Saturday, September 26, 2009

I'm so bored with BBC bias conspiracy theories

You know the dying days of the Labour Party in Government are upon us when the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw (former BBC employee on the Today programme if I recall correctly) accuses the BBC of being biased toward the Tories. Of course, "BBC Bias" is a common complaint in UK politics. Most is usually directed from the Right towards the Left it must be said.

Sadly though it is a subject that rarely gets looked at properly because when the accusations fly, it is often dressed up as if it were a genuine co-ordinated liberal conspiracy - this as I understand it was one of the reasons that the site Liberal Conspiracy was so named i.e. that it was mocking the Right's protestations.

The problem though is slightly more complex than that but, in the classic hyperbole that passes for political debate on the subject the complexity tends to get lost. You rarely see the sophisticated argument about BBC impartiality put forward that says the BBC is not impartial but it's also not intentionally biased.

There is, for some strange reason, this misplaced belief by many that it is possible to be "objective" when analysing politics and/or social matters. However it is a myth, deftly expressed by Karl Mannheim in Ideology and Utopia and is commonly called the Mannheim Paradox.

The paradox notes that political and social analysis, which is essentially ideological based analysis, is always produced by a subject who in turn is subject to the same ideological scrutiny they perform on others.

At the BBC, as pointed out by the former BBC man, Robin Aitken, in Can we trust the BBC, there are a majority of people of self-declared left-leaning stance, it therefore follows that, through no fault of their own, their analysis with have a tendency towards bedrock assumptions that the group accept as self-evident.

This is why I don't think the BBC is intentionally biased. After all, if you have a group of journalists who all generally accept, for example, that public spending is a good thing, then you're analysis will display that bias, unwittingly, in the way reductions in spending are seen in their negative impact.

We're all set to see it in its full glory soon as the election draws nearer. Watch and listen to the way proposals of cuts will be reported with a dominant analysis about their negative impact rather than their positive impact on the general health of the balance sheet and the economy.

As I say though, it's not some big conspiracy where a cabal of BBC journalists get together and plot to push their agenda. It's just the impossibility of objectivity in social and political analysis with the added bonus of groupthink. If everyone has much the same world view and bedrock assumptions, then critical analysis of those assumptions won't happen, nor will they ever likely be discussed.

Of course, there is a structural problem at the BBC that doesn't help this, and that is the conflation of news and comment which is far more the norm these days. News is often reported with follow up comment by a correspondent. The demarcation between facts and opinion has become blurred.

This isn't just a problem for the BBC though, nor is it a problem that is only about the Left and media. If the BBC had a majority of right wing journalists the coin would be flipped. The most obvious example where the Right is dominant would be Fox News - which rather hilariously tries to calls itself "fair and balanced".

The reality is the BBC and other media is not objective. In some cases it can be deliberate, but most often, and I think this is certainly true of the BBC, it is unintentional. There is no big conspiracy of bias, but bias there is.

And yes, for the clever amongst you, this post and my view is subject to the same paradox mentioned above, but in my defence, I never claimed I was being objective.

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