In Life on Air: A History of Radio 4, the former BBC reporter and producer David Hendy describes the attempts of ex-BBC reporter and producer Geoffrey Bridson to pitch a set of documentaries to the Home Service (the forerunner to Radio 4). Hendy says Bridson offered his bosses a ‘series of trenchant documentaries’ to do with ‘nuclear armament, Soviet Russia, McCarthyism, poverty and racial conflict’. However, these ideas were rejected for being ‘too political’, leading Bridson to conclude that the BBC had little interest beyond reflecting ‘the most respectably orthodox opinion as it already existed’ into households.
Bridson’s account is one that resonates with my own experiences working as a news journalist at the BBC. Time and time again, in my career across various platforms and programmes, I have become increasingly disillusioned by stories I have passionately believed in have been overlooked. Stories from underrepresented regions and countries where we don’t have large audiences, such as Haiti, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Western Sahara. Stories about human rights violations in Yemen and workers’ rights issues were rejected on spurious grounds. When I pushed to cover weeks of deadly violence in Senegal, I was rebutted and—instead—assigned to a story about Joe Biden’s pet dogs.
On numerous occasions, my pitches to report on Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian people were drastically reworded or dropped completely for fear of it being a ‘free hit’ or ‘Israel-bashing’. On this issue, an enduring cautiousness to cover endures: staff are forbidden from referring to Palestine as a geographic area, emails are frequently received from angry pro-Israel audience members, and it’s well-known that the Israeli Embassy is quick to contact the BBC to complain. First-hand, I quickly came to understand how the privileging of some stories over others represented a sophisticated, multi-layered filter system, honed to promote a particular worldview.
During Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour Party leader, I felt unable to push back against the BBC’s relentlessly negative coverage. Attempts to share my disenchantment with colleagues were met with confident declarations that he had been too ‘weak’ on Brexit (an irredeemable, if somewhat vague, crime), or assertions of his irrefutable antisemitism.
Speaking for the Establishment
So why was it so difficult to find like-minded colleagues? Despite the well-documented conservatism of many senior BBC journalists and bosses—take Robbie Gibb, the former Head of Political Programming, or current Director General Tim Davie—most producers, reporters and editors down the ladder tend towards a liberal outlook, characterised by strong antipathy towards radicalism of any stripe. They don’t read political theory, avoid demonstrations (with the possible exception of People’s Vote rallies) and broadly subscribe to a pro-NATO, anti-Russia/China worldview. They subscribe to the socially liberal values of the day. Their paradigm implicitly assists ruling class interests, its limited horizons delineated by subjective ideas of what is ‘sensible’.
Oblivious to the ultimate servility of what is essentially a brand of anti-politics, a broad base of rank-and-file journalists have convinced themselves they are free from ideology, and that their own views have arisen in a vacuum of rationality, free of doctrine. The self-ruse does not only aid the powerful, but gives ballast to the credo of impartiality, which itself is core to the BBC’s mission, its current phraseology of choice being ‘due impartiality’—a caveat which removes the necessity that equal airtime be given to opposing sides in a debate.
The process of journalistic production entails ideas forming in individuals, first, before angles and treatments are discussed and bounced along through various hierarchies. Sometimes the final product takes minutes, other times months. But it’s a routine characterised by a shifting number of individual inputs, with each participant endowed with their own specific idiosyncrasies, pre-programmed psychological vulnerabilities and unconscious biases.
Conceiving of oneself as non-ideological allows us as journalists to more easily misremember the nature of our own contributions—and agency—in the process. It recasts our role as neutral conduits of information, rather than individuals informed by our own tangled historical web of ideas, sentiments and judgements, all formed in the furnace of our own life experiences.
It’s in the BBC News vernacular: to presenters, a day might be a ‘slow news day’ or ‘there’s not much about today’, as if the day itself were to blame for a perceived absence of stories. What will ‘play well with our audience’ is another question which subtly disavows and redirects this same responsibility. Speaking in euphemisms such as these allows us to believe as journalists that we are giving voice to the voiceless, concealing the fact that we are foisting our own prejudices and personal attitudes onto an abstract mass whose voice we imagine as a distinct and knowable entity, rather than a projection of our own inescapable subjectivity.
Denying our own agency makes it easier to ignore stories. A good illustration of the problem came during the Qatar World Cup, with much coverage focused on the thousands of migrant worker deaths in the country. Similar emphasis was given to the human rights situation in Iran, in the wake of protests against the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. But Saudi Arabia—an absolute monarchy which executed 196 people that year and ranks twenty-six places beneath Iran in terms of its democratic integrity, received no such scrutiny. When I objected to this, I was told we didn’t cover these human rights abuses since there was no strong ‘newsline’. Essentially, it’s not in the news right now.
This is obviously a tautology: covering a story makes it a story. In running it, we encourage the perception of its newsworthiness (the inverse is true, too). It would have been easy to drum up an angle: we could have contacted a Saudi activist, or gone to an NGO for comment. Not doing so (whilst shining a light on the human rights abuses of Qatar and Iran instead) constitutes partiality by omission.
One is said, in the newsroom, to have a good ‘eye’ or ‘nose’ for a story. The anatomical allusions reference the apparently highly receptive sensory apparatuses of journalists when determining a story: when is it likely to snowball, and when will it wither and die? In this structure of short-termism and superficiality, any news that takes rigorous analysis or recognition of complex trends is negatively treated. Three-to-four-minute interviews or packages cut together with short soundbites from ‘each side’ cannot possibly convey either the nuance or the relative power dynamics integral to understanding a story.
And so, as a result, we cleave to dopamine-hit journalism, repackaging preconceptions in an emotive new guise; the sob story, the punchy headline, the dramatic question. Latent parallels remain undrawn, insights unseen, inquiries rarely permitted to venture beyond the surface level. Despite impartiality—this perfect bedfellow of liberalism—collapsing under the weight of scrutiny when the blinders are removed, BBC journalists continue to cherish it, perhaps because of the laudable connotations it imbues them with by extension: virtue, trustworthiness and integrity.
These venerable traits are encapsulated in one spectral figure, who stands in rigid bronze at the rear wall of New Broadcasting House: George Orwell. On the wall beside is inscribed his quote: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ Who constitutes the ‘people’ Orwell refers to? Because if the answer is not ‘everyone’—and it can’t ever be—the pretence of impartiality comes tumbling down. At any rate, the BBC’s Orwell idolatry is apt, beloved as he was by liberals for his own mythic eschewal of ideology. His consecration in bronze and inscriptions are, to BBC staff, a totemic reminder of the BBC’s abiding goodness, and its unique place at the epicentre of British society.
That, I suppose, is the ultimate problem: the BBC has often functioned as an instrument of, rather than a counterweight to, the British state. A reckoning with this would demand an existential reassessment of how our journalism intersects with power structures, wherever or whatever they are. It would necessitate the BBC’s genuine independence, entailing the severance of various mechanisms that allow for outside coercion of the BBC’s decision-making apparatus, such as (among other things) the corporation’s constitutional reliance on the arcane strictures of the Royal Charter, the British government’s control over the terms of the license fee, and political appointments to the BBC Board.
In the same way that liberalism can’t exist somehow outside of ideology, neither can we as journalists. And though the BBC will continue to view pressure from different parts of the political spectrum as indicative of how well it treads the line and will, in a similar fashion, cling to impartiality as the only means of staying on the beam, the reality is far different. Reflecting years later on the pressure placed on the nascent institution by the government to provide more favourable coverage during the 1926 General Strike, the BBC’s first Director General, Lord John Reith, reflected that ‘perhaps if I had thought more or known more I would have tried to avoid the BBC becoming part of the establishment, but perhaps not. The establishment has a good deal to say for itself.’ The BBC’s independence is but a trick of the light—take it from me.