Among the many people and organizations to have had a bad referendum campaign, one has so far gone under-remarked: the BBC. The campaign has highlighted profound inadequacies in its current affairs reporting. I mean this in three ways.
First, in being impartial between truth and lies, the BBC was complicit in a conspiracy to defraud the public. Its more intelligent correspondents are aware of this. Here’s assistant political editor Norman Smith (7’52” in):
There is an instinctive bias within the BBC towards impartiality to the exclusion sometimes of making judgment calls that we can and should make. We are very very cautious about saying something is factually wrong and I think as an organization we could be more muscular about it. I’ll give you an example, which is one that cropped up, and there was a lot of debate within the BBC about it, was when the Brexit campaign suggested that Turkey was poised to join the EU, and that there was nothing we could do about it. Now that is factually wrong, but when we initially covered the story, I think we said along the lines of ‘Remain had said that is wrong’ – in other words, we attributed the assessment to the Remain side, when we could, of our own, say ‘No, that is factually wrong.’ But, because as an organisation, more than any other organisation, there is a massive pressure and premium on fairness, on balance, on impartiality, I suspect we, we hold back from making those sort of calls, and I do think that, potentially, is a disservice to the listener and viewer.
Secondly, the BBC’s main new coverage was guilty of adverse selection. As Simon says, there were two campaigns: a reasonable and civilized one; and a bitter dishonest one. The BBC gave us too much of the latter. On the Leave side, we heard too much from liars and crypto-fascists and too little from more decent Brexiters. And on the Remain side, it gave us too much of the exaggerations of Cameron and Osborne and too few more sober voices.
Thirdly, and perhaps relatedly, many of the BBC’s main current affairs programmes forget the first two of Lord Reith’s trilogy – inform, educate and entertain – in favour of the latter. Nick’s right:
The worst journalists, editors and broadcasters know their audiences want entertainment, not expertise. If you doubt me, ask when you last saw panellists on Question Time who knew what they were talking about.
Worse still, it breaches its own principles of impartiality. These failings give undue prominence and hence power to those who can play its game – to overconfident entertainers with simplistic slogans rather than to more honest voices who acknowledge the complexity of the world*. This is a bias, and a nasty one.
In its defence the BBC can point to More or Less and Reality Check as evidence that it can do a good job. True. I’d go further. Much of what the BBC does outside of its new coverage makes it one of our great national treasures. But this only sharpens the contrast with the fact that its main political and economic coverage, not just in the referendum, is fraudulent and philistine.
Herein, though, lies a problem. Anyone who points this out risks being accused of bias themselves or of being a sore loser (though note that I was making similar points when Remain was expected to win). And it must be admitted that many of those who accuse the BBC of bias are green-ink writers moaning that the corporation doesn’t echo their own neuroses – a fact which BBC management uses to deflect attention from its genuine failings.
This poses the question: what can be done? I’m pleased to see that Open Democracy is thinking about these issues. Possible solutions include:
- Scrap the due impartiality requirement, and instead allow a multiplicity of voices. This, though, brings problems. It would mean admitting racists onto the airwaves, or (alternatively) there’s a danger of insufficient diversity: Marxist libertarians, true conservatives, small-state Keynesians and suchlike won’t get as much publicity as they should.
- Abolish political correspondents and replace them with specialist reporters with a good background in their beat: I suspect it’s easier to teach broadcast techniques to an expert than expertise to a journalist.
- Have an alternative vision of the BBC. It should be a promoter of the liberal arts – of the best that has been thought and said, and is being thought and said. This requires that it move far up-market, giving less coverage to rentagobs and more to civilized minds. The BBC should employ philosophy and sociology reporters, not political ones.
I’d like to think that pressure on the BBC to move in this directions would be bipartisan, coming from anyone who cares about our country’s intellectual life. Given that its trash journalism serves reactionary charlatans well, however, I fear that such a hope is a forlorn one.
* This might contribute to a class bias, insofar as it favours those whose private education imparted a glossy self-confidence.