The national conversation: free, open and broad debate

In the UK, do we see political polarisation facilitated by politically partisan websites and social media, or the disintegration of a governing consensus?

Tom Mills
22 October 2017

Nick Robinson (second from right) on a panel at the Institute for Government's Future of No 10 Communications event, 2011. Wikicommons/Institute for Government. Some rights reserved.There have been a spate of reflections on the state of British broadcast journalism in recent months, including widely publicised lectures from two of its most illustrious figures: first Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, then the BBC’s Nick Robinson.

Those two interventions were in some ways very different. Snow, who delivered the annual MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival in August, spoke movingly of the Grenfell fire, and not only of the social distance between journalists and the residents of Grenfell, but also the former’s proximity to the rich and powerful. 

He worried that broadcasters were on the ‘wrong side of the terrible divide that exists in present day society’, having lined up ‘comfortably with the élite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite’. Snow also criticised Facebook and Google in his lecture, noting that the multinationals were profiting from journalism, but not contributing, and were thereby undermining the profession. ‘Facebook,’ he said, ‘feasts on our products and pays all but nothing’.

Nick Robinson’s lecture – the first Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture delivered a month later – struck a rather different tone. The BBC Today presenter did not discuss the power of Facebook or Google, though he mentioned both companies. Nor was his focus on the relationship between journalists and Britain’s élite, though he touched on this when referring to Snow’s earlier lecture. Rather Robinson focused on the declining levels of trust in journalism, and outlined how he thought this problem could be addressed. He noted that trust in the UK media had declined by 7% over the last year, and mentioned an older survey that had found Wikipedia considered at least as trustworthy as the BBC. 

Robinson’s diagnosis

Before getting onto Robinson’s proposed solutions, let’s first consider his diagnosis. Here is what he says about what lies behind of this decline in trust:

It is due, I believe, to two main factors – the increased polarization of our society and our national debate and the increased use, particularly by the most committed & most partisan, of social media and alternatives to what they call MSM – the mainstream media.

Starting with the second factor, Robinson named Wings over Scotland, the New European, Novara Media, Skwawkbox, Evolve Politics, The Canary and Westmonster in the Guardian article trailing his lecture, although Novara Media, Skwawkbox and Evolve Politics did not make the final cut. Essentially, his argument is that people don’t trust the media because websites such as these have put about the idea that it is untrustworthy – a belief that is then disseminated and reinforced in insular political networks on social media. 

Now, for sure, there are real issues here in terms of the structure and political economy of online media, and these are problems any reform agenda needs to take seriously. But is this a useful starting point for this debate? What to me is most striking is that having identified the lack of trust in the BBC and other major journalistic organisations as the key problem to be addressed, Robinson starts not with a critical analysis of those same institutions – for example, their record on reporting and their relationship with powerful persons and institutions – but with ‘alternative media sites’.  

Robinson’s formulation to my mind puts the cart before the horse, leaving two further questions unasked: (1) Why do these independent media organisations make these claims about the BBC?, and (2) Why do people believe them? Robinson doesn’t really address (2), and his answer to (1) is rather vague and kind of odd. It is, he surmises, ‘part of their political strategy. In order to succeed,’ he says, ‘they need to convince people not to believe “the news”.’

It’s not completely clear here whether this is a strategy being pursued by the ‘alternative media websites’ themselves, or the political movements with which they are aligned, or both. Neither is it clear what success would look like for either, since Robinson claims that unlike previous claims of bias levelled at the BBC, the aim is not to influence its reporting or ‘to the raise the morale’ of supporters. His argument in any case seems to be that independent media organisations claim the BBC is biased either because it gets them clicks, and/or because it forms part of some covert political strategy, which according to Robinson is part of a ‘guerrilla war’.

What is omitted altogether from this picture is the actual politics of the BBC itself. Is there a chance that the BBC’s reporting may have some influence on how people perceive its political biases?

Political contestation: another way of looking at it

Here’s an alternative theory to Robinson’s: people see the BBC as biased because it is; because it is politically and ideologically aligned with a political consensus they, in different ways and for different reasons, oppose. In the case of supporters of Labour and the Greens, the BBC is recognised as being aligned with a politically discredited, and socially and environmentally harmful, economic model. In the case of those in favour of Scottish independence, it is recognised as being aligned with the British state.  And in the case of the hard right it is recognised as exhibiting (for the most part, and less so in recent years), a certain social liberalism posing for them certain structural disadvantages – especially in comparison to the overtly propagandistic conservative press – given its commitment to accuracy. 

These various political movements are not necessarily equally correct in their claims about the BBC, and neither is each and every claim they make of bias, sound. But despite what you often hear, nor does it  follow from the fact that the BBC is criticised from different quarters that it probably achieves a fair political balance. That’s like saying that if two people who disagree with each other think you’re wrong, then you’re probably right.

What about Robinson’s other ‘factor’: political polarisation? In my view this is not completely wrong, but not quite right either. There has certainly been an increase in political contestation arising out of the Scottish independence referendum, the Labour leadership elections, and the EU referendum, in particular. But at the level of public attitudes, whilst there is some evidence of greater political polarisation around immigration, for example, there hasn’t been much of a shift towards political extremes. 

The real change in the UK in recent years has not been in public political preferences, but in the trajectory of formal politics – which for the Nick Robinsons of this world is the ‘national conversation’.  The longstanding commitment to moderate social democratic policies amongst large sections of the public has found political expression through the Labour Party – and arguably did earlier through the campaign for Scottish independence – whilst a longstanding Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant sentiment has found expression first through UKIP and then through the campaign to leave the EU.  What we are seeing, then, is not so much a political polarisation facilitated by social media and politically partisan websites, but the disintegration of a governing consensus and a series of dramatic political flashpoints, in which social and alternative media certainly played an important role.

The BBC, then, is under pressure not because people have been brainwashed by the communists over at Novara Media, or have deluded themselves in social media echo chambers, but because the Establishment of which the BBC is part, is experiencing something of a crisis.

Impartiality today

If this is the situation, what is the solution? Let’s start with Robinson’s proposals, some of which are sound and uncontroversial. Journalists, he suggests, should be more challenging of ‘conventional wisdom’, and there should be much greater diversity within the British media. Hard to disagree with that.  More central to Robinson’s lecture, though, is his call ‘to re-make the case for impartiality’. This badly misconstrues what is at stake. Having made some bizarre accusations about independent media organisations, Robinson simply asserts that the BBC reports impartially without thinking to consult the evidence on this, assuming rather presumptuously that all that is required is to better convince others of this societal value for the BBC’s journalism.

Impartiality – a central concept in Robinson’s lecture, which interestingly appeared nowhere in Snow’s – is a fairly vague concept that overlaps with a cluster of other journalistic values such as balance and accuracy. It is understood in the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines as mandating that the BBC should not only be ‘fair and open-minded when examining the evidence and weighing material facts’, but should accurately reflect a wide range of opinion on public issues ‘so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented’. 

The implication in Robinson’s lecture is that the BBC’s critics are seeking to undermine this principle and practice. But the claim from the more serious of the BBC’s critics is not so much that impartiality is ‘an establishment plot to limit debate’, as Robinson puts it, but that the BBC has in fact not been able to deliver on this promise; that it has not been able to facilitate ‘a free, open and broad debate about the issues confronting the country’.

This isn’t a political fantasy propagated in online subcultures. As historical accounts of the BBC often note – including Robinson’s own – the limits of the principle of impartiality were illustrated very early on when the BBC’s founding father John Reith famously remarked during the 1926 General Strike that the Conservative Government ‘can trust us not to be really impartial’. 

But the problem is not only that impartiality is inevitably abandoned when elites feel threatened, or when they claim some national interest is at stake. The real issue is that the BBC routinely fails to put this principle substantively into practice. We know from scholarly research that its output is overwhelmingly skewed towards élite opinion, and behind these reporting patterns, as I describe in some detail in my book, 'The BBC: Myth of a Public Service' – are a set of formal and informal relationships with the people and institutions that comprise the Establishment. 

What this has meant is that rather than reflecting a range of opinion in society, the BBC has tended to defer to the range of élite opinion, particularly in and around Westminster, Whitehall and the City, and there is, moreover, evidence that in the last decade the BBC’s reporting has drifted to the right.  This should be the starting point for any discussion of the politics of the British broadcast media, as it was at least to some extent in Jon Snow’s lecture. Yet for Nick Robinson the problem is not the BBC’s relationship with powerful interests in society, but rather the growth of an emotive and insular online space. This complacency will not do. 

Change is certainly needed, but it won’t come from impassioned public proclamations and pep talks. If the BBC is to live up to its proclaimed values, real structural reform is needed – change which will not only allow the BBC to operate with substantive independence from the state and commercial interests, but also to compete with the media and tech giants that plainly pose a much more serious threat to our democracy than anything discussed in Robinson’s lecture.

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