Neil Mackay: BBC is scared to challenge power and is putting democracy in danger – HeraldScotland
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson appearing on the BBC1 current affairs programme, The Andrew Marr Show.
IF only the BBC had the gumption of Ireland’s national broadcaster. On Monday, RTE presenter Claire Byrne did to Nigel Farage what every BBC journalist should have been doing for the last 20 years – she held him to account and deftly revealed a truth we all know: Farage is a blithering, dangerous idiot.
Farage was trying to bluster and bully his way through ludicrous claims about Irish history and even more absurd suggestions that Ireland should leave the European Union. Byrne stopped him in his tracks, saying: “I want people to see just how much you know about the history and culture of this island”. She then showed a clip of Farage saying: “Up the ‘Ra!”.
‘Up the Ra’ for those, like Farage, not familiar with the history of a nation they pontificate about, is republican sloganeering meaning ‘Up the IRA’. Farage was tricked into saying the phrase by a member of the public who paid him £73 for a video ‘shout out’.
“Don’t try and lecture the Irish people on culture and history and the precarious nature of peace on this island,” said Byrne. “You haven’t got a clue.” I urge you to watch the clip – if only for entertainment. The segment lasts one minute and 34 seconds. In less time than it takes to boil a kettle, Byrne did more work showing Farage for what he truly is than all the BBC’s journalists put together over two decades.
READ MORE: UK could become failed state
Instead, the BBC created Farage. Our national broadcaster took a fringe extremist, incapable of getting elected to the House of Commons, and amplified him again and again, platforming Farage into power.
Back in 2013, the New Statesman was asking why Farage had “appeared more times on [Question Time] than any other politician in the last four years”. By 2019, Farage had appeared on the programme 33 times.
The BBC has a ubiquity which conditions – if you hear something enough on the BBC it becomes dovetailed into the status quo. In truth, the BBC creates the status quo – then reinforces the status quo.
I’m not saying this is some ludicrous conspiracy of the type favoured by overheated Scottish nationalists. There’s no wicked plot. What I’m saying is that this is simply a case of bad journalism. The BBC has a twisted concept of impartiality. The broadcaster infamously allowed climate deniers a say – for years – in order to provide ‘balance’ against scientists.
The role of journalism is to hold power to account and try to seek, as best it can, an estimate of truth. Bogus concepts of ‘impartiality’ are often hurdles to that – in a discussion about murder, good journalists don’t invite serial killers to defend homicide.
But the problem is deeper: the BBC is also cowardly. It’s bowed by the Conservative Party, fearing Boris Johnson and his cabinet of culture warriors will essentially kill the corporation.
Just look at the handling of the story claiming that Johnson and his wife flouted Christmas lockdown rules. It’s a classic ‘one rule for them, one rule for the rest of us’ story – a great slice of Marie Antoinettism. But for the BBC – meh, the story didn’t seem that important.
The story broke on Monday morning. Come Monday afternoon, I couldn’t find reports about it on the front page of the BBC’s main news website. By contrast, the story was well placed on the websites of Scottish newspapers.
READ MORE: We need to talk about the BBC
Come Tuesday there was a story about Johnson – on the BBC’s UK page – about the Prime Minister leading tributes to Sir David Amess, which when I checked had been up for 17 hours. That same day, to find the Christmas lockdown story, readers had to click through to the BBC’s UK politics page. Hardly laborious – but it does mean actively searching the story out.
On Tuesday, the story did get mentioned on Radio 4’s Today programme: under three minutes of softball questions in a three-hour show tagged onto the end of an interview with Tory minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan about the environment.
Let’s be frank – if this story was about Nicola Sturgeon, the reporting would be endless.
I dislike the tired ‘my friend’ trope employed by columnists, and try to avoid it, but the following conversation bears repeating. On Tuesday night, a university lecturer I know told me they hadn’t learned of the Johnson story until that morning. “You’d think it worthy of a news alert from the BBC at least,” they said.
Now, you could criticise this person for failing to keep up with current affairs – but like many, they aren’t a news junkie, nor social media addict, and they get most of their information from the BBC.
The handling of the Christmas lockdown story looks suspiciously like ‘editing by omission’. It’s done by newspaper editors every day of the week. You don’t like a story as it doesn’t fit the particular political slant of your paper so you run two paragraphs on page 37.
Now, that’s not a great look for a newspaper but there’s no law demanding editors be impartial. The national broadcaster, however, must be above such behaviour.
We’re in a democratic crisis – not just in Britain but across the West. Never has there been a greater need for trustworthy broadcast news. With newspapers and newspaper websites, you pay your money in the full knowledge that the political position of each product probably accords with your own – that’s a truth as old as the press itself.
But TV news is piped into your home, it shapes the national conversation, the national psyche.
The BBC is failing democracy at the moment. Often it seems as if the BBC can barely bring itself to use the word ‘Brexit’ when reporting the woes besetting the country. Industrial chaos must be down to gremlins – not the impact of voting to leave Europe. But the BBC trembles to tell the truth. It pursues clickbait commentary which – like Facebook – thrives on shock and outrage, not meaningful, curated fact and reasoned debate.
We’re overly fond of the BBC. Nostalgic for what it once was. But the BBC is systemically sick, and until it cures itself it is incapable of fulfilling its most important role: holding power to account.
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