Post-Democratic Broadcasting

Tom Mills

There has scarcely been a time in the BBC’s 95-year history when it hasn’t faced accusations of political bias. But it has been decades since the criticisms emanated so strongly from the left. This is a consequence of the collapse of a centre ground which had long been the BBC’s political fulcrum. As the Labour Party shifted leftwards, attracting an unprecedented influx of new members, its MPs and party bureaucracy fought back. And since the BBC is deeply embedded in Westminster, and routinely defers to the consensus there in setting the parameters of political debate, its political reporting has been skewed against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

When Theresa May called the general election, I expected the BBC to assume a more balanced position on Corbyn. First, because I expected more unity in the Labour Party; second, because general elections impose stricter regulatory requirements on broadcasters; and third, because the BBC – whatever you think of its political reporting – takes its democratic responsibilities seriously. But the early signs have not been promising.

Within hours of the prime minister’s surprise announcement, the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis was musing on Twitter whether there was time for Labour to ‘try and stage [a] coup against Corbyn’. Then the Today presenter (and former political editor) Nick Robinson tweeted that an anti-establishment speech from the Labour leader was ‘long on passion and short on details’, and called this the ‘story of [Corbyn’s] life’. He later said the comment was not intended negatively.

It may be unfair to seize on impromptu social media postings. As the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, says in her Twitter profile, tweets ‘don’t tell a whole story’. But they do fall under the BBC’s editorial policy, and are read by ‘opinion formers’. And it is hard not to see such cavalier remarks as suggestive of a broader editorial culture.

Kuenssberg was recently caught out using a Tory political slogan (‘more spending, more tax, more borrowing’) in the headline of her report on the Labour manifesto. The now defunct BBC Trust found that she breached accuracy and impartiality guidelines in her early reporting on Corbyn. Yet that ruling was dismissed by the BBC’s Director of News, James Harding, a former editor of the Times and a friend of George Osborne. ‘We disagree with this finding,’ he said. The corporation displayed a similar nonchalance in its response to a study by the Media Reform Coalition which found that during the post-referendum ‘coup’, BBC News gave far more airtime to Corbyn’s critics than ITV did.

In the current election campaign, Cardiff University’s monitoring work has already found that the Tories are dominating airtime on BBC television news, a pattern not evident on either Channel 4 or Sky, and less marked on ITV.

The BBC is officially committed to ‘reflect[ing] all significant strands of opinion’, but it is profoundly deferential to the formal political system. When its journalists attack politicians, it is largely on the basis of their standing within that system. The problems with this insider approach to politics are illustrated by the treatment of the leaked Labour manifesto on the Today programme last week. The policies in it are popular with voters, according to opinion polls, but the BBC treated it as a story about political acumen, or lack of it. How could the public trust the Labour Party to run the railways, John Humphrys blustered, if it can’t run an election campaign?

There is an alibi: the BBC’s political reporters are fulfilling their professional duty to hold politicians of whatever party to account by publicly exposing their political weaknesses. The trouble with this is that it takes for granted the legitimacy of a political system that is not held in high esteem outside the BBC. It effectively reinforces an unpopular and in many ways undemocratic system, while fostering a perception of competence and credibility around its leading players – vaunted qualities which are often little more than reflections of hegemony at Westminster and eminence among the broader British elite.

Corbyn has led a mild-mannered insurgency against the political establishment. He is in many ways politically weak, and isn’t widely popular; but his policies are, and there is a public appetite for change. This brings us to the heart of the dilemma that the BBC and other broadcasters face in this election. To focus on policies, as would seem more proper in democratic terms, would favour Labour (and other progressive parties). But to follow the rituals and conventions of post-democratic politics – ‘horse race’ polling, stage-managed media events, sloganeering, smears – would obviously play into the hands of the government, which has offered the electorate nothing much except an opportunity to strengthen Theresa May’s hand. What in these circumstances should an impartial broadcaster do?