Monday 11 May 2015

The BBC and "the self-censorship of true opinion"

There's a very interesting piece at Spiked by Frank Furedi (h/t Guest Who at Biased BBC) which is well worth reading in its entirety but from which I'll quote the opening pair of paragraphs:
For me, the most memorable moment of the General Election campaign occurred a few days before voting. I was listening to the Radio 4 Today programme, which was running a feature on the issue of immigration in Northern Ireland. The presenter said that the traditional hostilities and tensions between Catholics and Protestant had been suspended, giving way to a new division between the Irish and immigrants. Interviews with people from Catholic and Protestant communities seemed to back up the claim that they no longer felt threatened by the ‘other side’. But what was truly fascinating about their comments was the language they used to describe their new concern. Time and again, they used a variation of the expression ‘We are not allowed to say what worries us’. It was as if they self-consciously feared naming the source of their concern. In the end, after failing to extract what it was that the interviewees were ‘not allowed to say’, the reporter said to them: ‘You mean immigration?’ At which point one could almost visualise the female respondent nodding her head in agreement as she blurted out: ‘Yes, immigration.’
Something about this exchange struck me as very disturbing. Over the past week my mind has kept coming back to it, to reflect on what it meant. Is it not worrying that in a free society ordinary citizens feel uncomfortable with publicly expressing their true opinions? What I found even more unsettling was that the BBC reporter did not express any surprise about the hesitant and reluctant manner in which her questions were being answered. One would have thought that the frequently expressed comment ‘We are not allowed to say’ was itself newsworthy, and an important point to comment on. But it was just nodded through, capturing the view that, yes, it is understandable that people should feel they are ‘not allowed to say’ certain things. In hindsight, it was difficult to avoid the impression that the BBC itself — perhaps inadvertently — was complicit in legitimising this self-censorship of true opinion.
It is, indeed, difficult to avoid that impression - though the extent to which such things are "inadvertent", especially given the BBC's past record, remains very much open to question.

As I wrote the other day: 
This is a TV and radio broadcaster, after all, that, it emerged in the course of the largely-pro-BBC, BBC-funded Prebble report, really did censor phone-in callers who expressed strong reservations about immigration (on Radio 4's Any Answers), because they felt such opinions might cause offense. (I'm still surprised that this admission hasn't been raised merry hell about by anti-BBC bias campaigners - as Sir John Major might have put it. It seems quite extraordinarily damning to me).
And, even if those views aren't straightforwardly censored these days (as they used to be), then expressing them live on air can still earn you a public shaming from a BBC interviewer. (For evidence of that - and sticking with Any Answers, please see an earlier post at ITBB that provides just such an example). 

Unless you're incredibly thick-skinned (or a keyboard warrior), why wouldn't you self-censor yourself rather than face embarrassment and a telling-off from the Right-Thinking Brigade? You've seen and heard on countless BBC programmes just what happens to people who dare to say such things out loud. Why would you want that to happen to you too? 


  1. An explanation for the skewed polls as well? It must have been a factor. How delightfully ironic that the BBC is most responsible for creating the result which has made them look so foolish.

    1. All seems the inevitable consequence of unchecked nanny state media.

      Relentless finger wagging means folk simply tune out and cease to engage, retaining only negatives about the nagging.

      My wife & kids interesting examples. Not exactly political junkies, but the missus does stay abreast of social media coverage of news and noted how often 'the left' dominated in negative, hectoring ways

      The boys simply do not pay attention to the BBC at all. TV, radio... anything.

      But they were aware of icons being pushed (ie: Brand) and were not impressed.

      Crucially, if anyone pressed them, they'd politely decline or tell anyone what they wanted to hear to get rid.

  2. Yes, I'm sure you're right; it's sheer poetry - my grin-muscles have been in spasm ever since their results post-mortem started. Will the BBC learn from this? Not a chance! Today's 'Telegraph' tells us the Government is declaring war on the BBC - I wish them well! Jeremy

    1. I struggle to see how appointing a man accepting the fee is a fact for decades, and keen on shifting it to an unavoidable levy on council tax, is declaring war.

  3. Another thing Labour and the BBC should learn, but won't, along with all the rest (including the new crowd; same as the old crowd) is just how badly people react to being played, or 'managed'.

    The result is the same as when a cover up is attempted on top of a cock-up: much worse.

    I am sensing one in The Farce with this Whittingdale appointment.

    A bunch of folk keep telling me how the BBC is quaking in its boots by Cameron's appointment message; but they really are not, nor seem to have any need to. I had a ring-side seat to his efforts on the Future of the BBC committee, and read all the transcripts. Finding a way to fund the BBC was his sole aim, and anything close to how well that funding was, is and will be utilised ruthlessly crushed.

    Witness testimony in person was purely from the in-crowd, and whilst there were public written testimonies published these were barely debated.

    This was a key moment for me:

    Paul Farrelly: There is more I want to come to later on.

    Chair: Let us get back to the mainstream debate.

    Q10 Angie Bray: We are talking about whether or not there are subjects that the BBC might shy away from, for whatever reason. I wonder whether I could get a comment from you on the other issue, which I think the BBC has had a very set view on in recent years, which is climate change. We have all now read about the semi-secret gathering a few years ago, which Roger Harrabin was responsible for, when the BBC decided that there was a set science now, that there was no room for any further denial that there might be manmade climate change and that they agreed that this was going to influence the way they covered the issues. Does that—

    Chair: Can we please do this briefly, since we are straying an awful long way from the subject, the future of the BBC?

    Angie Bray: But that is another issue, which I think needs to be addressed in terms of how they—

    Chair: Okay.

    Angie Bray: This may be because there is a mindset there, which kicks—

    Steve Hewlett: In the case of climate change, I am not sure that there is. Just a couple of points on this. I have not read in detail the BBC’s reasons for opposing the freedom of information request, which has ultimately exposed the existence of this briefing. I am guessing—and if you know better, please do not let me put my foot in it (clearly you did,, tried to point it out, but were intercepted)—they would say, “This is an editorial matter and therefore, quite properly and quite rightly, outside the scope of FOI”. Is it wrong for BBC journalists and editorial executives to acquaint themselves, as fully as they can, with views from all sides of the argument about these things, and possibly do that in private and in circumstances that are not widely reported? My own personal view is I would rather they were better informed than less informed, and so probably, yes.

    I am not sure how strong the case is to say that the BBC is overwhelmingly one way or the other on climate change. I think it is a difficult issue because the balance of scientific argument and evidence must be taken account of. Balance can never simply mean on one hand or the other; otherwise we would still be arguing about the world being flat. It has to take some account of where the debate has gone and what the balance of opinion is. I am not sure that I see the fact that this meeting took place and that executives went to it and discussed it, as evidence of a broader conspiracy to report in a particular way.

    Angie Bray: I think you just need to look at the list of the people that were there.

    Chair: Let us get back to the future of the BBC.

    Steve Hewlett: In fairness that will not be the only thing they have done, will it?

    David Elstein: Who knows.


    1. Having asked, Angie Bray got little opportunity to pursue detail. Especially at the end. Mr. Hewlett, having professed little knowledge at the start, and throughout, certainly then went on to make sure the casual observer saw nothing wrong with any of it. Which is why I was keen to hear his response to the counterpoint about who was there.

      But which was, so sadly, and abruptly, cut short.... by John Whittingdale, whose idea of what the Future of the BBC was seemed to not include the BBC rigging agendas by skewing editorial.

      Now a few commentators who know a lot (and should know better than most, like David Keighley) are flat out spinning for who seems a very safe pair of hands to ensure the BBC and Cameron can work together comfortably, especially into the latter's graceful retirement to greener, more lucrative fields in a Europe bigger and stronger than ever.

      My trust levels have, sadly, dipped again.

      Happy to be proven wrong, but after too long watching BBC semantics at play, seeing 'critics' play up certain aspects, down others and ignoring what doesn't suit is now second nature.


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