Monday, 11 January 2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Labour Party has formally complained to the BBC over bias in its handling of the resignation last week of Stephen Doughty as Shadow Foreign Minister (not as impressive as it sounds), while Twitter is apparently thinking of removing the 140 character limit on tweets (not as impressive as it sounds). These events are connected by more than their underwhelming nature. But first, let's wind back a bit. The profusion of TV channels, starting in the US in the 1970s and in the UK in the 1980s, was a key emblem of the wider concept of "choice" ushered in during the neoliberal era, but the exercise of that choice was initially viewed ambiguously by many committed to its delivery, such as advertisers concerned by channel-hopping and cultural commentators worried by superficiality and short attention spans.

The explosion in interest in the media potential of the Internet in the 1990s owed much to the promise of deeper engagement, hence the subsequent vogue for "stickiness" and "eyeballs". Before anyone had started to demand opt-outs, the media were getting excited by a level of opt-in that would dwarf the puny efforts of Ceefax and Teletext. Marshall McLuhan famously said "the medium is the message", meaning that form was as instructive as content. The shift from broadcast media consumed passively to narrowcast media consumed interactively meant that the message - the instruction - could extend to the process of interaction itself. The crossover between old and new media, e.g. TV programmes encouraging tweets on-air, has meant that the desire for interaction has come to influence editorial choices across the board.

At the heart of the complaint from Seumas Milne, the Labour Party's Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, is the claim that the BBC staged Stephen Doughty's resignation on-air for "maximum impact", something that the corporation does not deny but excuses as being within its journalistic remit and consistent with its values. This is disingenuous because its practice and values have clearly changed over the years. The Daily Politics programme is routinely theatrical and objectionable, but this is down to its desire to set the Twitter agenda for the day, just as Newsnight aims to deliver the fatal thrust (the BBC's coverage of politics aspires to a day-long corrida). The decision to have Doughty resign on-air was more about self-promotion than anti-Labour prejudice, even if the latter was present in the treatment. That said, it would be foolish to ignore the structural bias of the BBC, which is undoubtedly both anti-labour and anti-Labour.

Due to its size and role as the national broadcaster, the BBC is inescapably part of the establishment. Its domination of the media landscape and its social grounding in the upper middle-class mean that it exerts a gravitational pull on those who seek entry to, or advancement within, that establishment. For all its many diversity initiatives, its chief recruitment milieu (Oxbridge, the intersection of corporations and public service, other media organisations) is atypical of the nation as a whole, which is why the "metropolitan elite" jibe has substance. This would be enough to ensure an overlap with the political caste, but the corporation's reliance on the licence fee and charter renewal also gives it an incentive to flatter politicians with coverage while it encourages the politicians in turn to believe that they have a reasonable expectation of respectful treatment.

These structural flaws - dominance, elitism and a symbiotic relationship with politicians - do not cause the Beeb much anguish, any more than does the criticism of its often absurd commitment to notional "balance", because they are the inevitable characteristics of a national broadcaster designed to have operational independence from government while being a para-state institution. So long as both main parties complain of bias (short of the outrageous), and the smaller parties complain of neglect, the impression is given that the corporation is "somewhere in the middle", which is itself a subtle form of bias (the equation of impartiality with a median position). In this light, the SNP's essential criticism of the Beeb is that it does not reflect a Scottish establishment, which is as much an attempt to conjure such a thing into existence as a complaint that a distinctly Scottish viewpoint is being ignored.

Where the corporation is vulnerable is the charge of selection bias, in which it reflects the prejudices of the establishment. Objectively, the BBC is politically centre-right, which means it does display a slight conservative bias relative to the population as a whole, though not one as pronounced as that exhibited by the print media (the dynamic between the two is important, allowing a centre-right stance to be presented as distinct from the right and thus essentially centrist). More pertinently, it displays a very large bias in respect of privileged interests, notably the City of London. The latter bias is more pernicious than the former, as could be seen in the salience of anxiety over government debt in 2009, which undoubtedly helped the Tory narrative in the 2010 election, and the lack of scepticism over the coalition government's justification for austerity thereafter, which helped corrupt its journalistic practice.

One of the chief ways that the interests of the financial sector are promoted by the BBC is in the implicit acceptance that what is good for the City is good for the UK, despite a wealth of academic analysis suggesting otherwise. It is easy to forget that until the late-80s, the BBC (like most newspapers) had "Labour and Industrial Correspondents". While these were hardly trades union propagandists, they did offer an alternative view to the business lobby. Now we have "Business Editors" who simply report the City's views. This is an extension of the corporation's role in defining the institutional "furniture" of the state, from the monarchy to London-based arts organisations (its annual holiday jaunts to Glastonbury and Edinburgh notwithstanding). Its decision on what to send to the Siberia of Salford a few years ago (sport, breakfast, children), and what to keep in London (politics, business, arts), was hugely symbolic despite the logistical justifications.

It is also vulnerable to the charge that it allows the news agenda to be set by partisan newspapers and favoured thinktanks, though this reflects journalistic convenience more than a terror of the Daily Mail or the Institute for Economic Affairs. As an arm of the establishment, it will always give a voice to those it finds congenial, thus coverage of housing is dominated by building firms and estate agents, coverage of industry biases towards interviews with owners and executives rather than workers, and coverage of developing nations disproportionately features NGOs. As a supposedly apolitical arena, science gets a lot of coverage, while social science gets little and that small amount is often hostile. History and philosophy in the context of current affairs are treated either as entertainment (Niall Ferguson and Slavoj Zizek fulfill similar roles), or a tutorial for particularly dim undergraduates (Tristram Hunt's long exposure on Newsnight before he became an MP being illustrative).

Seumas Milne's complaint is an example of establishment theatre in which the party expresses affront ("you're being unfair") while the corporation rebuts the charge by invoking its constitution and values. This reinforces the image of Auntie as the long-suffering guardian of ungrateful kids ("we treat you all equally"). Though Milne needed to cover his arse for not having neutralised Doughty (Alistair Campbell would have had him man-marked), the complaint gives the impression that Labour cares more about the reporting of its internal procedures than the poor quality of the corporation's coverage of economic affairs. A more cunning Labour press officer would threaten to publicly praise the corporation as a bastion of progressive, liberal values.

Twitter is planning to remove the 140 character limit on tweets that it has had since it launched as "SMS for the Internet". The news is hardly earth-shattering, and the reality is simply an attempt to generate more advertising revenue, but it has been interesting to see the upswell in chatter - mostly on Twitter, unsurprisingly. A feature of social media is the interest that users take in the evolution of the platform and their willingness to proffer advice. This is partly consumer feedback, but it also has shades of the proprietorial, showing how services like Twitter have become central to people's self-image and daily routine. This means that when a change threatens users' beliefs about the integrity of the service, e.g. the 2014 news that Facebook was experimenting with "mood manipulation", the reaction is emotional rather than cynical.

While no one would look to a newspaper in the expectation of true impartiality, there is an assumption that national broadcasters should make an effort in this direction. But why should the same assumption be extended to supra-national commercial concerns like Twitter or Facebook? I think part of the answer is that people have taken the "social" adjective seriously, in the sense of believing that the platform is both unmediated and inclusive, and thus an approximation of "society" or even "democracy", despite sponsored messages and the self-selection bubble. Of course, these ideals - the unmediated and inclusive - do not necessarily sit well together, hence the noise over trolling and "free speech", but that noise in turn is taken as evidence of the integrity of the platform, if not that of the controlling company.

The ability of users to distinguish between the platforms and the organisations that provide them is reminiscent of the traditional attitude towards public services. But where it parts company is that complaining is no longer a democratic right, emphasing public ownership ("I pay your wages, mate"), but instead an expression of selfish interest. Many people responded to the Twitter news by saying "I won't like it" without wondering if the change would even be noticeable (consensus: no), let alone whether it might be of benefit to anyone else. This highlights the narcissism inherent to social media platforms that have elevated administrative procedures such as following and blocking to ethical judgements. The consequence is a heightened sensitivity, where many feel uncomfortable following anyone they might disagree with, while others routinely update all their followers when they block a troll.

Underlying this is a reinterpretation of "social" to mean individual, a neoliberal strand of thought that proceeds from the anti-totalitarian 1940s, through cybernetics and the counter-culture, to the Californian Ideology of the Internet. The bias of the BBC is not just in its establishment prejudices but in its wholehearted embrace of the "expressive" politics this has helped foster, from the idiot-fest of Question Time to the confessional exclusives of the Daily Politics. Andrew Neill's dismissive contempt and Laura Kuenssberg's arch snidery are a way of plugging into the spirit of the times short of full-blown Fox News-style partisanship. This move to the expressive is obviously ironic in light of the habitual criticism of the left by the Labour Party right.

Given the success of Jeremy Corbyn in bypassing the BBC and exploiting social media during the leadership contest, it seems odd that his chief communications officer should be determined to engage the establishment on such unfavourable terrain. Equally strange is his near-disappearance from Twitter since he got the job late last year, perhaps suggesting ethical scruples rather than an excessive workload. Maybe Seumas Milne, as the son of the former BBC Director General, Alisdair Milne, is genuinely shocked by the corporation's behaviour, suggesting that he remains more a product of the establishment than he cares to admit. Perhaps he could yet be in line for a reshuffle.

1 comment:

  1. I hope I'm not being too emotional when a say - this is a cracking post!