The BBC's problem isn't being biased, some of the journalism has just become lazy
Updated: Nov 13, 2022
When Owen Jones released his video rant about the BBC reporting of the economic situation recently, he started by making some very fine points about the inaccuracy of the content. The reporter was saying the government had to make spending cuts because the economic situation had changed. Owen Jones points out, quite rightly, that it is not the government's only option, it's a political choice. The reporting normalised austerity as something that is inevitable. This is clearly wrong.
As the video went on though, it shifts a little more towards right-wing bias and the BBC being a propaganda machine for Number 10. Here, Owen Jones starts to lose a very strong argument. Had he stuck to outlining the poor journalism involved, and encouraged the viewers to complain about that, he would have been on solid ground. The problem is the quality of journalism and the editorial control over it. The BBC is not deliberately biased. I do not agree with those voices of outrage that talk about a right or left-wing agenda at the BBC, because experience tells me that's not how it works. The problem is more complicated than that.
Let's take a couple of recent examples regarding Russia. In an article in September, the BBC reported as fact that the Russian economy was struggling as a result of the Ukraine invasion, with inflation on the rise. It wasn't. At that point, inflation in Russia had fallen for three consecutive months. Last week, an article about Vladimir Putin's Moscow speech described the Russian leader as being "isolated from the world". He's not. China, Pakistan, India, Iran and much of Africa have continued relations, with some of those supplying weapons to Russia. This is just lazy and poor journalism.
This could be down to pressure of 'churnalism' and the need to get lots of content published. But if you include incorrect information like that, you become no better than the likes of RT that get banned for pushing a 'biased' narrative. Look deeper and the problem goes beyond pressure of time. Take the language around coverage of Brazil's election, compared with that of Israel or Italy. There's a sense of joy for Brazil's 'leftist' win and concern or even outrage at the 'far-right' victories in Israel and Italy.
When lecturing students, we emphasise the need to take a step back and question everything, with the key thing, avoiding editorialising. For a 20-year-old journalism student it is hard, because at that age you feel your opinion matters and often that you are right because you cannot see an alternative view. Experience tells you to remove yourself and your thinking from the story. Being a good journalist is examining the story and asking all the right questions. Then you have a better chance of knowing the 'truth'.
What is happening at the BBC is two-fold. The editorial standards are falling, as these recent examples show (there are many more, almost on a daily basis). But also, the BBC has come under pressure since Brexit from the commercial sector that pushes opinion in an effective way. The likes of LBC and GB News promote opinion and division, to some success. Worried by these 'competitors', the BBC appears to have allowed (or even encouraged) journalists more room to express opinion. Analysis and opinion though are two very different things and the BBC should be there for facts and analysis of those facts, not opinion about them.
The loss of editorial standards at the BBC is worrying, because there are more right-wing shout boxes on radio and TV that push an 'anti-woke' narrative. When we want to know the fact from all that fiction, it is the BBC we should rely on. It should be held to higher standards than other platforms, because the taxpayer funds it. But I think that is being lost. If a newsroom team is standing around watching Donald Trump win an election, all shaking their heads, there is a problem. Someone should be there saying, "you know why he's popular, it's because of......". That's proper journalism. Understanding the story and explaining that to the audience.
Ironically, the BBC has spent years focusing on one of the ways to resolve this, but not doing it in the right way. To create better journalism (more balanced and insightful), we need more diversity. Hiring people from different backgrounds, different classes, as well as cultures and race, creates a more vibrant newsroom. It stops the problem of group think, which has become a problem at the BBC. Those examples about Russia are where the whole newsroom's thinking everything Putin does is bad or wrong. No one there is looking beyond the surface and asking the right questions.
The example from Owen Jones and those articles about Russia show that journalists get sucked into a line of thinking without stepping back. Until editorial standards are restored and journalists are hired through different roots than Oxbridge or Russell Group universities, that group think will remain. We need the BBC to be a place we can turn to for reassurance and reliability. Unless the quality of journalism improves, accusations of bias will continue, perhaps causing irreparable damage to a great institution.