Many have accused the BBC of ‘bias’ for failing to cover an anti-austerity march. So are they right?
Many have accused the BBC of ‘bias’ for failing to cover Saturday’s anti-austerity march which took place in Central London.
So are they right? Well yes and no. Media bias is one factor, but there are also other less encouraging reasons which explain the media’s relative disinterest. Here are four:
Protests (on their own) rarely achieve anything
Protest has its place but on its own it rarely achieves a great deal. Paradoxically it tends to work better in those places in the world where it is forbidden: the heavy handedness of the authorities can often result in protests swelling to millions of people. In authoritarian states protest is also a revolutionary act. In liberal democratic Britain it isn’t.
That’s not to say that protest is pointless; but it would be naive to overestimate its possible impact. Much like the newspaper sellers who hang around these events, those who cling to the idea that peaceful marches in Central London can make a huge impact haven’t adapted to a changed world: online activism is far more effective at reaching a large audience than marching through the Capital. It’s also less tainted by any association with the strange people who sometimes hang around the fringes of protests, such as these people.
This specific argument has been lost
For better or worse, the anti-austerity argument was lost back in 2010. Since late 2013 a majority of people have also told pollsters that austerity is actually good for the economy: 42 per cent now say cuts are good for the economy while 37 per cent say they are bad.
One needn’t confer respectability on an idea simply because it is popular, but it does perhaps help to explain why the media failed to give Saturday’s protest the level of coverage the organisers believe it deserved. There is no longer a mainstream anti-austerity narrative. The Tories and the Lib Dems are making cuts, Labour are going to make cuts and no one who isn’t is going to get anywhere near power anytime soon. As far as the media is concerned the debate is over.
There comes a point when sound and fury aren’t enough
People want to know what the protesters would do instead, and they feel they aren’t getting it. ‘No cuts’, declared the banners on Saturday. But no cuts invariably mean tax increases. ‘Tax the rich,’ I can hear you say. Fine, lots of us would like the rich to pay a higher proportion of their income in taxation; but why pretend this is a panacea?
Peter Mandelson famously said that Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, and left-wing critics of previous Labour governments have picked up on this quote as an example of Labour servility to the well off. What critics forget is that, in a globalised economy, it’s actually quite hard to tax the rich ‘until the pips squeak’, to use former Labour chancellor Denis Healey’s phraseology, firstly because the rich would probably leave the country, taking their businesses, tax revenue and jobs with them. You may profess not to care about such things, but whether you like it or not you still need money to pay for services and the like.
As the Laffer Curve demonstrates, increasing tax rates beyond a certain point is counter-productive for raising further tax revenue. The big challenge for the left in the 21st century will be figuring out how to tax the rich progressively transnationally, because a nation state-based approach is no longer enough.
There is some media bias at work
But this is less because of a deliberate decision to exclude anti-austerity protests, and more because of the class backgrounds of many journalists. British journalism already favours the rich, powerful and glamorous over the poor, weak and unfashionable, journalist and author Peter Oborne wrote a few years back, and having little invested in the services this government is cutting means that many journalists slip effortlessly into narratives of the cuts being “inevitable” and austerity coming as a consequence of “runaway government spending”.
This problem is being exacerbated as journalism becomes the preserve of the upper-middle classes due to unpaid internships and the collapse of many local newspapers.
So yes, there is bias, but not in the way many think.