Much as I like this piece by Ian Leslie, there’s something I disagree with. It’s this:
Almost as a blanket rule, don’t bash the BBC…The BBC is about the only thing standing between post-Brexit Britain and a Trump-style reality-free culture war.
He has a point, insofar as a lot of BBC-bashing is just narcissistic whining that the corporation doesn’t echo one’s own prejudices. Nevertheless, I fear there is a problem with the corporation.
One fact tells us this - that the public are horribly wrong about many basic facts. Of course, this isn’t wholly or even mainly the BBC’s fault. But such massive ignorance should alert us to the possibility that the country’s most powerful broadcaster isn’t fulfilling its purpose of informing its viewers and listeners.
A big reason for this, I suspect, is a policy of “due impartiality” which gives us “he says, he says” reporting, and hence “balance” between truth and lies, and a failure to report what the experts' consensus is. Paul Krugman has called this “views differ on shape of the planet reporting.” Even within the BBC, there is disquiet at this. Norman Smith, the BBC’s assistant political editor, has said:
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 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.
This has been echoed by a report commissioned by the BBC Trust, which says (pdf):
The BBC frequently presents different sets of statistics put forward by those on either side of an argument. Audience research, and our own discussions, showed considerable frustration with this way of presenting statistics and effectively leaving the audience to make up its own mind. The BBC needs to get better and braver in interpreting and explaining rival statistics and guiding the audience. (Emphasis in original)
This can contribute to ignorance. Years ago, Alexander Cockburn complained that such balance meant that “since everything can be contradicted, nothing may be worth remembering.”
This isn’t just a disservice to the viewer*. It’s a disservice to democracy.
Yes, the BBC can point to Reality Check and More or Less as counter-examples of what I mean. But these don’t have anything like the prominence of its main news programmes.
The general problem here is to pay too much attention to talk – especially Westminster-based talk – and not enough to ground truth. It's this that also gives us mindless speak your branes shows like Question Time or Sunday Morning Live. I don’t care what some random guy thinks. What I want to know is the truth, or at least facts. Of course, there’s a place for values, but these should be the considered opinions of philosophers, not of rentagobs.
I suspect this is why the BBC appeared biased against Corbyn. It’s not that its reporters were consciously anti-Corbyn, but that their attitudes to him were coloured by his unpopularity among MPs – and this led them to under-estimate his popularity among Labour’s grassroots and his ability to campaign outside Westminster. Equally - and just as misleadingly - George Osborne was spoken of as a believer in devolution because he spoke about the “Northern Powerhouse” but in fact the ground truth was that his cuts to local government meant he in effect centralized power.
This prioritizing of talk over ground truth has leads to at least two distortions.
One is that it tends to select politicians for fluency, (over)-confidence and the appearance of matiness, which can lead to a downgrading of other virtues such as grasp of policy, good decision-making or managerial ability. This bias is especially great given that interviewers seem to regard it as their job to make a fool of politicians, rather than to elicit information about policy and values.
The other is that it leads to a bias against emergence. Issues that politicians talk about - and which they give the (misleading) impression of controlling – get more attention than more important outcomes of emergent processes. Our biggest economic problem is stagnant productivity, not the “nation’s finances” – but you’d never have inferred this from the BBC’s coverage.
What I’m saying here shouldn’t be surprising. Every profession – yes, including economists – has its own perspective on the world which can be distorting as well as illuminating: it’s called deformation professionelle. Political journalists are no more immune to these than anybody else.
Now, I don’t intend this to be general BBC-bashing. A lot that the BBC does is brilliant. But this doesn’t include its political and economic reporting.
It’s said that the purpose of a liberal education to teach people the best that has been thought or said, or is being thought and said. Whilst this is true for at least some of the BBC’s output, it is not true of it political journalism.
* The problem here isn’t confined to political reporting. Ben Goldacre says that uncritical reporting of Andrew Wakefield’s claims about a link between the MMR vaccine and autism contributed to a decline in vaccinations in the early 00s.