Biased Or Not, The BBC’s Political Coverage Is Shockingly Bad

BBC Daily Politics Political Journalism SPS

 

The BBC – our national treasure or money and creativity-sapping black hole (depending on your viewpoint) has been given due notice by Sajid Javid, the new Culture Secretary, that every aspect of its future funding and existence is under review.

The Huffington Post reports:

All aspects of how the BBC is run and paid for will be reviewed when its charter comes up for renewal, the Culture Secretary has said. Sajid Javid said “everything” would be looked at, including licence fees and governance structures, when negotiations get under way … Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps warned the corporation last year it could lose its exclusive right to the £3.6 billion raised by the licence fee if it failed to tackle what he believes is a culture of secrecy, waste and unbalanced reporting in the organisation.

For those who believe that on balance the BBC is currently doing more harm than good, this is welcome news. Indeed, this kind of root-and-branch re-evaluation of public services is precisely what many people who voted Conservative in 2010 expected but have not seen thus far under the coalition government.

Re-evaluation and reform is sorely needed. The BBC has recently struggled to defend itself against allegations of incompetence and institutional corruption following the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, excessive remuneration of top talent and high level executives, and catastrophically poor editing of it’s flagship nightly news programme. And only last week the corporation defiantly kept the editor of the BBC News Channel in her post despite the fact that she posted highly partisan and derogatory comments about a political party on her Twitter account, in flagrant violation of BBC rules.

This blog is not alone in noting the gradual fall in the quality of the BBC’s political output in particular. The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges rightly lambasted the corporation’s recent election results coverage for being both lightweight and unresponsive to complex, dynamic situations. Hodges notes that despite token efforts by the legacy broadcasters to acknowledge the existence of social media, the BBC’s election results programme (for the recent local council and European elections) was way off the mark in its analysis, seizing upon the first narrative that emerged and stubbornly sticking with it throughout the evening even as Twitter started to better reflect the more nuanced results which later emerged.

It is worth quoting Hodges at length, because he makes a vital point:

I’m usually quite sceptical about the whole “social media is taking over the world” meme. But on Sunday night it became very obvious. Twitter and the other social media outlets are making the big election night programs utterly redundant.

It wasn’t apparent when they were the only outlet for results and analysis. But last week both main broadcasters were horribly exposed. What was amazing was the way it was clear neither Sky nor the BBC were taking the slightest bit of notice of their own output. They were engaged in a logistical exercise – “Let’s make sure we don’t miss the returning officer from Torquay” – rather than an analytical one.

What I also couldn’t understand was who they thought their audience was. The same headline mantra was chanted – “Ukip earthquake, Ukip earthquake” – over and over again, but no serious effort was made to deconstruct it. Surely the only people watching local election results at one in the morning are political geeks like me. And what we’re looking for is serious analysis.

Watching the difference between the discussion in the election studios and the discussion on Twitter was like the difference between watching Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer on Match of the Day and Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. The former talk blandly about great attacking or terrible defending. The latter explain in granular detail precisely why it’s great attacking or terrible defending.

Sadly, that just about sums up the BBC’s approach to political programming today. There is a heavy focus on the personality-based politics (epitomised by the need to muckrake, sensationalise and have a “gotcha” moment in every interview) and the logistics of electioneering, but a rapidly fading focus on the comparative assessment and scrutiny of opposing policies. These days, the BBC’s political coverage is all about The Game – who’s up and who’s down at any given moment. Who’s wrong and who’s right barely gets a look-in any more.

What’s worse, the increasingly lightweight personalities – journalists and contributors – deployed by the BBC to cover the political beats are often incapable of the latter, more serious type of reporting, able only to offer superficial ‘analysis’ of the ups and downs of parties and personalities as measured by the twenty-four hour news cycle. Over time, the BBC divested itself of much of the expensive, skilled talent needed for good quality political coverage, either reshuffling them, demoting them or letting them go – and with them, their vital knowledge.

Before the BBC apologists leap to their feat in protest, no it does not have to be this way. High quality, penetrating analysis is not thwarted by the need to remain impartial (an imperative that the BBC fails to achieve anyway), but the BBC is in danger of succumbing to the worst current instincts of political coverage on American network television – giving each ‘side’ of an argument equal weight and validity out of desperation to appear non-partisan, even when the truth is quite clear-cut and largely occupied by one particular party.

The liberal comic Bill Maher perfectly skewers this unnecessary impulse, increasingly seen in BBC political broadcasting, as it pertains to the non-existent flat-Earth debate:

 

In other respects, though, Americans enjoy far better political coverage than their British cousins. America benefits from the existence of C-SPAN, a private but nonprofit cable network set up by the US cable television industry, who pooled their resources to establish a one-stop shop that they could all draw on for in-depth political coverage.

The BBC’s own effort, BBC Parliament, does not compare favourably with C-SPAN. BBC Parliament occupies one channel, while C-SPAN has three. C-SPAN provides much more extensive and flexible coverage of both houses of Congress, while BBC Parliament is bound by the ludicrous and archaic rules governing the televising of Parliament. C-SPAN offers a much wider range of other programming such as book talks, public debates and call-in shows, while BBC Parliament has to fit its own meagre offerings of this type in the periods when Parliament is not sitting. C-SPAN’s online presence vastly outstrips that of BBC Parliament in terms of depth of analysis and availability of archive footage.

But most importantly of all, C-SPAN has a reputation for balanced programming and is well-regarded by both liberals and conservatives. British conservatives, by contrast, have long since given up trying to get a fair shake from the BBC – though this article makes a persuasive case for the BBC’s innate small-C conservatism.

It is impossible to properly compare the entire outputs of two news networks in this short space, but a lot can be learned by watching the following excerpts of political output from the BBC and C-SPAN respectively.

First the C-SPAN show, a typical and broadly representative example of their output; in this case a call-in show featuring the national security journalist Glenn Greenwald as special guest:

 

And here is a C-SPAN StudentCam short film, also on the topic of national security. Such segments form a regular part of C-SPAN programming, filling the time slots between regular programming and encouraging young people to take an active interest in civic issues:

 

Contrast these with the BBC’s recent efforts, this exerpt taken from the flagship Daily Politics show:

 

The difference in focus, tone and overall quality could not be more striking. Even the student effort on C-SPAN outmatched the quality and seriousness of the BBC’s political output – and again, these examples are fairly representative of each network’s normal output, not chosen to unduly embarrass the BBC.

The obvious question that must be asked is this: Why the grave disparity in service, given the deep pockets and institutional clout of the BBC compared to its upstart American counterpart?

(In the interest of fairness, it must be mentioned that much of the BBC’s radio coverage is of significantly higher quality, particularly Radio 4’s Today in Parliament).

It’s not that there are necessarily more smart people with a burning interest in politics and public policy in America than there are in Britain. But because the BBC’s omnipresent dumbed-down approach crowds out all other offerings in the marketplace, politically interested citizens are much better catered to in the United States than they are in Britain, where the Daily Politics-style cartoonification of politics insults those with real knowledge and interest.

The truth is that the quality gap between C-SPAN and BBC Parliament has not always existed – it was brought about fairly recently by people who should be ashamed of their decisions, and whose CVs should carry indelible black marks as a consequence.

Before the Daily Politics came along and ruined everything, the BBC’s flagship political programming consisted of shows such as On The Record, Despatch Box and Westminster Live. Much like C-SPAN’s offerings in the United States, the budgets were small and the production values cheap; but this had the beneficial effect of making it all about the programming – the quality expertise and the analysis shared with the viewer.

This all changed when former BBC Director General Greg Dyke commissioned a review of the BBC’s political output, leading to a wholesale relaunch and rebranding. By 2003, out had gone the old shows with their dull but informative content, and in came the quirky, zany future where everything is a joke, everything is accompanied by a jaunty animation and theme tune, and everything is lightly mocked from the couch by host Andrew Neil and his unglamorous assistants.

Viewers can discern everything they need to know about the Daily Politics from the opening title sequence, without sticking around to suffer the show itself:

 

Portraying the British political system as some kind of sputtering, wheezing steam engine perpetually on the verge of breakdown may sometimes be uncomfortably close to the truth, but the BBC’s flagship daily political programme should not lead with this suggestion. Disillusionment with politics is high enough as it is without making jocular reference to all the reasons why in the opening credits.

To be clear, this is not to say that the politician themselves should be necessarily be treated with respect, reverence or deference, particularly when their actions have merited the opposite – but there should be a baseline of respect for the political process itself that now seems entirely absent from the BBC’s output. And all for what? What grand prize is the BBC seeking that is worth so much debasement?

The BBC is chasing a pipe dream if they believe their new dumbed down approach will result in more people tuning in and engaging with politics. Tacky, irreverent output better suited to satirical comedy shows will not draw in viewers who currently favour watching repeat episodes of Top Gear on Dave – it only serves to patronise and alienate those viewers who are interested in political coverage anyway, without the added allure of bright colours and jaunty theme tunes.

This isn't helping
This isn’t helping.

 

The point is not that the BBC should be disbanded entirely, or that the license fee should necessarily be scrapped (although it certainly should), or any one other prescription. The point of shaming the BBC with the woeful quality gap in its political programming is to point out that there are other delivery models out there in the world that work and which could produce good results back here in Britain, if only we would allow ourselves to consider them without feeling that we are somehow “cheating” on Auntie.

Those who become overly sentimental about the BBC in its current form suffer from the same forgiving and idealistic delusion as people who create Twitter hashtags or found political parties to “save the NHS”. Just as some NHS activists prize the survival and continuity of that organisation over the outcomes it was created to deliver (the best possible healthcare for British citizens), so BBC defenders cling to nostalgia rather than acknowledge the fact that the beeb can learn a lot from other broadcasters, at home and abroad.

There are many ways in which the BBC must prove its continued legitimacy other than in the field of news and political reporting. Why, for example, does a state-owned broadcaster need to operate eight national television channels, sixteen national radio stations and forty local stations when there is a thriving commercial sector?  But the BBC also gets many things right when it comes to news coverage – no one else in the world can match its depth and breadth, while British audiences tend to trust it above commercial rivals at times of crisis or when major incidents are unfolding.

The BBC’s political coverage, however, goes from bad to worse; and if left unaddressed for much longer it not only runs the risk of negatively colouring Sajid Javid’s upcoming review, but it will start to undermine British democracy itself.

As a first step in the right direction, the BBC News Channel’s editor, Jasmine Lawrence, needs to be reassigned to another role where her toxic anti-UKIP beliefs are in no danger of bringing the corporation’s impartiality into further question. But above all, the BBC needs to stop dumbing down in the one key area where dumbing down offers no benefits at all in terms of audience engagement or viewing figures.

The BBC’s Royal Charter – a delightfully worded document whose preamble would not be out of place in a Shakespeare play – defines the corporation’s public services (in part) as follows:

(a) sustaining citizenship and civil society;
(b) promoting education and learning;

Unless our national broadcaster is happy to continue fostering a state of cultural apartheid, where radio listeners receive tolerably decent political news output while television viewers are talked down to and belittled at every turn, the BBC must acknowledge that it is currently failing to meet these public service requirements.

And as it goes for anyone finding themselves on the wrong path in life, the first step toward the BBC’s redemption will be admitting that they have a problem.

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