Letter to the Editors from the January 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent questioning of the myth of BBC editorial independence must be a very touchy issue in Broadcasting House. I doubt if Richard Cooper's letter to them concerning possible TV censorship (Letters, November Socialist Standard), will evoke other than evasive platitudes in reply. But even these would be an advance on their card replying to my letter, sent from India to the Listener, copied to World Service, and telling me that they had no space to print my "interesting letter". This letter had pointed out that references by their correspondent Mark Tully, to the government of the state of Kerala, India, where I was then living, as marxist. were contradictions in terms and that his persistent references to the government of state capitalist Russia as "the Soviets" were similarly historically inaccurate and misleading.
The reputation for objectivity held by the BBC abroad rests largely on the assumption that its news reportage is unsullied by bias, personal or official. Having worked in the UK for the BBC and abroad with other broadcasting organisations, I have concluded that unless one is closely familiar with the subject, personally biased news reporting usually goes undetected. Even when exposed, the wholly unwarranted reputation persists. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that BBC and other media employees should be any less biased than the rest of the working class in matters of sex, politics and race.
The fact is that BBC bias exists on many levels. Apart from personal partiality, the perpetuation of popular myth can be seen in the reporting of the role of black workers in inner city rioting. I first heard of the 1981 riots in St. Pauls. Bristol from the World Service news. This referred to groups of youths "some of whom were black ' Factually correct of course, but quite irrelevant the area in any case has a significant black population and their absence, not their presence, would have been exceptional. It would have been equally correct, but just as pointless, had the reference to colour emphasised "some of whom were white". But the stereotypical, riot-prone black loomed larger in the minds of the newsroom editors and the damage was done. Just as it was when the black worker whose traffic offence is alleged to have sparked off the Handsworth riots, was invited to make abject apology on TV for the rioting immediately after the revelation that two Indians had been burned to death. Although two white workers were subsequently charged with their murder, the blacks were already guilty by association. The colour of those involved was. of course, quite immaterial.
These examples of the perpetuation of historical and racial mythology may not appear strictly as bias, but they do reflect the underlying distortions that, through repetition in the "respectable" media, have become common in support of status quo ideology.
The reinforcing of popular prejudice by the broadcasters' subjective, often unconscious, assumptions is probably the most dangerous power of the media, for it is largely hidden. Blatant and open propaganda is usually easier to counter. To charges of bias, such as those regularly made on ITV's Right to Reply, the producers will answer that an in-depth programme on a contentious issue requires some favouritism and discrimination in order to express its viewpoint. It cannot allow an impartiality which, within programme-time limitations, would reduce its analytical perspective. Balance is to be achieved, they maintain, not within any one such programme, but over a substantial period during which allocation of facilities is made without bias.
This seems fair enough. But does broadcasting policy permit of such balancing of opposing viewpoints? The three main reports on broadcasting since the war are all specific on this. Beveridge's 1949 Report of the Broadcasting Committee states in Chapter 10:
It is essential that the broadcasting authority, in allotting opportunities for ventilation of controversial views, should not be guided either by simple calculation of the numbers who already hold such views, or by fear of giving offence to particular groups of listeners. Minorities must have the chance by persuasion, of turning themselves into majorities.
Even more explicit is Pilkington's 1960 Report of the Committee on Broadcasting:
Both the BBC and ITA must see to it that minor parties are given a fair opportunity to take part: it is part of their responsibility to see that dissent in party political, as in other forms of public discussion, can have a hearing. The difficulty of ensuring impartiality and balance should never be allowed to serve as an excuse for excluding controversy and dissent from public discussion (page 94)
So why is it that the case for socialism is distorted and rarely heard? After mentioning the restrictions due to the compromising dependence of journalists on their information source such as politicians.,Lord Annan's Report of 1974 provides the answer. Under a heading "External Pressures" on page 24. it states
. . the constitutional authority of radio and television to function at all stems from an organ that the political parties control.
So despite fears the BBC may feel for its alleged independence, it doesn't really matter if the Peacock Committee recommends replacing existing funding — through licence fees and government grant with private sponsorship and advertising The state remains the final arbiter and authority on its broadcasting function. Its Board of Management will still have to be polite to the Board of Governors and through them to the Home Secretary.
In any case, the BBC has never been independent of government pressure on its programme content Its 1927 Charter makes clear that "Government has the last word. It confers on the Government a formally absolute power of veto over BBC programmes", and the Secretary of State . . . may from time to time by notice in writing require the Corporation to refrain at any specified time or at all times, from sending any matter or matters of any class specified in such notice". (Clause 13(4) of the Licence.)
It has also been clear since 1927 what the BBC means by "impartiality" The Charter goes on:
Impartiality is not absolute neutrality, or detachment from those basic moral and constitutional beliefs on which the nation's life rests. The BBC does not feel obliged to be neutral as between truth and untruth, justice and injustice, freedom and slavery . . .
And if we ask whose truth, whose justice, whose freedom the BBC is partial to, we need look no further for the source of its bias.
This may throw some light on the continuing difficulty the Socialist Party experiences in trying to obtain access to broadcasting facilities.