Auntie and The Greens: BBC Bias and the Leaders’ Debates

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett flanked by Deputies Amelia Womack and Shahrar Ali
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett flanked by Deputies Amelia Womack and Shahrar Ali

The BBC’s handling of the Leaders’ Debates is obviously scandalous, but, given its past conduct, shouldn’t be surprising.

The BBC is refusing to let the Green Party in to the televised debates it’s planning in advance of next year’s General Election. Auntie has decided that Nigel Farage and his hard-right intifada are worthy of admission, and that Natalie Bennett’s Greens aren’t.

In a letter to the Green Party’s communications director, the BBC explained its reasoning: “UKIP has demonstrated a substantial increase in support since 2014 across a range of elections along with a consistent and robust trend across a full range of opinion polls; the Green Party had not demonstrated any comparable increase”.

Green supporters and assorted irked progressives responded: the Greens beat the Lib Dems in this year’s Euro elections, they argued, receiving 1.2m votes, 150,000 more than Clegg and co. They’re now polling neck-and-neck with the Liberals in opinion polls. The Greens are the fifth biggest party in the Scottish Assembly, and the third biggest in the London Assembly. Since January, membership of the Green Party of England and Wales has jumped 45%. They’ve had an MP in Parliament for nearly five years – UKIP have only had one for about five weeks.

We’re probably well in the minority in thinking the leaders’ debates are an awful development, further chiselling down what should be a vast, complex, citizenry-engaging discussion about how societies are run into a rubbish squabble over who gets the top job. They’re a stunningly shallow American export we never should’ve touched, and need scrapping immediately.

Almost inevitably, though, they’re here to stay. And if that’s the case, and some are going to feature upstart xenophobe Nigel Farage, of course they need to include the Greens, if not Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and RESPECT’s George Galloway too. But what’s far more interesting about the Greens-in-the-debates controversy is the way it’s given us all a flash of the BBC’s true colours – showing that far from being benign, trustworthy Auntie, bastion of principled neutrality, it really serves as a sort of neoliberal bouncer, policing a stiflingly narrow political consensus skewed in the interests of big money.

Over the last few years, we’ve become increasingly hostile to the BBC. Like millions of others, we’d been reared to see it as a beacon of impartiality in amongst the distortions and sensationalism of the corporate press. Once we would’ve ferociously defended it from any hint of privatisation. Now, we think selling it off would just be a formality. It’s woefully impartial coverage of the ongoing Israel-Gaza debacle, its inexplicable silence on the privatisation of increasingly large chunks of the NHS, the way it and other mainstream broadcasters’ laughably disproportionate coverage of Nigel Farage has created a UKIP popularity surge out of nothing – all of this and more has convinced us that a world without the BBC, or without BBC News, at least, wouldn’t necessarily be a worse one.

The BBC consistently mistakes ‘neutrality’ for bias in favour of the prevailing political consensus – in our sorry case, a sort of gung-ho-militaristic neoliberalism. As far as BBC News is concerned, being ‘neutral’ means being fawningly pro-business and pro-American. Massive inequality, government policy tailored around finance and big business, permanent austerity based on dodgy, elite-serving economics, are all treated as being essentially fine – not newsworthy. To bring attention to glowering social problems like these would be ‘impartial’. A fundamentally skewed situation is treated like it’s a sort of social default setting.

The Corporation also has a habit of mixing up plurality – i.e. lots of different ‘voices’ in ‘the debate’, in annoying lefty-liberal parlance – with ideological diversity. You could (and frequently do) have a five-person Question Time panel and only really have one worldview on display. Invite any Tory, a high-ranking Lib Dem, a high-ranking Labourite, any UKIP bod and a bloke off Dragon’s Den, and you’re still only representing one basic ideological framework. Austerity is necessary, taxes should be kept low, big business is essentially great aside from a few bad apples – surprise surprise, it’s neoliberalism again.

And this is the worldview that the most powerful, respected media organ in the country beams into living rooms from Land’s End to John O’Groats, 365 days a year. It’s hard to tell whether it’s genuine or affected, but the BBC is mind-bogglingly naïve about the enormous influence it has when it comes to shaping public opinion. A huge part of the reason UKIP has seen its support skyrocket over the past eighteen months is because broadcasters like the BBC cover it obsessively. Given that amount of sustained, uncritical media exposure, practically any party could come from nowhere to start bagging by-election victories – particularly the Greens.

The Greens are the best/least worst of the parties that can be considered remotely mainstream. It’s important to be realistic about them – once upon a time, they’d have been viewed as fairly watery and centrist, and it’s only when judged against a dismal political status quo that they can be seen as especially subversive. But the party is home to a pleasingly broad range of radicals, particularly on its healthy and undogmatic Left – we’re unashamedly a big Derek Wall fan, and we like new Deputy Leader Amelia Womack too – and its policies are certainly the best on offer in the House of Commons. One thing the Green Party definitely isn’t is neoliberal.

Here it’s useful to contrast it, a political party the BBC has consistently ignored, with UKIP, one it advertises at every possible opportunity. The Green Party talk about climate change and the unscrupulousness of the financial sector, calling for a living wage, a Citizen’s Income and the renationalisation of the railways. UKIP almost exclusively direct their fire at the European Union, ‘excessive’ government spending and vulnerable, voiceless minorities like immigrants and social security claimants.

Both these parties look and sound ‘different’ in a country desperate for something other than dark-suited automatons built out of spare bits of Tony Blair. But one challenges, maybe even threatens, the political status quo the BBC seems determined to defend and preserve. The other is entirely compatible with it. In short, we’re nudged ever closer to concluding that Auntie will happily publicise up-and-coming third parties when it deems their policies acceptable – thus greatly contributing to their popularity and electoral performance – and will deny coverage and exposure to ones it doesn’t. All in the name of ‘impartiality’.

For BBC bosses and pundits who’ve led illustrious careers in newsrooms where rewriting Whitehall press releases and cooing over Kate Middleton’s new shoes passes for journalism, this isn’t a Big Lie they knowingly collude in, a conscious conspiracy they cackle over while stroking white cats in Television Centre – they genuinely believe they’re being studiously neutral and professional.

It turns out ‘The News’ is its own special genre, distinct from plain old ‘news’, which is just stuff that happens in the world. ‘The News’ is the stuff that happens in the world that’s safe enough for mainstream broadcasters to report. Ambitious journos work in environments where this sifting process happens every hour of the day. Before long, it becomes second nature.

They internalise the toothless, deferential culture of the institutions they earn their stripes in, one preoccupied with keeping their advertisers, corporate proprietors and government sources happy. Those that kick up a fuss, want to write or talk about issues that might annoy said powerful patrons, don’t last long.

In 1996, Crown Prince of establishment journos Andrew Marr interviewed the world’s most prominent media critic, Noam Chomsky. Marr thought Chomsky was suggesting that journalists were self-censoring. Chomksy clarified: “I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

Over years, if not decades, broadcasters like Marr manage to convince themselves that the corporate-friendly worldview they’ve had to adopt to make it in the mainstream media is completely bias-free. Of course the NHS isn’t being privatised by the back door – the government says its reforms are designed to ‘give GPs more power’. Of course we won’t cover that police-bullied pro-democracy protest in Parliament Square, or pull Ian Duncan Smith up on his dishonest use of statistics – that would be impartial. Of course we invaded Iraq to bring democracy and peace to the Middle East – the White House said so.

And now – a third party broadcasters like the BBC have made very popular by extensively and uncritically advertising it is more popular than a third party they scarcely acknowledge the existence of. Thus, party number one gets in the leader debates, number two doesn’t. Thus, party one gets even more exposure, party two is left out in the cold yet again. It’s obviously scandalous. The Green Party and anyone vaguely progressive should make as big a fuss about it as possible. But given the BBC’s track record, it really shouldn’t be surprising.