Independence Referendum Shows We Should Break Up BBC News

The danger BBC news presents isn't in it's actual bias but it's perceived objectivity. As a society we accept and adjust for the editorial standpoints of other news sources but the myth persists that the BBC is to be treated differently...

News is never objective. Better a choice of different perspectives than bias by stealth.

The argument for a publicly funded BBC rests on the premise that the BBC offers us something others cannot: John Reith's ideal of public service broadcasting. In entertainment the BBC is able to take artistic decisions, commission documentaries and give a platform to voices which would be too risky for a private provider. It's difficult to imagine E4 commissioning a primetime series starring a Scotsman in his mid fifties who spends the majority of his screen time talking gibberish and running away from giant dustbins.

But news has always been a different story. The perceived advantage of public service news broadcasters is that they are objective. BBC news theoretically has no editorial standpoint. It reports the facts and represents both sides of the story in its analysis. This is important because voters' ability to make an informed choice is fundamental to democracy.

But the BBC has never been objective. Reith is lauded for maintaining the nascent BBC's independence during the General Strike but he did so by refusing to broadcast the statements of strikers. The respective yowls of Alex Salmond and the Daily Mail aside, there is good data to suggest that little has changed. John Robertson'squantitative survey shows the BBC's coverage of the referendum demonstrated a 3:2 preponderance of anti-independence over pro-independence statements along with an equation of "Yes" campaign ideas with Alex Salmond's personal "desires" which wasn't reflected in the coverage of Better Together and a bias in terms of airtime towards anti-independence voices.

Research from Mike Berry suggests that, in general, the ratio of Conservative to Labour politicians appearing on BBC news programs is unbalanced, as is the BBC's preference for "establishment" or "city/business" figures over academics or left wing commentators. This is unsurprising considering the BBC's structural bias. The Chair is a quasi-political appointment and the individuals in positions of influence with right wing (or, more accurately, establishment) links far outnumber those on the left.

This isn't a howl of outrage. It's perfectly acceptable for the BBC to be partisan. Everyone is inherently subjective. To paraphrase Richard Rorty, each of us processes and analyses information based on our own context; defined by factors such as education, life experience and social background (to name but a few). Even when we try to be objective our very concept of objectivity is itself defined by our context. This shouldn't invalidate our perspective but it means honest discourse requires one to recognise one's own context before making one's contribution.

The danger BBC news presents isn't in it's actual bias but it's perceived objectivity. As a society we accept and adjust for the editorial standpoints of other news sources but the myth persists that the BBC is to be treated differently. This danger is compounded by the competitive advantage enjoyed by the BBC. The Corporation is able to reach a much larger audience with much less effort than its privately held competitors. From a democratic perspective it is problematic for a broadcaster that tends to privilege the perspective of the governing elite to have such a dominant position in the market.

There are two principles here: Plurality is better than singularity and to be openly partisan is better than to strive for unattainable objectivity. The solution is simple. The problem is most significant in the news division, the balance of harms suggests the rest of the BBC should be left alone. By contrast we need a much wider plurality of (openly declared) perspectives in the news market.

The segment of the license fee devoted to news should be split amongst private bidders. As any market tends towards monopoly (particularly one in which the most significant buyer is the state) a strict cap should be placed on market share. The aim should be to have enough providers so that it is not possible for any one to reach it's maximum allowed market share. Providers could supplement their income with advertising or the state could assume the full cost by increasing the license fee. Most importantly the state should have no involvement in the governance (or editorial decisions) of providers save to regulate their market share.

This will be unsatisfactory to both supporters of the BBC and those in favour of privatisation (who tend to advocate a completely unregulated market). But it would create a wide choice of news sources, each with it's own (openly declared) editorial standpoint. There would still be bias and each of us is likely to get our news from the provider whose standpoint most closely matches our own. But here's the key difference: we would be making a free and informed choice between partial standpoints, not having bias imposed upon us by stealth.

Before You Go