You often hear the BBC described as having a ‘left-wing’ bias. This is despite all the evidence to the contrary. The logic behind such accusations seems to be that the state and its institutions are inherently ‘left-wing’. Although the BBC is somewhat removed from the market pressures heaped upon private companies, it is still subject to the same sorts of political pressures facing state bodies. The absence of advertising and corporate sponsors does not leave them totally beholding to the state. The BBC does enjoy an aloof relationship with the state.
Of course, though the BBC is a public service corporation, it still remains a part of the establishment and the corporate framework. The license fee may provide the funding (albeit on a regressive basis) independently of the tax system, but the BBC is not totally independent. This isn’t so much a question of government pressure, as it is the filtering process through which BBC journalists pass. Pressure is not necessary if the commentariat is already largely compliant.
Once the BBC’s Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky on the propaganda model. Incredulous as ever, Marr asked “How could you know that I’m self-censoring?” Chomsky was dead right: “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting.” Famously, Andrew Marr would later herald the ‘vindication’ of Tony Blair over Iraq. He would later eat these words, as the occupation provoked armed resistance.
Yet the right talks as if the BBC is a communist front organisation. The BBC is loved and loathed because it sets the agenda for the rest of the media. Even the right-wing newspapers, who constantly attack the BBC, are defined insofar as they supposedly reject this agenda. The talk of a ‘left-wing’ bias is really wish fulfillment. It’s a push to turn the corporation further rightwards on some questions like immigration. The overwhelming character of the BBC may well be described as liberal. But this is not the same as ‘left-wing’.
If we look at the BBC Monitoring Service, as confirmed by journalists such as Keith Somerville, there was an agreement with the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), the open source arm of the CIA, which held the top floor at the Monitoring Service’s headquarters in Caversham. Of course, the top floor was off limits to BBC staff. It’s obvious why the FBIS was there. The BBC was monitoring Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This was at the apogee of the Cold War and the CIA was highly active.
At the time, the CIA was working hard with the apartheid regimes of Southern Africa to contain black-majority rule. The BBC Monitoring Service had a base in Malawi, a vital point where radio broadcasts from neighbouring countries could be analysed. With the Rhodesian government, the CIA helped set up Renamo in Mozambique, comprised of disaffected revolutionaries, to challenge Samora Machel’s Frelimo. Simultaneously, the CIA was supporting the FNLA and UNITA to fight against the MPLA in Angola.
Here we find the BBC on the side of counter-revolution. Not on the side of emancipation and progress. However, this does not necessarily make the BBC illiberal as an organisation. The CIA has been involved in everything from raising funds for the film adaptation of Animal Farm to the promotion of modern art. This leads us back to the fundamental question: what role does the BBC fulfill in British society?
Much like The New York Times, the BBC defines the contours of public debate and its coverage becomes history. If it’s on air at the BBC, it can be said and discussed. In fact, BBC coverage really hovers around the so-called ‘centre-ground’ of politics. This is convenient for the liberal and conservative journalists working there. Yet the corporation is as much constitutive of the centre, and the left-right faultlines, as it regulates the flow of discourse. The corporation is not above the fray; it’s very much apart of the picture.
The BBC may hope to stand as an impartial intersection, but the truth is far more complex. If the BBC wants to get both perspectives on a political issue it usually asks a Conservative and a Labourite to comment. Liberal Democrats slot in from time to time, as do smaller parties such as the Greens and UKIP. Not only does this exclude everything outside of tribalism. The political distinctions are really obscured. Right now, Blairites have far more in common with Tories than they do with the Labour leadership.
Programmes like Question Time and Newsnight become opportunities for the political class to assert itself. The range of political opinion is confined to three parties, while some space is set aside for a marginal party, a joke commentator, or a writer. The favourite guest being UKIP chief Nigel Farage, who has been on Question Time more than any other politician. Anything beyond the horizon of this narrow terrain cannot be heard, or even acknowledged. So discussion remains within the realm of certain assumptions.
The Today programme sets the mood music for its listeners. If you hold left-wing views, you may find yourself shouting at the radio in a rage. Notably, the Today programme was run by Rod Liddle – a culturally conservative, social democrat – who has since moved on to the Spectator. It was quite memorable, when PJ Harvey was allowed to edit the Today programme, for one morning in January 2014, and she welcomed Julian Assange and John Pilger on to the show. This caused a great deal of fuss.
It was revealing, as Pilger’s seven minute speech prompted a lot of outrage from the right minds. The normal proceedings had been derailed and for a brief moment we heard something real. ‘Objectivity’ is constituted by the exclusion of particular views. There is no space for inclusivity here. If you question conventional opinion, you will be policed and demonised. Sadly, the confines of the Today programme meant PJ Harvey’s episode merely served to reinforce the show’s agenda, as a whole, as the norm for broadcasting.
This was just months after the first Syria vote. As David Cameron was pushing for ‘punitive’ bombing in 2013, the BBC aired discussions with hawks Bernard Kouchner, David Aaronovitch and Paul Wolfowitz. The only dissenting voice was Mehdi Hasan, a liberal Muslim journalist. In other words, the BBC was comfortable serving as a megaphone for chickenhawks. Looking back, we now know that the intervention would have likely strengthened the Islamist opposition. Meanwhile the secular alternatives would be undermined by the invasion.
On the other hand, the pro-war bias is not consistent. With the rise of ISIS, Newsnight invited Patrick Cockburn on to talk freely about the Syrian civil war, and he is far from an advocate of Western intervention. Yet there is another side to this coin. Although Patrick Cockburn opposed Christopher Hitchens on the Iraq war, Cockburn now tells his readers that the Assad regime may be a necessary bulwark against Islamic State. Ironically, this position is the logical follow-on from the invasion of Iraq and its sectarian consequences.
So we find the BBC has not really changed course. The same basic tendencies remain intact, though the bureaucratic struggles between executives, producers and journalists may produce varying results. This may even some allow airtime to be given to true voices of dissent: Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger et alia. But this is just to reinforce the establishment coverage and the corporation’s pretensions.