Many of us have criticised the BBC over the past 7 years of bias, and of reflecting broadly establishment opinion. However, the broadcasting corporation has persistently defended itself against legitimate charges of ideological favouritism, claiming a reputation for fair coverage. Given the BBC’s reach, and the trust placed in it, any biases could potentially have a much more significant impact on altering public understanding of an issue than biases arising on other media platforms.
A key reason why BBC bias is important is that, unlike its broadcast competitors and newspapers, the BBC is guaranteed its funds through a compulsory licence fee. Consumers are not able to punish the institution financially for perceived coverage bias. This puts it in a highly privileged position, one in which TV viewers are made to pay for the content, irrespective of their views on it.
In addition, the method through which the BBC is funded means that the organisation itself has a vested interest in the political process. It uses a chunk of its guaranteed revenues to lobby for the maintenance of the licence fee. If a government had a manifesto commitment to radically slash or abolish the BBC licence fee, the BBC’s coverage of that issue could be vitally important in framing that debate. This is not a mere theoretical point – in 2015, Andrew Marr interviewed BBC Director General, Lord (Tony) Hall on just this issue.
On Thursday night, the BBC’s Newsnight programme featured a large backdrop showing Jeremy Corbyn apparently standing outside of the Kremlin wearing a Russian-styled hat. Of course the photograph of the opposition leader was superimposed over the background. Jeremy Corbyn’s face had also been treated to a rather blatant red makeover by the BBC.
This is a blatant attempt at shaping public perception and disgraceful breach of the BBC’s impartiality obligations. This was also most certainly a deviation in coverage from objective truth. It was a reference to the frequent, false and libelous accusations of Jeremy Corbyn being a “Commie spy” and so on. Rather than highlighting the fact that these are false allegations, the BBC chose to highlight them using a picture that had been doctored to create a backdrop, giving viewers the impression that the lies and hysterical, long standing right wing smears are facts.
The BBC set is the kind of nasty tactic that we ordinarily expect from the right wing rags. Like the photograph of the previous Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, eating a bacon sandwich, which became the source of sustained commentary in 2014 and 2015. Taken for the Evening Standard while Miliband was campaigning for local elections in May 2014, it was purposely shared to make him look awkward, error prone or incapable of performing simple tasks, as if eating is somehow related to political performance. The photo was used in a deeply mocking front page of The Sun on the day before the 2015 general election.
Media bias in the UK
Last year, the Conservatives were accused of “criminalising public interest journalism” as it plans to increase the number of years for the “leaking of state secrets” from 2 years to 14, in the first “overhaul” of the Official Secrets Act for over 100 years.
Under the proposals, which were published last February, officials who leak “sensitive information” about the British economy that damages national security could also be jailed. Currently, official secrets legislation is limited to breaches which jeopardise security, intelligence defence, confidential information and international relations.
The government released the proposals citing the “new reality” of the 21st-century internet and national security dangers as justification for a more “robust” system of prosecution.
The recommendations centre around the Official Secrets Act (1989) which governs how public servants in government and the military must keep government information secret and out of publication.
Journalists and civil liberties groups warned that the threshold for the increased sentence has been lowered and that journalists and whistleblowers acting in the public interest will be effectively gagged. (See The erosion of democracy and the repression of mainstream media in the UK. )
However, the Conservatives’ direction of travel regarding media freedoms was clear well before last year. As far back as 2012, the government were ‘monitoring’ the BBC in particular for ‘left wing bias’. The government’s fury at what they call the liberal, left-wing leaning of the state broadcaster was laid bare after Iain Duncan Smith accused the BBC’s economics editor, Stephanie Flanders, of ‘peeing all over British business’. (See also Once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late ).
Let’s not forget government officials smashing up hard drives containing the Snowden leaks at the Guardian office, too, and the intimidation involving the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner under the ‘terrorism’ act. As part of the global surveillance disclosure, the first of Snowden’s documents were published on June 5, 2013, in The Guardian in an article by Greenwald.
Journalists are regarded as “democracy’s watchdogs” and the protection of their sources is the “cornerstone of freedom of the press.” And freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy. Although enshrined in such terms by the European Court of Human Rights, these democratic safeguarding principles are being attacked in an increasingly open manner all over the world, including in the democratic countries that first proclaimed them.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are a collective of journalists who study freedom of the press at a comparative and international level. The UK has been consistently in low position (the higher the score, the lower the ranking) for the last five years, last year it dropped lower still, highlighting an increasing intrusion of the government on and restriction of the freedom of the press. RSF ranks the UK 40th in the index; a fall from 38th place in 2016.
We have a media with a very heavy weighted right wing bias, yet any criticism of government policy reduces our government to shrieking hysterically that the communists have been infiltrating the establishment. It’s a curious fact that authoritarians project their rigidity, insecurities and micro-controlling tendencies onto everyone else.
Types of bias
One source of media bias is a failure to include a perspective, viewpoint or information within a news story that might be objectively regarded as being important. This is important because exclusion of a particular viewpoint or opinion on a subject might be expected to shift the ‘Overton Window’, defining what it is politically acceptable to say. This can happen in such a way that a viewpoint becomes entirely eliminated or marginalised from political discourse. Within academic media theory, there is a line of reasoning that media influence on audiences is not immediate but occurs more through a continual process of repeated arguments – the ‘steady drip’ effect.
A second potential source of bias is ‘bias by selection’. This might entail particular issues or viewpoints being more frequently covered, or certain guests or organisations being more likely to be selected. There are several others, for some of which the BBC has regularly been criticised.
Herman and Chomsky (1988) proposed a propaganda model hypothesising systematic biases of media from structural economic causes. Their proposition is that media ownership by corporations, (and in other media, funding from advertising), the use of official sources, efforts to discredit independent media (“flak”), and “anti-communist“ ideology as the filters that bias news in favour of corporate and partisan political interests.
Politically biased messages may be conveyed via visual cues from the sets as a kind of underhanded reference-dependent framing. A frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. It entails the selection of some aspects of a perceived reality and makes them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and so on.
On Friday’s night’s programme, author Owen Jones quite properly took Newsnight’s Evan Davis to task about the “disgraceful framing” of the narrative around the nerve-agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal. Davis actually had the brazen cheek to laugh about Jones’s observations, and to deny them.
As other independent journalists have reported, Jones also referred to the observation of sharp-eyed Twitter user @duckspeech that Newsnight had not merely added Corbyn’s image to the backdrop – but had also photoshopped his hat to make it more closely resemble a Russian hat. This was of course referencing the long running and debunked “Russian stooge” and “appeasement” narrative of the Conservatives, which started with the fake Zinoviev letter, when the very first Labour government was in power.
The government have reduced politics to crude ad hominem attacks, aggressive posturing, overly simplistic sound bites and negative, divisive and emotive appeals. The media have reflected a corresponding lack of sophistication in their delivery of ‘news’.
The details and rationality matters
Corbyn condemned the nerve agent attack on the Skripals in no uncertain terms. However, he responded rationally and stressed that any response to Russia must be based on clear evidence. Of course the right wing rags ran a smear campaign, despicably calling Corbyn a “Kremlin stooge”, and some of the Labour party’s centrists started sniping.
Yet Corbyn has been rational and reasonable. He said: “The attack in Salisbury was an appalling act of violence. Nerve agents are abominable if used in any war. It is utterly reckless to use them in a civilian environment.
Our response as a country must be guided by the rule of law, support for international agreements and respect for human rights .Our response must be decisive, proportionate and based on clear evidence.” He is absolutely right. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have responded with a politics of petulance, with defence minister Gavin Williamson disgracefully saying that Russia should “go away and shut up” when asked how the Kremlin should respond to the expulsion of 23 of its diplomats.
Corbyn was derided when presented a series of simple and reasonable questions to the prime minister, asking what steps the government has taken to collect evidence for its claims, he was loudly heckled by puerile, braying McCarthist members of the House of Commons.
He said: “If the government believe that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military-grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW with our allies? I welcome the fact that the police are working with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Has the prime minister taken the necessary steps under the chemical weapons convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government under Article IX(2)?
“How has she responded to the Russian government’s request for a sample of the agent used in the Salisbury attack to run their own tests? Has high-resolution trace analysis been run on a sample of the nerve agent, and has that revealed any evidence as to the location of its production or the identity of its perpetrators?”
Perhaps Corbyn’s carping neoliberal opponents inside the Labour party should remember why party membership has significantly grown since Corbyn became the elected leader (twice) and precisely why the party’s popularity surged during last year’s snap election.
One particularly cowardly backbencher, wishing to remain anonymous, shamefully told the Guardian: “Putin’s constant and shameful apologist might just as well stand aside and let the Russian ambassador write the speeches and brief the media himself.” Despicable.
Yet on Wednesday Benjamin Griveaux, a spokesperson for the French government, said it was too early to decide on retaliatory measures against Russia, as its involvement was yet to be proven. Griveaux said France was waiting for “definitive conclusions,” and evidence that the “facts were completely true,” before taking a position.
As Walter Lipman once noted, the news media are a primary source of those “pictures in our heads” about the larger world of public affairs, a world that for most citizens is “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.” What people know about the world is largely based on what the media decide to show them. More specifically, the result of this mediated view of the world is that the priorities of the media strongly influence the priorities of the public. Elements prominent on the media agenda become prominent in the public mind.
Given the reduction in sophistication and rationality in government rhetoric, media news and current affairs presentation, (and reduction in democratic accountability, for that matter) we don’t currently have a climate that particularly encourages citizens to think critically and for themselves.
Read Jeremy Corbyn’s article in the Guardian: The Salisbury attack was appalling. But we must avoid a drift to conflict
I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you.