Over the past month or so, a lot of discussion about institutionalised this and structural that, has been brought into the political discussion. This broad structural analysis of our society has taken over from more specific issues, one of which was whether the UK Government should defund the BBC. In this article, I will be arguing the point that the BBC is not a biased news organisation, and furthermore, to get rid of the BBC would be an absolute catastrophe for British broadcasting culture.
The BBC, or the British Broadcasting Corporation, is a publicly funded broadcasting company in the UK. Unlike other publicly funded entities, the BBC does not get the majority of its funding through tax revenue, but rather through the infamous TV Licence – a subscription all Brits must pay if they own a television which is used to view content live as it is broadcasted (not necessarily live programs, but programs that are being aired by a broadcaster and simultaneously viewed on a TV). The revenue is collected by the BBC and used solely by the BBC to fund its TV, radio and online platforms.
A study carried out in 2011 by the BBC & Ofcom (Office of Communications), found that the BBC is by far the most trusted source for information in the UK, with 59% of participants trusting the BBC the most. The second most trusted television source, ITV News, which is privately owned, collected only 7% of the participants’ answers. Of all of the newspapers and printed news sources in the UK, the joint highest was The Daily Mail, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, with 2% each. The overwhelming majority of Brits trust the BBC to give them valuable, truthful and impartial information.
The first point of the BBC’s Public Purposes Charter sets in stone the organisation’s commitment to political nonalignment. Furthermore, it aims to support the learning of people of all ages, to air high-quality and engaging entertainment services, to reflect the different cultures of the UK, to support the British creative industries economy, and to reflect the values, culture and message of the UK across the world. From that alone, it is hard to argue that the BBC is a negative force in British culture.
The question then becomes, why do so many people want the BBC to be defunded?
Strangely, calls for the defunding of the BBC come from both political wings. As you can imagine, it largely comes down to partisan accusations of bias against their political leaning and fake news about certain events being reported ‘incorrectly’. In the age of Trump, who is forever calling unfavourable news pieces “fake”, we have never needed an organisation who, at the very least, attempts to report accurately and fairly.
One example of BBC impartiality comes from this blog post, posted on Sunday the 14th of June, on the topic of the reporting of the Black Lives Matter protests in Central London vs. the reporting of the far-right counter-protests. As you can see, this is a very clearly partisan approach to critiquing the BBC. The writer pulls on fellow right-leaning Twitter users and political commentators to fuel his argument against the BBC, which fails to stand up to begin with. He essentially picks to believe commentator’s word on Twitter, over news broadcasters, because of a predisposed belief that the BBC is a left-wing propaganda machine.
However, as I said, this conspiratorial nonsense comes from both wings. Here is a similar post making the complete inverse point; the BBC has been infiltrated by right-leaning executives, presenters and higher-ups, and resultingly holds a bias towards the right. This article, while pulling on more concrete information (academic studies etc.), still comes from an entirely partisan position, essentially arguing that because the BBC are not a mouthpiece for the writer's preferred political party, they are too fake news.
Often in politics, you can do deep dives into the academic work, you can comb the internet for reliable information, you can do all the homework necessary, and yet still come up empty-handed. When that happens, you simply have to resort to the ‘eye test’, or the Occam’s Razor solution: What is the most simple, obvious answer, given the information we have available to us?
Occam’s Razor would dictate that if both the left and the right argue with equal veracity that the BBC is biased against them – then the BBC is probably not biased at all. There is probably an awful lot of confirmation bias going on; picking the examples that confirm their predisposed position, rather than looking at the broader picture and working to a conclusion given what is found, but that’s commonplace nowadays.
Impartiality, as an objective in broadcasting, is misunderstood by virtually everyone who weighs into this discussion. In the second article I have linked above, the writer spoke at length about Andrew Neil, a well-known conservative. Proponents of the BBC’s right-wing bias conspiracy seem to think that every presenter, journalist and figure working at the BBC must be entirely apolitical. This is an unrealistic aspiration which I will attempt to dispel in three short arguments.
Firstly, to expect the BBC to find an individual who is truly politically neutral, yet understands the complexities of contemporary national and international politics, is beyond the realm of possibility. To truly understand politics is to take a political position and to contrast it with another. To be politically neutral demonstrates, to some extent, a failure to grasp the complexities of a political situation.
Secondly, impartiality does not mean that a figure must finish every statement that could be construed as political with a disclaimer, nor does it mean that on-camera figures must refrain from discussing their personal views. What it means is that the editorial guidelines dictate that the BBC cannot move into the broadcasting regions occupied by Breitbart, FOX NEWS, The Daily Show or Vox.
Finally, continuing on the topic of Andrew Neil, he has repeatedly shown himself to hold conservative voices to account. Take, for example, the now-famous Ben Shapiro interview, in which Neil was accused of being on the left. Following the Shapiro appearance on BBC News, many left-leaning viewers complained that the BBC was wrongly giving a platform to right-wing extremists. Similarly, many on the right complained arguing that Shapiro was unfairly attacked, and that Neil would not have given a left-wing guest such a difficult time. Indeed, Shapiro was the first to make that assertion as the interview was in progress. However, embodying the point of this entire piece, Neil responded with:
“I know that broadcasting in America is now so polarised that on one program you’ll only have the left, and on another, you just have the right, my job is to question those who have strong views and put an alternative to them”.
That is the BBC in one single quote. Neil, personally, holds right-wing views, but he was so nonbiased in the Shapiro interview, that he was labelled a leftist. As far as I can see, that is as close to pure impartiality as one can reasonably expect to get when it comes to political journalism.
Setting the Tone
There is another point on the BBC which I feel goes criminally underappreciated when thinking about broadcasting culture in the UK. Whether you decide to watch BBC News, ITV News, Sky News, Channel 4 News, or any other news program, you’re going to find that they all report similarly. The presenter will always formally address the viewers, the general tone will be serious, and you are unlikely to feel overly gratified or offended by a clear bias that either supports or contests your politics.
Contrasted to the US, where, as Neil outlines, there has been a total and complete breakdown in broadcasting impartiality to the extent that the Democrats call FOX NEWS a propaganda-wing for the Republican Party, and vice-versa for CNN. We are incredibly lucky that the BBC sets the tone for all other broadcasters in the UK, thus leading to a certain level of consensus in our broadcasting. Whilst there is absolutely nothing akin to this consensus in British print media, our television media, which is far more popular, does enjoy it. We are lucky to enjoy it too.
The lines between news and entertainment, between fact and fear, are far clearer in the UK. British Comedian Russell Howard outlines the US-UK differences in this clip.
The BBC Is Not Your Enemy
To the left, the BBC is not your enemy. A publicly-funded broadcasting company that is entirely editorially independent from the state and pledges to be impartial, is not the enemy. It will critique the Conservative Party when necessary, outline social issues on all of its platforms, and mainly employs liberally minded, university graduates and entertainers.
To the right, the BBC is not your enemy. It is not a mandatory tax, so you are only paying for it if you decide to consume it and it has been equally critical of the left and pledges to be impartial. Furthermore, it employs several Conservative Party donors in its higher positions, which will stop it swaying too far to the left.
There are far bigger issues in broadcasting and journalism for both sides of the political spectrum than the BBC.
One Final Remark…
Calls to dissolve or defund the BBC are ridiculous. I refer back to the BBC Charter, which aims to do so much good. Defunding an entire organisation because it said a few things that you don’t agree with is not the solution. If you remain unconvinced, certain that the BBC is a corrupt and biased organisation, then you should campaign to have its editorial standards reviewed by an independent body. Why tear down a beloved British institution, unleashing a chaotic change in the British broadcasting landscape, just because of an unfounded accusation of bias?