THE BLOG

Bias at the BBC

01/07/2014 13:14 | Updated 30 August 2014

Trust in the standard of British journalism is a regular hot potato after last week's not guilty verdict on some of the country's erstwhile top names at The News of the World. Early in the phone hacking scandal I remember thinking 'It's the News of the World, what do people expect? It's not as if it's the BBC.' Tabloid hacks, after all, are hardly cut from the same jib as 'proper' reporters.

The BBC occupies a hallowed place in our media landscape. Funded by the license fee, it's effectively responsible to us, the public. Growing up in the 70s it was regarded as the baseline for unbiased reporting and today trust remains a big part of the BBC brand worldwide. Rocked by the Jimmy Savile scandal, not to mention the rest of Operation Yewtree's discoveries of institutionally accepted sexual abuse, you'd imagine that Broadcasting House would be on its tip toes, determined to avoid anything that might undermine its good name further, but no.

When I lived in Ireland in the 1980s I was aware that the BBC's news reports were, let's say, selective. I thought this was because public safety was at risk and when important incidents went unreported, or even when they were badly reported, I put it down to that. I looked on this as an interesting project - reading the news in the Irish Times and then noting what didn't make it to the BBC reports. With national security at risk the many omissions and inaccuracies seemed somehow acceptable. Over the last few months, however, I have genuinely been shocked at the bias the BBC has demonstrated over the upcoming referendum for Scottish independence.

I'm very aware that the rest of the UK isn't greatly interested in Scotland. I travel south regularly - over the book festival season especially. I often set up meetings in London as I pass through. In the last few months alone these meetings have spawned stories on which to dine out in Edinburgh. There was the researcher at a production company who, when I was explaining how the Scottish Enlightenment fired the Industrial Revolution, put down his pen and stared blankly.
'That's so counter-intuitive,' he said.
'What do you mean?' I asked.
'Well. Full adult education in Scotland - before we had it.'
'Oh yes,' I smiled, only slightly shocked at his lack of understanding of what after all, was his history too. '18th century Scotland had more University places per head of population than anywhere else in Europe. Even today, of the 18 UK universities in the world's Top 100, 3 are Scottish,' I filled him in.
The researcher shook his head. 'Fascinating,' he said. 'It's just not what you expect.'
I resisted the urge to check that he knew we had electricity.

No less shocking was a conversation I had with a festival events organizer who wanted to put together a panel of writers. I write 1950s murder mysteries and suggested an event about the 50s but she was keen to put on something more crime-based. The year before, her festival had featured Scandinavian crime and I thought she might be interested in something similar.
'How about some of the writers from Bloody Scotland,' I suggested.
That's Scotland's new crime writing festival. Scotland after all has produced some of the world's most successful writers in the genre. The events organiser shook her head.
'That's far too provincial,' she said.

Safe to say, I'm well aware that Scotland isn't high on the priority list for the average British viewer and that the BBC has to cater to that. However, there's a big difference between wholesale censorship of an issue, media bias and being aware of the limits of your market. For me, there was a real turning point when the SNP published a draft constitution for Scotland. As a democrat I found this exciting and I looked forward to hearing about it on the national news. Nothing. Perhaps, I thought, it'll be on the BBC's Scottish news. No. Anything but.

I was already aware that the BBC's reporting on the referendum was riotously unfair. I'd been annoyed by Andrew Marr's offhand comments when he interviewed the First Minister, Alex Salmond. On the few occasions when the referendum made it to Newsnight I was cross about the make up of the panel and that the time allowed each person wasn't equal. I knew that the University of the West of Scotland had undertaken a year-long study that proved these points in spades - not only at the BBC but across other UK media outlets. But somehow the BBC's omission in not reporting the draft constitution was a personal D-Day. A couple of weeks later when the BBC didn't report the 20,000 strong crowds that gathered at Stirling to commemorate the anniversary of Bannockburn and chose instead to cover the 1500 people who turned up a couple of miles down the road for Armed Forces Day, I stopped watching.

If you think this is only a Scottish issue, you'd be wrong. On 21st of June 50000 anti-austerity marchers hit the streets of London and the BBC didn't produce a single word about it. By contrast in 2011 a pro-Austerity march by the Tax Payers Alliance which totalled 350 people was covered in detail. It's not only our BBC that is at fault here - it's your BBC too.

In my travels down south people want to talk about the referendum more and more often. Last week in Winchester I was asked a referendum question when I was on the podium - that's a first. And that brings me to perhaps the most important point. My disappointment with the BBC isn't only on my own behalf. The rest of the UK will be effected in the event of a Yes vote on September 18th and the people who live south of the border need to understand the issues just as much as the people who live north of it. The image of Scotland as too small, too stupid and too poor to be able to manage independence is a particularly nasty right wing political construct that is backed by the BBC (when they report anything at all). The realization that one of our key institutions is in effect a State Broadcaster is becoming more and more apparent not only to those interested in the upcoming referendum but also in the wider political landscape. Earlier this year Owen Jones wrote an article that touched on this and like me, his key concern was that the BBC is failing the public by keeping them woefully misinformed.

As a writer I'm very aware that everything I read is propaganda. In my research into the 1800s and the 1950s I never find a document that doesn't come from a particular point of view. There is an interesting academic argument to be had about whether it's possible to be completely unbiased. And it is in that spirit that I declare my interest - after months of reading and considering the issues I am now a committed yes voter. But I want to make it clear that I'd be just as perturbed if the BBC's reporting was heavily biased towards the Yes campaign. My view is that people need information that honours both sides so they can weigh up their own opinions. The role of news is to inform, not to brainwash. But as things currently stand you can't extract enough unbiased information from traditional media outlets to make up your mind about any of the issues. Thank heavens there's a lively and intelligent debate online. I admit, sometimes it gets a too lively - and yes, there is abuse - on both sides of the debate though the traditional media focus on the Scottish Nationalists. Check out this stream on twitter if you don't believe me.

Abuse aside, the fact that the majority of people online are dedicating time to debate and inform is itself very heartening - they are doing the job the BBC should be doing. I'm glad someone is. I'm also proud that in my own sector writers and artists are tackling the issues with humour and passion - here's one of my favourite commentaries - fellow historical novelist, James Robertson, about the BBC.

Last week there was a peaceful demonstration outside the BBC Scotland building in Glasgow. Actually, it was the second demonstration since the start of the independence campaign. The BBC didn't report the first one though it has reported the second. That said it vastly underestimated the numbers of attendees (stating only 'a few hundred' instead of the 2000 people who showed up). My view is, that isn't all it underestimated - I for one am very angry and if you're making nice middle class novelists cross about what they see as a betrayal of trust it seems to me you have a big problem. I haven't attended a political demonstration since I was at college and I only showed up then because everyone else was going, but if there's another demonstration outside the BBC Glasgow building I'm going to be there because I believe in fairness. And I want to stand up to the fact that the BBC clearly don't.