to blog about BBC bias, or comment on blogs about BBC bias, plus the vast hordes of people who comment below the line at the Spectator, Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Breitbart and, these days, even at the Independent and Guardian (and, if they can get away with it, on the BBC website), probably won't be persuaded by Steve Richards.

And they are even less likely to warm to his idea that the BBC should take on the role of the nation's 'explainer' of politics - given that that very role is one such people think the BBC already occupies, to the detriment of the nation.

I can see some truth in what he says about how the BBC follows the media - and not just the Guardian. In terms of investigative reporting, it's definitely more a 'follower' than a 'leader'. And it rarely breaks major stories. The few it does break seem to be handed to it by interest groups (charities, lobby groups, campaigners, think tanks, etc).

And I can see a good deal of truth in his charge that the BBC has become more concerned with "one damned event after another" these days, plus his charges about them having pictures drive stories, having human interest story top others, and endlessly using pointless vox pop, and gathering together panels of public figures or pundits were who put together to provoke wholly predictable clashes.

But the BBC is still - despite what Steve says - fully capable of 'explaining' a story, of making 'connections' and 'exploring context', as this week's staggeringly biased BBC reporting of that Today survey into British Muslim opinion shows.

The BBC tried so hard to present it as showing an overwhelmingly positive overview of Muslim opinion. Other media outlets, like the Times, spun the same story negatively. And several left-leaning commentators, from Dan Hodges to David Aaronovitch, sided with the Times.

Conscious, semi-conscious, or unconscious, the bias over the BBC's reporting of this story was - to my mind - clear. An angle was being advanced with considerable vigour - and a deeply contested one at that. And if that's Steve Richard's idea of Birtian 'explaining' then please count me out.

Further reading: 

Dan Hodges - Over a quarter of British Muslims have sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo terrorists. That is far too many

Stephen Glover - Their survey of British Muslims delighted the BBC: In fact, it contains some profoundly chilling findings

David Aaronovitch - These Muslim delusions are a danger to us all

Maajid Nawaz - Why the survey of British Muslim attitudes is so profoundly disconcerting

National Secular Society - New poll shows significant minority of UK Muslims support attacks on Charlie Hebdo


  1. And here's what Dan Hodges wrote in the 'Telegraph'.

    This morning the BBC published details of a major poll of the attitudes of Britain’s Muslims. The headline on the front of the BBC website linking to the research states: “Muslims ‘oppose cartoon reprisals’”. This of course relates to attitudes within the Muslim community towards the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks.
    It’s a reassuring headline. It’s also wrong. Many Muslims - a majority - do indeed utterly oppose the murderous killings in Paris. But a very, very large number of Muslims don’t. Presented with the statement “I have some sympathy for the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris”, 27 seven percent agreed with the statement. A further 2 per cent refused to answer the question. And an additional eight percent said they were unsure whether they had some sympathy or not.
    That is a shocking figure. And an utterly shaming one for Britain’s Muslim community. If this poll is accurate, over a quarter of British Muslims overtly sympathise with the motives of those responsible for the cold blooded murder of 16 journalists, police officers and Jews.
    Below the report is an article by BBC Today program reporter Sima Kotecha. It begins: “Islam is a religion of peace and love - not violence: sentiments that have been expressed numerous times here in Bradford. Out of the dozens of people I've spoken to, an overwhelming majority have said they're angry that their interpretation of Islam has been eclipsed by an extreme ideology that is too often projected in the media."
    That statement - and those sentiments - are simply not compatible with the BBC’s own research. In a separate finding, the BBC found 68 per cent of Muslims believed “acts of violence against those who published such images [of the prophet Mohammed] could never be justified”. Which means 32 per cent of those questioned take a different view. Another question asked respondents if they agreed with the statement “Muslim clerics who preach that violence against the West can be justified are out of touch with mainstream opinion”. 49 per cent agreed. Meaning again, that a majority of Muslims either disagree or sit on the fence.
    All of this raises two serious questions. The first relates to the BBC’s reporting. Let’s set aside their use of the word “reprisal” in the headline (reprisal for what, exactly?). Imagine if the BBC had commissioned a poll in the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and that poll had found 27 per cent of white Britons agreed with the statement “I have some sympathy for the motives behind his stabbing”. Imagine if, in an additional finding, 32 per cent of white Briton’s refused to endorse the statement “acts of unprovoked violence against black men can never be justified”.

  2. Rightly, there would be outrage at those findings. And the BBC would be leading the charge. The focus, correctly, would be on the large number of people who expressed sympathy with the attacks. We would certainly not have religious propaganda masquerading as news analysis in the middle of the BBC’s report.
    But a much fundamental question relates to the poll’s actual findings. There is no point continuing to stick our heads in the sand: a large number of British Muslims think the Charlie Hebdo attacks were in some way justified. People may not want to accept that. I don’t want to accept it. But it’s a fact.
    We are going to have to start to reassess what we mean by “moderate Islam”. At the moment, we essentially define a moderate Muslim as any Muslim who doesn’t go around blowing things up, or who doesn’t go round overtly advocating other people should blow things up. It’s ludicrously simplistic, sickeningly patronising, and actually represents a form of inverted racism.
    More importantly, it also has the practical effect of marginalising and undermining the significant number of genuinely moderate Muslims who want nothing to with the “I wouldn’t have done it myself, but…” Charlie Hebdo apologists within their community.
    If you think the Paris killings were justified - in any way - then you’re not a moderate. By definition, you’re an extremist. Fine, you’re not a terrorist. But just because you wouldn’t personally walk into a Jewish supermarket and start indiscriminately murdering people does not of itself make you a case study in moderation. We set the bar a little higher than that.
    Over a quarter of British Muslims have some sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo attacks. That is sickening, reprehensible and unacceptable. And we have to say so. Rather than patting the other three quarters who don’t have sympathy on the head, and saying “Well done. You’re the good Muslims”.
    Two weeks ago I took part in a debate on free speech, hosted by the Islamic Education and Research Academy. It was a good discussion, well attended, with an almost exclusively Muslim audience. Near the end, one audience member began to defend the killing of apostates. I challenged him, as did the other non-Muslim panelists. None of the Muslim panelists challenged him. No members of the audience challenged him. Instead, when he’d finished defending the murder of apostates, a significant section of the audience applauded him.
    It’s not good enough. It’s not good for people inside and outside the Muslim community to continue to turn a blind eye to the extremism that continues to fester in the heart of the Muslim community. It’s not good enough for Muslims to keep delivering vacuous homilies about “the religion of peace” when surveys show 27 per cent of Muslims have sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo murderers. And it’s not good enough for us to deploy spurious moral relativism in a misguided attempt to place extremism behind a shield of religious tolerance.
    The BBC is wrong. Many Muslims have sympathy with the Charlie Hebdo killings. Far too many.

  3. Look at Sima Kotecha's Twitter account. Wall to wall Sharia-enabling propaganda.

  4. As fair a roam around the pros & cons as the BBC surely deserves.

    However, the problem surely remains between what 'should' happen at or with the BBC, and what in reality does.

    It is, currently, and looks set to remain for a while, very much handed all the money it needs or wants, and with accountability still within its, often highly secretive, walls. Not a great recipe to react to valid criticism at all, much less positively.

    I speak as one with a degree of experience on this, both with their Complaints hierarchy up to the (now damned by even Labour members of the Future of the BBC inquiry - "Ben Bradshaw, a Labour committee member and former culture secretary, added: “The trust is a busted flush and needs to go"") Trust and beyond as a consequence to their FOI/DPA Department, in all its 'for the purposes of journalism, etc' exemption-deploying glory.

    Their 'explaining' record is abominable, from editorial to oversight.

    The former is almost defined now by what it enhances or omits ("There is no need for newspapers to explain what is happening if they do not wish to do so" Well, no. But neither does the BBC, other than waving its tarnished 'editorial independence' around when clearly major stories vanish), and if called out the latter by a near-certain retreat into an internal comfort zone that clearly exists currently, and hence unsurprisingly gets used by default, with everything. Propaganda that when the spotlight rotates, becomes censorship, often overt and aggressive.

    I was not thrilled with much of the inquiry's conclusions and recommendations (the public and their real concerns appearing mere bit players to the major pre-decided outcome games insiders wheeled and dealed around), but look in that report and you will still find:

    279. We heard that a fundamental flaw of the BBC Trust, like the BBC Board of Governors which preceded it, is essentially that it is impossible for the Trust to be the BBC’s defender and champion whilst also providing independent regulation and scrutiny.

    287. In our opinion, when failings have occurred at the BBC in the present Charter period the Trust has not demonstrated the institutional independence necessary to scrutinise the problems at hand or be a candid critic of the Corporation and its executives. The Trust is, after all, part of the BBC

    292. A number of our witnesses held the view that the Trust has neither acted as a fully effective governor nor a regulator of the BBC and consequently we consider the status quo is not an option.

    And this, picked up by BBC Watch:

    "..a common theme we have noted is that members of the public who believe they have reason to complain are often dissatisfied that their complaint or point of view has not been considered independently. For many the BBC Trust is essentially part of the BBC and as such the Corporation is seen as a self-regulating body and there is great dissatisfaction that there is no option for an impartial adjudication of a complaint about the BBC by an independent body."

    I'd be interested in how Steve Richards reconciles this enduring mindset with much he claims, or advocates, for a BBC left alone to 'explain' anything on its all too unique terms. He did after all opt to leave it out of his 'explanation', ironically.

    As to the linked article, I got as far as the first comment:

    "Broadcasters take far too much notice of newspapers. They also review newspapers every day usually with journalists from right wing papers and not by people who buy the papers."

    News maybe to Polly, Owen Or Kevin? There may be a factual way to explain that, and the chorus of agreement, plus upvotes, but for now it does escape me.

  5. Craig's at it again. Last week it was Paddy from BBC Broadcasting House. Now we have Steve Richards. Both bulwarks of the Left Establishment, yet Craig sees sense in them. Richard's, a notorious Blairite, has been granted significant airtime as a preferred pundit (I wonder why!). No independent thought has ever sprung from his lips yet he is has been granted a platform only available to chosen few that harmonise with the BBC. It is this class that hogs any political discussion controlled by the BBC. Richards was last spotted on the BBC this week turning the issue of Straw and Rifkind's corruption into his demand that such behaviour can only be corrected with a pay increase. How challenging. Craig you have to raise your game; don't waiver. The BBC is clearly biased. It is not an accident and Steve Richard’s knows that to his profit.

  6. The BBC might be laughing. I've been slammed from both sides.

    After being criticised for being a right-wing paranoiac obsessed with BBC bias earlier in the week I've now been criticised for being a lily-livered waiverer going weak at the knees towards various left-liberals.

    That means I must be getting it about right, and must go on Samira's News Watch or Radio 4's Feedback to say so.


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