In Defence of BBC News. Sort of.

In Defence of BBC News. Sort of. January 26, 2021

This piece is not to have some kneejerk defence of the BBC because I am of a liberal persuasion. I am also not a media and communications expert. This is my armchair appraisal of the BBC, and most pertinently, its news programming.

My appreciation for the BBC came when I first watched the superb award-winning documentary The Corporation. For anyone who hasn’t watched it, watch it:

In it, there is a segment on what happens to news when it is compromised by corporate money (in the example, if I recall correctly, it was FOX News doing an investigative report on Monsanto who then threatened to pull their advertising, so they didn’t show it and it ended in a court case with the reporters). From this, I realised that news and information is so easily compromised by money. When information concerns elections or health or science, things get serious.

I came to think that if you lose something like the BBC, you lose a lot. More than you might think. This is why I am happy to pay for the licence fee every year.

The BBC is constrained by its charter:

The BBC Charter is a royal charter setting out the arrangements for the governance of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

An accompanying agreement recognises its editorial independence and sets out its public obligations in detail.

The initial BBC Charter established the BBC in 1926, and has been renewed upon expiry ever since. It and each subsequent royal charter has run for ten years, except for the charter from 2006 to 2017, which ran for eleven years.

It was run by the BBC Trust, but the regulatory function recently moved to the regulator, Ofcom:

The BBC Trust was the governing body of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) between 2007 and 2017. It was operationally independent of BBC management and external bodies, and its stated aim was to make decisions in the best interests of licence-fee payers. On 12 May 2016, it was announced in the House of Commons that, under the next Royal Charter, the regulatory functions of the BBC Trust were to be transferred to Ofcom.

Ofcom can have teeth. For example, in FOX News’ failed attempt to set up in the UK, when they were only getting 1000 viewers a day, they were fined twice by Ofcom:

Murdoch also briefly brought Fox News to a bemused Britain. The US channel gained fewer than 1,000 UK viewers a day and was twice fined by Ofcom in 2017, once for the way frontman Sean Hannity commented on Trump’s ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In other words, the BBC is bound by regulatory frameworks and organisations, and a charter, that codify its objectivity and impartiality in a way that other news organisations aren’t. An interesting Newsweek article on the subject included:

study carried out by researchers at Cardiff University, who analysed BBC news coverage from 2007 and 2012, concluded that conservative opinions received more airtime than progressive ones. However, those findings contradict a 2013 report by the Centre for Policy Studies think tank which claimed that the corporation is biased towards the left.

On balance, the evidence supports the BBC’s claim of impartiality, albeit with occasional missteps. In its 2018 report on the BBC, broadcasting regulator Ofcom examined 69 complaints of alleged bias and concluded that none were in breach of the due impartiality requirements of the Broadcasting Code.

However, bias is often heavily subjective and thus difficult to measure. What is certain is that more and more British viewers are losing their faith in the BBC as the high watermark of impartial public service broadcasting.

The reason all this is important is because it doesn’t make the BBC just another state broadcaster, like RT is for Russia abroad – a propaganda station for the Russian state. Instead, the BBC is independently controlled and regulated – i.e., it is independent from the government – and it is independent from corporations, their power and their money. This means that it should be one of the best cases of news independence around.

I recently posted a media bias chart that broadly placed the BBC in the centre and I claimed that the BBC was about as close to the centre as you could reasonably expect it to be. I was met with this comment in the thread from 90Lew90, to which I will react interlinearly (I’m not wholly certain of their definite political persuasion):

The BBC is unbiased? The BBC is essentially the state broadcaster.

It avoids depth and controversy like the plague.

Yes, I agree to some degree. Which is why I have said:

I can tell you from watching a massive amount of US news, as I have in the last year, that the BBC is as close to the centre as you will get. It is harangued by the right and harangued by the left, which means it’s probably doing its job. If you look closely, you will notice that it has virtually no opinion in it. You watch Fox or CNN or any US news source and, when they report the news, they litter each segment with a huge amount of opinion from each news anchor or reporter. This simply doesn’t happen with the BBC at all. Indeed, sometimes I actually crave that they did this because they attempt to be so objective and opinionless that the news can feel somewhat vacuous in comparison to what you get in the US. But be careful what you wish for.

I actually had to point out the vast difference of the BBC to CNN to my partner; I suggest one watches CNN and then switches the main news over to the BBC if you can to see the difference. It is stark. There is a fundamental lack of emotive language and opinion. Honestly, I urge readers, if they can, to actually do a comparison to see what I am talking about.

I think what is of importance here is to differentiate the BBC is a larger public service broadcaster, and BBC News. When I have been mentioning the BBC in the context of news media, I mean the latter. Many on the right attack BBC News on account of seeing the BBC’s much larger remit for media broadcast and programming, across all genres and platforms, and this being a cultural reflection of the nation at large. Because these people are often stuck in the conservative past, they don’t like change and modern moral zeitgeist, and see the BBC not as a reflection of this, but as driving it. So when it comes to evaluating BBC News, they bring the baggage of the culture wars narrative that they think they see in the rest of the organisation and apply that to the news provision (I am not saying that 90Lew90 is doing this).

It avoided coverage of massive opposition to Brexit, treating it as a foregone conclusion.

I think Brexit is a difficult one to assess. People on the right decried the BBC, and largely falsely so. For instance, take the flagship political panel show Question Time. Nigel Farage, once leader of UKIP and arch-Brexiteer, now has the record for appearing on the show. He has never once been elected to office, and UKIP has had more representation on the show than parties who have actually had far more political representation in government. The BBC has been so afraid of the barking criticism from the right that it has traditionally bent over backwards to appease it.

Indeed, the right always accuse the BBC of a left bias, but if you look more closely at their political programming, it has often had a right-leaning bias. Owen Jones pointed this out back in 2014 (see also here) in showing that virtually every political reporting position was filled by Tory right-wingers. This hasn’t really changed (and is partly why Laura Kuenssberg gets an awful lot of schtick).

As I said before, harangued by both sides for its bias, it probably sits in the middle.

With Brexit, if they were deferring to experts who the right were claiming to be fear-mongering, but largely most of what those experts claimed is now coming to pass, then what do we say about that bias? The reality of borders, Ireland, fishing, farming, manufacturing and all these other sticking problems is now materialising. I think they were caught between a rock and a hard place in reporting and hosting discussions on Brexit.

My opinion is that they were too careful with Brexit, and this might be what 90Lew90 is saying – his comment is ambiguous here. Is he coming from the left in saying that the BBC weren’t hard enough on the right and Brexit as a general idea, pragmatically and conceptually? I would say they sat too much on the fence and did not challenge enough, in a way I set out here: On Reporters and Interviewers Doing a Much Better Job.

Reporters, including and perhaps especially for the BBC, need not sit on the fence as they often do, but challenge outright bullshit when it is spouted to them in interview. So many Brexiteers were interviewed and were allowed to spout utter nonsense that should have been openly challenged, rather than the reporter saying, “And this is the opinion of Leavers form Essex” or similar. It may well be an opinion of someone, but if you don’t challenge the outright falsities therein, certain people will take it as fact – the mere exposure effect.

It has done nothing but pump out mealy-mouthed, tear-jerking public service announcements about Covid, rather than tackling the government’s disastrous mishandling of the pandemic, including the gigantic pillaging of the public purse and broadcasting a line which allows Johnson’s government to hide Brexit fallout behind Covid.

This is another interesting subject. 90Lew90 is correct to point out the BBC’s certainly initial “defence” of the government. In those early days, they took on a sort of wartime role where, and this is technically the case, they were the arm of the government working in national interests, and we saw them initially not hold the government to account enough. This is not so much the case now. We are well versed in Covid at this stage and the BBC are doing business as usual.

I agree, though don’t think this is an especially BBC thing, that the Brexit fallout will be totally hidden behind Covid. The economic disaster will be blamed on Covid and Brexiteers will get a free pass. But I don’t think this is the fault of the BBC.

It pumps out unconcealed bias in its news and political coverage in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I don’t know if this is “in” or “of” but I would need some detail here. I am not aware of its coverage within those regions.

It fails, and has been failing consistently for years, in its duty to “inform, educate and entertain”.

This is subjective, and I would very much disagree with this. Personally, and coming from a teaching background, and presently having to homeschool children, it does educate. In fact, this is baked into its charter and existence, and features heavily in its programming, from science and nature to BBC 4, from the main channels to the incredible radio and podcast output available through the excellent BBC Sounds. I listen to a lot of 5Live and Radio 4 and feel very much informed and educated. Entertainment is particularly subjective, but the incredibly wide range of output that the BBC has, and how much it distributes worldwide, is testament to it being successful at entertaining on many different levels. Having just appreciated the brilliance of The Serpent, and presently watching the 8th series of the wonderful Spiral (French, Engrenages), so on and so forth, there really is a multiplicity of programming that makes we wonder what, exactly, would entertain 90Lew90.

It is unwatchable, frankly. The last bit of it that was bearable was Radio 4, and it’s a good four or five years since I’ve been able to stomach the Today programme or PM on that station.

Again, utterly subjective and arguably wrong, considering across its whole online, digital and TV platform of a whole bunch of channels, he would find it unwatchable. If, of course, he is now referring back to News, this is interesting as an evaluation. See next comment.

It doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than the most lily-livered, milksop, weak-tea “journalism” these days, which is probably why it still likes to wheel out that prehistoric clip of Paxman repeatedly asking Michael Howard if he threatened to overrule whoever it was as an example of the BBC showing its teeth.

I wonder what news provision 90Lew90 would like to see. What does a perfect news channel look like? This is not just a question to him but to everyone. Given how we all range politically, what would a really good news station look like in order to cater for this, and to be able to report objective truth? What does objective truth look like in the political arena?

I have found, recently, that I don’t watch too much BBC News anymore. This is because I find US politics so much more fascinating, in a compulsive viewing sense. But CNN is incredibly opinionated. I don’t mind this too much because:

  1. I am aware of it and intelligent enough to decipher fact from opinion.
  2. Much of the opinion I agree with.

I know CNN skews corporate Democrat centrist, and is not remotely progressive (though Chris Cuomo has been, over the last two years, featuring more progressives in his interviews). But I do get enjoyment out of watching it because they have been avowedly anti-Trump, and so I find I am using it as infotainment, what I attack FOX for. Then again, I think centrism of this sort, when evaluating Trump and the GOP, is more closely aligned to truth than FOX fawning over Trump and rightist extremism. FOX’s infotainment is dangerous and outright fascistic propaganda. CNN’s output, though still opinionated, is not quite so much so and is far more accurate in their claims.

It cheerled for the invasion of Iraq. It wouldn’t touch stories about the financial crash. It has been hideously biased against the Palestinians. It wouldn’t touch Snowden, nor Assange, nor any number of the most important stories of the past two decades until they had been broken elsewhere so it could provide a watered-down narrative of the progress of the stories as they unfolded elsewhere and it didn’t have to worry about being controversial.

I don’t quite know what he means by “wouldn’t touch these stories”. They have. When we talk about cheerleading Iraq, my feeling is that news organisations go absolutely crazy for big, sensational events. They almost crave them as they come into their own with 24-hour rolling coverage. It’s the nature of people and the organisations they make up. All news stations do this, and some far more than others. All news organisations have had tough decisions to make involving the above scenarios, and so many more. The BBC is not immune to certain considerations, but I still think it does a better job of objectivity than its counterparts.

It capitulates and rolls over repeatedly when important issues are raised because it feels perpetually under threat of cuts, particularly so under the current government.

This is a pertinent point. In the same way that FOX, in the documentary above, capitulated to corporate power, the BBC is arguably in danger of capitulating to their own funding powers: the government. There is a massive growth in populism right now – in pro-small government, anti-BBC narrative – and the BBC will be taking this into consideration. But, this is nuanced because the Tories are always threatening to cut funding, to take away the licence fees – much less so than Labour governments. Thus, this means that the BBC News are more likely to feel they can attack the left in their news (comedy and panel shows definitely do attack the right more, but that is more the nature of comedy) than the right. The Tories over the last decade have been consistently threatening the BBC with this.

The last best terrestrial broadcast news available in the UK is ITN’s Channel 4 News, and government ministers simply refuse to go on there any more.

Channel 4 is an excellent news provider, I have to agree. ITN have a good pedigree built over a long time (I’ve just learnt that the Daily Mail has a 20% stake!). I think this is partly to do with the quality of the personnel they have, the nature of the channel and its demographic and so on. ITV, the main terrestrial TV channel after the BBC, also has its news provided by ITN, but I would choose Channel 4 News every day of the week.

The unbiased BBC? Only someone who watches too much BBC could possibly think it’s doing its job. Christ! It’s biggest achievement in the past year has been to make sure everyone gave carers the clap.

I don’t think so. I think the BBC is as unbiased as you can get, but they do have some failures that come with that territory:

  • They sit too much on the fence, often offering no opinion. Thus their unbiased nature can mean they lack character and real “meat”.
  • They sometimes don’t challenge interviewees enough (this is not a BBC problem but is more generalised).
  • They feel they have to pander to right-wing criticism and thus over-compensate in their direction in certain circumstances (and with political appointments).
  • They have to consider the implications of certain activities when there is a Tory government in case of forced charter and funding.

They are good at informing and they adhere to very strict regulation hampering their ability to do the sorts of things MSNBC and FOX do. And this is of benefit to the British public. Indeed, internationally, BBC News is seen as a bastion of quality news reporting.

A Reuters Institute analysis of public opinion of the BBC, and its reach, can be read here. It often polls as the most accurate and reliable TV News source in the UK.


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