Throw Off the Cowardly Sackcloths! The BBC Must Be Biased Towards Democracy

The creation of the BBC is one of the greatest political achievements of the 20th Century. It ranks up there with the formation in the NHS. BBC Radio 4 is Britain’s great cultural contribution to the world. The esteem in which it is held is seen by the trust of voters.

It is not perfect. It can be infuriating. The BBC does get things wrong - just not in the sense that people usually think.

On Tuesday, Iain Duncan Smith appeared on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show to discuss the leak of the government’s Brexit impact reports that showed every form of Brexit left the country worse off.

Duncan Smith’s whole purpose was to poo poo experts. “What did economists know about economics?” was his thesis. They were wrong before, they will be wrong again, said the sage of Chingford. Vine never countered that actually much of what was predicted was coming true. He did not point out that Brexit had already cost the country £350m per week. He did not point out a struggling economy, rising inflation or devalued pound. He asked Duncan Smith for no counter reports that showed Brexit benefits.

Instead, Vine allowed Duncan Smith to say that the ORB had been forced to upgrade their forecasts. And yes, Duncan Smith was right: the ORB upgraded its forecasts - after it downgraded them a lot.    

At the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn appeared on the Andrew Marr Show. Marr questioned him about his appearances on Press TV, Iran’s propaganda channel. Corbyn replied that he has given up appearing on Press TV a long time ago, that he done so when the regime attacked the Green movement and that he had always spoken out against their human rights abuses.

In twenty seconds the Labour leader potentially misinformed the public three times: he gave up appearing on Press TV five years ago, far from ancient history, that was three years after attacks began on the Green Movement; in all his time on Press TV he never once criticised Iran’s human rights record.

This is a public sector broadcaster that has become cowed. I offer two examples of failure. There are many more. When was the last time an Andrea Leadsom was taken to task for calling for more patriotic reporting of Brexit? How often do you see an interviewer take on a minister who pretends that the economy is fine? Again and again, Corbyn’s Labour are allowed to make lazy assertions with impunity.

Only the week before Corbyn was on Marr, the BBC could have skewered John McDonnell who pretended he had apologised to the Commons over comments about Esther McVey. The video showed the Shadow Chancellor had been untruthful. Why did Marr not show it?

The BBC’s cowardice was spotted by Simon Wren-Lewis, the Oxford economist, after the BBC gave publicity to a report by Patrick Minford who published a report about unilateral free trade. The BBC treated Minford as an expert in trade (which he is not) when his report had been heavily criticised by those who were. The eccentric view was given equal weight with the overwhelming consensus.

Claims of bias swarm around the BBC like flies hovering over faeces

In a way, these are two separate issues but the connection between the two is that both have vocal supporters on social media. Equally, Brexit and Corbyn defied the polls and the pundits.

It is time to take off the sackcloth and wash away the ashes. With Brexit we are talking about the future economic direction of the country for a generation. Corbyn might very well become prime minister. Voters need them to be scrutinised.

If supporters of either think it acceptable for their tribunes to deceive or unacceptable for them to be called out when they do so, then they need to understand that this is doing them no favours in the long-term.

Public policy becomes better if scrutinised. Fear of the 4th Estate means better prepared politicians formulating better policy because they don’t want to look ridiculous before the nation. Politicians will always fudge yes, but we cannot expect honest politicians if broadcasters just let them tell outright untruths.

The question is, what do you have to fear?

In pursuit of balance the BBC has often ended up giving equal weight to opposing arguments that, at times, did not deserve equal weight. Were an MP to declare the earth was flat, would the BBC treat this view as seriously the scientists who disagree?

In letting off Corbyn and McDonnell they are trying to atone for previous “bias”. No, they did not take Corbyn seriously when he was 20% behind in the polls? Yes, they reported rebellion - but that is what was happening. Those who predicted Corbyn would do well did so because they wanted him to do well. Even his own staff thought Labour would lose seats at the election.

Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Get over it.

The irony is that by now soft-balling him, they are taking him equally unseriously.

The BBC are trying to feed buns to hungry crocodiles. It does not work. Were Emily Matliss to front Newsnight dressed as John Bull, it would not satisfy any Brexiters. Were Jo Coburn to reveal a sly Momentum tattoo, no serious Corbynista would change their view on establishment neoliberalism.  

Claims of bias swarm around the BBC like flies hovering over faeces. For every left-wing claim of BBC bias, there is a right-wing one. It is as bad that Corbynistas hurl abuse at editors for pro-Tory bias, as dodgy reports claiming the BBC is pro-Remain.

Sometimes the truth is hard to find. Sometimes it isn’t. A journalist who ignores the truth when it is obvious is not a journalist. An opinion, without foundation in fact or evidence, does not have the automatic right to be treated with balance however popular it is;

So perhaps the BBC should now proclaim a new bias. Towards democracy.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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