A letter from David Elstein in the most recent London Review of Books quotes official Offcom data showing that the average adult UK citizen gets over 60% of their news from the BBC. This is a consequence of BBC dominance of TV and radio news, their strong (and free access) presence on line, and the steep decline of print news media. As Epstein points out, if any commercial organisation commanded a 60% share of news consumption, there would be a national outcry and calls for it to be broken up.
If the BBC was a genuinely impartial reporter of the news (assuming such a thing to be even possible) then perhaps this would not matter, but it is clear that the BBC has a very narrowly defined idea of the political spectrum within which it tries to be impartial – roughly extending from the current right-wing conservative Government to the Blairite right of the labour party. They seem complacently unaware of their own bias, happily referring to Jeremy Corbyn as ‘extreme’ and ‘left-wing’, but never applying the description ‘right wing’ or ‘extreme’ to the policies of the current Government -despite their stated determination to cut public spending to 35% of GDP, a level not seen since the birth of the welfare state. This abandonment of the postwar political consensus by the current Conservative Government is in my view far more extreme than anything proposed by the current labour leadership, which has espoused domestic policies that were mainstream before Mrs Thatcher ended the tradition of ‘one nation’ Toryism.
The shoddy and complacent nature of BBC journalism is illustrated by another article in the LRB. Patrick Cockburn gives a detailed account of the state of the war in Syria. He makes a number of key points:-
I. The only effective opposition to ISIS in Syria is from the Assad Government, Shia militias and their Iranian allies, and the Kurds. The only one of these groups with which the US feels able to work is the Kurds, but they are only 10% of the population and only effective in a small part of the country – and US support for the nationalist ambitions of the Kurds is not without risk given the implications for the stability of Turkey.
ii. There is no such thing as a moderate Sunni opposition, and efforts to create one have been wholly ineffective.
iii.With no ground forces to support outside the areas where the Kurds have been engaged, the US bombing campaign has been entirely ineffective as a response to ISIS – though it has caused enormous destruction and killed a lot of people. Some fifty analysts working for US central command protested about official distortions of what was happening on the battlefield, aimed at trying to present a more positive picture.
Cockburn comments that ‘Britain is wrestling with the prospect of joining the US-led air campaign, without noticing that it has already failed in it’s purpose.’ He says that some even in Washington are beginning to think that the Russian approach may have some merit, because the Syrian army remains the most effective force opposing ISIS.
Anyone relying entirely on the BBC for news and analysis of the Syrian conflict would have little notion of these complexities. BBC reporting that I have seen has been obsessed with the politics of whether or not the UK Government has the political will to join the US in bombing Syria, with little or no discussion of what such bombing would achieve. They have not taken on the mission to explain the messy regional politics of Sunni and Shia rivalry. They have been highly critical of Russian involvement and support for Assad, but have not been prepared to give any real attention to asking what alternatives might stand a chance of working.
This is one example of a BBC coverage of foreign affairs that is as narrow as their coverage of domestic politics, with news priorities and perspectives reflecting a US-centric view of the World. There are times when I almost wonder if the CIA have infiltrated the BBC as a more trusted and therefore more effective alternative to Voice of America. I suspect though that the explanation is just laziness and complacency. The BBC seems to have more journalists and more contacts in the US than elsewhere, which is why the list of usual suspects called on for ‘expert’ opinions seems to be dominated by American voices.
I have searched in vain for any balanced account of events in the Ukraine, in the Middle East, or in the South China sea. The perspective of those opposed to the US in these disputes is almost entirely lacking. It is dangerous that our dominant source of news shows little interest in understanding and explaining the perspectives of countries in dispute with the US, preferring instead the knee-jerk assumption that our US allies must be in the right. There is an alternative narrative that perceives the US as no less the aggressor than those with whom it is in dispute, and that perspective needs to be understood if we are not to stumble into further conflicts.
Perhaps the BBC was always this bad – though my memories suggest otherwise – but, even if it was, it matters a lot more now that they have become so dominant. I am not sure how to adjust it without risking a US style corporate dominance of news media, but it ought not to be beyond us to find a way to combine public interest broadcasting with deeper analysis, and a greater diversity of voices and views, than are reflected by the current monolithic BBC