List your top three current threats to British national security and democracy.
What did you write down? Government electronic surveillance and public apathy toward the erosion of privacy? The government bullying a national newspaper into destroying its computers as a vengeful and intimidating act in response to the Edward Snowden leaks?
How about the government detaining relatives of journalists at the airport under risibly inappropriate anti-terrorism laws? Or maybe you cited Russia’s increasing assertiveness and Vladimir Putin’s apparent desire to reassemble the USSR? Islamic extremism and the threat of terrorism? Climate change? The Only Way Is Essex?
Not if you are Owen Jones, the ubiquitous, telegenic new face of left wing punditry and author of “Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class”. According to Jones, British democracy and journalism are most under threat from that evil right-wing juggernaut that extends into all of our homes – the BBC.
Jones has apparently had it with claims from the right of leftwing political bias at the BBC, and has responded with a whinnying, foot-stomping tantrum in The Guardian where he single-handedly attempts to redress the balance. As he sees it, the BBC has become a hotbed of right-wing propaganda, stacked with conservative personalities and pumping out unchallenged conservative viewpoints 24/7:
The truth is the BBC is stacked full of rightwingers. The chairman of the BBC Trust is Chris Patten, a former Conservative cabinet minister. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, was once chairman of the Young Conservatives. His former senior political producer, Thea Rogers, became George Osborne’s special advisor in 2012. Andrew Neil, the presenter of the BBC’s flagship political programmes Daily Politics and This Week, is chairman of the conservative Spectator magazine. His editor is Robbie Gibb, former chief of staff to the Tory Francis Maude. After the BBC’s economics editor Stephanie Flanders left for a £400,000-a-year job at that notorious leftwing hotbed, JP Morgan, she was replaced by its business editor Robert Peston.
How shocking that successful people (whom the BBC naturally looks to recruit for senior positions) have held strong political views or been allied with political parties in the past. What should happen instead, according to Jones, is that candidates for BBC positions are automatically rejected if they appear on the electoral roll, have voted in a past election or have ever expressed a political opinion on social media.
His outrage at the staffing of the BBC’s business and economics positions is particularly unreasonable. One might think that those who have worked in business and have a functional understanding of the financial industry are well placed to write or broadcast about it – assuming they are professional and operate under the same editorial policy as everyone else – given their expertise and links to the industry. But Jones seems shocked that the BBC didn’t select someone from Occupy Wall Street or Greenpeace to take on these high profile roles.
And it is not just the personalities that Owen takes issue with, but also the resulting coverage. When the global financial system teetered on the brink of disaster in 2008, Jones was apparently livid that the BBC interviewed so many people with knowledge of the industry who could explain to audiences what was happening. These people, despite being involved in the system and deeply impacted by what was happening, were not the right people to speak to, according to Owen Jones. He would have preferred more interviews with sleepy left-wing academics, aging hippies and assorted other people ready and willing to say variations on “I told you so”:
When the financial system went into meltdown, BBC interviews were dominated by City voices like stockbrokers and hedge fund managers, rather than critics of a sector that had plunged the country into disaster.
And at the end of his hit-piece, Jones makes his true intentions fully transparent. He has no interest in correcting this non-existent right wing bias at the BBC and restoring what he would see as some kind of non-partisan parity. No, he wants to transform the BBC into a fully-fledged mouthpiece of the left. It’s about giving conservatives a black eye for perceived past injustices using the BBC as a weapon, and he is willing to indulge in any amount of hyperbole or scaremongering to achieve this end:
For too long, the right has got away with weaving a fairytale of BBC leftwing bias. Until the left starts complaining – and loudly too – the BBC’s agenda will be shaped by supporters of government, big business, the free market and western foreign policy. That does not just subvert honest journalism: it undermines our democracy.
The Owen Jones phenomenon is not unique – whenever someone has a cause to promote (often a losing or flawed one, it seems) there are accusations and recriminations that the media has not jumped on the pro-whatever-the-idea-is bandwagon and given it unwavering support. Any and all instances of giving coverage to the opposing point of view is scrutinised, and any occasional discrepancies – which almost always even out over the long run when it comes to any issue or party – are held up as the “smoking gun” evidence of institutional bias.
If Owen Jones were to take a step back from his outrage and really consider the BBC’s media coverage, someone as intelligent as he seems to be will surely have to concede that he overstepped the mark with his criticisms. No, the BBC has not shared his stridently left-wing viewpoint on almost every issue – but nor can they. They have a charter to represent and produce content for the entire country, not just left-wing activists. And from the charter come strict editorial guidelines and policies, which are carried out diligently and in good faith by human beings working to a high standard but as prone to error as the rest of us.
All of us – left or right leaning – can point to instances where television and radio and online news output has left us feeling hard done by, or shouting at the screen, convinced that the buffoon they chose to represent our side of the argument is a stooge, deliberately undermining our own, perfectly logical beliefs. But that’s just the nature of having strong political opinions. And as concerned, active citizens we should put our efforts toward actively convincing people of the merits of our arguments, not running off to a non-existent referee for redress whenever we feel the other side came out on top.
Owen Jones has enjoyed considerable airtime across the British political media, and has had ample opportunity to set forth his own strong opinions in a very articulate, persuasive way. It was the BBC, which he now chooses to castigate, that gave him many of these opportunities as part of their news coverage.
To then accuse the BBC, who have done so much to help his own career as a left-wing ‘intellectual’ and pundit, of political and institutional bias, is more than a little rich.