Sunday, 6 October 2013

Professor Miliband, BBC political bias, and the problem of malfunctioning information feedback loops

Another day, another screaming newspaper headline about the BBC’s left-wing bias. This time it’s about the corporation’s evident decision to order all of its news and current affairs programmes to provide a platform for any ghastly old left-winger to scream abuse for as they want at the Dailly Mail over a  scurrilous article about Ed Miliband’s father. Quite right! After Britain had provided Miliband père with a safe haven from a totalitarian government which would have murdered him, the good professor then urged Britain’s workers to violently destroy all the institutions whose existence had made this country safe from totalitarianism. What’s not to love about that sort of display of gratitude?

And what made the Mail think it was acceptable to discuss Miliband Senior’s espousal of violent revolution, just because the man who wants to lead this country keeps banging on about how his family shaped his political views? Outrageous!

God bless the dear old commie’s memory, I say. (Mind you, lucky no one paid any attention to the poisonous old sod or any of his freedom-hating fellow-travelling Marxist chums.)

Could you imagine the BBC allowing the Tory equivalents of Alastair Campbell, Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone free rein to attack the Guardian if that paper were to publish a similarly abrasive – and accurate - article about the father of a Conservative Party leader? Thought not.

The thing that most perplexed me during nearly twenty years working for the BBC was why it seemed incapable of recognising, let alone addressing, its rampant left-wing bias. Many critics see the corporation’s senior management as an arrogant cabal of left-liberal social-engineering enthusiasts involved in a sinister plot to appropriate money from right-wing license-fee payers to spend on propaganda for causes and institutions we loathe.

But here’s the mystery: I worked for many of the people who, for the past 25 years, have decided what content the BBC broadcasts - three of them went on to become Director-General - and, almost without exception, they were decent, fair, honest chaps thoroughly convinced of their own political even-handedness. So why does so much of the BBC’s output make us feel as if we’re being hectored by some strident Mao-era communist waving a little red book?

At one stage during my time in News, the social affairs, politics and economics editors were, respectively, Polly Toynbee, John Cole and Jim Callaghan’s son-in-law, Peter Jay - three out-and-out lefties. To this day, I’m surprised the Conservative government didn’t respond to such outrageous provocation by privatising the BBC. Nothing has changed. When Newsnight libelled Lord McAlpine, many on the Right voiced concerns that this grotesque journalistic error might have stemmed from the corporation’s innate hatred of the Conservative Party in general, and Baroness Thatcher in particular. When it came to finding a new programme editor, the BBC demonstrated utter contempt for its critics by appointing the deputy editor of the Guardian. One of Tony Hall’s first acts when taking up the post of Director-General earlier this year was to appoint a former Labour minister, James Purnell, as director of strategy and digital – without an interview. How very cosy!

So why does the corporation keep making senior appointments seemingly designed to confirm right-wing conspiracy theories? Why doesn’t it understand that this is simply wrong?

The answer might be that the organisation is suffering from malfunctioning feedback loops. As the economist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, one of the reasons state-controlled economies don’t work is that they’ve deliberately foregone the information provided by the market, especially prices (which is why, for instance, Venezuelans now find it almost impossible to buy toilet-paper and why, if Ed Miliband wins the next election, we’ll soon run out of electricity). In The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that totalitarian governments were all doomed because – by suppressing all internal criticism – they were unable to tell when the people’s anger was about to boil over into open revolt (think of the moment we saw fear enter the eyes of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu when he realised that the mob below the balcony from which he was addressing them was not cheering, but baying for his blood).

The BBC trusts two key feedback loops - audience figures and programme approval ratings, because these almost invariably tell the corporation that license-payers are pretty pleased with what they’re getting. But when it comes to concerns over bias, none of the available feedback loops are functioning well enough to deliver the information that might finally convince senior management to take corrective action.

You might expect its right-wing employees to keep the BBC honest, but in 12 years working for News, I heard a total of four producers admit to being right-wing. My instinct at the time was that out of all the people I worked with at News, at least 90% were leftists – possibly 95%.  In that sort of overwhelmingly liberal atmosphere, it’s no wonder that conservatives keep their politics secret for fear of damaging their careers. For example, I remember sitting in the newsroom one day watching Mrs Thatcher talking sense on television when another producer paused at my desk, and after listening for a few moments, jeered, “She sounds just like a parrot. Caw! Caw!” before moving off, evidently pleased with his sparkling display of wit. He is now a prominent Thatcherite cabinet minister.

You might imagine that BBC programme staff would receive feedback about bias direct from right-wing friends and acquaintances – I certainly heard enough complaints about it from non-media types when I worked there. But urban leftists tend to socialise almost exclusively with their own dirigiste kind. I suspect most BBC news staff assume – despite the evidence of polls which suggest 45% of the electorate lean to the right - that (a) right-wingers are similarly rare in wider society, and (b) they resemble the cartoonish rightists who feature in BBC news stories –  the truffling-pigs of the banking world, the blazered bluff coves of UKIP, or (according to liberals) the fascist knuckle-draggers of the EDL. Obviously, the vast majority of Tory and UKIP voters are perfectly nice, normal people – but the average BBC producer simply doesn’t know this.

This perception of right-wingers as a tiny minority of greedy racists who enjoy seeing the poor suffer is reinforced by the fact that the most important potential source of feedback – Conservative voters – hardly ever complain to the BBC about bias.  A paedophile presenter scandal, an insult to the Queen, or cruel on-air phone calls to a much-loved comedy actor will light up the switch-board. Perhaps they seethe similarly about the make-up of Question Time panels or the way John Humphreys never lets a Tory minister answer a question without interruption. But as they don’t descend on Broadcasting House clasping flaming torches – or even send a complaining email – the BBC assumes everyone (apart from the usual suspects) is happy.

You might expect that the Conservative Party would have learned from the Campbell-Mandelson years how to influence BBC output – especially as the party is the main victim of media bias, and is currently led by a PR man. The Labour Party have traditionally been effective at monstering the BBC: they even managed to get Greg Dyke sacked as Director-General. Partly this is because of the regular exchange of employees between the two organisations: in Blair’s day the press office was stuffed with former BBC journalists.  When Labour square up to the BBC, they know what they’re dealing with. When the Tories attack, it tends to involve individual ministers throwing a Mr. Cranky-Pants tantrum before beating a hasty retreat (presumably on the instruction of some comms wallah). The BBC knows it will all blow over once the Tory toddler has had a soothing nap.

As for criticism in the right-wing press, everyone who works for the BBC knows that they're all mouthpieces for wicked capitalist robber-barons and can therefore safely be  discounted.

Finally, you might expect the consciences of senior managers – all honourable men, as I said - to cause them sleepless nights. But as they know they aren’t part of a plot (there really are no meetings in smoke-free rooms to plot Labour’s return to power), they feel no guilt. Added to that, holding left-wing views confers on the holder a delicious, unshakeable sense of their own innate moral superiority – a secular version of justification by faith – so even if you suspect that you’re being ever so slightly naughty you can tell yourself you’re doing it to create a better, fairer world.

Unless the Right can think of ways of making those feedback loops work effectively, or unless the Tory party grows a pair, we’re stuck with BBC bias for the foreseeable future.


  1. Angry Licence Fee Payer8 October 2013 at 10:06

    Thank you for explaining the concept of feedback loops, but I presume the BBC spends money on qualitative research as well? Anyway, putting aside the question of left-wing bias [and paedophile activity and generally very shitty programmes] what staggers me about the modern BBC is:

    1. The complete disregard of the original mission [ Inform, Educate, Entertain]. Grayson Pervy is going to deliver the 2013 Reith Lecture. I wonder if he'll be wearing his "L'l Bo Peep" ensemble?

    2. Financial Mismanagement. This is now fast approaching the level of the Ministry of Defence [which, like the BBC, now seems incapable of generating any positive stories about itself and has sunk into a state of catalepsy]. The Digital media Initiative cost the licence payer £100m. The guy in charge, the one who is called John Linwood, is suspended on full pay [£287,000] while Pricewaterhousecoopers conducts an endless investigation [How much?] Prior to that Siemens was given the contract in 2008 for £79m, but it was terminated quickly [How much did Siemens pick up?] And then there is the redundancy payment scandal and the huge overpayments. And there is Two-Jobs Yentob [£330,000] - Thompson said he was going to abolish his Creative Directorship post three ears ago. He still has the title. Margaret Hodge and her Public Accounts Cte and the National Audit Office huff and puff and showboat all over the place, but nothing ever gets done.

    3. Programming. Dire. Take one example. The BBC is preparing a 6-part series of War&Peace for 2015 [tired, clapped out old Andrew Davies, again]. This is a hugely expensive novel to adapt for the screen [Borodino, Ballroom scenes, Burning of Moscow, Winter Retreat - all sequences separately cost a fortune to shoot even adequately] . King Vidor did it well in 1956, Sergei Bondarchuck did it superbly in 1967 [cost: $700m!], the BBC did a good 20-parter in 1972 with Anthony Hopkins [when adults were still running the show] and there was a great Europudding production in 2007 with Malcolm McDowell in 2007. Why do we need another one? Who gave the green light? How much is it going to cost?

  2. I agree about War and Peace. The series was commissioned by Ben Stephenson, Controller, BBC Drama Commissioning and Danny Cohen, Controller, BBC One. Andrew Davies has told us not to be scared; 'It's nothing to be frightened of. These people are just like us; their emotions are so recognisable," Glad he cleared that one up. No one seems to have brought up the grubby subject of cost: "a shedload" is probably the closest we'll get to that. With any luck they'll flog it abroad on a big scale.

    The BBC does indeed commission qualitative research - that's the Audience Appreciation Index, and BBC programmes generally score well on this. What it doesn't do is pick up on bias. Even if it did, the response would be very low - after all, the vast majority of British viewers have been getting their News from the BBC for years, so, on the boiling frog principle, they no longer see the bias. Also, the vast majority of viewers aren't the least bit interested in politics - they're just vaguely conservative or liberal - so, as long as they're getting Strictly or Eastenders or excellent nature progs, they don't really care about the rest. In olden times, committed Conservative Party members might be roused to complain - but the Tories have successfully alienated their core voters.

    The comedienne Jennifer Saunders recently posed the question we've all been asking for years: "How is Alan Yentob still allowed in the building." How indeed.