The illusion of activity at the BBC

Last week, the BBC chose to ignore a protest march against Austerity.

You may have heard of it: 50,000 people marched from the BBC’s new HQ to Westminster, the latest in a series of protests against the agenda of cuts and privatisation which are slowly, inexorably destroying the fabric of the British State.

But in spite of it starting at the BBC’s front door, the corporation chose to ignore the protest. That evening’s news bulletins were filled with 30,000 people having a party to celebrate the Summer Solstice; and the important news that a single Scotsman had cheered for England at the World Cup.

But nothing at all about any views which run counter to those of the coalition. There was (apparently) a 25 second mention on BBC Radio 4, and two days later a 30-second clip appeared on the BBC News website. But that’s it.

This is the latest in a long series of – speaking charitably – inexplicable editorial choices that BBC News have made.

In 2013, they had upwards of 15 reporters based in Manchester to report the Conservative Party Conference, yet felt unable to point the camera at the 60,000-strong march happening outside.

The BBC barely mentions a word about the fact that over 70% of NHS contracts are now in private hands, and that even Tory Health Ministers are confessing that they no longer control the NHS. Silence about that. Yet every story that casts the NHS in a negative light is given hour-long Panorama specials and shouty, scary headlines on the 6 O’clock News.

The Green Party, an actual political party with actual policies and actual MPs, gets nary a mention during the EU Elections. Yet UKIP, which has no MPs and no policies, and which actually lost 6% of its vote, is hailed as producing a magnificent victory and given round-the-clock exposure.

Ed Miliband, who is (at the time of writing) 6-8 points ahead in the polls, and has led polling for 4 solid years, is on track to win the next election. Yet the BBC reports that he’s in crisis, and leaves viewers who are unable to discover facts in other ways with the impression Labour has collapsed.

It’s very difficult to avoid thinking that this is a deliberate choice by the BBC.

But I’m no conspiracy theorist: it probably isn’t planned, and the BBC probably isn’t even aware it’s happening. There is no cabal of evil executives making secret midnight visits to each others’ lairs, and planning how to screw over the Northern, left-wing, working-class and ethnic parts of the country. That doesn’t happen.

It doesn’t happen, because it doesn’t need to.

No: the BBC doesn’t need to plan its bias; it emerges organically as a natural side-effect of becoming enmeshed with the Establishment that the media is supposed to be holding to account.

To hold a decision-making position at the BBC, you need to be bright, talented, educated, based in London, and well-connected. And people who fit that bill are highly unlikely to find themselves at the shitty end of austerity policies. They’ll have jobs. They’ll have property. They’ll have pensions. And even if they lose all of those things, they’ll land on their feet pretty damn fast, because they’re part of the largely privately-educated Oxbridge Mafia which helps out “people like them”, and always does just fine, thank you.

So how can the executives at the BBC have any experience or understanding of what is happening to people who aren’t a privately-educated Baron who attended Keble College, Oxford, like the current head of the BBC?

We all know they can’t understand normal lives. I mean that literally: we know it in our bones, but we know it as a fact, because an independent report by the University of Wales in 2013 found that the BBC has been “pushed to the right” and shows a consistent bias.

Of course, BBC News didn’t report that fact. Of course not.

By “pushed to the right”, the report means that the BBC unquestioningly accepts the views of corporations and the Conservative party, and under-represents countervailing opinions of Greens, nursing bodies, doctors, the Police Federation, local government, the Scottish, the Welsh, Labour-supporters, unions, scientists, charities and churches. Yet between them, those sections of society account for almost everybody who isn’t a current member of the Cabinet.

I find BBC bias disturbing because it under-reports my own (widely held) opinions, but even moreso because it represents an existential threat to the BBC. The BBC and NHS are, to my mind, the alpha and omega of British cultural and social life. Those two great institutions are written into the national DNA. The Heath Service is, as we speak, being ideologically dismantled by short-termist, blinkered, money-grubbing incompetents who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Thankfully the NHS is fighting back hard, in the shape of countless protests and the formation of a political party to defend it.

But the BBC is currently in the process of destroying itself. It needs no help from the Tory Party. It’s on a kamikaze mission if it continues to under-represent millions of people who aren’t former members of the Bullingdon Club, and who don’t approve of privatisation, austerity, the upward movement of assets and finance from the poor to the rich, and the dismantling of the state. Left unrepresented and ignored, those people are likely to stop funding a national broadcaster which has become little more than a propaganda tool for the Establishment.

As a result of being infested with figures from an ever-narrower socio-economic group (and to reduce the risk to its funding model) the BBC has given uncritical voice to every piece of Tory spin. But in doing so, it’s ignored the far larger problem on its left-flank: if we stop valuing the BBC, we will stop paying for it. And an inflation-matching licence fee will be wiped out by only a few thousand of us stopping paying.

It’s a real risk.

I made this very point in a letter to the BBC early this week, and wasn’t much surprised that a few hundred people retweeted the text of my complaint. I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Nor was I surprised that, 4 days later, I still haven’t heard a peep from the BBC’s Complaints department.

What did surprise me was when a nice man from BBC Points of View contacted me, and asked to film me for the programme. We chatted on the phone for 10 minutes, and I expressed, in a fairly eloquent way, the points I made above.

Now, I’m not a journalist, and I don’t habitually record my phone calls. So If Nice Mr BBC feels I’m misrepresenting him in the lines which follow, I apologise and invite him to correct me.

Nice Mr BBC told me Points of View were considering making a “half-hour special” programme about bias and the #NoMoreAusterity march, and whilst I was hardly going to be the star (something I’d dread), I would make a valuable contribution. I’m not someone who seeks fame, which is why this blog and my Twitter feed avoid the use of my real name. So I don’t want to appear in front of cameras: but I thought about all the people who felt strongly about the non-reporting of the #NoMoreAusterity march, and who hadn’t been offered a national platform to discuss the issue. I didn’t feel I could refuse to say something on their behalf.

So I said yes: I’d do it. Nice Mr BBC would travel from London to Stockport to meet me, film me for what was described as a “14 minute segment” of the show, and the results would be broadcast on Sunday. But in the meantime, would I mind drafting out a 90-second statement, which would form the backbone of my comments? He wanted to check it for legal issues, but wouldn’t make any editorial changes: he wanted my voice.

I did as I was asked, sent him a script I’d timed to 90 seconds, which expressed the key points made in this blog: a pattern of bias, the Cardiff University report, the march outside the Tory Conference, the silence about the NHS privatisation, etc.

And late last night, when Nice Mr BBC arrived at his hotel in Manchester, he called me back to discuss my notes.

The content was too long, he said. Although the segment was 14 minutes long, the part about the Austerity march would only be around 3 minutes. And we have to give time for a right-of-reply, which means the BBC Exec who produces bias news broadcasting 24 hours a day would have at least 50% of the segment to make his views. Again. And finally, he explained that Points of View is a current affairs show, so I couldn’t mention anything about previous marches, the NHS or the University of Cardiff report. It all had to be about one matter: the #NoToAusterity march.

I protested: the very point of my complaint was being missed, and I was instead being turned into content-fodder for a minor BBC programme. Nice Mr BBC said it was prime-time BBC1, an important platform, and that the Director General of the BBC would be watching; but I doubt it.

And even if that were true, extrapolating my broad point about a record of right-wing bias is going to be vanishingly difficult from a 30-second sound-bite about one incident: it would be like guessing I’m thinking about Finlandia by listening to me hum a single note in E-flat major. I know the boss of the BBC is probably a wily old bloke (always a bloke), but he’s not that wily. Any criticism I could make would vanish into a single-issue that could be lightly brushed off, and nothing at all would change.

But in spite of my reservations, I agreed to filming: it’s better than nothing at all. However, it does concern me that the BBC is simply making the illusion of change. They produce a programme, and a BBC News executive comes on to do his “right of reply” thing, and everyone goes home feeling like they’ve ticked their boxes: but nothing changes.

It’s the same problem I have with Twitter, even though I’m often pretty active on there. If you write a tweet about Cameron, and it gets retweeted a few hundred times, you feel like you’ve done something. But it’s just an illusion. Twitter is like a valve on a pressure-cooker, and each time an angry person shouts into the digital void, the parasitic elite who are sucking the life out of the country (indeed, out of the world) feel slightly safer. Each spleen vented on Twitter corresponds to one fewer person manning the barricades.

And I fear this Points of View will be the BBC creating another illusion of change. It will be an inverted swan, where we can all see the mad paddling, but beneath the surface everything glides along as it always did.

I was in two minds about filming today. Nice Mr BBC was nice, and professional, and guided me through the (rather unnerving) process very smoothly. He was exactly the shade of bland, unhearing blank that my English reserve required, given that my role in proceedings was to tersely criticise his existence. And he’d come a long way, was sweating profusely in the heat, and seemed very much out of his comfort-zone in the People’s Republic of Manchester. So I wish him no harm. I just wish what he was producing wasn’t merely a cover for the Continuity BBC.

For those who agree with my critique of the BBC: I hope I expressed myself well on the programme.

For those who are outraged by the lack of coverage of #NoMoreAusterity: I hope I made the case successfully.

But more than anything, for those who want the BBC to do it’s job, to hold power to account, and to report without bias: I hope the executives can read between my too-short lines, and make the changes that the corporation demands.

Because if they don’t, the BBC will lose its reason to exist. And that would be a sad day.