The BBC's dumb public: a view from Greece

The BBC’s election coverage has been filled with gossip, technological gimmicks, and patronising ‘common sense’ rhetoric. This has little to do with its public service remit.   

Niki Seth-Smith
30 April 2015

The BBC’s ‘election worm’. Screengrab.

I’m one of over five million Britons living abroad, and will cast my postal vote from Athens. Like so many ‘expats’ - immigrants by another name - I have become far more dependent on the BBC than I was when living in London. My tendency to turn to the state broadcaster as the ‘voice of the nation’ disturbs me already, yet it is even more peculiar when the BBC’s own election coverage is so entirely obsessed with representing the opinions of the ever-mythical ‘British public’. 

In no election during my lifetime has it been more advantageous for the politicians of the main parties to avoid the real issues at hand: the coming cuts, the disastrous possibility of Brexit, the need to rebalance our Union and political system – these are the core issues so skillfully drowned in the Great Game Show of psephology. The BBC has a remit not to follow suit, yet it is flooding its channels with this pulp. Instead of developing my thinking as a voter, I am repeatedly told what I’m – apparently – thinking.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The pollster has been king at least since Blair (I heard the psychic octopus just came out for Miliband). As a Greek resident, I’m not being polled myself. I’m also no longer a license fee payer. In fact, as one of millions of expats that use a virtual private network to access iPlayer, in the eyes of BBC Worldwide I’m something of a pirate citizen. Yet I still expect the BBC to respect its Royal Charter to inform and educate, as well as entertain. Those of us using our postal or proxy vote from overseas turn to the BBC for intelligent, critical analysis at a time when laying our hands on other UK media can be much harder. So how is it faring as the ‘nation’s voice’? 

Firstly, the British public have apparently transformed into something called ‘the worm’. This single-line graph plotting the reactions of a small group of undecided voters was used in the BBC’s leaders’ debate, and also appeared on the weekly Election Late Show. Last year, the House of Lords select committee on communication recommended against the “worm”, following reports that it could have a powerful influence on watcher’s voting intentions, not only on their opinions on who won the debate. Such gimmicks don’t spell the end of our democracy, just as the first leader debates in 2010 didn’t bring about what the Telegraph called at the time the “Simon Cowellisation of British politics” (while Ed may now be mobbed by hen parties, he’s hardly X Factor). Yet something disturbing is going on, hidden by the BBC’s insistence that it is ‘in tune with the people’.

Could it be that the pundits, presenters and producers of the BBC, as part of the media establishment, simply don’t have a clue as to what Britain’s future may look like under the various parties and possible coalitions? The statement by the IFS that voters were being left “somewhere in the dark” as to the parties’ plans to cut the deficit was held up victoriously as proof that the manifestos of Labour, the Conservatives, Lib Dems and SNP weren’t worth the paper they were written on, somewhat comically by David Dimbleby on Question Time: 

"The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which we now know is the gold standard for testing what people claim in their manifestos [chuckles from the panel] says we are in the dark about the four main parties and we don’t know what they’re saying"

The conjurer’s trick here is a double escape from the realm of actual political contestation. All ‘policy issues’ are reduced to the question of how they will be ‘credibly costed’ to ensure the elimination of the deficit, and finally nullified by the answer that such macro-economic forecasting is largely meaningless, as demonstrated by the last government’s spectacular failure to meet its own debt and deficit targets.

Labour and the Tories have been accused of rampant cynicism and lack of “drive” or “passion” in their campaigns, prompting Cameron to tell the public to “go to Hollywood” for political theatre or, which I particularly enjoyed, to Greece. The BBC appears to have swallowed this image of the passive public who, when clamouring for real information about their future lives and those of their loved ones, are treated as demanding entertainment. We are urged to become the “ultimate election geek”, tested by Jeremy Vine in an online interactive feature on important questions like ‘which is the most marginal seat in the UK?’ or invited to build our own majority (at least this has some educational merit). The Election Late Show promised “smiles and sense” - ‘entertain and inform’, you might say - but the presenter James O’Brien’s description of “perverse and wonkish” is closer to home. 

As a member of the British public, I am given two choices. I can either be a ‘wonk’ or that rarest of creature: an ‘ordinary person’. I say rare because features like Newsnight’s ‘This House Believes’, which takes us, albeit briefly, into the homes of families across the UK chatting politics over dinner, are careful to avoid those citizens who are actively politically engaged. To interview a house of trade union members, anarchist activists or EDL supporters would be biased, so the logic goes. Yet O’Brien is overjoyed in Episode Two of the Election Late Show when he finds that rarest of rare creatures, a young Black Scots Tory, to interview on the (now ruled-out) Labour-SNP coalition. 

You can understand the interest in bringing in the public – at least we are permitted to be vacuous and ill-informed. Watching Allegra Stratton being patiently taught by Leanne Wood how to spell and say Plaid Cymru before her Newsnight interview (‘is it with a ‘G’?) or O’Brien referring to the leaders of the SNP and UKIP as ‘the two men’ before hurriedly correcting himself, the ‘ordinary person’ living outside England may even be less likely to blunder. 

It’s telling, then, that it is Question Time - that most traditional of ‘you talk to them’ programme formats - where the BBC’s coverage gives some sense of the actual tension, the life or death reality simmering underneath the run-up to these elections. As we’re talking gimmicks, a clapometer on Question Time would reveal how far the public, represented by the audience, understands the real weight of their decision on May 7th.

‘You talk about halving the deficit, but what about people using food banks, what about the children below the poverty line?’ This is the kind of question that gets loud applause, as did Harriet Harman when she cut through the debate on costing search and rescue plans for migrants to ask ‘what kind of country have we become?’ What kind of society the British people want to live in, with what relationship to the migrant ‘other’, within what kind of Union and in what relationship to Europe and the rest of the world: these are the issues on the table. Before the leaders’ debates, it was Nigel Farage who once won the outsider’s position on the QI panel by default, through daring to tackle these broader issues head on. We have seen him wilt in the face of Wood, Sturgeon and Bennett, who have very different answers to the same questions – ones not dictated by the politics of fear and prejudice. 

Watching the Beeb’s election coverage from Greece only heightens the absurdity. Over the last five years, the Greek people have had a harsh education in the reality behind what has been dubbed ‘mediamacro: the dumbing down by the press of macroeconomics into false and misleading ‘common sense’ rhetoric. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, media macro fantasy language like ‘we’ve maxed out the credit card’, or politicians promising to eliminate the deficit within a parliamentary term, dominate the British media, and particularly these elections. It’s laughable, as is the notion that a party in a tiny minority can somehow ‘hold the country to ransom’ – there was no such hysteria within Greece when Syriza, a left-wing party, went into coalition with the populist right-wing Independent Greeks, as with only 13 seats they naturally have limited influence. 

In fact, Britain is just as ‘exciting’ as Greece, if you can call lives, livelihoods, homes, health and happiness hanging by a thread ‘exciting’. It’s difficult to see the Beeb upping it’s game in the next week, but we can only hope. In the meantime, please stop blaming the public. We are not ‘the worm’, not an excuse to lower debate to the level of gossip. I will not be casting my vote on the back of what scant knowledge I glean from the BBC and I can only hope my fellow five million expatriates won’t be too reliant either, if they choose to vote. I should be clear. This is not to say that the rest of British media is doing any better: it’s a problem for the media ecology as a whole. Yet the BBC has a special remit. Whether it can be it’s ‘voice’ or no, the BBC should at least be speaking to the nation.

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