BBC chairman Michael Grade yesterday wrote an article for MediaGuardian.co.uk arguing why it was important for the BBC to remain impartial and how it does that. The article was a bit brief, as can be expected, and I’m not sure its critics would be convinced with such a small piece.
I am willing to accept the BBC tries its hardest to remain impartial as a whole. Or more impartial than its competitors at least – though some would no doubt disagree.
There are critics who see the BBC’s licence fee as a regressive poll tax and would rather leave everything to market forces. Then there are critics who view its output (news in particular) as biased towards or against the government or liberals. A whole litany of names including the Bolshevik/Blair/Baghdad/Beirut/Bzzzzionist Broadcasting Corporation have proliferated (OK, I made the last one up).
I can sympathise with some of the latter sentiment. Despite being a firm supporter of the BBC, taking into account all the insults that entails, I, too, am frequently driven to frustration at the Beeb’s output.
The problem isn’t that the BBC is insufficiently impartial, but rather it is not being informative enough. The corporation, in a desperate bid to keep its audience, is contributing to the “death of debate” (as a fellow blogger called it) by seeking to entertain rather than inform its audiences, even in current affairs and news.
Let me elaborate. When faced with a conflict such as Israel / Palestine, or more recently Israel / Lebanon, rather than dedicating a sufficient amount of time to explain the complexity of the issues involved with well thought-out pieces followed by an informed discussion – we get entertainment.
We get to see a “debate” with two commentators on extreme opposing ends in the studio let loose on each other. One may be hooked by watching people shout at each other but one is definitely not left much wiser.
Rather than taking the example of Fox News, Grade is probably paying more heed towards CNN, which popularised this form of cheap political programming through its programme Crossfire, where two presenters on opposite sides of the political spectrum prodded and harassed their guests.
The series became infamous when the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart came on and accused them of “destroying America” because of their combative style. I wouldn’t go so far as saying Michael Grade (or director of news Helen Boaden) are destroying Britain but they are nevertheless contributing to the demise of informed television news and debate.
To take another example, one only has to count the number of times Anjem Choudhary and Abu Izzadeen, from the now banned Al-Ghuarabaa sect, have been invited across its current affairs programmes. The Beeb thinks their voices ‘must be heard‘, but then why not invite Nick Griffin and his ilk on to Newsnight since they also pose a problem to ethnic minorities? The corporation does not even realise it is being used by these provocateurs for their publicity. The viewer loses out by being exposed to an uninformative and deliberately sensationalist charade.
To be fair the BBC is not alone in taking this approach. Across our media landscape the tone of analysis has become increasingly frenzied as commentators are encouraged not to inform their readers or sit on the fence but instead play to their prejudices. You are supposed to either hate them or love them; there is no middle ground.
This may work with topics that editors are familiar with but not when their knowledge of the affairs of Britain’s ethnic minorites (with Muslims under the spotlight) is still woefully inadequate. Rather than leading the way towards informed coverage the BBC is instead following the trend of television channels across America – cutting costs by ditching packages in favour of facile debates.
Its critics can thus accuse it of being pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian at the same time not because it is sitting in the middle but because it gives plenty of airtime to extremists on both sides.
Over the medium and long term it is this approach to current affairs that will drive away viewers and continue to attract accusations of bias, not a debate about the BBC’s impartiality.
[cross posted on comment is free]
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