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.

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34 thoughts on “The illusion of activity at the BBC

  1. Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    BBC Points of View is planning to do a special edition about the anti-austerity march and broadcasting bias!
    But don’t get your hopes up; here’s one contributor’s story about how Auntie treated his contribution.

  2. The other point to remember is that the BBC is constantly looking over its shoulder trying to keep on the ‘Good’ side of Murdoch and the Daily Mail in the hope that they will pick another target

    1. That’s very true, as Robert Peston commented only last week: the BBC is obsessed with shadowing the comments section of the Daily Mail and a Telegraph.

  3. Thank you, as a visual person we really appreciate your words, it remains to be seen if anyone is listening, but we thank you for being our voice.

  4. BBC regards current affairs as Light Entertainment. To be fair, Points of View always has been Light Entertainment, and whilst the BBC has right of reply, I doubt very much that you will be able to sign off on the edited content prior to broadcast.

    1. I’m sure that’s true. But I had to make an attempt to address the issue. Failing is a far better thing to do than failing to try.

  5. Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    The Naked Mole Rat gives here the reasons he considers the BBC refused to give much coverage to Sunday’s anti-Austerity demonstration: simple, uncritical default acceptance of a Right-wing point of view due to the privileged backgrounds of the broadcasters themselves. There’s no great conspiracy here, because there doesn’t need to be one. The BBC ignored the demonstration, simply because the extremely privileged background of the producers and broadcasting executives make them blind to the idea that this could possibly be a serious issue. It’s a good point. Mike and I went to a Dr. Who convention over two decades ago, at which a number of the programme’s producers and directors, as well as the long running stars were speaking. One of the directors, when asked about how you became a director, said bluntly: ‘It’s very difficult. Unless you went to Oxford or Cambridge, and then it’s very easy’. John Romer, speaking on Radio 4 about his career as an Egyptologist, remarked on how class-ridden that profession used to be. When he presented a documentary on the ancient Kingdom of the Nile way back in the 1970s, it provoked an outraged complaint from an old school Egyptologist. This particular fellow was deeply offended by Romer’s lower class background, and the fact that he spoke with a definite sarf London accent. The result was a letter written to the Director-General, on club notepaper, addressed to him by his Christian name, moaning that Romer had set the profession back 20 years. Things aren’t like that now, but even so you can be sure that broadcasting, like the upper heights of archaeology, is dominated by the rich and privileged.

    The Mole Rat also describes his highly unsatisfactory experience filming a segment for a special edition of the Beeb’s ‘Points of View’. Any deeper points to his comments about the Beeb’s bias in general were eventually excised by the Nice BBC Man, who came to see him. Again, this isn’t surprising. Private Eye years ago made the point that ‘Points of View’ was still, despite its ostensible purpose to allow the public have their say about programmes, really another expression of the paternalistic and condescending attitude the BBC has to its viewers. It’s real purpose is not to allow the public to have their say so much as to allow the BBC to respond to their criticisms to show that they were actually quite right really, and Mr, Mrs, or Miss Outraged or Offended are basically wrong. And you can see it. What the programme and note the way the producers are keen to defend their programmes, and then apply Paxo’s rule for interrogating politicos: ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ Not The Nine O’clock News sent the whole programme up years ago in sketch, which had viewers writing in to say ‘Dear BBC, I think the new test card is absolutely superb. I would gladly sell my house and all its contents to pay the licence fee just to watch it.’ The actual manipulation of the viewers’ point of view is rather more subtle, but this is basically what the programme comes down to.

    Will it destroy or damage the BBC, as the Mole Rat fears? Undoubtedly. Whatever the suited executive over at Broadcasting House believe, people are more sceptical about the news than they were, especially when it comes to contentious topics. And the broadcast media now no longer has a monopoly on the news. You can get direct images of what’s going on in the world from mobile phone footage, Youtube and other forms of social media, unmediated by the selective editing of professional broadcasters. At the moment their influence is marginal in this country, but people under repressive regimes, such as the various Middle Eastern despotisms, theocracies and secular dictatorships have turned to the Net for information and to critique the government because the official news media is strictly controlled. And Auntie Beeb might just find herself being sidelined for exactly the same reasons.

  6. During an edition of the Media Show on Radio 4 about 2 years ago, I heard a conversation between Steve Hewlett, the host, and Neil Wallis one-time employee of News International. Hewlett realised that Wallis (on bail) could not touch on any of the evidence of the (then) upcoming hacking trials so asked him to venture his opinion on Leveson. “The problem with Leveson” he said, “is that it all revolves what I would call a good old Fleet Street story: it’s entirely relevant; everybody knows about it; but no one will act on it”. He wouldn’t expand further. My complaint to the BBC that this should be brought to the attention of Leveson was met with the opinion that “We believe Leveson listen to the programme so they would be aware of our content”. Effectively – it’s not a matter with which we would deal. As it had all the elements – I thought – of a thumping good news story, I was surprised that the BBC did nothing more to follow it up. Are they news gatherers and investigative journalists or not ? It could have been that the ‘story’ was the Brooks/Coulson extended relationship but we’ll probably never know.

  7. I think you are wrong many counts – I think the BBC is balanced – did you not see Panarama this week? What did it say about Cameron, the Murdoch press and worst of all Blair? It also raised my view of John Prescott too!

    I hate UKIP too, but they did get the most votes in the EU election and outpoled the Greens in the general election by a considerable margin – both have lots of weaknesses to make fun of, I don’t think the Greens get quite their fair share of that.

    1. I don’t feel the BBC is balanced, but it’s not really about gut feelings (although that definitely matters). It’s about facts. Independent studies have shown the BBC gives more airtime to Tories vs Labour, both in Government and in Opposition.

      UKIP did win more votes on the night of the EU poll, but if you include the local election results on the same night, they got 16% of councils. Not a huge majority, as was reported.

      And prior to the election, UKIP (specifically Farage) were the most common guests on BBC Question Time apart from members of the main 3 UK parties: this at time when they had no MPs (Greens have one), and the 5th largest group of MEPs – behind the Greens again.

      It’s very hard to look at those facts and come to a conclusion OTHER than the one I come to: the BBC have given too much exposure to UKIP and the Tory Party, compared to more left-leaning parties.

      I don’t say this to be partisan. I dislike tribes, and shy away from tribal politics. But the remit of the BBC is to speak for the country, not just for the Establishment or for the people they go to dinner parties with. And large swathes of the country are vastly under-represented.

      This doesn’t even touch on the whole issue of diversity – but Lenny Henry is tackling that one, and I don’t think one more white British face banging on about the issue is what the problem requires.

      Thanks for your comments though!

  8. I don’t think extra coverage always helps a party – UKIP was often mocked by the media (which I enjoyed and they deserved). The government party always gets more coverage because they are making decisions and being called to account (and criticised). Still it is good to always promote an impartial press – and for me the BBC is the News – I will try to check some other sources now . At least we don’t have anything like Fox News in the UK – Thanks for allowing my comments. Logging off from posting now to do some work.

    1. Here’s an abstract of the report (commissioned by BBC) which shows the Tories in opposition got more coverage than Labour in opposition. And they get more when in government than Labour got in government. Tories get more, and more sympathetic, coverage from the BBC, regardless of who is in government, and regardless of the issues.

      http://www.newstatesman.com/broadcast/2013/08/hard-evidence-how-biased-bbc

      For many years I trusted the BBC intrinsically, and rarely looked for alternative sources. Since I started seeking alternative sources, I’ve found a HUGE amount of material that the BBC doesn’t cover, covers with editorial bias, etc.

      For example, this morning on the Today Programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b047c310, 2:35 minutes in)), the presenter repeatedly stated, as an undisputed fact, the government’s position that Juncker isn’t up to the task of leading the EU. The government’s position was taken as the baseline from which everything springs. There’s an assumption Tories are correct. And that means, before they do anything else, opponents of the Government need to spend half their allotted time redefining the terms of the question. It means anybody who isn’t a member of the coalition has an uphill struggle, and loses half their airtime, whereas Tories get a free ride.

      It’s very troubling.

    1. Pretty much, yeah. Tory press (naturally) ignored it, Guardian covered it, but otherwise it was a tumbleweed moment.

      I’m on BBC Points of View this Sunday, apparently. But I might hit the cutting room floor before then! I sincerely doubt anything will change, but I’d rather try and fail than fail to try.

  9. There seems to be this idea that the BBC is some kind of impartial, unbiased organisation, which would be a bit more believable if they ever reported on things from outside of a really quite narrow political perspective (and one which happens to generally support the status quo, as we are seeing in this case). But of course the mainstream media don’t talk about these things, for the same reason they don’t report on alternative systems of society except to vaguely imply that their proponents are extremists – if they did we would have had a revolution by now, and the whole framework that supports the owners of the media wouldn’t exist anymore.

    1. I expect no more from privately owned media: hence the Daily Mail’s 30-year attack on the BBC, simply because the BBC has the power (scarcely used) to counter the homogeny of corporatism.

      But the Beeb is owned by the public. It belongs to you. It belongs to me. It belongs to my mum, and the guy who emptie my bins, and teachers, doctors, shop assistants and pensioners.

      As such, it has not only the right, but also the responsibility to represent opinions other than those of Paul Dacre, Lord Beaverbrook, the Barclay Brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

      This is why I’m so angry about the BBC’s failure to do its duty: if they, too, fall behind a gruesome, elitist neocapitalist “consensus”, the views of ordinary people will be unreported forever.

  10. The BBC is no longer worth the licence fee. They have become obsessed with commercialism to the point where most of the output is simply designed to promote products of most of the people appearing before their microphones and TV cameras. From my own experience of attempted complaints with the BBC, I know they just use such procedures and processes as job-creation for the chaps and gels working their way up the corporate ladder within the BBC. The only good thing about the BBC is that – up till now – their adverts are not as blatant as those on commercial TV but that too will almost certainly change so they can extract more money for themselves in due course.

  11. On Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’ yesterday (27.6.2014) it was reported that very recently the BBC had published the results of an independent enquiry into the Corporation’s reporting of rural affairs. Included in it’s criticisms was the allegation that it’s coverage was ‘preferring to focus on protests….. or animal stories with a “feelgood” ending’. So there we have it; let 50,000 people protest on the Somerset levels and the Beeb will report on it if the crowd, during the march, save a badger from drowning. The perfect storm.

    1. Yes. It’s not a one-off. The restrictions on expressing my views on Points of View make it sound like a single error: it’s actually a habitual pattern. Tragic, revolting, and inciting millions to distrust the BBC and seek ever-more heightened forms of protest. It feels to me like a dangerous moment.

      1. Indeed. The implied message is that to get noticed, a demonstration needs celebrity or violence to get mentioned. Both dangerous!

  12. I think you have been far too generous to the BBC. I remember, very soon after the Coalition was formed that the head of the BBC was summoned to Downing Street. He was, I suspect, given his brief which has been followed to the letter. The BBC does not reflect opinion it wants to form opinion and promote the neoliberal agenda. The organisation is now nothing more than the Ministry of Truth.

    1. I’m often tempted to give people the benefit of the doubt. But that’s my failing, in no way do I disagree with you.

  13. The BBC is, and always has been, part of the problem. Recently BBC Radio Sheffield broadcast a documentary on the 30th anniversary of Orgreave. Full disclosure: Auntie and the Miners was produced by a good friend, who worked for five years winning the trust of former miners and those in the community who remain justifiably angry at the way they were portrayed by the BBC.

    The documentary deals transiently with the infamous editorial decision to broadcast only the footage of the miners fighting the police, offering some startling ‘explanations’ from those on the ground — although it should be noted that in that slightly bewildering meta-textual way that the BBC has of talking about itself, “nobody from the BBC was prepared to issue a statement.” It was suggested that the camera, which should have recorded the police initiating the battle by attacking first and with the most egregious of violence, had developed a “technical fault” which lasted solely for the duration of the police attack, only to recommence operation when the miners fought back.

    Nicholas Jones, a former BBC journalist during the strike, concludes he was too willing to believe the government line, stating quite openly that he believed fully in what the government was doing and that he felt ultimately it would be for the best. In retrospect, he has now come to the conclusion this was problematic for a supposedly impartial journalist. If you’ll pardon me, but shouldn’t he have come to this conclusion a little fucking sooner?

    I got into a discussion with my friend, first congratulating her on the documentary and expressing my feelings on Jones’ admission. It was, she replied, “incredibly rare for someone to say we got things wrong and [that] we should apologise.” Which may be true — although I really do think one of the most egregious of our contemporary cultural memes is the ‘lessons will be learnt/now is not the time for bitterness/let’s move’ response to scandal — but rather that isn’t really the point anyway: this excellent documentary was broadcast to perhaps a few thousand people at 11am on a weekday in Sheffield, but it serves to give the illusion that the BBC is unique in holding itself to account. It is a dishonest simulacrum of accountability.

    We can say with almost certainty that 30 years hence from now we will hear similar admissions from Nick Robinson et ses amis, as they belatedly conclude that they didn’t perhaps heed enough the warnings of those of us who are witnessing the destruction of the last of the post-war consensus. “I do think,” Robinson will ruefully smile, “that perhaps I should have been a little more canny about all those private contracts in the NHS. If I’m honest, I really thought the government had the best interests of the NHS at heart. In retrospect, I guess you’ve just got to be big enough to say we got it wrong.”

    Each of us could probably list our own catalogue of BBC failings over the years — mine would surely include Andrew Marr’s gleeful cheerleading for war back in 2003 — but eventually we must terminate the infinite regression and realise where we are now. It is long since past the moment of to recognise what is as plain as day: the BBC has always been part of the problem. Modifying it will not help and complaining gets us nowhere. It has to go.

    We must disabuse ourselves of the sentimental notion that the BBC, much like the Labour Party, has deviated from its original purpose. Both of these organisations exist to manage expectations and resist extra-parliamentary change. It is part of the ideological state apparatus and it is emphatically not there to serve a public remit; if it did, it would not be allowed to continue.

    We must work towards bringing it down. I love 6Music, science documentaries, the Craig Charles Funk & Soul Show and the Archers too but I love the NHS more. I’m ready make my choice.

    1. Bah! Typos galore and a glaring omission: I thought your piece was incredibly well argued and I very much enjoyed reading it. Thank you also for the opportunity to reply.

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