Book Review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, April – May 2017 | Issue 2604 – 2605

Historically there has been a general consensus across British politics and among British political commentators that the BBC is, by and large, an independent, left-leaning institution that serves the public interest. But, as readers of PN will know, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, this is a myth.

Since its inception, the BBC has overwhelmingly served the interests of the government and elite sectors in society, a fact backed up by virtually every significant scholarly study on the matter.

In this incisive new book, Tom Mills has compiled extensive historical data (from archival research, interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources) to reinforce this analysis.

Mills starts with the 1926 General Strike, when the BBC infamously sided with the government against workers. Thereafter, he explains, the BBC was indeed ‘afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent’. However, this was only ‘on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government’. As the founding director-general Lord Reith put it, the government ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.

Into the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills shows how the BBC willingly subordinated itself as an instrument of government propaganda, banning not just fascists and communists from its broadcasts, but also conscientious objectors. During this period the BBC became a ‘fully effective instrument of war’, as Reith’s successor Frederick Ogilvie stated. It was also during this period that senior BBC staff allowed MI5 to politically vet its employees (a practice that astonishingly continued until 1985). In the post-war years, Mills shows how the BBC not only distributed Cold War propaganda in ‘close cooperation’ with the government, but domestically it served to marginalise peace movements and critics of war, cancelling programmes due to government pressure and generally promoting a line favourable to established interests. The Suez Crisis, Falklands War and Gulf Wars are all explored as examples. On issues of economics, the BBC’s neoliberal shift during the 1980s is particularly interesting. Mills outlines how, following the arrival of deputy director-general John Birt in 1987, a ‘small coterie’ of radical Thatcherite reformers helped restructure the organisation, leading to a ‘remarkable growth in business and economics journalism’ and a decline in the representation of workers and their interests.

This ‘neoliberal, pro-business, right-wing’ turn, as Mills describes it, was accelerated into the 1990s and 2000s, and was plain to see in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis when elite, pro-business sources dominated reporting. Indeed, the historical record explored by Mills leads him to conclude that the BBC is ‘no more free from the powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today’. It’s a conclusion hard to disagree with after reading this book, especially given the way the BBC has reported on the anti-war, left-wing socialist who is currently leader of the opposition. The contemporary relevance of this book cannot be overstated. A must-read for anyone interested in British politics.

Verso, 2016; 272pp; £16.99

Why Establishment Media are Biased Against Corbyn

The UK Establishment news media are highly centralised and dominated by elites who, when it really matters, serve the status quo and detest democracy.

The standard conception about the role of the media in a liberal democracy is that it acts as a guardian: independently, truthfully and objectively holding power to account and exposing injustices. While it can do this on occasion, a more accurate and enduring conception is that the media, when it really counts, preserve the interests of the Establishment, both state and private. This is best revealed when a truly anti-establishment figure comes to town – cue Jeremy Corbyn.

Take the BBC, which is often regarded as the UK’s most trust-worthy news source, it is formally committed to ‘serving the public interest’ and giving true, accurate, fair and impartial news. Its Editorial Guidelines state that ‘impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences’. However, as many readers will know, research by the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London, recently found ‘clear and consistent’ bias in the BBC’s reporting of Jeremy Corbyn between 27th June and 6th July 2016 – the 10 day period between the first Labour shadow cabinet resignations and the release of the Chilcot report into the Iraq war.

Researchers analysed 465 online news items from 8 outlets and 40 primetime television news bulletins from both the BBC and ITV. It found that while ITV were relatively balanced, BBC evening news bulletins ‘gave nearly twice as much unchallenged airtime to sources critical of Corbyn compared to those that supported him’. Furthermore, there was a ‘Strong tendency within BBC main evening news for reporters to use pejorative language when describing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters’. As the researchers emphasised, there was a ‘clear and consistent bias in favour of critics of Jeremy Corbyn’.

This research followed a more extensive study undertaken by media and communications scholars at LSE who analysed 8 British newspapers between 1st September and 1st November 2015 – the period during which Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. The study found that 75% of the coverage misrepresented Corbyn’s views and concluded that:

Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy [emphasis added]. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK.

As both of these studies show, it is not just the right-wing media who have been biased against Corbyn, but the supposed left-leaning liberal media, such as the BBC and the Guardian, too. This unanimity of hostility with which the British establishment media have been reporting on Corbyn is uncharacteristic of a fair and balanced news media. In fact, such a consensus, one might think, is more characteristic of a totalitarian society, whereby dissenting voices are simply silenced by threat or force. In a fair and balanced media such analyses simply would not garner such conclusions. How might this be happening, then?

Centralisation

For one thing, regarding newspapers, there are just three companies that control 70% of the UK national market: News UK, Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), and Trinity Mirror. By democratic standards, we have a highly concentrated press, the majority of which are, and have traditionally been, to the right of the political spectrum. As George Orwell acknowledged in his 1945 essay Freedom of the Press, the British press is ‘extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics’.

Unlike in 1945, however, it is not so much wealthy men who own it today, but multi-national corporations with annual turnovers in the billions or trillions. As ex-Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook observes, the personnel who control these corporations ‘are not only fabulously wealthy but have diverse business interests that will be affected by how our societies are run, what laws apply or don’t, and how foreign policy is made’. Furthermore, and more worryingly, they ‘often have additional interests in military and defence corporations’ that profit directly from war.

Take the biggest and perhaps most obvious example of Rupert Murdoch. He is chief proprietor of News UK, which possesses a third of the entire UK market share in newspapers (including the Sun, the Sun on Sunday, the Times and the Sunday Times). He also has the controlling stake in Sky News. He is currently the 96th richest person in the world, regarded as one of its most powerful people and has financial interests in not only media and publishing but also American shale gas and Middle Eastern oil.

Murdoch’s networks with the wealthy and powerful are extensive and he has been pally with every British Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. Often referred to as ‘Britain’s permanent Cabinet member’, his former editor at the Sunday Times, Andrew Neil (now prominent at the BBC), said of him that he ‘expects his papers to stand broadly for what he believes: a combination of right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain’. He thus employs editors – who themselves employ staff – that broadly fall in line with his ideological views. Accordingly, in 2003, all of Murdoch’s 175 newspapers worldwide and their editors supported the invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, as Alastair Campbell, former Director of Communications for Tony Blair, has revealed, Murdoch used his influence in an ‘over-crude’ way to try to encourage Blair to go to war, just as he previously tried to influence John Major on European policy.

Indeed, given that Corbyn resolutely opposes policies that Murdoch profits from, such as war and corporate dominance over society, it is easy to see why the Murdoch press would be against him. This ideological opposition naturally explains the bias of other right-leaning outlets against him, too (such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express). Less easy to explain, however, or perhaps just less easy to see, is why the supposed left-leaning liberal news media like the BBC and the Guardian, which are regarded by many as being more fair and balanced sources, are also found to be bias against Corbyn. The following might help explain.

Media Elite

Government research in 2014 revealed that a third of BBC executives (33%) graduated from Oxbridge; a quarter (26%) attended private schools; and over half (62%) attended Russell Group universities. In addition, around half of national newspaper columnists (47%) graduated from Oxbridge, while only slightly fewer (43%) attended private schools. Overall, of the elite individuals regarded as the ‘top 100 media professionals’ in the UK (comprising editors, columnists and broadcasters), nearly half (45%) graduated from Oxbridge and over half (53%) attended private schools.

These final two statistics are scandalous because only a mere 0.8% of the population are actually educated at Oxbridge, while just 7% attend private schools. This means that the majority of the most powerful and influential professionals in UK media (including many at the BBC and the Guardian) come from a tiny pool of private schools and two highly elite universities. The research extended right across the British establishment, revealing how the top jobs in politics, law, business and the military are also overwhelmingly dominated by the privileged. The chairman of the research, Rt Hon. Alan Milburn, said:

Our research shows it is entirely possible for politicians to rely on advisors to advise, civil servants to devise policy solutions and journalists to report on their actions having all studied the same courses at the same universities, having read the same books, heard the same lectures and even being taught by the same tutors.

After similar research was published in 2012, Milburn commented that journalism specifically had ‘shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession’, a point reinforced by research this year showing that over half of the UK’s leading journalists (55%) have been educated at Oxbridge and still over half (51%) have attended private schools. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) retorted: journalism remains ‘the preserve of the privileged’.

These statistics simply do not reflect a fair and balanced Establishment media; they reflect a media dominated by privileged professionals with elite educations. This is, of course, entirely unrepresentative of the majority of the population, and as Milburn further stated:

Where institutions rely on too narrow a range of people from too narrow a range of backgrounds with too narrow a range of experiences they risk behaving in ways and focussing on issues that are of salience only to a minority but not the majority in society.

This goes a long way to explaining the Establishment consensus against Corbyn, who himself is ideologically opposed to such inequality and elite domination in society. Consider the affinity between the heads of the BBC and the Guardian: James Harding, Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC, went to Cambridge and formally worked for Murdoch as editor at the Times; Rona Fairhead, Chair of the BBC Trust, also went to Cambridge, is friends with George Osborne and is a board member for PepsiCo and HSBC; Katherine Vines, Editor-in-Chief at the Guardian, went to Oxford and previously worked for Murdoch’s Sunday Times; while her predecessor, Alan Rusbridger, went to Cambridge and is now the principle of an Oxford college currently facing accusations of getting ‘jobs for the boys’ among the ‘liberal intelligentsia’.

Indeed, private schooling and an Oxbridge education are well known for maintaining what have traditionally been called the ‘incestuous links of privilege and power’ within the British establishment. As this remains largely true, it is easy to see how a close-knit Establishment elite would stand united against an anti-establishment individual who opposes – and genuinely wants to eradicate – the kind of privilege and inequality they represent. In traditional terms this would be called class conflict.

But the important question here is: how can highly educated professionals (‘experts’) who regard themselves (and are so regarded by others) as liberal, left-leaning and serving a public good, not be aware of their own Establishment bias? Well, while some of them likely are aware, physicist Jeff Schmidt has an interesting theory for the ones who are not.

Disciplined Conservative Liberal Elites

In his book Disciplined Minds (2000), Schmidt contends that professionals of all kinds, which including editors, journalists and broadcasters, are conditioned to serve the agenda of established power by subordinating themselves to working ‘within an assigned political and ideological framework’. They thus end up being a more conservative force in society. Interestingly, this subordination and conservatism comes from education. Children are curious about all things, but must gradually learn to assign their curiosity to specific tasks set by teachers. This continues right up to graduate and professional training. It amounts to a process of selection, training and qualification for obedience; what Schmidt calls ‘ideological discipline’ and what sociologists would call socialisation.

Take essays, for example; a professor assigns essay topics and the student must choose one to write about. Disciplined students do not even consider writing about topics that are not assigned. In fact, the most disciplined go out of their way to figure out how to please the professor; they check out his/her ‘attitudes and beliefs so they can mimic them’ and ‘the ones who eagerly adopt the [professor’s] outlook, no matter what it happens to be-in-general, the ones who subordinate their own beliefs to an assigned ideology’ are the most “successful”. As Schmidt explains, the willingness and ability to do this, to assign one’s curiosity and exercise ‘ideological discipline’, is a prerequisite in professional work where any serious questioning of the ideology (such as the morality or politics built into the work) might prove disruptive. Any such disruptive attitudes are thus necessarily weeded out along the way. This is especially true when it comes to the top jobs.

The process produces not just discipline and subordination in professionals, but also conservatism. Schmidt notes how the common assumption is that professionals, particularly of a good education, are more liberal on social issues (for example, civil liberties, personal morality and cultural issues) and are thus regarded as being a more progressive force in society than non-professionals without degrees. This is false, Schmidt argues, because while educated professionals may be more progressive on ‘distant social issues’ that do not affect them in or outside of their work, they tend to be more conservative on the long-standing, more significant issues that really might affect them personally. Democracy is a prime example. As Schmidt writes:

Discuss politics with a liberal professional and you will not hear a word in favour of a more democratic distribution of power in society perhaps because in the professional’s view ignorant nonprofessionals make up the large majority of the population.

This point wonderfully illustrates the trepidation of so-called left-leaning Establishment liberals in the run-up to Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and their subsequent efforts to undermine, overrule and prevent the democratic decision of the membership base that voted for him. Their contempt for democracy in this instance indeed betrays a remarkable level of conservatism that any serious liberal ought to find appalling. Another example of the professional’s view of the ‘ignorant nonprofessional’ came with the scornful reactions of so-called ‘metropolitan elites’ to Brexit voters. The failure of these educated ‘liberal’ professionals to understand, anticipate or even address the deep cultural and class divide that lay behind the Brexit votes exemplifies exactly the kind of confined ideological thinking that Schmidt outlines.

Additionally, while professionals may be liberal outside of their work, inside of their work they may be very much conservative, and for good reason. The day labourer, for example, who believes politicians are corrupt or that Tony Blair is a war criminal will freely proclaim such an opinion because it has no affect on him in his workplace. The professor, judge or journalist, however, will refrain from saying such things for fear of ruffling feathers or being quoted on record, despite the fact that few in broader society would find it shocking. As Orwell noted in Freedom of the Press, the ‘sinister fact’ about censorship amongst the English intelligentsia is that ‘it is largely voluntary’:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark […] not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

Indeed, this kind of censorship (or ‘ideological discipline’), whether voluntary or unconscious, exemplifies what Schmidt calls a ‘political and intellectual timidity’ among our ‘most highly educated employees’. The net result is that they constitute a more conservative force in society and thus end up serving the ‘interests of those who have power’ and help to ‘maintain the social and economic status quo’.

To summarise here, the point is that a good education and professional training tends to produce employees that can be trusted to theorise, experiment, innovate and create only within the assigned political and ideological framework of established power, and as employees internalise the ideology of the Establishment, their ability to see a class interest or bias in their work diminishes. In this context it is easy to see how a so-called ‘liberal’ Establishment media, under the hegemony of privileged professionals with elite educations, are so opposed to Corbyn. Indeed, for them he is just too anti-establishment and too far from the status quo.

It is worth noting here that Schmidt’s aim is not to lambast or condemn professionals – it is merely to build an understanding of the role of professionals in society. He empathises with the many professionals who start off hoping to ‘make a difference’, but soon find they have been pushed to ‘accept a role in which they do not make a significant difference, a politically subordinate role’. When this happens, he says, professionals tend to seek money and status as compensations for subordinating their ideals (for anyone interested, he gives advice on techniques for resistance and maintaining independent thought within the professions).

In Conclusion

Schmidt’s insight, together with an understanding of who owns and works for our news organisations, helps explain why our Establishment media, on both the left and right of the political spectrum, has been so opposed to Corbyn. While there are certainly other factors that contribute to their bias (for example, the role of advertising and sourcing, which I have not covered here), an undoubtedly pivotal element is the centralisation of the UK press within the hands of just a few multi-national corporations. Naturally, the personnel working for these corporations have every motive (because of the nature of the corporation and their professional commitments) to maintain an established order conducive to corporate interests. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the so-called left-leaning ‘liberal’ media (e.g. the BBC and the Guardian) is itself dominated by privileged professionals with elite educations whom, whether they know it or not, have a vested ideological interest in preventing an anti-establishment figure like Corbyn from coming to power. This is NOT to suggest that good independent journalists do not exist within the Establishment media, nor that the Establishment media never do good work and challenge power, because they do (for example, the Snowden revelations and the MP’s expenses scandal); it is to say that when a fundamental challenge to the established order comes to town, then, by and large, the they fall in line to conserve Establishment interests, because they are the Establishment.

It was the American philosopher John Dewey who, in the 1920s, when advocating greater democracy, observed that if big business were to maintain a disproportionate influence over politics, then politics will remain just ‘the shadow cast on society by big business’. A not too dissimilar version of this would be that if a privileged Establishment elite were to maintain a disproportionate influence over the news media, then the news media will continue to reflect the interests of a privileged elite. Indeed, it is no secret that Corbyn himself supports measures to reform UK media – to make it fairer, more democratically inclusive and thus more representative of the population. In fact, his political intentions have always been to increase the democratic participation of the citizenry; that is, to enable greater ‘democratic determination of policy’ throughout society, as he puts it. However, as we observed above, this likely constitutes one of the primary reasons the Establishment is so opposed to him, and precisely one of the reasons they will continue to oppose him.

C