They want to be able to say that they did not commandeer us, but they know they can trust us not to be really impartial."John Reith, first Director General of the BBC
To cut to the quick, the force that shapes BBC-brand impartiality is political power. Rather than such abstract immeasurables as balance, or moderation, or public opinion, the BBC calibrates its news output to suit the political outlook of those who hold power over it – those supplying the carrots and wielding the sticks.
This shouldn’t surprise us too much. It’s the same with every news organisation. No opinion that truly goes against the grain of Rupert Murdoch’s politics will prevail on Fox
. While op-eds are essential to creating an illusion of balance, they can’t be given so much weight that they buck the overall editorial agenda. Any journalist or editor found consistently off-message will soon find themselves looking for an alternative employer. Rupert himself has admitted
as much. While the power set-up at the BBC is obviously more complicated, the controlling effect on content is just as thorough. The BBC can no more bite the hands feeding it than a News International editor can bite Rupert’s hand.
So who does hold power over the BBC? Obviously a key player is the incumbent government. If the BBC hopes to have its broadcasting licence renewed and its licence-fee protected (rather than its assets sold-off and its content molested) it has good reason not to upset the government of the day. Likewise it can’t afford to upset the opposition – they may be its best ally during conflicts with the government. And of course today’s opposition may be tomorrow’s incumbent. If the BBC doesn’t want to sow the seeds of future ‘restructuring’ it has good reason to keep both parties on-side.
Another important player is the rest of the mass media. The BBC’s existence is deeply resented by the corporate sector and its critics are well placed. Its chief crime, oddly, is the high-quality of its output – embarrassing proof of the superiority of public broadcasting. Many powerful people would love to see it broken-up and sold-off, so the whole sector can descend to the same level of commercial dross. One of the sharpest weapons in this ongoing war on the BBC is its mythical left-wing bias. Any attempt by a BBC editor to redress ‘balance’ as understood by News International or DMG Media would be swiftly dealt with (despairing newspaper editorials, floor of the House, ‘and all at the licence payers expense!’ etc.)
At this point, alert readers may be experiencing Déjà Vu. It would appear that the forces that hold power over the BBC coincide perfectly with the sources the BBC would be happy to admit it relies upon to gauge public opinion (as discussed in Part Two.) We can now see a more plausible reason why the BBC relies upon the opinions of Parliament and the corporate media to achieve political balance. Not because those bodies reflect public opinion, but because it feels answerable to them, and is wary of displeasing them. They have the ability to make life very difficult for the corporation – and they have a long track record of doing just that.
You can account for most anomalies in BBC balance if you keep these two external influences in mind. For example, why is the BBC so deferential towards the President of the United States? Obama’s recent visit was treated like the second coming. As when any epoch-making event occurs (like Westerners dying in a bomb attack or the birth of a royal baby) BBC news homepage switched to ‘mega-consequence’ format. Fonts became huge; images stretched to dominate the whole screen, softly scrolling through key moments of glorious day; between bouts of fainting, flutter-eyed teenaged onlookers were given the chance to voice their honeyed adoration, ‘Hail to the Chief!’
...continues at blog