ven for the most self-confident political leaders, or strident tweeters, these are challenging times. Daunting questions erupt with no easy answers. How to address the rise of radical Islam? What is happening in Europe and how should the UK respond? Is the British economy recovering or striding once more to the edge of a cliff? How to fund and structure a public health system with soaring demands? Why is the forthcoming general election so close, when for decades Britain elected single parties? Of course, leaders will claim to have the answers. They must seem strong, with a sense of clear-sighted mission. To admit that they cannot see through the fog would be an act of political suicide. But in reality, finding answers is not easy, and in some cases it’s impossible.
That means others in the media must fill the gap and seek to explain what is happening. Neither the questions nor the volcanic news stories that accompany them come from nowhere. They have a context. To take a recent example MessrsRifkind and Straw are not cartoon characters, one moment senior respected ministers and the next a couple of greedy villains. What they were “caught” doing has a background that raises illuminating questions about what we expect from elected representatives. Unravelling these questions helps to make more sense of the surface madness.
At their best, some newspapers perform the task brilliantly. But newspapers have the freedom to range widely and are under pressure to make money. They can shine light, or add to the fog, by expressing views on parties, leaders and issues. There is no need for them to explain what is happening if they do not wish to do so.
The BBC is in an altogether different position. It cannot make waves by picking a side to cheer for. But in the election and well beyond, the BBC could have a distinct role. It could seek to explain, make sense of what is going on and proclaim this as its overwhelming task.
Forty years ago this week John Birt, who later became a director general of the BBC, published a seminal article on what he called the broadcasters’ bias against understanding. The article is as relevant now as it was then.
In February 1975 Birt argued that broadcasters were not biased against a particular party but were biased against explaining what was happening. Then Britain was in economic turmoil, and about to hold a referendum on whether to stay in the European Union. A fragile government with the tiniest majorities clung to power. The mainstream Westminster parties and their leaders were viewed with widespread disdain.
But Birt noted in his article that in television current affairs there was no appetite to explain and analyse. Instead, TV reported one damned event after another, as one historian wrongly described the writing of history. No connections were made or context explored; pictures drove the story, the so-called human interest story topped others, the vox pop was hailed as giving space to real people and panels of public figures or pundits were put together to provoke wholly predictable clashes.
Forty years on, Birt’s arguments still apply. What he captured particularly well was the wilful misreading of “bias” by the BBC’s critics. There is no conscious partisan bias at the BBC. If journalists want to exert influence to the left or right they do not join the BBC, which is much closer to the civil service in its determined non-partisan approach.
When I was at the BBC I had no idea how my colleagues were planning to vote. I discuss little else these days with my fellow columnists. But of course the huge constraints can be frustrating for BBC journalists. They read the newspapers and the Twitter debates and want to be part of the action. As a result there tends to be a bias in favour of the latest political fashions as long as they cannot be defined as “left” or “right”.
I was at the BBC when Birt sought to implement his ideas in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although he was widely portrayed as a Stalinist, it took an almighty effort of will and focus on his part to shift the culture. Sometimes there was no shift, to Birt’s frustration.
His concerns ranged way beyond politics, but how politics was reported worried me then and it still does. In the 1990s the media fashion was to attack the prime minister, John Major, for being hopelessly weak. As “weakness” was not a left or right issue, the BBC became part of the onslaught without explaining the frail context in which Major made his tortuous moves. Being part of an army of BBC political correspondents I was often asked by editors to follow up newspaper reports or columns that portrayed Major as useless. There was little interest in the explanation behind the apparent uselessness.
Now Major is seen as more substantial than another bizarre cartoon character who somehow or other managed to become prime minister. The context could and should have been explained at the time, the fracturing of a party that had become impossible to lead.
Now the fashion is for Ed Miliband to be portrayed as useless. Once again this is not a “left” or “right” issue, so parts of the BBC can join in the fun. If newspaper columnists write an onslaught against Miliband they can trigger an entire sequence on Newsnight, even if the writers have long disagreed with the Labour leader. Is Miliband solely another cartoon character, comically hopeless, or do some of his ideas chime with the mood of the times? Is part of his problem, like Major’s in the 1990s, the divisions in his party, a legacy of the Blair-Brown divide that was partly ideological? We could do with some bias in favour of understanding, as we could on the other thorny issues of our times: More ambitious peak-time current affairs, longer sequences in some bulletins for a single issue, discussions that are allowed to breathe.
Making sense of the mad surface need not be dull or targeted at an elite audience. It is patronising to assume that only an elite wants to know what is going on and anyway formulaic populism is so boring. In highlighting a bias against understanding, John Birt was on to something big 40 years ago. He still is.