Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Thu, 2 Jul 2020, 2:09 PM


Yes, the BBC is biased

Author:   |    Publish date:

Over the weekend we saw two related examples of BBC bias. One came from Emily Maitlis, who said:

So often people read conspiracy into a thing when it's really a confluence of cock-ups.

Sensible people, however, do not allege any conspiracy at the BBC. Instead, we have other concerns. Some are about incentive structures: which mistakes does it regard as mere cock-ups, and which as more serious offences? Another is that journalists, like all professionals, are prone to deformation professionelle - the fact that our training inculcates into us particular, and partial, ways of seeing things - which entails missing other things.

It is factors such as these that lead the BBC into error. Tom Mills, for example, says the corporation is too deferential to business and the state. It was perhaps this that, for example, led Laura Kuenssberg to repeat the government's false allegation that a Labour activist had assaulted one of Matt Hancock's aides. And Mark Oliver complains, rightly, that the Beeb wrongly prioritizes speed over context; misuses experts and thinktanks; and worries too much about reach and not enough about improving public understanding.

My second example of bias lies in Broadcasting House's review of the decade (11'25" in). It failed to mention what is the most important fact about the last ten years - the productivity stagnation*. And yet it was this that led both to Brexit and Corbynism, in part because flat-lining living standards provoked discontent with both elites and capitalism. I've said it before, and I'll repeat it: the most important book for understanding the last ten years is Ben Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.

I say these are both related examples of bias because they demonstrate something of which I've complained before - that the BBC has a bias against emergence. It does not see that many social phenomena are not simply the product of individual agency but instead arise independently of what people intend. Sometimes, these outcomes are benign, sometimes not: this issue was one of the differences between Smith and Marx **.

So, for example, Ms Maitlis doesn't seem to realise that the BBC, like many organizations, can develop a logic of its own; they are not simply individuals writ large. Equally, the productivity slowdown is not the result of any individual's action; it's the unintended by-product of millions of dispersed decisions.

The BBC has consistently under-reported the latter because of another bias, shared by most journalists (what was that I said about deformation professionelle?) - a tendency to neglect slow-paced but important change. This is the same bias that has caused it to largely overlook the decline in global poverty in recent decades. Agatha

In saying this, I don't pretend that the bias against emergence is confined to the BBC. It's part of journalists' training to look for agency - to ask, who's to blame? Whodunnit? But the social sciences are not (often) an Agatha Christie story.

What we have here, therefore, is a troubling distance between the BBC and the social sciences; the latter are confined to niche programmes on Radio 4 whilst TV prefers the moronfests of Question Time and vox pops. Andrew Neil's recent tweets claiming that "the academic study of politics is increasingly irrelevant and in sad, serious decline" and deprecating "academic econometrics" are symbolic of this distance.

But it matters. If journalists ignore the social sciences they will find it even harder to overcome the blindspots created by their own backgrounds and training: the sociological imagination can be a good corrective to journalists' own distorted perspective.

That perspective, however, in turn distorts public debate. The fact is that the public are woefully misinformed about many things. Of course, this is not wholly the fault of the media: as Bobby Duffy points out in his excellent The Perils of Perception, people can go wrong without the help of journalists. But surely, the BBC - as the dominant source of news - must accept some of the blame for it. That it does not do so, at least in public, betokens an overconfidence which is the enemy of learning and improvement.

* To his credit, Niall Ferguson did allude to this.

** Both men were right: it depends on context.

Share this

  Be the first to like this.

I3 Messenger
Individual or Group chat with anyone on I3investor

2737  1699  935  2592 

Top 10 Active Counters
 VAST 0.237-0.003 
 MSMN 0.085-0.055 
 WINZL 67.12-0.96 
 IPOST 390.75-4.60 
 UKOG 0.21-0.01 
 VIXL 0.01-0.001 
 LLOY 31.85+1.15 
 BOU 0.024+0.001 
 INTU 1.776-2.134 
 COPL 0.31-0.01 
Partners & Brokers