Democracy and bias: not just the BBC

There are increasing complaints about bias in the British Broadcasting Corporation. There was a big fuss about its coverage of the elections in May 2014. The main complaint was the excessive coverage of UKIP, far in excess of any other party. There were also many complaints about its almost complete silence on the Green Party. Those who complained, including me, received jobsworth responses to the effect that the rules had been followed. If that’s the case, the rules need changing.

The issue flared up again this weekend. I am informed that Saturday’s anti-austerity march of 50,000 people, which even the Guardian treated as a Russell Brand event, escaped the BBC’s attention altogether.

How to judge bias? As usual, left wingers think it is biased to the right and right wingers think it is biased to the left. How to get an unbiased view about bias?

Traditionally the criterion is to shadow the actual levels of support the political parties get. There are two reasons why this criterion no longer works. Firstly the political mood in the country is no longer reflected by the main political parties. The Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Parties have contrived to sew up the voting system in their interests but they are all unpopular. UKIP’s main asset is that it has not been in power and cannot be blamed for the mess. While the BBC’s rules tell it to guage its balance according to the votes cast for the parties, the votes cast for the parties no longer indicate the spectrum of views in the country.

The second reason is that as the country gets more economically unequal and more socially divided, there is an increasing trend for most of us only to hear the voices of people like ourselves. This is true of rich and poor alike, with one exception: we all hear the voices of the people who own the newspapers and produce the television programmes. One result is that the voices they hear, being the echoes of their own voices, are even less diverse than the voices other people hear. They then present their world as though it was the only world. It misleads everyone, but since it misleads them most of all they cannot see what the problem is.

The complaints focus on the BBC, but the problem is much wider. It so happens that the UK has a broadcasting agency obliged to present a balance of views; many countries do not. This is a major flaw in the constitution. If we are to have democracies, voters must be in a position to choose between the alternatives. This means they must have free access to information and theories from a wide range of perspectives. Without this, there is no democracy. All that remains is manipulation.

Time was when the BBC’s system for balance worked better than it does now and it played a much larger role in the provision of information. Today, much more of the information comes from television channels whose main concern is ratings and newspapers whose main concern is sales. The tabloids, especially, are owned by a small number of extremely wealthy people with every incentive to provide a distorted picture of reality.

Judging the situation from the perspective of how to make a democratic system work, the residual obligation for the BBC to be unbiased is a drop in the ocean. Much bigger changes need making if the electorate are to be given adequate, reliable information so that they can see through the rhetoric and celebrity gossip in order to vote responsibly.

The Government could change this if it wanted to. It could require better balance from newspapers and television, and make creative use of schools and the internet. What seems clear is that the ruling classes have no wish to do so. Nor do they have an incentive; it was the present flawed system which elected these people and an effective democracy almost certainly would have elected different people. The BBC needs reforming but a great deal else needs reforming too.

A few years ago I met someone who had been a prisoner of war in the Second World War. As an officer he was detained with the German officers, in their mess. Those officers, he told me, would listen, rather sceptically, to the German news reports every evening. Then they would switch channels and listen to the British BBC, to find out what was really happening.

I doubt whether they would do that today.

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