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I’m not really a fan of the TV licence fee. I was once, but now I think it’s an anachronism born of a time when we had only a handful of channels to watch and only one way of receiving them.
These days with on demand content and a thousand different ways to consume TV and radio, the idea that I should pay simply for receiving one tiny set of channels on my TV, with the threat of jail if I don’t, stretches credulity – especially when I’m also paying a direct subscription to watch non-BBC output. Try explaining to someone in America that you could risk prosecution simply for watching TV and they’ll think you live in a police state.
The one justification for the ‘unique way the BBC is funded’ (as we’re constantly being reminded), is that it ensures independence from commercial influence. The BBC doesn’t answer to paymasters and advertisers who may demand some editorial control over content. I’d support that if it were true, but in practice this has become less and less of a valid argument, especially in terms of music and light entertainment where corporate pressure from the large content providers and other vested interests has become more pronounced over the years.
But the one area that the BBC used to have an entirely unblemished record was in news reporting. The BBC symbol on a microphone or flak jacket would imbue the reporter with an unimpeachable quality around the world. The accepted impartiality and veracity of BBC news gathering was legendary, earning Auntie a well-deserved reputation as the place to go to hear or see the truth.
Sadly that is now almost as distant a memory as the point of the licence fee. Time after time we watch with incredulity at the simmering bias pouring out of our TV screens to the point where almost any other channel, with the possible expectation of Fox or Sky News, seems to offer a clearer, less partial view.
This has now reached epidemic proportions, with senior news editors such as Laura Kuenssberg and Nick Robinson hardly bothering to hide their own personal opinions about the issues and political figures they report on.
Kuenssberg in particular has come in for repeated criticism for cheap stunts on once respected programmes such as Newsnight, as well as her obviously partisan stance on figures such as Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed she could barely conceal her own glee at last week’s local election results when she all but jumped for joy at Labour’s trouncing in the polls.
In those same results the BBC took a lazy and slanted view both online and on air. Whilst gushing about the sweeping successes of the Conservatives they virtually ignored the other two parties that made comparatively significant gains across the board – namely The Green Party and Plaid Cymru. On their website they hardly gave Plaid a mention outside of the election results spreadsheet, whilst The Green Party merely warranted a begrudging single line.
For the Greens this was an improvement on their usual position of being lumped in with ‘others’ alongside various single issue independents. This is a party that polled over a million votes in 2015 and was at that time the fastest growing political party in the country. As part of an international movement, wielding significant political influence around the world for decades, one might think our own Green Party might be worth a little more consideration than the Bus Pass Elvis Party.
UKIP on the other hand virtually has their own parking space at BBC towers. In their early years UKIP was little more than a pressure group full of swivel-eyed ranters concerned with the impact of h*mosexuality on weather patterns and the ability of women to clean behind the fridge. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, they were taken under the wing of the BBC and given coverage usually reserved only for parties with serious Parliamentary traction.
This ushered in an age when Nigel Farage and his fellow Kippers were hardly ever off the box. When an edition of Question Time didn’t feature a bulging eyed, blue veined face framed by a purple tie, one started to worry that you were watching the wrong channel.
The BBC effectively anointed UKIP, giving them a national platform to trot out their half-baked, far right policies, making them seem much more established than they actually were. Later, they claimed that this repeated coverage was due to their popularity in the polls, ignoring their own role in fuelling this self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s difficult to decide if this was down to pure political bias or just because UKIP’s antics were good for the ratings. Either way it makes a mockery of the argument that the licence fee raises them above such grubby imperatives, and it’s clear that allowing them free rein to back one party in favour of another can have serious long term political consequences.
Not content with a distinct right wing lean on the podium itself, BBC researchers even went out of their way to invite extreme right wing activists into the Question Time audience. Online evidence that one particular producer had specifically invited members of the radical hate group the English Defence League on to the programme led to complaints being made by MP for Boston and Skegness, Matt Warman, when the programme was filmed in his constituency.
Of course it was claimed at the time that this was a mere coincidence despite online evidence in the Facebook profile of the EDL showing they had been contacted by the producer in question. Later denials included claims that audience members were not specifically vetted by the show prior to attendance. Anyone indulging in the weekly popular pastime of ‘spot the kipper’ in the BBCQT audience could attest to the inaccuracy of that claim.
A recent conversation I had with a local Labour activist also gives lie to these claims. In an edition of the programme recorded in Oxford a few weeks ago, a member of the audience commented very calmly on the Conservatives penchant for slinging insults at Jeremy Corbyn. That person was a friend and political colleague of mine from the local Labour Party. He confirmed to me that he was vetted by phone before being allowed to ask his question, and that he had to assure them beforehand that he wasn’t an activist. If activism is a no-no on QT one has to wonder why their researchers were actively inviting members of some of the most rabidly active right-wing groups ever to drape themselves in a union flag.
This bias and the usual dogged resistance to allow the Green Party coverage on the BBC commensurate with its position as an established mainstream national party has now led co-leader Jonathan Bartley to openly accuse the BBC of breaching impartiality guidelines. He has pointed to their “disproportionate coverage” of UKIP’s near annihilation in last week’s local council elections when they only manged to achieve one council seat, in contrast to The Green Party’s 40.
One might argue that the fact that UKIP lost 145 seats in one fell swoop was newsworthy, but the continued coverage of them throughout the results still swamped other considerations. The BEEB even found ways of shoe-horning a ratings friendly kipper onto their network with Patrick O’Flynn appearing on a panel of commenters on a BBC news programme reporting on the outcome of the French elections. Quite what made him deserving of a place amidst a sitting Conservative MP and a Labour opposite number was never really explained. Presumably Mr O’Flynn was the only UKIP official the BBC had in their speed dial who wasn’t currently hiding under the bed with his fingers in his ears.
The right wing bias in the UK media is now well beyond doubt, but the fact that an organisation like the BBC, once so solidly impartial, should become tainted by the same lack of dispassionate reportage is deeply worrying. There’s some speculation that recent proposed changes to licence fee arrangements may have been a major motivator for Auntie to suck up so obviously to her right wing masters.
Even if that isn’t the case, one has to wonder how fair it is for British audiences to continue to pay a compulsory fee on the grounds that this gives the BBC the ability to rise above concerns that may unduly influence other news outlets. At best this is taking money under false pretences, at worst it’s forcing anyone who owns a television set, computer or laptop to finance a right leaning propaganda machine under threat of prosecution by the very people who are benefiting from that same prejudiced output.
Perhaps my earlier comment about a police state wasn’t quite as throwaway as it first seemed.