Richard North, 14/08/2018  

BBC bias in news reporting seems to becoming something of an obsession with the left at the moment – especially amongst those with a "remainer" bent - where the coverage is said to favour the leavers.

Nick Cohen has been amongst those making his views known on the subject, turning to The New York Review of Books to air his complaints. He had, though, started on the theme a tad earlieron Twitter although, like so many self-important polemicists, he doesn't seem too keen to debate his findings with mere mortals.

Nevertheless, his intervention triggered a blogpost from me, where I argued that the perceived bias was more a function of the incompetence of BBC reporters, reflecting their inability to deal adequately with the issues raised by Brexit.

However, if you want the rock-like consistency of an unchanging narrative, then the legacy media is the place to go. In July, Cohen was rehearsing a theme that was already well-established the previous April. But, once developed, the media will keep revisiting it, like picking at a scab.

Yesterday, therefore, it was the turn of Patrick Howse, a former BBC journalist, writing in the New Statesman, addressing a core complaint in the litany of grief – the pursuit of "balance" by the corporation. Howse writes:
When you have people of goodwill and good intent discussing an issue from different sides, balance can be a useful tool: you tell both sides, and let the audience decide. It breaks down, though, when applied to people who have no interest in telling the truth, and who in fact set out to deliberately mislead. The result is a confused "he says this, but she says that" narrative that gives false equivalence to the truth and a pack of lies.
This was enough to provoke a response from Pete, reflecting precisely the views that I'd lodged in my earlier blogpost.

Essentially, although the left is keen to make this about "balance", it really is about competence - and the way journalists are taught to do research. When they are researching a story, they will rarely go to the original reference material but will tend to ring up their contacts and ask them what they think. If there are a variety of opinions, they will air those opinions, in the classic "he says, she says" format.

If the BBC had applied that methodology to, say, the 1944 Normandy Invasion, it would have been reporting Montgomery or Eisenhower saying "we are invading Europe", followed by an interview with Rommel saying, "this is not the invasion - it is a feint. We fully expect the main push across the Pas de Calais any day now".

A more responsible approach to finding out the truth on an issue would be to carry out independent research, relying on that original source material which the BBC so often avoids. Thus, if journalists want to know what is in the EEA Agreement, they should read the Agreement. They should not be ringing up law professors or other "experts" and asking them.

It is then perfectly acceptable to refer to experts for their interpretation of complex issues, once the factual baseline has been established. And, if there is genuine disagreement, this also can be (and often should be) reported. But any controversy should be an adjunct to a factual report, not the central part of it.

The trouble is that controversy makes for good copy and, where entertainment becomes part of the brief, an essential part of radio and television broadcasting. In this report - published four years ago but still just as relevant, we see something of how this works, when writer Alex Miller outlines his experience. "I once had a mate", he says:
… who worked on a radio show hosted by a high-profile journalist. They were hosting a phone-in about gay marriage. My friend – the researcher – had been asked to find one person who supported the concept and one person who was not in favour: as such they would represent the debate happening in streets blah blah blah. But, as the calls came in, they were all very positive. There were no fire and brimstone Catholics, no furious homophobes, no paranoid family rights campaigners – just a bunch of people who were perfectly happy for the gay community. My friend dispatched the good news to the producer and was quickly sent back to the phones where he spent the next 20 minutes dredging Britain's sewers until he found an available prick who would come on and claim that gay freaks were trying to steal marriage from the real humans. I'm sure it made for noisy radio, but if you'd listened to that show, the Britain you heard portrayed was an angry, polarised one, half the population of which spends its weekends nail-bombing bars in Vauxhall.
I've had this in the days when I was prepared to waste my time talking to the BBC. You would get a charming researcher ring you up and ask you whether you could talk about a particular subject. If you agreed, he (or she) would ring off with a promise to come back and confirm the details.

When they returned though, there would always be a little add-on at the end. "By the way", the research would say, "we've also invited so-and-so to come in to join in the discussion…". And it would always turn out that "so-and-so" would have diametrically opposing views and you'd just been suckered into a shouting match.

They did this once too often, pulled this stunt on me on the Jeremy Vine show, for a telephone interview. By that time, I was so fed up with their games that I let them book me and listened to them announce my name at the beginning of the programme. But when they called me for the interview spot, I left the answering machine on and didn't lift the 'phone.

Looking at the way this insistence on two-handed interviews is handled in the New Statesman article, we have Howse, the former BBC journalist, misdiagnose this as an attempt at "balance". It isn't. It is a perversion of journalism, which is seeking to turn news and current affairs into "entertainment".

Furthermore, Howse does not understand – any more than does Cohen - that this is a problem affecting all legacy media journalism. By and large, all media organs are obsessed with "biff-bam" adversarial news reporting, and present most of their coverage in this form.

As Pete remarks, when you think this through, this is the way we do our politics, so it is hardly surprising that the media should do political reporting the same way. In any report of a Commons debate or political event, we might hear that "the government says this", but it will then be followed by, "but the opposition says that". This then bleeds into all forms of reporting. At fault, therefore, is the fundamental structure of the way we do news (and politics).

This has a further and hugely corrosive effect on the way news is reported. When the delivery of information is engineered to come via the mouths of opposing spokesperson, facts cease to have any fixed quantum. They are what the rival spokespersons assert.

Then we have the other phenomenon about which I have written so much: prestige. In the hands of the media, facts are what people with prestige assert. Inevitably, the greater the prestige of the utterer, the greater the authority of the facts asserted. And where we have people of equal or equivalent prestige asserting different "facts", no attempt is made to reconcile the positions. To generate controversy is, after all, the objective of modern-day journalism.

What has now caused the ultimate collapse in reliable new reporting is that those who seek to influence the media now play the "prestige" game. To get heard, they must acquire or develop prestige.

All influencers play the game, exacerbating the problem. The battle becomes one of building the level of prestige to support one's preferred set of "facts", rather than in acquiring more and better evidence to support them. Prestige trumps evidence every time.

Illustrating precisely the media preference for adversarial reporting, we see the BBC responding to Cohen's complaints, only for him to turn round and accuse the BBC of failing to treat e-mails - regarded as "evidence of Russian involvement" in the Brexit campaign - as news.

Instead, Cohen charged, "it treated the emails as mere talking points, the excuse for a catfight, and for the BBC to play out another round in the culture wars. It invited Cadwalladr and Oakeshott to slug it out on the Today programme".

But that's how it treats all news. And that is how most of legacy media deals with news. Firstly, it will falsely create a binary scenario, where complex issues can be turned into a simplistic pastiche of contrasting ideas, and then it will get people to champion the opposing propositions. Nuances, which expose the artificiality of the narrative, are ignored.

It is in that trap that the debate on the management of Brexit has been caught, and then even the argument about how Brexit has been reported has been turned into a binary, adversarial "catfight" – the left versus the BBC. This is no more real than anything else reported by a media which has so badly degenerated that it can't even evaluate is own failures.

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