Spurious Objectivity

From The New Criterion

The bias of the BBC with respect to the British and American war effort in Iraq, mentioned in this space last month, has contributed to a formal complaint to the Corporation by the British Conservative party leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Mr Duncan Smith was particularly incensed by coverage of the recent local elections in Britain, in which the Tories did very well, although the BBC’s commentators minimized their successes. Citing the views of Rod Liddle, a former editor of the BBC radio “Today” program, Mr Duncan Smith noted that “He says it is not just by accident, it happens all the damn time. . .They set their mind about how they perceive you and report you and do nothing but report in that light. They should be news-led.”

Mr Liddle’s is an interesting case. While working at the BBC he also wrote a column for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper in which, last September, he defied his bosses at the network by expressing a forcefully negative opinion about the Liberty and Livelihood march by the Countryside Alliance in opposition to the Labour government’s attempts to ban fox-hunting and other policies seen as detrimental to farmers and landowners. Mr Liddle wrote that the sight of so many toffs, as he saw them, marching for even more money and the right to go on killing foxes would remind people why they had voted Labour in the first place. But if this was a view widely shared at the BBC, it was also one that could not be stated publicly by a BBC employee, and so Mr Liddle was fired.

He took the opportunity to reveal that just after the Queen Mother’s death, he had been instructed to terminate a conservative commentary slot by the novelist Frederick Forsyth that the former Queen had liked on the grounds that it had become “stale.” In fact it was simply hated by the corporate brass, which could not by the rules of the game as it is played in Britain admit to their bias. Since then Liddle has become a rather unlikely hero to those, mainly with political views very different from his own, who have grown particularly exasperated by the charade of “objectivity” at what is essentially a publicly-funded broadcast service.

At the time of the offending column, for example, The Telegraph had editorialized against Liddle, accusing him of “blatant bias, animus and even party allegiance, while running an important news programme for the corporation whose charter insists on the absence of all three.” His firing coincided with the appearance of this editorial. Yet since then many on the right, now including Mr Duncan Smith, have clasped him to their bosom on the grounds that here, at least, was a lefty who believed in open and not hidden bias. If so, he is a dagger pointed at the heart of the BBC, and he seems to be enjoying the part.

The two distinct media cultures in Britain provide some illumination of the more murky situation in America. There, the print media are a flourishing and delightful mélange of competing points of view covering the spectrum of opinion from left (the Guardian, the Mirror, the Independent, The New Statesman) to right (the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun, the Spectator). Fairness is not always the hallmark of these publications, but it is so often enough that it is not at all uncommon to read the views of avowed leftists in the right-leaning publications and vice versa. When I was in London recently, the Telegraph ran a positively rabid piece of anti-Americanism by Margaret Drabble headed “I loathe America, and what it has done to the rest of the world” — in which she confesses (and then proceeds to over-demonstrate the point) that “my anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable” — though the Telegraph imprints have been in general by far the most pro-American of the London papers recently.

But when it comes to broadcasting, the British journalistic culture, like the American, is dominated not by an ideal of fairness but one of “objectivity” — probably because the BBC all but invented the idea of objectivity. As a government subsidized service — through the disguised tax of the “license fee” that must be paid by anyone owning a television set — the BBC has historically recognized the requirement that, like the monarch, it must not take sides on political questions. This requirement of “objectivity” has never worked very well in practice, though forty or fifty years ago it worked a lot better than it does now.

Today even the left-leaning Private Eye routinely satirizes the leftward bias of the BBC. Belonging as it does to the more frank and open culture of the print media, the magazine, like Mr. Liddle, is not necessarily out of sympathy with the political views of the BBC’s reporters and editors, but as a satirical publication it is naturally alert to the hypocrisy of promoting those political views while officially insisting on the increasingly transparent fiction of its own “objectivity.” As Mr Michael Heath, a correspondent of The Times noted recently, in Britain, “the broadcast media have effectively become a separate political party. They push an agenda with which many disagree profoundly but against which it is almost impossible to find a platform.”

For our political life (he continues) this has enormous implications, one of which is the uphill struggle faced by the Conservative Party in presenting its policies. Radio and television have, with some success, attempted to portray both the party and its supporters as simply risible and not a force to be taken seriously. Even the Labour Party cannot afford to be complacent because, although the views of broadcasters are nearer to its own, Labour has also been slapped down hard when diverging from broadcasters’ orthodoxy.

Nor, it should be added, is this broadcasters’ orthodoxy limited to the news. Its presence in drama and entertainment was suggested by the fact that, coincidentally with Mr Duncan Smith’s complaint against its news division, the BBC was beginning a four-part series called Cambridge Spies, a fictionalized treatment of the Soviet spies Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt, which presented them as heroes rather than traitors. Of course, this view of the matter is hardly limited to broadcasters. As Miranda Carter pointed out, that ground had already been well staked-out by others including Alan Bennett — and, she might have added, her own biography of Blunt, published last year.

This suggests that the BBC is something of a lagging indicator of the views of the British establishment, but it is still an infallible one. “Broadcasters’ orthodoxy” is really, more or less, just the orthodoxy of the educated élites. Thus the anti-Americanism in the BBC’s treatment of the war in Iraq was neither unusual nor uncongenial to much of its audience, though it rightly brought down on its head another Telegraph editorial complaining that

during the middle of the campaign, the BBC dwelt incessantly on how everything was “bogged down” and how the allies were unwelcome. To anyone watching the BBC alone, victory must have come as a complete surprise. . .Overriding everything was the impression of vanity, of a medium that thinks itself more important and more honest than anyone else, and that believes that to indicate support for one’s country’s armed forces is a form of unacceptable bias. It is not: it is the natural, humane position of any citizen, just as one would not expect reporters to be neutral between a criminal and a victim.

But the Telegraph is the outlier here, while the BBC represents the mainstream — if not of the British as a whole then overwhelmingly of the cultural and intellectual élite.

Another article of faith to these élites at the moment is the irrelevance and wrong-headedness of the Conservative party. The article by Mr Liddle to which Mr Duncan Smith was alluding had appeared in that week’s Spectator and mentioned five significant and otherwise unignorable facts of which watchers of the BBC would have remained in ignorance. They include the following: (1) that the Welsh and the Scots take remarkably little interest in their new national assemblies, (2) that voters for the British National Party are racist, (3) that the BNP did surprisingly well in the elections, (4) that the Labour party lost significant numbers of votes because of Tony Blair’s support for the Americans in Iraq and (5) that the Conservative party did fantastically well in the elections.

The last point is the most important because denigration of Mr. Duncan Smith, has become a sort of reflex to the British broadcast media, and rarely is any other Conservative interviewed when he is not asked how long the party can put up with such a hopeless leader, and when he is likely to be removed. This line of questioning is to the British media what mock horror about the Bush tax cuts is to the American: a truism which everyone but a few right-wing troglodytes is expected to recognize as such. Liddle concludes that the program of election coverage “was written before the results came in. It was based on the assumption that the Conservatives were bloody useless and would perform badly. And it was insufficiently flexible to change when reality did not meet its expectations.”

This is obviously more than just a question of “bias,” or even of what Mr. Heath calls “broadcasters’ orthodoxy.” It is an attempt to establish a consensus which is as much a concern for the British establishment now that it reflects the bien pensant liberalism of polytechnic lecturers and government bureaucrats as it did when it was dominated by Tory landowners and Church of England clergymen. Both kinds of élite are deeply conservative because they have the most to lose from any conceivable reform. Certainly taxpayers and TV license-holders must have something of the old and now largely extinct working classes’ longing for such reform, since they share their sense of disenfranchisement.

Yet it is hard to be sanguine about the possibilities for change. Theresa May, the Tory party chairman, is said to be compiling a dossier of instances of BBC bias and has said that the party “will be seeking meetings at the most senior level.” A BBC spokesman said that the charges would be “investigated,” though of course there is nothing to be investigated that a fair-minded observer could not confirm for himself by watching. Naturally the investigation will discover no deep-laid conspiracies at the Corporation to promote the Labour party at the expense of the Conservatives. Consensus-building is much more subtle than that. And so things will go back to normal, with subtle biases justifying themselves by the fact that they are not openly proclaimed.

Even if the Tories should win the next parliamentary elections, this is likely to remain the case. Unless I have been unduly influenced by the media’s low opinion of him, I find it hard to imagine that Mr Duncan Smith will succeed in bucking the Establishment where even Mrs Thatcher failed. Though the Iron Lady was remarkably tough-minded and unwilling to be swayed by the consensus in some matters — most notably monetary and fiscal stringency, industrial relations and the Falkland Islands — so that the consensus actually had to be revised in the light of her actions, she gave way to it in several important areas where, if she had been equally true to her own instincts, certain perennial problems might have been solved by now. These include education, the National Health Service, Mr. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the intolerable arrogance and smugness of the BBC .


Mr Heath, the correspondent of The Times who complained about the broadcast media asked: “Is it a uniquely British disease, I wonder, to find ourselves subjected to the casual hegemony of media professionals?” The answer to that question is of course no, since in America the media culture, print and broadcast alike, is like the broadcasters of Britain: constrained by the official culture of “objectivity” — here promoted by the journalism schools and paid advocates of a bogus journalistic “professionalism” — to pretend that their natural and otherwise harmless biases do not exist. Heterodoxy pops up mainly on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and a few provincial dailies and little magazines, but those who scorn to be intimidated by the shibboleth of professionalism and play to large audiences on the radio are universally derided by their colleagues as mere entertainers.

Nor, to be fair, do even they always understand the difference between objectivity, which is a chimera, and fairness, with which it is often confused. The pretense of objectivity is the means by which the demands of fairness are routinely dodged. After all, if you acknowledge no bias of your own, you implicitly acknowledge no obligation to those who are differently minded — who are, as you would say, biased tout court — either to represent their views fairly or to give them a hearing at all. If you choose not to recognize certain kinds of opinions even as existing, to what standard or principle can those thus shut out of the conversation appeal if your official stance is one of alleged objectivity and non-partisanship?

Obviously, in any conversation some possibilities are more worth discussing than others, and there will always be a range of opinions — such as that there is a Jewish (or, as my colleague Mark Steyn suggests, a Canadian) conspiracy to rule the world — that serious-minded people will hardly bother discussing. But the exponents of objectivity arrogate to themselves a right of exclusion which those who frankly admitted their biases would never dare claim. Indeed, the admission of a bias of one’s own at the outset of any discussion itself creates a prima facie obligation to take into account not any possible alternative view but the strongest and most intellectually compelling case that can be made in opposition to one’s own.

This is something that is almost never done in the American political discussion as it is carried on in the media. It is as if no one hears what anyone else is saying. To read Paul Krugman in the New York Times, for example, you would think that the Bush administration were merely mendacious and corrupt, without even the pretense of a serious case to make on behalf of their misguided policies. This, of course, is helpful to Krugman if he doesn’t want to have to go to the trouble of answering that case. Likewise, week after week on “Meet the Press” Tim Russert grills politicians of both parties by citing to them whatever he can find in the way of horrific details of projected budget deficits and then asking them if, in the light of this presumably unheard-of information, they will support the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, or oppose the passage of new ones.

But, so far from being unheard-of, the information is well-known to everybody. Those who defend the tax-cuts do so on the grounds that they will stimulate economic activity and therefore in the long run increase revenue to the Treasury, which will in turn eliminate the deficits. Their argument may of course be wrong, but Russert does not consider this possibility because he does not consider that they have any argument at all. No matter how often he is told why some people, at least, think the tax cuts are a good thing, it never sinks in, and he treats the next guest in exactly the same way — that is, as if he were defending the self-evidently indefensible. This is what is popularly considered to be tough questioning.

That, at any rate, is certainly the view of Bob Edwards, the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” who, as a native of the state of Kentucky, was recently inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. (I wonder, by the way, if Kentucky has its own baseball, football, basketball or show-business Hall of Fame? Perhaps Kentuckian readers can advise me.) That same day, Edwards gave the annual Joe Creason Lecture at the University of Kentucky. In it, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, he complained of a lack of “diversity” in radio — by which he did not of course mean diversity of opinion on “Morning Edition”— and said he thought that journalists were too respectful of the President, and given to asking “softball” questions.

He himself, he said, would ask the (presumably) hardball question: “Mr. President, you’re asking for $76 billion to pay for this war, and you’ll probably go back to Congress to ask for more. Given the fact that there’ll be severe deficits for as long as you are President, why not let your tax cut slide?” It is inconceivable that Bob Edwards does not know why, is not aware of the supply-side argument. He just chooses to consider it as being beneath his notice. Doubtless he would defend his own “objectivity,” and yet by refusing even to acknowledge the existence of an argument, and that the key argument, on one side of a contentious issue, how can he be seen otherwise than as an advocate for the opposition Democrats, who routinely pretend they don’t know or don’t understand the logic to which the president appeals in proposing tax cuts?

Nor is Edwards finished with the tough questions he thinks should be put to the President. “How,” he would ask, “did you expect to win international approval for your plan to invade Iraq when you have repeatedly told the rest of the world that the United States is ready to act alone in virtually every field, as witnessed by your withdrawal from international treaties and agreements having to do with the environment, war crimes and other matters that the rest of the world considers important?” Again, it is not as if the administration’s rationale for all these policies was unknown. It was simply that Edwards in asking for it was choosing to pretend (as the political opposition, encouraged by the media’s example, also do) that there was no such rationale, and assuming — or pretending to assume — that Bush would be flummoxed by being asked for one.

If this kind of rhetorical technique is a remarkably unproductive way of carrying on political debate even between avowed opponents in a legislative or forensic setting, how much more unproductive is it as a feature of the discussion of such issues in the supposedly “objective” media? The fault, as I have argued before, is in the idea of objectivity itself. It is an idea to which monopoly newspapers, or a monopoly and partly or wholly government-funded broadcast service such as NPR or the BBC, will continue to cling for obvious reasons. People don’t need to take in more than one newspaper, or to listen to more than one extended, in-depth news program such as “Morning Edition,” so long as they can be persuaded that that newspaper or news program is “objective” and “unbiased.” It therefore becomes the job of every honest commentator to show that they are nothing of the kind.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts