Over the weekend, the two main political stories on the BBC were Chuka Umunna’s row with the Labour leadership and Boris Johnson’s attack upon Theresa May, whilst John McDonnell’s plan to gradually end capitalism was ignored*. Then yesterday John Humphrys prefaced a question about the type of Brexit Leavers want with the words that this is “all getting a wee bit technical and I’m sure people are fed up to the back teeth of all this talk of stuff most of us don’t clearly understand” (2’12” in).
All this (and you can no doubt think of more or better examples) is a symptom of a BBC bias – a preferences for reporting splits and divisions rather than detailed analysis of policy. This has nasty effects.
One is that, as Nick says, it creates a bias against understanding. The question: “what type of Brexit do you want?” is a vitally important one. The fact that one of the BBC’s best-paid journalists can dismiss it as “stuff most of us don’t clearly understand" is therefore an admission of colossal failure. Polls show that the public are wrong about many basic social facts. Our biggest broadcaster must surely take some responsibility for this.
Secondly, it generates a bias towards charlatans. Because the BBC doesn’t do policy detail, empty windbags who don’t have such policies get a free pass. Brexiters who don’t have a plan for leaving have gotten far more coverage and deference than they merit. This bias perhaps plays against the Tories as well as Labour. The fact that clowns like Johnson** get more coverage than the likes of Rory Stewart, Robert Halfon, David Willetts or Jesse Norman surely puts the Tory party into a much worse light among thinking people than it would get from a reputable broadcaster.
By the same token, MPs who cultivate links with journalists (and share their posh backgrounds?) get better coverage than those with, say, technocratic backgrounds or links to trades unions. I suspect that one reason why the BBC has been so bad at covering Corbyn (especially soon after his election as Labour leader) is that it has been blindsided by the fact that he has much more support outside Westminster than in.
Thirdly, if politics is presented as a fight for position it encourages a naïve cynicism – the idea that, as Jonathan Calder says, politicians are “all alike and all in it for themselves.”
The other side of this coin is perhaps even nastier. It encourages people to believe that politics is not about them but is instead a cosy game for posh people. That breeds at best apathy and at worst populism. And this effaces a deep truth – that politics is in fact literally a matter of life and death for the poor and voiceless.
To see my point more clearly, imagine that the BBC did not cover gossip, jockeying for power and idle disagreement but instead focused solely upon policy. Wouldn’t we have a better type of politics?
Now, some of you might reply that splits and divisions are news and that policy proposals are not. This won’t do. “News” isn’t something natural and given. It is defined by convention. My gripe is that this convention isn’t neutral, and has social consequences.
Alternatively, you might say that divisions are indeed important as they signal whether a party is competent to govern. Maybe they do, but in the exact opposite way you and the BBC think. It is party unity that is dangerous. Some of the worst policies of our time – the poll tax, austerity and (to a lesser extent as there was some opposition to it) the Iraq war – were undertaken by strong leaders of united parties. The Workers Party of Korea is united, but few of us consider North Korea well governed. Disagreements, if conducted intelligently, are a sign of a healthy lack of deference and groupthink.
There is, though, another objection to what I’m saying – that the public actually want gossip rather than detailed policy analysis. This might well be the case. Whether a public service broadcaster should pander to such tastes is, however, another matter. We would not tolerate an industry that massively pollutes the environment. So why should we tolerate one that pollutes public discourse?
* The Today programme did cover it this morning, but the news report presented it as a marketing strategy and Martha Kearney’s interview with McDonnell – whilst giving him a word edgeways – was perfunctory and she was clearly keen to get away from economics to the more comfortable territory of splits and divisions.
** The mere fact that journalists call him Boris in a way they don’t use first names for (say) Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn is itself revealing.