By Jake Lynch*
That was the week that was: the week when online public consultations ended on the future of the BBC’s licence fee. The actual date when the web portal closed was April 1. But don’t be fooled. Plans by the government of Boris Johnson to decriminalise non-payment are a deadly serious attempt to weaken the broadcaster, to the direct benefit of long-term supporters such as Rupert Murdoch, whose Sun newspaper is among his most reliable cheerleaders. Important when the ruling Conservatives’ majority, from last December’s General Election, is swollen by northern working-class constituencies, won from Labour, where the red-top dailies enjoy strong sales.
Add in the high levels of internet traffic on newspaper websites and it’s clear the written press still bestrides British news media in dominant mode. Regulation is little more than a joke – provided, as it is, by IPSO, an industry-owned body whose sole function is as a fig-leaf in arguments against public-interest interventions. Broadcasters are the only sources of information whose commitment to the two crucial public goods of accuracy in reporting, and due impartiality, are backed by enforceable rights and guarantees. That’s why powerful interests distrust them – they embody at least a fragmentary notion of the public sphere, most influentially conceived by the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who located its historical origins in the coffeehouses of early modern Europe. There, debates could be conducted regardless of class or rank – such differences among participants were supposedly “bracketed out”, with ideas assessed on their merits. Only later, the public sphere was “structurally transformed”, Habermas went on to argue, by powerful actors applying a “cognitive-instrumentalist” rationality based on “egocentric calculations of utility”. Undermine the BBC and you undermine public service broadcasting – leaving truth for sale to the highest bidder. If you have enough money, events can mean what you want them to mean.
Unfortunately, the performance over recent years of BBC news has undermined its support among the public at large. A Reuters Institute survey showed “the proportion [of the UK public] that trust most news most of the time has fallen from… 51% to 40%” since 2015. A polling organisation found late last year that Independent Television (a commercial public service broadcaster) was now more trusted than the BBC. The corporation has been described as “a compromised version of a potentially noble ideal”.
The period bracketed by the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the 2019 General Election, saw the BBC’s political reporting criticised by a generally supportive pressure group, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, for “a bias against understanding”, in which “factual arguments [that] were untrue” were improperly given equal treatment with reputable evidence. Ofcom, the public regulator, called on “BBC journalists to challenge controversial viewpoints that… are not backed up by facts”. In a high-profile industry lecture, a broadcast news executive, Dorothy Byrne of Channel Four, urged journalists to “start calling politicians out as liars when they lie”. Instead, political correspondents covering the election were “peddling Downing Street’s lies and smears”, according to a senior member of their own ‘tribe’, Daily Telegraph veteran Peter Oborne.
The obligation to accuracy is spelt out in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines in the following terms: when “contributors make claims” on its output, the BBC should “attempt to corroborate them”. It comes with a clear duty to specify when they cannot be corroborated. In practice, however, this often feels uncomfortable. Only since Ofcom took over ultimate responsibility for upholding the guidelines, three years ago, have BBC reporters and presenters begun to challenge climate change deniers as misleading audiences – because the regulator rapped them over the knuckles for failing to do so, in high-profile cases. One of them concerned a radio interview with Lord (Nigel) Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who now fronts a corporate ‘think-tank’ with donors drawn from the ranks of polluting industries.
The perennial temptation is to remit “controversial” issues into the due-impartiality basket instead. There, the Guidelines state, the BBC must ensure that “no significant perspective goes unreflected or under-reported”. The built-in wiggle room contained in the word “significant” is always handy, to fend off complaints. But it risks collapsing distinctions between reputable evidence, on the one hand, and unfounded claims on the other; and it risks reducing, to the status of mere opinions, statements based on historically transmitted and continuing collective social experiences.
Among the most significant challenges of political reporting today is the rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’, led by demagogues who specialise in evidence-averse rabble-rousing, notably on issues of race and immigration. A classic BBC kerfuffle followed the call by President Trump last year for members of the so-called ‘squad’ – four left-wing Democratic Congresswomen of colour – to “go back to the places from which they came”.
Three of the four were born in the USA. But it was clearly not Trump’s intention to appeal for Rashida Tlaib to return from Washington to Detroit, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the Bronx. Instead, the phrase was an activation tag designed to procure what the communications scholar, Murray Edelman, called an “aroused response” to a “political spectacle” based on “psychological distancing”. In this case, a “mediated drama” in which white America is invaded and besieged by menacing “others”. It was in keeping with Trump’s function as the clown act, front-of-stage, while behind the scenes his corporate backers count the money from tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks that are his sole significant legislative achievements – as former Treasury Secretary Robert Reich has pointed out. “To personify an issue by identifying it with an enemy”, Edelman went on to observe, “wins support for a political stand while masking the material advantages the perception provides”.
When this episode came to be covered by the BBC’s Breakfast programme, presenter Naga Munchetty – a London-born journalist of Indian heritage – commented: “Every time I have been told, as a woman of colour, to go back to where I came from, that was embedded in racism”. The BBC initially upheld a complaint against her for expressing a personal view – then later, following an outcry and a personal intervention by Director-General Tony Hall, reversed its decision.
The point is, Munchetty’s statement should have been seen as an example of accurate reporting, not a mere opinion, or ‘criticism’ of Trump. Racism is a structure of relations, shaped by colonialism and slavery in the past, and ongoing economic subjugation in the present. There are, of course, multiple perspectives on these experiences, and their repercussions in many fields – but of themselves they are real and irrefutable. That is why – as she went on to say – “you know what certain phrases mean”. Trump’s meaning only carries the resonance it does in the context of those relations.
The most notorious BBC output with respect to racism and its representation has come not from its morning news show but the other end of the schedule, on Question Time, a venerable weekly strand that is transmitted on the main BBC1 channel late on a Thursday evening. Its strength is said to be its format, which allows panellists – mainly politicians, but now drawn from a wide range of public roles – to be challenged directly by the studio audience, who are billed as ‘ordinary’ members of the public. A modern version, apparently, of an Enlightenment-era coffeehouse.
In an episode from January, Rachel Boyle, a mixed-race researcher on race and racism from Edge Hill University, drew attention to the demonization of Meghan Markle – led by the right-wing popular press – as she joined the royal family, pronouncing her treatment to be racist. The panel included Laurence Fox, a privately educated white actor, who took issue with her, claiming “It’s not racism. We’re the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe”. From the audience, Boyle replied that Fox was hardly in a position to judge from experience, being “a white privileged male” – whereupon he accused her of being “racist”, towards him.
Back, once again, to the historical and continuing state of relations between the peoples and regions of the world. The obverse of subjugation is dominance, or the projection and maintenance of power – and attempting to ‘read’ power only in its overt, behavioural dimension is, as Steven Lukes wrote, to miss its workings: “power is at its most effective when it is least observable”. It is what accounts for the huge disparity of outcomes facing Britons in many fields – from the differential treatment of white and black duchesses in the media, through education, employment, housing, health and life expectancy – as revealed by study after study, including an audit carried out for the UK government in 2017. And it means there is no meaningful black-on-white racism. There may be prejudice – but any adequate definition would include the formula, racism = prejudice + power.
So the BBC, if it is to give value for money, needs reform. Its reporters and presenters need to step in, as Naga Munchetty did, to call out racism, and to correct claims that cannot be corroborated, like that of Laurence Fox – to avoid misleading audiences. Maya Goodfellow, in her newly published book, Hostile Environment, shows how the BBC and other broadcasters collude in right-wing narratives that have transferred the political spectacle of race on to immigration, including through high-profile documentaries which accept, as a problem, the starting premise that “immigration has diluted the number of white Britons”. If it manages to fend off the attack from the Johnson government ‘consultation’, on decriminalising licence fee evasion, it should start by commissioning a major series on racism in Britain, how it was constructed, how perpetuated, by whom and for what ends. Now, that would be a public service.
*Jake Lynch is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Coventry University for 2019-20, after which he will return to the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. His work in this field was recognised with the award of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, having organised its biennial global conference in Sydney, in 2010. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a 17-year career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, for Sky News, and the Sydney Correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as an on-screen presenter for BBC World Television News. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick, Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism, which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014).