Is the BBC biased? (Is the Pope a Catholic?) If so, how can it speak for the nation?

Is the BBC biased? Is the Pope a Catholic? Do Bears defecate in the woods? Yes, yes, and yes. Next? Well, I only ask because media bias is a hot topic ever since the Internet enabled us to upload our views and share them with others, giving us a work-around of the voices of authority on the box.

The spark was this controversy when Corbynites jumped up and down last week demanding the head of Laura Kuenssberg, the first female BBC News political editor for, as STV’s Stephen Daisley put it “pursuing a nefarious right-wing agenda to undermine the Labour leader”.

Another broadcast journalist of particularly independent mind, Daisley has his own sympathetic view on the problem, which he sites largely with the rabble…

Anti-journalism hysteria is hardly new to Britain but this is the first time it has taken grip of a mainstream political party. To their credit, a number of Labour MPs denounced their supporters’ attempts to bully into silence a troublesome journalist.

Rightly, they recognise that attacks on a free press offend our civic, democratic traditions.

But those very traditions are under threat today. A generation is coming to politics not as an expression of class solidarity, on one side, or a desire to protect private property, on the other. That is the old politics. “The new politics is beyond left and right.”

How prescient, how disturbingly mantic, that old saw has turned out to be. Arguments over wealth redistribution and the size of government have receded and into view slouch the politics of identity and the populist impulse.

But as Daisley himself knows (from close range combat in the IndyRef) it is becoming the norm for people to turn their backs on the whole idea of the authoritative voice of the nation.

In response, on Facebook, Dr Steve Baker from the School of Media, Film & Journalism at the University of Ulster had this to say:

As my old lecturer David Butler argued, the BBC has an ‘umbilical’ relationship to the state. But the British state is a point of open political contest these days – Scotland and Europe. The BBC is bound to struggle in that context to find a position from which it can ‘speak to the nation as one man.’

Political debate has got to rise above the personalised attacks on the likes of Kuenssberg on the one hand and Corbyn on the other, for instance. Corbyn didn’t hijack the Labour party, He was elected by a sizeable and significant constituency that will no longer acquiesce to neo-liberalism and interminable wars.

They have projected onto Corbyn their aspirations for something different, In other words, Corbyn represents something beyond himself. The same is true of Keunssberg and Robinson before her. Petitioning to have her sacked is ridiculous because it doesn’t address or acknowledge the series institutional and systemic problems the BBC faces.

Put simply, who does the BBC represent? How does it speak for the nation as a national public service broadcaster?

In every era form dictates content (not the other way round as I so confidently mis-announced on the #SluggerReport). The shrillest accusations of bias come from whom themselves suffer from their own cognitive and political biases. It’s as though they are outraged to find the BBC (or indeed RTE)

It’s as though they are outraged to find the BBC (or indeed RTE) even as they are embedded their own biases, often re-inforced by self selecting networks of like minds. Daisley refers to this as post liberal politics:

Journalists must only write “nice” articles about The Cause and their reports must “destroy” The Enemies of the Cause. Journalists must be co-opted into The Cause, funded by The Cause, and operate editorially within its confines. That is called balance. Scrutinising The Cause and other causes, subjecting them to interrogation and analysis — that is called bias.

And yet, there is a problem that’s above and beyond the politics of the like minded (Trumpian) mob.

Some of the more ambitious political parties have it in mind that the media might simply be displaced with party pro networks of their own. Sinn Fein for instance released one party video just before the February election in the Republic which got more than a million plays on Facebook.

But the key is to understand the way networked audiences act upon all forms of online content. As Yochai Benkler wrote back in 2006 in the Wealth of Networks…

Any person who has information can connect with any other person who wants it, and anyone who wants to make it mean something in some context, can do so.

It’s that ascription of ‘meaning’ and context that’s the real bone of contention not just between between hacks and flacks (who often know each other too well) but their tribes of a thousand online followers who seek to bias the debate in their favour by whatever means available to them.

This is where the existential pain comes for those trying to operate honestly at the centre. The contexts they share increasingly don’t match the networked sources of their audiences. As my friend and colleague John Kellden says“in a network, the best place to store knowledge is in other people”. 

So Keunssberg’s major ‘fault’ lies in the fact that the networks which help her store her knowledge are largely high powered and elite which too rarely intersect with the same networks (and the same order of knowledge) as that of her seemingly large army of (biased/interested) critics.

The effect of networks are often seen in the negative. The liberations of the Arab Spring brought unmitigated chaos in its wake. The exploitations of networks is as apt to inspire a journey from the libertarian to the corporate Nietzschean as to the egalitarian.

That’s why resolving Baker’s question remains important. But it relies on finding new ways to expand the media’s qualitative networks beyond the (necessary) elites.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • ted hagan

    I got lost at the networks part I’m afraid.

  • notimetoshine

    The BBC must be doing something right, if the conservatives and the right generally are complaining about bias and now the left as well, maybe it is balanced…

  • My thoughts exactly – if lots of people with opposing views think the BBC is biased against them they can’t all be right.

    A bugbear of mine is: ‘why didn’t the BBC cover our rally/ cause/ story’. Never occurs to the person that (if applicable) their media relations person made a balls of it.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    The BBC is just part of the control system.
    I understand that people have a first time point when they learn this stuff. But come on, its 2016, and there are still people that believe that the bbc is the foundation of truth.
    Haaaaaa Haaaaaa Haaaaaaa….
    I understand that the slugger old foggies are pretty backward and behind the times, but FFS get a grip.
    The biggest issue for all of us is breaking free from the globalist control via EU state servitude. We have this one chance to break free.
    Its just a matter of the MSM believing people being woken up to that fact that it is lies…

  • Sir Rantsalot

    Seriously. look up online the fact of MSM control.

  • Brian Walker

    Before we get jump too far into theory and the digital stratosphere, let’s just take another look at the Laura Kuennesberg case. I’ve known what it’s like to hold this exposed job for 40 years, since before John Cole. Believe it or not, the BBC Political Editor is treated as an oracle by the politicians, to be entrusted with and to impart the most authoritative political news, precisely because the BBC is required to be impartial. As impartiality is partly subjective if the BBC is thought to deviate from it, howls of protests go up – usually from politicians under pressure. Even today with Twitter – perhaps even more so – politicians want the validation of the impartial broadcaster.. They want to trust what s/he says so that what they say is also trusted, when it comes from the same lips of the BBC Pol Ed. The BBC pol ed has pole position among broadcasters because the BBC’s reputation is longer lived than others and higher than the politicians’ (yes, really) and also because the BBC has more outlets than anybody else. The weighty expectations that go with the job can be a burden when s/he stoops to go for a story..Politicians will use newspaper corrs to fly kites as newspapers have no requirement to be impartial.

    The calls for Laura’s head began when as a new appointment she was said to have arranged for an anti-Corbyn Labour spokesman Stephen Doughty to resign during a BBC interview. This was a small journalist coup but normally one for a producer and not the BBC’s most senior purveyor of political news and leading arbiter of what is politically significant, trusted by all competing sides. The Corbynistas feared that if Laura behaved like that then the whole BBC would try to trip them up too. All Laura was doing was going for a quite good story. This a concept politicians who are partisan by definition, find hard to grasp. .

    Laura’s predecessor Nick Robinson was attacked and demonstrated against by SNP supporters for his on air comment during the Scottish referendum campaign, hat Alex Salmond “didn’t answer “his question about RBS thinking about leaving Scotland in the event of Scottish independence. Salmond in fact had given a sort of answer in an earlier appearance, so he could argue that he didn’t actually duck the question. Nick defended himself but later added regret about the single phrase, “didn’t answer.

    In each case the political editor had gone slightly out on a limb and out of convention by seeming to be too eager to make a story or make a point.. Not oracular enough to be entrusted to receive a whisper in their ear.

    In my much lesser role 30 years ago I once briefly imitated Paisley on air. He railed at me on camera for fully 30 minutes beginning in the middle of an election results programme and didn’t speak to me for three months. I too had stepped slightly out of the unspoken convention.

    Trust is a fragile thing and politicians are usually vulnerable.

    Maybe we all made small mistakes that were amplified out of proportion. Social media amplifies the snafu further but the protests against Nick were by a couple of thousand in person. The allegations of sexism against Laura I suspect are a red herring. Senior journalists are players in a different position from politicians, but in the same game called the political debate. Call it elitist if you like, but how many would like to have to arbitrate on what works and what doesn’t politically, day after day inside the system? If you don’t like the system what would you put in its place?

  • Nevin
  • Scots Anorak

    I am not a Labour supporter. However, even I noticed that Laura’s journalism could be interpreted as being biased against Labour. To give an example: when reporting on the recent Scottish Parliament elections, she suggested that Scots’ rejection of Labour was a rejection of Corbyn and the left (the political dynamic in Scotland was of course quite different and had little to do with that). Similarly, she said that Labour traditionally needed Scots MPs to form a Westminster Government. That could theoretically be true, and may be true in future, but the fact is that in past elections it was generally not the case, since Scotland is simply not that big: most Labour Governments had majorities in England. Kuenssberg comes across as being obsessed with Corbyn, with even unrelated events seen through the prism of internal right-left splits in the Labour Party. Needless to say, as someone who hails from Scotland, whatever her own views, she should have been capable of better.

  • hgreen

    Indeed however I’m concerned that the repeated Conservative attacks on it will result in a loss of confidence and a move to the right. That said Kuenssberg clearly has an issue with Corbyn and seems more interested in muck raking than proper journalism. I think she’s be better suited to SLY or ITV where the standards are much lower.

  • Reader

    The collective noun for BBC editors is “clique”.

  • Nevin

    A pontificate? A devil’s advocacy?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    An currently interesting sidelight on the objectivity of the BBC:

    “Page last updated at 15:24 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 16:24 UK”

    As Jan Moir says in the Mail:

    “With the liberal end of the media, which treated Freud as a ‘national treasure’, hardly pouncing on the shocking claims, the signs are not encouraging. You’ll have to burrow deep into the BBC website to find any mention, for a start.

    Savile, of course, was working class, Radio 1, weird and anti-social. Freud was posh, Radio 4, urbane and very well-connected.

    His ambitious children have more than followed in his footsteps when it comes to making friends in the right places and already seem to be doing their best to draw off the hounds.”

    The same team as exposed Saville worked on Wednesday night’s documentary, but the difference in media response is already noticeable, despite Freud’s wife’s clear admission with her apology. Obviously this well connected socialite still wields too much influence even after his death for his abuses to be aired fully on the BBC.