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Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A Battle of British Bias: BBC vs. Daily Mail



The BBC carried out a largely negative coverage – as far as the Daily Mail is concerned - of the political responses to the Mail's own article on Ed and Ralph Miliband. In response, the Daily Mail itself has accused the BBC of propagating its own political bias on the very same issue.


Predictably, the BBC has said that it 'ensured both sides had the chance to express their views'. That's the stock response from the BBC. Even the wording remains pretty much identical each time it's expressed or published. This is understandable considering how many times it faces the accusation of political bias. Despite that, the BBC is a tax/license-funded 'public service' organisation. That means that different standards should apply to its output when compared to, say, a newspaper like the Daily Mail.

What's strange about this ongoing and long-term debate about 'BBC bias' is that, strangely enough, the BBC has often admitted to it. The BBC has even been explicit about the precise political nature of that bias. In the last decade or so I have heard – on the radio - ten or more confessions (as it were) of that political bias from various BBC bigwigs. For example, the BBC has often been described – by even its supporters/fans - as being 'liberal' as well as being 'left-liberal'. What's more, the BBC has describe itself in such ways. Despite that, at other times those admissions – if that's what they are - of political bias are wholly denied.

Presumably the BBC contains people who are philosophically literate. And because that must be the case, then at least some of its employees must know that it's virtually (theoretically/philosophically) impossible for a news agency and broadcaster not to be biased in some small or large ways.

For example, as many people have put it, bias is shown in the very selection of stories which are covered as well as by those which are deliberately ignored. And even within that context we can add the fact that this bias includes which aspects of these already-selected stories are themselves selected.

Here's my own example of bias. Take the BBC News website in which most of the news pieces are very succinct and deal mainly in quotes and factual detail. In other words, of all the BBC's news output, this website is perhaps the least biased. Yet take the example of Tom Symonds - the BBC's Home Affairs correspondent - and his very subtle and sly editorialising on the departure of Tommy Robinson from the EDL. I'll leave the reader to decide how the following quotes can be construed:

.... marches attended by men and women who say they are working class...”

Officially the EDL denies being racist...”

Their [Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll] departure has weakened the movement, and its mobilisation of anti-Muslim working class sentiment.”

Another personal experience of BBC bias occurred with the BBC journalist and writer Mark Easton. In this instance I heard him pontificate for five minutes or more on the ceaseless and unpolluted glories of (unrestricted?) immigration on Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show. I decided to pick him up on what he said by emailing him. To my surprise, he replied. He wrote back saying:

I was not making an argument about the pros and cons of immigration itself...”

In fact he had done precisely the opposite of that. He didn't offer a single criticism of any aspect of mass immigration. In response to that reply I repeated my criticism in a return email. And, even more surprisingly, he replied again. However, this time the political nature of what he had said was made much more explicit:

I do think it is shocking that, a significant minority of people in Britain don’t think immigrants who live and work here quite legally should be able to use the NHS and other public services.”

Mark Easton also told me about the 'climate of prejudice and xenophobia at that time' (in the 1960s) and that the 'British have a very negative attitude towards immigrants compared to other European nations'. Now that could be classed as a simple after-the-fact elaboration. Nonetheless, those views were still there - if not so explicitly - in the original BBC programme; despite Easton's claims about 'not making an argument about the pros and cons of immigration'. In fact he put a very 'pro' position on immigration in the programme and the following emails only made his political position even more explicit.

None of this is surprising, however. Of course Mark Easton has political biases. In may even be the case that was he says is true or politically valid. So why then hide these biases or political positions through such silly dissimulation? And what is true about Mark Easton is of course true of the BBC as a whole.

It can be said that the BBC is attempting to do the impossible. At one and the same time the BBC wants to both hide - or disguise - its political bias and also to fully express it. Yet this is certainly not impossible. There are many ways it can be done. Political academics (like the now deceased Ralph Miliband) often do it by adopting the academic style: by including copious footnotes, references and a self-conscious lack rhetoric and polemics. BBC journalists do something similar but also add to all that a biased news-selecting process. Another gimmick, as it were, is to quote the words of the person or group one is politically against. That way the BBC can say, in its own words, that it has 'ensured both sides had the chance to express their views'. Neat. But all that depends on which words the BBC selects or chooses. It could indeed quote, say, a 'racist, far-right' or 'Islamophobic' politician or group. However, it could quite easily quote him saying something deemed extreme or inarticulate and then disregard all the positive or moderate stuff.

More on the Daily Mail
 

One thing that was largely ignored by the BBC - and utterly ignored by some other media outlets - is the fact that the Daily Mail justified its position both on Ralph Miliband himself and on his (possible) influence on Ed Miliband. Of course the argument that Ed Miliband is himself a Marxist is pretty difficult to justify. Nonetheless, the Daily Mail didn't claim he is an outright Marxist in the way his father was. It only claimed that Ralph Miliband has influenced his son in specifically political – and indeed Marxist – ways. Indeed one can endorse certain Marxist theories or views without thereby being a (full) Marxist - as many people do. (If you're influenced by Plato in certain respects, it's doubtful that anyone would call you a 'Platonist'.)

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail's editor, said that the newspaper justified its article in terms of a speech Ed Miliband gave at the Labour Part conference on the 24th of September, 2013. He said that this speech prompted the article.

More specifically, Dacre referred to Miliband's references to land seizures and price fixing – two policies characteristic of Marxist regimes (including the Soviet Union). This is not to say that non-Marxist regimes have never carried out these measures. Nonetheless, it can be still argued that even if the government which does so isn't Marxist, the said policies are still Marxist or communist.


Another way in which BBC bias was shown was with its fixation on the Ralph Miliband diary entry written when he was seventeen. It's as if the BBC - and many others - think that Ralph Miliband stopped being a Marxist when he was eighteen. That wasn't the case. He was a Marxist until his death. He even wrote his his last Marxist book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, just before he died. (It was published in 1994.)

Of course when Ralph Miliband continued to express his Marxist views he didn't do so in the prose style of a seventeen year old. In fact he became an academic. Despite that, he expressed largely the same views but in a different way - in the style of a Marxist academic. That is, in the pseudo-scientific/objective style of any academic trying to propagate a particular ideology or political position.

Consequently, I will quote Ralph Miliband's now infamous diary entry thus:

"The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world...When you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show them how things are. … This slogan is taken for granted by the English people as a whole. To lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation."

Now let's morph that into something vaguely academic like this:

Many British people are strong nationalists due to the powerful influence of the capitalist media and the general capitalist-nationalist hegemony of the bourgeois establishment. With its long traditions of imperialism and colonialism, and its moribund institutions, it can be said that the English are the most nationalist people in the world... The English, at the present moment, are very much in favour of the war and express their jingoistic and xenophobic sentiments freely. Perhaps if they lost the war, or suffered many causalities, that jingoism and xenophobia would subside somewhat.... In fact, due to capitalist propaganda and the internalisation of the elite's values, many Englishmen believe that “to lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation”.

I doubt that the anyone would have made such a fuss if the Daily Mail had published that second version. Yet it says exactly the same things as the first and could quite easily have been written (if not in exactly the same way) by Ralph Miliband in 1970 or even in 1993 – the year before he died.

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