Shooting the messenger leaves us with no room to shape the message itself
Two weeks ago the BBC got itself in hot water after its weekly Question Time show featured a panel made up almost entirely of figures from the political ‘right’: Kelvin McKenzie of The Sun, Camilla Long from The Times, Ukip’s Patrick O’Flynn, and the Conservative’s Nick Boles. They were joined by one lone voice from the left, Cat Smith of Labour. There followed complaints from journalists, Labour MPs, and members of the public that the BBC has a ‘right-wing bias’.
One has to admire the BBC’s determination to find a hole and keep on digging. The Question Time show that enraged so many came only a week after it had been revealed that the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg had arranged for Labour MP Stephen Doughty to resign from the Shadow Cabinet live on the Daily Politics Show moments before Jeremy Corbyn was about to begin the weekly round of PMQs.
This too led to accusations that the BBC was nothing more than a puppet of the Conservative Party, intent on sowing the seeds of dissent in the Labour ranks for political and media gain.
As much as I understand the irritation of those on the left about the (lack of) diversity of opinions represented on the BBC’s political programmes, wagging a finger at the corporation and accusing it of a right-wing bias will get us nowhere. In fact, it only plays into the hands of the Tories.
This is not least because, as the post-modernist movement has long argued, everything and everybody carries bias. There is no such thing as an objective text, speech, or act since we are all products of our cultural settings.
Just as much as the left sees particular decisions made by the BBC as bias, those on the right often interpret its actions as those of a card-carrying socialist organisation. The BBC, sworn to impartiality in a world that is never impartial, simply cannot win.
But more fundamentally, shooting the messenger leaves us with no room to shape the message itself. It has been well documented how the Conservatives in Britain and Republicans in America have systematically come to control the political narrative and seemingly disgrace any philosophy which challenges the hegemony of capitalism.
They’ve achieved this dominance by investing in think-tanks, such as the Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Social Justice, which produce research supporting their cause on an almost weekly basis. When the BBC looks for new research, the field is dominated by publications from the right. At the same time, to reach new audiences the Conservatives have embarked on a rigorous assessment of the messages they need to use and repeat to win over public opinion.
This has been helped by the intimate relationships they have developed with the private media sector who have become their mouthpiece: remember, it was Murdoch that was dining out with Cameron and Osborne before Christmas, not the BBC’s director general Tony Hall.
Our entire political lexicon and way of thinking has therefore come to be shaped by words, phrases, and narratives from the right. That is why we have daily updates on the strength of the FTSE. It’s why we talk about growth as the starting point of any economic discussion and why GDP, although almost universally acknowledged to be a destructive and unequal measure, continues to be used as the yardstick by which we compare different countries’ relative economic strength.
In an environment where this right-wing narrative is so ascendent one can hardly be surprised to see the BBC, designed as a mirror of public opinion, struggling to grapple with the existential question of ‘what is neutral?’
Public views are shaped by the prevailing narrative so can they ever be said to be neutral? I’m not sure that the viewing public ever envisaged paying their license fee for the BBC to tackle such fundamental philosophical questions.
If those on the left want to change society and alter the messages that are preached from the gogglebox or printed in the media, then we have to work out how to offer a united, powerful alternative. This problem has to be tackled at its roots.
This is not to say that such work isn’t already going on. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) have been doing excellent work in trying to establish a new, positive, proactive message to counter that of the Conservatives’. Charities such as Shelter have been working on research projects, trying to find out what messages will work as they strive with desperation to save our welfare state from annihilation.
What these pieces of research have discovered is that the number of competing and overlapping messages that are coming out from the left just keeps on growing. A wall of confused sound hits anyone searching out for an alternative political voice whereas those on the right – save perhaps on the divisive question of Europe – tend to sing in unison. That makes the job of an institution seeking to write a news story in a hurry a whole lot easier.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t continue to monitor the output of the British media and fight for a much more democratic and open press. However, if we continue to direct our ire solely at the BBC we won’t just be taking our eye off the ball, we won’t even be playing the right game. We will fail to put our efforts into the work that really needs to be done: forming a united, focused, and attractive alternative narrative that we can embed in as many institutions and outlets as possible.
Matt Hawkins is an activist who works in the charity sectorLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.