Tyldesley miners outside the Miners Hall during the 1926 General Strike.
In step with the rest of the British media, the BBC has in recent weeks afforded considerable coverage to allegations of pervasive antisemitism in the Labour Party. In itself the attention given to this issue is not objectionable. The crisis is real enough, in the sense that a cynical political campaign against the left of the Labour Party has proved fairly effective; that much at least is 'news'. The problem is that if examined in detail the evidence underpinning the slow burning political crisis, which itself has been systematically misrepresented, is not only insubstantial, but is plainly being advanced by right-wing interests inside and outside the Labour Party.
One would perhaps not expect a press that has either participated in this witch hunt, or is politically aligned with those who have, to interrogate the claims being so widely disseminated by Corbyn's enemies. But that is why we have the BBC. In theory a public service broadcaster should be able to stand above sectional interests and cut through the disinformation. It is after all constitutionally committed to educating and informing it audience. I am not in a position to judge the BBC's coverage of this rather sorry episode as a whole, but the performance of its flagship TV current affairs programme Newsnight, for example, in itself raises serious questions about its output, particularly in light of its previous treatment of Corbyn and his supporters. Moreover, the perception of BBC bias against the left have in the present circumstances been compounded by the lack of coverage the BBC has afforded the racist campaign of the Conservative London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, which has been supported by the Prime Minister, and even more so by the lack of reporting on allegations of electoral fraud by the Conservative Party at the last General Election – a topic which has received considerable attention online and has been covered extensively on Channel 4. What explains the apparent double standard?
Laura Kuenssberg, as political editor of BBC News, has come under criticism. Credit: PA Images.
Corbyn himself quietly acknowledges the hostility of the BBC to the party membership which elected him, mentioning the Today programme, along with The Sun, as a notable obstacle to the development of popular left-wing movements. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, agrees. He has remarked that: 'It can sound like we're paranoid but the reality is that the treatment Jeremy has had across the media has been appalling. It's the worst any politician has been treated.' On the BBC, in particular, he attributes the hostile coverage to the influence of the press on broadcasting. 'They are taking their stories from newspapers rather than investigating and reporting for themselves and therefore the bias of the press infects the broadcast media too.'
The cut and thrust of political life naturally throws up accusations of media bias, especially when politicians and political parties are 'on the ropes', and in the UK the BBC, by virtue of its reach and prestige, has always bore the brunt of such claims. BBC journalists understandably grow weary of such claims, and often protest that they are attacked from left and right. The problem with this argument is obvious: being attacked equally from both sides doesn't mean that each side is equally right. The great sociologist Max Weber remarked that we should 'oppose to the utmost the widespread view that scientific "objectivity" is achieved by weighing the various evaluations against one another and making a "statesman-like" compromise among them.' 'Scientifically, he wrote, 'the "middle course" is not truer even by a hair's breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right or left.'
As it happens, McDonnell's impression of the BBC's coverage, unlike the often hysterical claims from the right, has the virtue of being supported by the scientific evidence. Research by Cardiff and Loughborough universities into the political reporting during the last General Election campaign, for example, suggested not only that the press were overwhelmingly hostile to the Labour Party, even before Corbyn's leadership, but that the BBC's coverage very subtly favoured the interests of the Conservative Party. The tone of the BBC's reporting was balanced, and the coverage afforded the two major parties was broadly equal, but the attention the BBC gave to particular political issues, especially in the final crucial weeks of the campaign, played to the strengths of the Conservatives. Thus the NHS and housing, despite being central concerns for the public, disappeared from the BBC's coverage with the focus being on the issues on which the Conservatives were strongest. Justin Lewis, Professor of Communication at Cardiff University, quite reasonably concludes, like McDonnell, that this pattern of reporting can be attributed to the agenda setting function of the press.
Assuming this is true, though, it would seem to raise a further question: why does the BBC allow the press to set the agenda in this way? McDonnell's claim notwithstanding, the BBC certainly has the resources for independent investigation, reporting and fact checking. What it lacks is not resources, but the constitutional capacities to live up to its promise of political independence, and here we need to look more deeply into its organisational DNA, perhaps even back to its very beginnings.
This week marks the 90th anniversary of the UK's first and only General Strike, which was not only a key moment in British political history, but also the history of British broadcasting. The BBC, then still a private business consortium, was soon to be reconstituted as a public corporation, and with the private press shut down it was, along with the newssheets published by the Conservative Government and the Trades Union Congress, the only available source of news. The General Strike therefore represented an early test of the young broadcaster's capacity for independent reporting, and it was a test it failed dismally.
Most famously, the BBC's founding father, John Reith, refused to broadcast a message from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who unlike his Roman Catholic counterpart – the Archbishop of Westminster, whose statement was broadcast – chose not to condemn the strike as a sin against God, adopting instead a somewhat more conciliatory tone. Even more significant than such questionable editorial judgments though, is the fact that BBC news was routinely shaped in accordance with a partial political agenda. This in part reflected the precarious position in which the BBC found itself. It was left officially independent on the understanding that it would continue to broadly serve the political objectives of the Government and the interests it represented. As the historian A.J.P. Taylor wryly remarked, Reith had
"managed to preserve the technical independence of the B.B.C... by suppressing news which the government did not want published. This set a pattern for the future: the vaunted independence of the B.B.C, was secure so long as it was not exercised."
Sir John Reith, by artist 'Wooding'. Public Domain.During the strike, the BBC was, moreover, not only 'biased' in its reporting, it was more fully integrated into the machinery of the British state. Reflecting on the strike some years later, Reith recalls that he and a number of other BBC staff moved into the Admiralty, with the Government's head of PR, J.C.C. Davidson. To understand the significance of this, it should be remembered that the Royal Navy was central to Britain's status as a global superpower, and the Admiralty was thus a comparable institution to the Pentagon in the post-war period. From there, the BBC’s then Chief Engineer Peter Eckersley recalled, BBC news was 'not so much... altered as given bias by elimination.' (See Ian McIntyre's The Expense of Glory.)
The BBC's lamentable record during the General Strike has been widely acknowledged in academic and journalistic accounts. But it is usually seen as an episode which whilst marred by unfortunate compromises, was in the end something of a bumpy start on the road to full independence. But the General Strike can on the contrary be seen as having set the terms for the BBC's incorporation into the Establishment, and arguably the British state itself. In their definitive social history of interwar broadcasting, Scannell and Cardiff argue that with its reconstitution into a public corporation shortly after the strike, the BBC 'crossed the political threshold', becoming 'a "governing institution" with aims and functions delegated to its by Parliament, committed to cooperation with government, and sharing its assumptions about what constituted the "national interest".' By the 1930s, they write, the
'continuous routine contact [that] had built up over the years between senior personnel in Broadcasting House, Whitehall and Westminster meant that they all abided by the same rules and code of conduct. The Corporation had become the shadow of a state bureaucracy; closed, self-protective and secretive.'
The private press was another key element within this nexus of institutions; bound up with the corporate and political elite, and since the earliest years of broadcasting maintaining both an antagonistic and symbiotic relationship with the BBC. In terms of BBC reporting, this state of affairs has resulted in broadly pro-Government positions, and a much deeper affinity with officialdom and the institutions of the state.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. Credit: Gareth Fuller / Press Association
The BBC's treatment of Corbyn and his supporters; its apparent reluctance to criticise a plainly hostile Conservative Government; and its related deference to the press in its political coverage needs to be understood in this context. And the latter aspect is not merely a reflection of the power of Murdoch and his ilk. Newspaper and broader media coverage are part and parcel of the political games played out at Westminster and an important part of the broader communicative strategies of the British elite. The press is therefore seen by the BBC as a perfectly legitimate source of political opinion, even in the wake of the corruption and criminality revealed by Leveson. It reflects the BBC's essentially Establishment orientation, which as I describe in my forthcoming book, was entrenched under Thatcher and then New Labour, and is now thoroughly embedded within its organisational structures and editorial culture.
Tom Mills's The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service will be published by Verso in November.