I’ll let you into a little writing secret of mine for articles and essay’s – always write the intro after you’ve written the piece so you can explain why it meanders so. In this piece I wanted to write about the failings of the media to fairly represent news. It becomes obvious that I am mostly referring to the BBC, as they are the only outlet in this country that purports to do this by design and in the public interest, rather than for commercial reasons. I should point out that I am quite a fan of the BBC entertainment departments, which I view as being a whole other entity to the beast of the news coverage. I must also point out that I don’t really know how to sort it all out – it’s a common theme of mine that I think it is fair enough to point out an issue and offer some critical analysis, but that it is unfair to expect any one person to have all the answers. Not liking something is a valid enough starting point but it has become a trend to rebuke criticism by saying ‘well – what is the alternative?’ and then mock the person who has raised the problem because they haven’t been able to dedicate their whole life to the issue in question. It is enough to raise a problem and to expect the people who are in an appropriate position to do something about it or explore the possibilities. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to reduce your status in relation to themselves, probably in order to maintain a status quo they are happy with. So with this in mind, please find below, after much meandering, my eight easy steps to achieving a fair and unbiased news story.
I once caused uproar on an open-forum at my old job when I replied to a thread defending the BBC News against accusations of bias. I think I said something along the lines of:
“BBC news unbiased? Time to wake up!”
It wasn’t the most advanced of arguments but then, it wasn’t the most advanced of discussion forums. I felt I was just adding a ‘vote’ almost to that side of the debate. The forums were in general a mixture of the vacuous, the work related and the occasional thorny debating issue. The users were spread out over the country in various head offices and branches, stealing a few minutes away from work to engage their brain in something that didn’t cause it to melt quite so much as working for a bank does. So what I wasn’t expecting after adding my tiny comment to the already hefty thread, was a reply along the lines of:
“Oh, I bet you’re one of those left-wing hippy crackpot conspiracy theorists who thinks the BBC is controlled by Lizards and who wears a tin foil hat to guard against mind control by the FBI aren’t you? The BBC is the foundation of our unbiased media and democracy, you only have to look at America’s Fox network to realise how good we’ve got it.”
And in one massive, sweeping statement of ignorance, this anonymous responder felt they had destroyed not only my argument, but also my character. They had decided exactly who and what my character was by plucking it out of the stereotype bargain bucket, much favoured by the Daily Mail and most mainstream politicians. You’ve heard it before right? Attack the arguer, not the argument. Classic deflection strategy.
So accordingly, after half an hour or so of calming myself down and not writing the first thing that came into my head (which would have surely got me sacked), I formulated my response. I can’t remember it exactly but the main points were this…
* The BBC is funded by public money, designated by the government. They are at best acutely aware of this, even if they choose not to let this influence them, at worst, they let it influence them.
* It is impossible to be unbiased. Pretending to be is a waste of time. Journalists & editors for the BBC are well rewarded for their opinions, meaning that they hold a certain social and economic position of power. Again, at best they are naturally biased but make a real effort not to allow this to influence their work, and at worst, they allow this to influence their work.
* It doesn’t matter how unbiased your reporting is, unless you cover all news stories, all of the time, with equal emphasis, you are not unbiased. Someone chooses the headline. Someone chooses what time the story gets published and how quickly it moves up or down the schedule. Someone chooses to treat the opinion of a ruling government minister as a news story, even though it is not news. Someone decides which stories on the website are allowed comments. An editor highlights which comments he/she thinks are of note. Let alone the obvious stuff about someone choosing where to point a camera and what to point it at…
* By attempting to be unbiased and represent a range of views, what you end up with is a minority of extreme views at each end of the scale, totally unrepresentative of the majority of reasonable people. You may think that talking to reasonable, none extreme people about issues would be pointless for news reporting, but it is exactly the opposite! Who would you prefer to have on a jury if you had been wrongly accused of a crime? A panel of people who hold extreme and diametrically opposed views, or a panel of reasonable people who listen and asses arguments each with their own merits?
* Just look at it! Honestly, just think about it. Most of the news is pretty much just what has happened today in the world, ranked by our Western interests, but often we are presented with an opinion as a news-story with undue prominence. For example, an MP, let’s say Iain Duncan Smith, decides that his own work and welfare policy is fair. So he holds a press conference and tells them,
“You know that work and welfare policy that I devised? Well I think it’s fair. And I think that the British public agree with me. And anyone who doesn’t think it’s fair is wrong or a loony”.
Okay… he doesn’t say exactly that, but broadly, he goes on the record to reinforce what we already know – that IDS thinks he is right. Put simply… this, isn’t, news. Someone thinking they are right about something is not news, it is self promotion. So how can this kind of reporting be said to truly be an unbiased news story? At the point where a policy is announced, that is news. If a prominent figure raises an interesting objection, that is news. If 100,000 people take to the streets to reject the policy and all it stands for, that really is news. But one man, one privileged man who is already in a position of power and wealth, says that he is the bee’s knees and that we should all agree with him, and the BBC (amongst others) is there like a flash with all the publicity and PR he needs to get that message out to the malleable amongst us, who will take in the day’s headlines either as gospel truth, or as subliminal seeds for further developments. Add to this the fact that people like IDS are fond of plucking totally inaccurate figures out of the air, which are in turn broadcast far and wide by the media, before being retracted a few days later only after the impact of the lie has taken hold, regardless of the consequent truth that emerges. Shouldn’t the media be checking these things before they print/broadcast?
All this is before I even really get hippy-lefty and point out that the media elite and the political elite are presumably very closely linked. I mean, they work together nearly every day, I would bet that many of them came through the same education system and that there is a various amount of interchanging between the two industries (that’s right, politics is an industry). I would also imagine that as the BBC and the government are essentially symbiotic, something that threatens one’s very existence would be of concern for the other, which is a disastrous premise for an unbiased media! Surely?! I’m not going mad here am I?
Like it or not, the government of the day set the news agenda for the media. In many ways this is just a literal, uncomplicated truth as obviously the news is going to report on what the government says and does. The problem is that this relationship has become extremely blurred. No doubt each major political party has a media guru amongst its ranks whose job it is to encourage and seed the most favourable and comprehensive coverage possible while mitigating and deflecting bad coverage. Surely, part of this job is deciding when and where to hold press conferences, release speeches, appear on interviews etc… all carefully balanced against a tactical media agenda.
The job of the media, our media, is to pick through this and everything else that happens in the world, and decide how to report it. My view is that this complex game being played out every day in the City is counter-intuitive to a good, functioning, free and fair democracy. It has come to the point where you will quite often hear a politician say something like,
“We need to be seen as a party that understands people’s concerns”
… or something similar (note – this is the same type of language I explored in my blog on my former employer the Co-op – linked here http://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). And what do they mean by this? They mean that they need to work harder, using the channels available (mostly the BBC news), to present a facade to us, the people, in order to secure themselves positions of great power and significant wealth within our society.
And we all know the upshot of this – even if you believe the BBC gives equal air-time and prominence to all sides of the argument, we end up with robot-like politicians appearing on interviews, repeating a pre-written sound bite over and over and over again, in the hope that it will sink in. Interviewers get frustrated, listeners and viewers equally so, but it continues regardless. At no point does somebody in the industry stand up and say:
“This is nonsense! We’re not having MPs coming on this publicly funded broadcast platform to avoid difficult questions and incessantly repeat party slogans. This isn’t a party political broadcast, so they should not be given this massively powerful tool to convey their message at their own whim and fancy!”
If only we did! Something may change. We may not get the plight of immigrants and benefit dependents smeared all over our screens every day as if they were the cause of the global financial crisis, which was actually caused by a tiny handful of very rich and very influential financial speculators. The BBC even goes as far as offering us ‘austerity’ recipes and tips on living under the breadline, you know, just in case.
So anyway, the title of this blog is ‘how to achieve a fair and unbiased BBC news in 8 easy steps, so here are my initial thoughts:
Step 1. Do not get rid of the BBC. That would be folly. That would be knocking down the house because you don’t like the wall-paper. (Just thought I’d get that one in there – that is not what I am saying here).
Step 2. Report news strictly chronologically. This often happens in a loose shape, but somehow, all those quotes from the PM and such like keep creeping to the top, even when other things have happened or continue to happen at the same time. And if a news story is falling down the ranks because other things have happened, don’t allow some party spokesman to ring in and give you a new quote about the PMs latest policy just in order to bump up the story a bit. You know they do that don’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised if they also have teams of people rating and adding comments to news stories in order to push them up the ‘most read’ and ‘most shared’ ratings… It has and does happen. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/08/what-is-astroturfing)
Step 3. If a politician isn’t willing to answer a question directly, without re-framing it or avoidance techniques etc… don’t broadcast the interview at all.
Step 4. (This applies especially to the coverage of protests) – Be a bit utilitarian when deciding how to cover something. If 100,000 people are in the streets protesting, don’t concentrate on the dozen unconnected people who are smashing store windows. Do the maths. It is totally unrepresentative and the BBC do it all the time, which funnily enough has the net effect of putting people off protesting and portraying the legitimate protestors in a bad light. Exactly what you would expect the government to do if they were in charge of broadcasting, right?
Step 5. When a reporter accuses a man in a wheelchair of ‘rolling aggressively’ towards police after he has just been assaulted by the police – sack the reporter and make sure he never works in the media again. (I am of course referring to this travesty of reporting, covered here in a typically unapologetic BBC editors blog)http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2010/12/interview_with_jody_mcintyre.html
Step 6. Don’t have a chairman who has business interest aligned with that of the ruling political elite and private industries… say for example the privatisation of the NHS which is being blatantly ignored by the BBC. It has been suggested that this may have to do with Lord Patten and his private business interest? Surely not? Not in a free and fair democratic institution! http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/lord-patten-of-barnes-bridgepoint-and.html
Step 7. Ask some frigging challenging questions! Where is the investigative journalism into the financial crisis? Or the links between Tory MPs and private health-care companies? Or the concerns of the many who believe that the ‘deficit’ and ‘austerity’ are cover for an elitist asset-grab? You can label us all loony conspiracy theorists instead if you want, I suppose that’s just easier and doesn’t upset the status quo. So just keep ignoring the swelling presence of the alternative news channels on the internet. I’m sure just ignoring the growing and more challenging public media is the right strategy guys, I’m sure it will all just go away.
Step 8 – Use your own lexicon! If the government decides to re-brand ‘public sector cuts’ as ‘public sector savings’, don’t just wag your tail and do it! I’ve noticed this trend in recent years. The difference between ‘cuts’ and ‘savings’ is psychologically significant and we shouldn’t tolerate language being used as a surreptitious device to positively spin negative issues. Basically, don’t just read the bloody press release verbatim – use your own language and say it how it is, not how you’ve been told too.
So that’s my starting eight. I can’t think of anymore right now, but this should be enough to get us started. If you think of anymore, please leave them as a comment below!
Just to pre-suppose challenges, as I know some people literally *love* the BBC News, I will say that I believe most journalists and editors are probably genuine and doing a good job, but as always, it is probably the few well-placed and unscrupulous types that cause the damage, plus a cosy institutionalised attitude fostered over generations of privileged access to these kind of jobs. Also, in relation to the alternative of a news channel like ‘Fox’ in America – At least you know when you are watching Fox that they have opinions, no matter how insane! At least they don’t pretend to be mindless automata, without a point of view or an agenda. At least they aren’t pretending not to be biased! If you don’t like it, you can watch another news network and it isn’t funded solely by public money! Worry more about the monsters you can’t see, the ones that aren’t hiding in plain sight. They are the ones we really need to worry about.
Anyway, I’m off to put my tin-hat on and hunt some lizard people with Elvis and my hippy brethren on the moon. If you think any of this is just a little too kooky and conspiratorial for you – that’s fine, because the world is in great shape and obviously we have no problems and nothing to worry about. There is no inequality, no dubious wars, no unnecessary hunger and death, and no one getting rich in the process. I’m obviously just worrying for no reason and it can all be sorted by voting from some rich white bloke in a suit every 4-5 years. My bad. Sorry.
Some links to highlight some of my points…
Ed Milipede caught in a time loop: (see step 3)
MPs linked to NHS privatisation: (both sides – yes, they are all at it)