Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 30 August 2022

How populists use broadcasting impartiality to create bias and obscure knowledge


Some of the criticisms I have seen of the MacTaggart Lecture given in Edinburgh by Emily Maitlis miss the whole point of the lecture. As Maitlis points out on a number of occasions, until recently she largely accepted the BBC view about impartiality. She recalls an interview she did with Robert De Niro, just after Trump had suggested taking bleach internally might be useful in treating Covid. De Niro accused Trump of not caring how many people died, and despite her best efforts she said afterwards that the interview couldn’t be broadcast because it was so anti-Trump. It was broadcast, just two weeks before her infamous Dominic Cummings goes to Barnard Castle intro for Newsnight.

Her lecture is about the impact of populism on non-partisan journalism, and the BBC’s reaction to that Newsnight intro can be seen as illustrating the point she wants to make. The journalist’s role is to ask questions, often critical questions, of politicians that their viewers would find the answers to interesting and informative. The journalist’s role is also to inform their viewers by pointing out facts and knowledge, like the fact that Cummings broke the rules on that occasion. But the populist undermines that role by claiming a more direct contact between themselves and ‘the people’, a direct line which then allows them to not only question what the journalist is doing (e.g. serving an out of touch elite rather than their viewers) but to dismiss what they say as ‘fake news’.

When journalism elevates their own balance or impartiality above all other values, then this attack immediately puts journalists on the defensive. [1] Maitlis argues that in response, there is a danger that journalists (or the institutions that employ them) signal their balance to those populists who are attacking them by themselves becoming biased. This form of strategic attack by populists who espouse socially conservative views may be particularly effective on journalists who tend to be socially liberal, because the journalists themselves tend to overcompensate for their own liberal views.

The primacy of balance, like the UK constitution, falls apart if one political side no longer plays by the rules and instead seeks to exploit them. It cannot cope when politicians start lying about easily verifiable facts. In response to the populist onslaught against the mainstream media, the desire by journalists to be balanced can ironically lead to them becoming biased in favour of the populist politician.

One of the problems with impartiality is how is it judged? If you use the opinions of viewers as a measure of impartiality, as the head of editorial policy at the BBC did here, you in effect become anti-science: giving the opinion of the person in the street as much weight as an expert in the field. In reality impartiality is normally judged by what politicians think, and inevitably those who shout loudest or those with power tilt the perceived impartiality scales of the journalist or institution in their favour. Within hours of the government’s complaint about the Maitlis newsnight intro, the BBC apologised for the intro without any investigation or due process.

The BBC under this government has gone too far down the road Maitlis describes to recognise the problems she points out. As she puts it provocatively, the government has “an active agent” on the BBC board who tries to be the arbiter of impartiality and also, according to reports, tries to veto BBC appointments that the government doesn’t approve of. Maitlis uses the metaphor of frogs in a slowly boiling pot for journalists responding to populist onslaught, and like the frogs too many in the BBC cannot see the pot is near boiling point.

Maitlis mentions the BBC’s attempts at impartiality during the Brexit referendum, when economic arguments for and against were always balanced even though the number of economists who feared Brexit far outweighed those promoting it. She describes this as “superficial balance concealing a deeper truth”, but I would describe it as political impartiality overriding facts, knowledge and the truth. Yet I have had discussions with well known BBC journalists who dismiss my argument that this was a mistake, and that it could have had any impact on the referendum result. Here is John Simpson more recently commenting on Maitlis:

“The BBC’s job isn’t to tell people what to think about the complex political issues of the day. It’s to lay the arguments in front of them honestly & let them make up their own minds. This isn’t timidity, @maitlis — it’s the essence of public service broadcasting.”

That such responses to criticisms by Maitlis and others are so weak, and would be knocked back in an instant by the same journalists if they were made by someone else in another context, is indicative of deep groupthink within the BBC. The idea that the format where two people from each side spend 5 minutes debating with each other about the economics of Brexit allows the audience to “make up their own mind” who is right is laughable, just as it would be laughable if the subject matter was how to control a pandemic or climate change. There are obvious reasons why it takes countless hours to become experts in trade economics, pandemics or climate change, and why a 5 minute debate is no substitute.

The “essence of public service broadcasting” is to inform and educate, as the BBC’s mission statement says. A 5 minute debate cannot do that for complex issues. Nor would it help much if journalists had reported (which they rarely did) what the majority of economists thought before each debate, for reasons I give here. What the BBC and other broadcasters should have done is tell viewers why trade economists were so united that Brexit would damage trade and therefore incomes, and that explanation could include the riposte of the Leave side. By failing to do that for fear of being unbalanced, broadcasters allow populists to discredit knowledge using labels like Project Fear. Economists didn’t ‘get lucky’ in predicting how Brexit would damage the UK economy but instead applied the knowledge gained from decades of analysis and evidence, and by treating that knowledge as opinion broadcasters actively failed to inform their viewers about what would happen. They took the side of the populist rather than serving their audience.

Impartiality can all too easily become a device where politicians control what journalists are allowed to say. As Maitlis also notes, because ‘both sides’ (Tory and Labour) prefer not to point out the consequences of Brexit, a broadcaster obsessed with impartiality feels they cannot do so either, and so viewers are misinformed about the reasons for empty shelves in supermarkets or delays in travelling abroad. Once again, broadcasters take the side of politicians rather than viewers.

Where I perhaps depart from Maitlis is seeing this as a problem created by populism, rather than a problem even without populism. After 2010, when Labour failed to challenge the Coalition claim that Labour had caused the recession, a broadcast media obsessed with impartiality didn’t challenge it either, even though the claim was such nonsense that Osborne later admitted it was false. When both political parties accepted that bringing the deficit down in the middle of a recession was a good thing, so did much of the broadcast media, even though the economics taught to undergraduates and graduates disagreed. Going even further back, when the Labour government stopped pointing out the benefits of immigration, broadcast media began to assume that immigration was a bad thing. It took the aftermath of Brexit for the public to hear contrary arguments, and public opinion shifted as a result.

As John Elledge points out, the BBC has a particular problem because the government regularly takes decisions about how much money it gets, which gives the government much greater power to shift the BBC’s own scales about what balanced reporting involves. Because the political right since Thatcher finds it much easier to threaten the BBC financially than the left, that means the BBC is more likely to follow the government line when the right holds power. The culture secretary is reported to have said that a particular interview with Johnson had cost the BBC a lot of money. If that was not bad enough, the right wing press are relentless in their criticism of the BBC, tipping the BBC’s own internal assessment of what impartiality means even further rightwards. Empirical evidence looking at the BBC’s coverage and use of think tanks backs up this view.

The argument that we should not criticise the BBC, or broadcasters more generally, because that helps those who wish to harm them ironically just makes things worse. Maitlis is absolutely right that by siding with populist politicians rather than informing viewers, the BBC is actively harming itself. The moment a public sector broadcaster seems to hold the interests of the government above those of its viewers, it is well on the path to just becoming a mouthpiece for the state. The idea that any criticism of an institution has to be an attempt to undermine it rather than improve it is again laughable, and is indicative of a defensive mentality that obsessing about impartiality helps generate.

A far better strategy for broadcasters and any non-partisan media is to make impartiality a secondary goal, and focus instead on the primacy of providing reliable information to viewers. Unlike impartiality, there are readily available objective criteria for assessing what is good information and what is not. Such a shift in priorities would have many benefits.

It would have avoided all the mistakes I have noted above that broadcasters have made in the past because they were focused on impartiality rather than being informative. True, it is easy to make programmes involving debates between politicians or their supporters, but it also produces very boring programmes for everyone except political obsessives. Emphasising the provision of information rather than balance would elevate journalists who are subject specialists compared to the political journalists who now dominate news coverage, and it would shift political coverage from a focus on personalities and horse races to talking more about policy. Crucially it would help make journalism more robust to populist attacks and therefore make society less tolerant of politicians pushing snake-oil policies.

[1] Making impartiality the primary goal invites a defensive mentality because there is no immediately available measure that tells the broadcaster whether it is being impartial or not on some particular occasion. Louder and more powerful voices are inevitably given more weight than they should have, and even then without objective measures a broadcasting institution will always feel as if it is on weak ground.

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