Thursday, September 20, 2007 

Liberals, conservatives, Trots, fascists: embrace the BBC.

As Unity notes, Sunny most certainly opened a hornet's nest when he called on CiF for liberals to abandon the BBC, sparking a response by Iain Dale and a heated discussion in the comments, in which I have to admit I didn't quite have my finest hour, suggesting that "geezer" needed to see a psychiatrist.

Sunny has since outlined his exact thinking in more detail, but it's still worth examining the initial CiF article:

Let me be clear on one point: I believed in the BBC not because of its supposed liberal bias but because I view it as as serving the public good. A vibrant democracy needs independent and non-commercial media outlets driven by a commitment to editorial balance. It may be imperfect and its licence fee may be a tax, but using the latter argument to favour privatisation is feeble, since we pay a whole variety of taxes to incompetent institutions that are supposed to enshrine the public good.

There's not much to disagree with here, but as one person pointed out on the Dale thread, it is a little much that we get single mothers and students amongst others getting threatened for not coughing up their £130 quid every year. As much as it pains me to agree with those likening the licence fee to the poll tax, especially as they were probably amongst some of those who originally supported it and might also have an interest in other flat taxes, there most certainly need to be concessions made for those on benefits. This might require cuts, it's true, but more on that later.

The BBC has always come under attack from the political right and left for its supposed bias towards the other side. But the rise of rightwing blogs in the US and UK has encouraged a more shrill atmosphere, where a vast leftwing conspiracy is assumed to exist at every corner.

If you seriously doubt that this is the view of some, you need to read geezer's comments on Iain Dale's thread. There are dangers in seeing conspiracies where there clearly are none; as partisan as some of the attacks on the BBC are, Iain Dale is also right when he suggests that sometimes they have more than a point. The recent BBC reporting on John Redwood's policy group wasn't its finest hour, even if Helen Boaden did sort of apologise, if a little disingenuously, as Private Eye pointed out. It was more indicative though of the way that political reporting in general has gone: whenever a policy annoucement is made, or a new policy thought up by any of the main parties, all the others understandably line up to denounce it, cutting down on the time of actually explaining the proposal, and already setting minds against it, regardless of its merits. A great recent example was the Lib Dem proposal for a selective amnesty for illegal immigrants, which Liam Byrne responded to by saying that those here illegally should go home. Added nothing, was breathtaking in its inanity, but was duly reported.

Sunny goes on to mention the canceling of "Planet Relief" as one of those alleged victories for the right. If it was, then thank goodness for it. It wasn't that it was potentially a breach of the BBC's impartiality that so produced a general reaction of the rolling of eyes, but that it was such an abysmal, pointless idea, another chance for those long missed characters Ricky Gervais and Graham Norton to fill our screens with their wearying presence. Comic Relief and Children in Need, good causes aside, long ago became less about what they were raising money for and much more about showcasing the talent or lack of it of numerous BBC presenters, doing either wacky or silly things in a pathetic attempt at entertainment. Planet Relief would have been worse, except with the added idiocy of watching a show dedicated to raising awareness about climate change (as if anymore was needed) while your plasma flatscreen pumps out however many kilos of carbon while doing so. There was meant to be a proposed mass-turning off to make a point: if it had gone ahead, we could have protested by switching off from the very beginning.

Sunny's second point, about the cries that the BBC is institutionally biased is highly valid, much to Iain Dale's embarrassment.

Thirdly, he mentions the recent furore over Newsround's page explaining 9/11 to the young. The Biased BBC crew (and indeed, a Torygraph blogger and even Roy Greenslade) managed to get the original changed, most significantly changed the What Happened? page from "On 11 September 2001 armed people hijacked four planes that were flying above the US" to "On 11 September 2001 Islamic fanatics hijacked four planes that were flying above the US". That seemed to be a victory for bad English more than anything else, as you can be fanatical about something without committing mass murder in a suicide attack about it. It's since been changed to "Islamic extremists", which is slightly better. As Sunny mentions, the Whiskey Priest rather punctured Biased BBC's argument after he pointed out that the initial Newsround explanation somewhat matched that given by the 9/11 Commission, which hardly blamed the attacks on the America itself, as they were trying to argue the BBC were doing.

Rightwing bloggers and the growing number of newspaper commentators who support them are not interested in editorial balance. As Unity pointed out a few months ago: "... one of the ways in which [the BBC] does serve the public is as a kind of large scale bullshit detector; one that places curbs and limitations on [the right's] ability to push their propaganda through Britain's mainstream media."

There couldn't really be much of a better example of the BBC's occasional attempt at grasping this "bullshit detector" mantle than last night's 10 O'Clock News report on the comments of Cambridgeshire police's chief constable, which set out that this wasn't exactly an explosion in crime as the Daily Mail had it yesterday (see FCC) or the Express today claiming that the police can't cope with rise in "immigrant crime", when all Spence was doing was asking for an increasing in funding. It was decent, balanced and unsensational reporting, examining all sides without passing comment. For once the Sun's reporting on this was decent, even if its leader isn't. The argument of the right is often that the left gets on its high horse over reporting from organisations which don't hide their political affiliation and that to complain about it misses the point, but this itself is to miss it. There's one thing to be a right-wing newspaper and comment on it honestly through their chosen political prism, it's quite another to either then lie in those comments or to let that prism reflect on the reporting, as this site and others have pointed out time and time again. This is how the right-wing media here tries to distort and influence, not through its arguments, but through its news pages.

Secondly, BBC editors themselves seem to have collectively lost their cojones, or at least their editorial guidelines. The first sign of an outraged rightwing blogging campaign leads editors to hurriedly make changes while simultaneously releasing statements that any accusations of bias had nothing to do with it. Who is that going to fool? I would be the first to criticise a Planet Relief full of hapless celebrities pretending they are right-on about climate change as they jet around in private planes. But did BBC editors not bother consulting the guidelines when they first conceived the idea?

To be fair to the BBC, this is also a result of their attempts, post-Hutton to try and be far more accountable than they used to be. Editors' Blog posts, the Newswatch site etc, all are developments that are to be welcomed. If only certain right-wing newspapers followed the example, the exact same ones that attack the BBC time and again whilst dumping the PCC's adjucations on their reporting on a deep inside page, we might be getting somewhere. In recent years the BBC has bent over backwards to be all things to all men, and to an extent this is part of the problem. Posts about the BBC's admitted mistakes are soon followed up by dozens of comments on how left-wing and evil the corporation is, whereas if you tried to do the same on other news sites such comments simply wouldn't be accepted, or they'd be deleted. Compare this to the Daily Mail's comment sections for example on its reporting, which are moderated up to the eyeballs and where there might be a token criticism let through. This gives the impression that these commentators are right when they often couldn't be more wrong. The BBC does need more balls, to occasionally bite back rather than always be craven, but the last thing it should do is cut down on its conversations with its critics.

Now, to my main point. For many of us on the liberal left, the BBC is a useful if somewhat increasingly dumbed-down antidote to the hard-right propaganda of most of the press. It keeps us vaguely sane, so we support it.

Iain Dale thought this "revealing", while as explained two paragraphs up it's actually the real reason the BBC's news outage is worth supporting; not because it's biased, but because it does the job of covering all sides that is often woefully lacking in most other media.

It is only obvious then, that those on the liberal left should stop supporting the BBC. Instead we should continually attack it and expose its rightwing bias. Supporting the corporation or focusing on editorial balance only seems to result in the centre ground shifting further to the right, since they are the only ones complaining.

This is where I completely part with Sunny. The very last thing the BBC needs is to be continually attacked, especially when the campaigns against it are reaching fever pitch and some are licking their lips with anticipation about finally get somewhere. It's one thing to call it on it when it does lean to the right (and for those wondering, MediaLens already does do this somewhat), quite another to withdraw all support and go completely on the offensive when it's often trying its hardest. Sunny responded to my initial framing of this argument by saying "where has it got us?", and while he does have something of a point, to drop our support from an institution that is not just still working here, but is also a beacon worldwide and deeply respected for it is I feel potentially dangerous.

Sunny is entirely right though that we need to be far more critical of the BBC, not just of its news output, but of all of its output. We could start from the basis of Jeremy Paxman's excellent recent lecture not just on the BBC's problems, but with the media's general state at the moment. He identified that rather than trying to be different, the BBC has increasingly followed the herd mentality: rushing off to Portugal on numerous occasions because of the McCanns, which was completely pointless but continued because everyone else was doing it, and commissioning the same old crap reality TV shows regardless of any of their actual merits. Just how many more dancing variants is the corporation going to dream up, for example?

Increasingly, if the corporation is going to survive, it needs to offer something different to everything else that is out there. This doesn't mean abandoning what's popular and just instantly going for the highbrow, but it does necessitate taking a step backwards and examining everything it's currently doing and wondering whether it is just a pale knock-off of something else. There are some things, for instance, that the only the BBC will do and that if it disappeared a significant minority would miss terribly: it gets criticised for the Asian Network and 1Xtra for example, both for being politically correct and for ghettoing their content, but who else would run such nationally available content? They simply wouldn't. The current coverage of the party conferences is also laudable mainly because while the vast majority will view the proceedings as incredibly dull and are probably right, it's about the only time of the year when the parties get to expand their policy proposals in full without being told that they're wrong instantaneously, and it's refreshing for it, something that any other broadcaster wouldn't touch with a barge pole. The opposite could be said of the vast majority of the output of BBC3 for example, aimed at younger demographic but which actually just treats them like morons, something which isn't confined to the BBC, it has to be said. Would anyone really miss it if was shut down, with its most popular shows transferred to BBC2?

Most of all though, its news and current affairs coverage, which could be boosted considerably with no further cutbacks if BBC3 were to be shut down, something the corporation has rejected, needs to regain the indefatigable culture it had prior to Hutton. It's easy to forget that just four years ago it was Andrew Gilligan, hardly a left-winger incidentally, which dared to suggest the government had been less than truthful over the dossiers now instantly remembered as dodgy. Would it do the same if we were to repeat the whole charade of Iran? I somehow doubt it. It's recently cutback on giving voices to Islamist radicals when it would rightly not give the same airtime to the BNP, which was a horrible habit it had fell into, and it could move on from there to really trying its hardest to showcase the full spectrum of views (although not those that are incessantly hateful), something which is often so lacking. It could dedicate itself to getting behind the story presented elsewhere, instead of following the herd. With our support, the BBC could yet vastly improve. Without it, it's only likely to fall further into the abyss.

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