I must admit that I have always regarded people who expended energy on complaining about BBC political bias as simply having too much time on their hands. Now, I find myself the 21st Century equivalent of these irate retirees. The entrenched and dominant position that the BBC now has as a news provider is, in effect, promoting and legitimising extreme political views and may contribute to the decline of democracy as most of us understand it.
To be fair to the BBC, its principal presenters are scrupulously impartial to the resulting fury of Corbyn supporters. If I did not have some knowledge of their background, I would have no idea at all as to how John Humphrys, Nick Robinson or Andrew Marr might vote and, as Andrew Marr has said, it is most admirably quite impossible to guess Laura Kuenssberg’s political allegiance. Instead, my growing anxiety rests upon the position that the BBC has carved out for itself, and the dire consequences of that position.
The advent of the digital era disrupted the media industry more than any other. In general, there has been a fragmentation of service providers and greater choice for customers, but the news market has moved sharply in the opposite direction in this country. While its rivals struggled with reduced income, from lower newspaper sales and loss of viewers (thanks to the ubiquity of the internet), the BBC remained cushioned by its protected licence fee, uniquely able to develop an extensive online news site without cannibalising its income. Conversely, newspaper groups faced the choice of losing revenue from putting free content online or losing revenue and readers from putting in place a pay wall. Between 2010 and 2016, UK newspaper circulation dropped by over a third, reinforcing the importance of television and on line news. The BBC is, by any measure, the dominant player in both these markets with the latest OFCOM report stating that it has a share of television news viewing of well over 70% and with 56% of adults saying that they use BBC websites or apps for news (the next nearest sites being Facebook with 27% and Sky with 15%).
Ironically, it is the BBC’s strict rules on political impartiality (largely shared with other broadcasters) that make its dominance in the provision of news, especially on line news, so dangerous. In essence, the relevant point here is that the Conservative and Labour parties must be given equal levels of coverage, and no doubt scrutiny, but the supposedly hypothetical question which simply screams out for an answer is: What happens if one of the major parties has been taken over by an extreme faction or, heaven forbid, an extreme faction that actually questions the validity of our system of democracy? The problem is that the rules on impartiality would then mean giving equal prominence and scrutiny to a group of politicians who did not accept the basic values of our society and might not even accept democracy itself. The BBC would not only effectively be legitimising such a group with its extensive and equal coverage, but also subjecting its policies to scrutiny to a limited and prescribed extent and in a way which made them seem entirely comparable with more mainstream political positions. In other words, during an election campaign, the BBC could help a party dominated by an extreme faction to win the election and that faction to form the government.
This is a significant example of the law of unintended consequences but, for full effect, it has to be married together with a self-evident truth of the politically correct credo: At worst, left wing extremists are well intentioned but misguided whereas there is a whole lexicon of (I agree) well deserved pejoratives for those on the extreme right. I believe that consequently the lofty political arbiters at the BBC choose to take a more sympathetic approach to the extreme left with an effect which, in the wrong circumstances, could be potentially catastrophic.
I cannot do justice here to the wealth of easily available material about the backgrounds and views of Andrew Fisher, John McDonnell and Seumas Milne. The admirable article by Danny Finkelstein in The Times sets it out far better than I could: “They believe that democracy is not parliament voting on laws after an election every few years, it is control by working people of their own lives, of the means of production, of the management of their workplaces and of the capital invested in businesses. It is always democratic to insist upon these rights, even if it involves breaking laws made by parliament”. The indisputable fact is that Jeremy Corbyn’s closest associates have, at best, a dubious attitude towards parliamentary democracy.
The Conservative party tried to draw attention to the extreme views of the key individuals surrounding Corbyn. In this endeavour, they were unable to gain the support of the BBC, and millions of voters will have supported Labour not fully understanding the long held views of those who nearly came to hold the great offices of state and probably will in the not too distant future. You can argue that it would have breached impartiality for the BBC to have devoted significant attention to historical positions of these individuals which were not a live part of the campaign – and while this may be true it illustrates the danger of a highly dominant provider of news which is forced to follow rigid rules on impartiality. It is, after all, straight out of the playbook for aspiring dictators and extremists to run for office on a platform which omits their more unacceptable (usually previously stated) views. One might therefore ask what good a public service broadcaster is if it is not able to perform the most important public service of all and warn its audience against some of the greatest historical pitfalls facing a democracy. You could also suggest, as I would, that if a leader of the Conservative party was surrounded by advisers with mirror image extreme right wing views, the BBC would have found a way of airing the issues very thoroughly. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The most serious possible issues of all were left unexplored, and a faction that does not accept the centuries old legitimacy of the British state has been made to appear respectable and stands on the verge of power.
As a first step to re-establishing diverse and competitive news reporting, the BBC’s free on line presence should be severely curtailed with the bulk of the content put behind a pay wall and the corporation made to compete on a level playing field with other media businesses. (Subscription proceeds should be used to reduce the licence fee.) Once consumers are no longer offered a substantial free site provided at great expense by another, albeit overlapping, group of people, they would once again look to a variety of news providers. With greater potential profit, these providers would in turn have an incentive to expand their content and operations and the restoration of diversity in news media would be underway.
I would also consider taking whatever legislative action necessary to enable broadcasters to override impartiality rules to explore thoroughly any issues whatsoever which could impact on our constitutional settlement. We must be clear that some political views cannot be deemed as within the Overton window of acceptability just because they are espoused by a leading member of a major political party.
I have little illusion that, with a weakened government, such a dramatic policy change is unlikely and that the status quo increases the likelihood of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn and his Marxist colleagues. It is scant comfort that this would likely bring the BBC’s much vaunted but imperfect impartiality to an abrupt end.