Rarely has the balance of news coverage been so contentious in the UK. The editorial agenda of both the press and media has always had its political dimension, but rising anger in the everlasting fall-out from the 2008 financial crash, as well as a slew of other seemingly critical issues which consistently go unreported, means frustration could boil over. And nowhere is the frustration greater than over the timid BBC.
Few expect the Daily Mail or the Guardian to abandon their clear political perspectives. But many more would still accept that the BBC at least tries to be impartial, even if it doesn’t always achieve it. How long this lasts is an interesting question, but it is a measure of how sentiment could be changing that this respected public corporation is now the target of an Occupy movement demonstration in London tomorrow (November 16).
In many ways, the BBC cannot win, facing as it does dissent from both left and right. Critics from the left point to its coverage across a wide range of economic and social issues, both at home and abroad, as either partial or non-existent. They fume over how extensive protests across the country against the Coalition government’s NHS reforms, introduced last April with little political debate and even less of an electoral mandate, were largely ignored.
Five years after the financial crash, and with prime minister David Cameron now openly advocating permanent austerity, the BBC has failed to use its considerable economic and political expertise to even air gentle dissent about quantitative easing and the banksters’ escape from justice, or evidence that most if not all of the markets are being fixed.
Meanwhile, the political right, the BBC’s current paymasters, are muttering threateningly that the corporation could lose its right to the £3.6bn of licence fee cash. This follows Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps’ criticism of the BBC as secretive, wasteful and unbalanced in its reporting.
As BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten – himself a former Tory chairman – says, it is common for senior government politicians to try and rough up the corporation in the run-up to a general election.
But Shapps’ was a particularly nasty attack, linking as it did criticisms of home affairs editor Mark Easton with the corporation’s alleged wider failings – a move which probably reflects the influence of the Tories’ political strategist and resident Aussie pitt bull Lynton Crosby. It seems likely that the corporation will soon be politically ‘in play’, if it isn’t already.
So timidity by the BBC should come as no surprise. But its problems possibly also reflect the crisis of independence that UK journalism faces, not only because of the well-documented decline of traditional media caused by the rise of t’interweb, but also because of a dissipating consensus.
Britain is rapidly becoming a less socially cohesive place, with the disparity of wealth and opportunities as pronounced now as they have been for a century. Consequently, treading the middle ground, as the BBC tries to do, is an ever more tortuous exercise which delivers ever diminishing returns.
What’s more, the departure in September of BBC News economics editor Stephanie Flanders to become chief market strategist for the UK and Europe at J P Morgan, which some commentators claim is one of the most corrupt banking organisations on the face of the planet, has merely fuelled the sense that traditional journalism has become little more than a PR irritant for the major corporations.
Having said that, though, some of the BBC’s news omissions are surprising. For instance, it’s not just Japan that is imminently threatened by the unfolding, post-tsunami disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power station.
Comments by award-winning scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki on the BSNews website would suggest that this story could do with a little more coverage. Suzuki described Fukushima as “the most terrifying situation I can imagine”, and one of global significance.
Meanwhile, there are strong suggestions by Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project, that the nuclear industry and the Japanese government are attempting to hide the full extent of the current disaster, as this news items on Russia Today testifies.
And the BSNews article continues:
Suzuki notes that reactor four is so badly damaged that – if there’s another earthquake of [magnitude] 7 or above – the building could come down. And the probability of another earthquake of 7 or above in the next three years is over 95%. Suzuki added that he’s seen a paper that says that if the fourth reactor comes down, “it’s bye bye Japan, and everyone on the West Coast of North America should evacuate. Now, if that’s not terrifying, I don’t know what is.”
While the BBC has given the Fukushima recovery effort some coverage, it could be argued that it is not commensurate with the disaster’s scale, actual or potential. For instance, the leakage, as identified in August 2011, was estimated to be around 29.6 times greater than the radiation emitted by the Hiroshima bombing.
Given its global significance now, and despite suspicions that the disaster has not been well managed, one would have thought it might command a higher profile in the news. It’s also interesting, given the UK government’s £16bn Hinkley Point deal with EDF last month, how little debate there has been on the safety of nuclear energy, particularly given its “economically insane” cost.
If this was the only major omission by the BBC – even one that involves ignoring a potential global nuclear catastrophe – then it would be easier to put it down to a single editorial blind spot. However, there are many other major issues which have simply not been given the light of day.
For instance, there has been precious little mention of the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership, which doesn’t sound sexy but will have a profound impact on the functioning of our democracy.
Ostensibly designed to remove regulatory differences between the US and the EU (including the UK), it effectively promotes large corporations and investors to the same status as nation states, and gives those corporations the powers to challenge governments through a process known as investor-state dispute settlements.
Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot describes the partnership as giving big business “the remarkable ability … to sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens. It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections. Yet the defenders of our sovereignty say nothing.” And neither did the BBC.
The negotiations have been going on for some time, and the online news media have been monitoring the deal’s progress. In October, the Huffington Post first said the deal “would elevate corporations to equal status with nation states”. On 11 November, the HuffPost’s UK site outlined “Why trade deals are privatising government”. In his latest Keiser Report, on Russia Today, Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert commented on how the dispute process is always likely to be weighted towards the corporations. The news is there is you wish to find it.
Of course, there are other now-perennial challenges for the BBC, ranging from the Israel-Palestinian conflict and climate change to quantitative easing, austerity and social breakdown.
It is difficult to resist the feeling that the BBC’s innate conservatism has left it well behind the curve on a range of major forces that will shape our society for generations to come. Perhaps the corporation feels that during this age of austerity, viewers are less interested in the serious news stories which will have a direct bearing on our lives, and that the populace should instead be fed light entertainment to dull the pangs of distress. Well, if that’s the case, then that is a value judgement that the licence fee payer should have a say on.
Meanwhile, I wish I could be there for the Occupy the BBC demonstration tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see whether the event attracts any coverage on BBC News.
But, regardless, I need not worry: there will undoubtedly be further opportunities to make the case.