The BBC and the paradox of neutrality


The BBC has been hailed as an example of a broadcaster with a reputation for balanced reporting. However, its commitment to balance contributes to beliefs that it is institutionally biased. I call that the paradox of neutrality

Compare public attitudes towards two state institutions, the NHS and the BBC: Both are broadly admired culturally. The NHS is far more of a treasured cultural icon. In contrast, there is an increasingly expressed view that the BBC is irredeemably biased in its treatment of news.

Biased, but from the left or the right?

Strangely, this view is held by commentators of all political shades. The current Conservative Government has made it clear that a radical shift is needed to justify the license fee as a concealed tax on hard working people (if I might borrow the rhetoric). There is a suspicion that the BBC is inhabited by a powerful group of people with over- sympathetic views towards a politically left perspective.

From the left, the concern tends to be about a conservative (with a small c) culture, fostered by various forms of excess power wielded by the influence of a white, male, public school and Oxbridge educated elite.

Evidence supporting both views can be found. So can evidence contradicting them. The prestigious political programmes remain uncomfortably chock fulla celebrities from privileged backgrounds. Yet, the BBC demonstrates in word and action a deep sympathy for dealing with inequalities, and has worked diligently for widening the franchise, for example in promoting women to senior positions,  even if there is a long way to go.

Take Question Time

These tensions are evident in the weekly Question Time broadcast. The long-time moderator David Dimbleby captures the unquestioned conservative (still with a small c) values of the elite British class system.

He is also part of the BBC royal family stretching back to his much respected father Richard.His urbane charm is that of those with an unchallenged right to rule.

The paradox of neutrality

Question Time also demonstrates the point I want to make about the paradox of neutrality. The programme has a complex set of structures signalling its culture of political neutrality. The panelists are carefully selected to capture as wide a set of views as possible and with as wide a set of demographics. This still marginalises a range of voices, but clearly there is an attempt at what has been called virtue signalling.

Even the studio audience is picked to show, really show, a cross section of the British public permitted to express a wide range of its views, just as long as this is done within the social code of suppressed rather than expressed violence.

The primacy of tolerance

Put all these factors together and you get the evidence that The BBC values above all the virtue of tolerance. Political bias? Not us, M’lud. All that tolerance ishows how politically balanced we are. It also suggests to me why it paradoxically creates a perception of political imbalance That is what I mean by the paradox of neutrality.

The balance of opposing views

QT is only one example. A more pervasive one is the insistence that discussion programmes have to grant equal air time to representatives of two simplified and opposing views: Climate change? A mainline scientist, preferably a professor, must be matcher with a denier, preferably Lord Lawson.  A new vaccine? Another professor, but as a variant there could be a parent for balance whose child has suffered terribly after administration of the vaccine.  A right to live advocate must exist only in tight sybiosis with a right to choose supporter .

The current debate over EU membership is being conducted in similar ‘balanced’ fashion, yet accompanied by complaints about inherent bias of BBC reporting. The paradox of neutrality permits a cosy and non-nuanced ‘debate’ strictly for reinforcing pre-set beliefs.

I rest my case. Unbiased comments welcomed.

Billy Bunter


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