Despite attempts to paint itself as an ‘impartial’ news provider, it is clear that the BBC is a mouthpiece of the British establishment, with a clear bias against Corbyn and the left. This is evident from those at the top.
In as much as the Conservative Party is (or shall we say was) the envy of the ruling class across the globe, so too is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
This monolithic media outlet is perhaps the world’s most famous and oldest national broadcaster. The BBC is one of the largest media organisations internationally in terms of the staff it employs. And, despite the rise of alternative media platforms, the majority of the British public still view the BBC as their most trusted news source.
In spite of the near-daily attacks towards Jeremy Corbyn, unabashed praise of the monarchy, and the rarity of left voices in its political programming, the overwhelming majority of the British public still put their faith in the BBC.
An Ipsos Mori survey found that 57% of the British public see the BBC as their most trusted news source, giving the BBC a level of respect unlike any other broadcaster. Its nearest rival in terms of most trustworthiness was ITV News, which scored a measly 11%.
Whereas it is quite easy to highlight how Fox News or the Daily Mail are owned by billionaires and are therefore obviously biased, the same cannot be said for the BBC.
Because of its special funding arrangement, based on an annual licence fee from TV-watching households, the BBC is supposedly not answerable to corporate interests but to us, the people. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
The Tory government holds the purse strings and BBC management know it – hence the increasingly ‘soft’ approach being adopted by the corporation towards the current government, with BBC journalists being pressured to go along with this.
As a public broadcaster, the BBC has a public remit to present “impartial news”. The BBC charter itself states:
“We are independent, impartial and honest. We are committed to achieving the highest standards of accuracy and impartiality and strive to avoid knowingly or materially misleading our audiences.”
This impartiality, however, is about the same as that of the Bank of England, whose “independent” governors represent the mainstream strategists of British capital. In fact, impartiality and fairness within the broadcast media only legally applies during a general election.
Under class society, where a tiny minority get rich by exploiting the overwhelming majority, there is no such thing as impartiality when it comes to the giant institutions that hold power and authority. The same rule applies to the media industry as it does for finance.
The ideas which dominate society are those of the ruling class – and this is very much reflected at the BBC. Ideas which clash with the interests of the ruling class are met with fierce resistance and ridicule by the establishment and its mouthpieces.
The treatment of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is a clear example of such slander, and concrete proof that “impartiality” at the BBC is a myth. From distorting his views, to photoshopping his face onto the Kremlin, to the consistent focus on the anti-Semitism smears, the BBC finds all sorts of ways to attempt to discredit Corbyn.
An LSE study into how the eight largest national newspapers treated Corbyn during his first two months as Labour leader found that 75% of the articles negatively misrepresented him.
One area, however, where less attention has been paid is the “safe hands” at the top of the BBC – those who are entrusted to deliver the news and provide editorial lines – and the connections of such people.
If we examine the key figures in the top political posts at the BBC, it is clear to see just how they are tied up with the Conservative Party and big business. Politics, media and big business elites all belong to a privileged clique who are constantly shifting between roles. By examining a few of these figures just briefly, we can see behind the veil of so-called ‘impartiality’.
To say Robbie Gibb was a key figure at the BBC for political broadcasting would be an understatement. Gibb was the principal head of all live political programming at the BBC from 2008 until the summer of 2017. This included the Daily and Sunday Politics programmes (which he was the former editor of), the Andrew Marr Show, This Week, and Radio 4’s Westminster Hour. He was also formerly a deputy editor on BBC2’s Newsnight from 2002 to 2008.
For someone with this much editorial power and control in his hands, it is surprising he is not more known about. This is even more shocking given how closely connected he is with the Conservative Party.
Gibb, after leaving the BBC, went on to join Theresa May as her current spin doctor – i.e. ‘Director of Communications’. Moreover, his own brother Nick Gibb is the Conservative cabinet minister for schools.
In the 1990s, Gibb had worked for the Conservative MP Francis Maude, and was a former advisor to Michael Portillo. In the mid-1980s, Gibb was deputy chair of the Federation of Conservative Students – an organisation made infamous by its production of “Hang Nelson Mandela” merchandise – before its dissolution.
Gibb is a man who is Tory through-and-through. No wonder he was the head of the BBC’s political programming for years!
It is the likes of Gibb who decide what political topics are discussed, which panellists are brought on, and essentially how the debate is shaped on these political programmes that make up hundreds of hours of political programming each year.
For example, The Sunday Politics, which he formerly edited, opens with a chat of the weekly events with three political pundits who openly express their views. The trio usually consists of Isabel Oakeshott, Janan Ganesh and Helen Lewis. Whilst a “diversity” score can be made with two women and a BAME person represented, there is almost nothing to separate them politically.
Oakeshott openly referred to herself as a Conservative on BBC Question Time, and has written for the Daily Mail and Evening Standard. Ganesh, a columnist for the Financial Times, has described himself as “essentially a Portillista“, meaning a follower of the former Conservative Party shadow chancellor Michael Portillo.
Lewis, who is arguably “the most left” of the bunch (which isn’t saying much) is the deputy editor of the New Statesman. Yet she has still penned anti-left drivel, such as her claim that Corbyn purposefully dressed badly on Remembrance Day to distract from his apparent lack of action on Brexit!
The fact that these ‘safe’ panellists and the editor of the programme are so closely embedded with the Conservative Party is no accident. It is a systemic outcome which makes sure that left voices are silenced and are considered a minority.
Laura Kuenssberg has been the BBC’s main political correspondent since July 2015 – exactly the same time that Jeremy Corbyn rose to prominence.
She is the daughter of Scottish-born businessman Nick Kuenssberg, who is a member of the advisory board of the Adam Smith Business School at the University of Glasgow. Both of her parents have honours from the Queen. Although we are not all our parents, she clearly comes from a privileged background with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
Kuenssberg is one of Theresa May’s key allies in the media. Notice how May will always pick Kuenssberg as the first to be able to ask her a question at a press conference. And whereas other news reporters, like Channel 4’s Jon Snow, were denied an interview with May at the 2018 Conservative Party conference, Kuenssberg was not.
At the same conference Kuenssberg said of May’s awful dance as she entered to deliver her keynote speech: “That was one of best speech entrances ever from the person the public might least expect it from.” This begs us to ask what planet she has been living on!?
More potently though, Kuenssberg’s attacks on Jeremy Corbyn have been relentless. One such blatant example was during the Paris terrorist attack in 2015. Corbyn was questioned separately about extending the policy of shoot to kill – a demand that he was rightly wary of. However, the report which went out to millions of people was conflated to make out that Corbyn believed that if a terrorist attack happened, police officers should not be allowed to shoot terrorists.
A leaked report by the BBC trust no less made a damning assessment of what happened: “There was a significant difference between what Mr Corbyn said and what the report inferred. This led to a failure of due accuracy.”
Andrew Neil is a true dinosaur of the BBC’s political programming. This Conservative monstrosity, who is seemingly planked onto almost every political programme, has hawkish military views, is a climate change denier, and claims there is a “Climate Mafia” out to get us.
Neil is chairman of the Press Holdings Media group, which publishes The Spectator, the right-wing Tory-supporting magazine. And he gloated on live television after the 2015 general election of how the Tories seemed a little smug at a private Conservative victory party he went to the previous night!
He has been fiercely critical of Corbyn and the left over allegations of anti-Semitism. Recently he had the nerve to make a speech at the Holocaust Education Trust denouncing the left for allowing anti-Semitism to flourish. Yet Neil was happy to denounce the left-wing Jewish group Jewdas as “nutters”. Even worse, as a former Sunday Times editor, he hired David Irving, a well-known Hitler apologist (!) to examine the Joseph Goebbels diary entries!
Neil has given a speech in praise of the ultra-liberal theoretician Friedrich Hayek. He called for Hayek’s ideas – of smashing the unions, abolishing the welfare system, and allowing business to run riot – to be resurrected for the 21st century to stop Britain’s decline. He questioned, however, whether Britain could ‘stomach’ such a programme.
Neil is a hard-right Thatcherite, intimately tied to the right wing of the Conservative Party. Imagine a left equivalent of Neil being allowed to present the BBC’s flagship political programming. It would cause a torrent of utter outrage from the mainstream press and media.
When Guardian journalist Owen Jones did attempt to confront this bias towards Neil and show how the mainstream press like the Spectator magazine is involved in whipping up racism and xenophobia, he was completely shut down. Neil barked, “Your smears and lies about me won’t be dealt with tonight so just move off it…it’s got nothing to do with it.”
The ‘impartial’ godfather of the BBC, David Dimbleby, is a much-loved figure of the right wing. He has hosted every election night since 1979, and is most famously known for being the former chair of Question Time.
Dimbleby let slip his true colours during an exchange on this show between him and a well-known 19th century Tory MP. Whilst talking about airplanes going over near Slough, Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that the noise hadn’t really bothered him when he had lived there. Dimbleby quipped “Eton was that?” Rees-Mogg confirmed it was, and that, “I was at school with your son”.
As an Oxford student, Dimbleby was part of the same social layer as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, since all of them belonged to the infamous Bullingdon Club.
Dimbleby is an important figure who is wheeled out for all the important state occasions. From general elections, to referendums (including Brexit), the state opening of parliament, and Remembrance Day, Dimbleby is there as a safe voice for the establishment should they ever need it.
Dimbleby has repeatedly demonstrated his clearly anti-Labour views in the past. He has even been reprimanded for these. In 1971 he made a documentary called Yesterday’s Men in which Harold Wilson’s Labour opposition was ridiculed.
Labour were misled about what the documentary would be about and weren’t told the title or that it would feature a satirical song about them! Wilson was furious, and it hurt relations between the BBC and the Labour Party for years.
John Crawley, chief assistant to the BBC’s director general, noted: “Most commentators and nearly all politicians concluded that we could not be trusted. It will take ages to live it down.” John Simpson, the BBC’s long-standing foreign affairs correspondent, even wrote that the documentary was unfair to Harold Wilson and that it was “distinctly shallow, poking its finger into the eye of authority merely for the sake of it”. (John Simpson, Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century was Reported, London: Macmillan, 2010, p. 441-2)
Whilst Dimbleby appears a neutral arbitrator, he clearly belongs to the establishment. That he has been given such positions of prominence during important state occasions illustrates his trustworthiness for the ruling class – a trustworthiness they will call upon in times of crisis.
Since September 2005, Andrew Marr has held the prime spot on Sunday morning television. The Andrew Marr Show, watched by an audience of millions, sees him host one-on-one interviews with the main leaders of government.
In the past, however, he was surprisingly a Maoist, known as ‘Red Andy’. But Marr would not have been allowed to get into the position he has now if he had held onto those views. He himself has openly admitted that he shed his communist sympathies whilst working for the Economist in the 1980s, stating:
“It was full of terrifyingly clever people who took no prisoners in discussion…It made me question a lot of my assumptions…The Economist changed me quite a lot.”
Subsequently Marr was a keen supporter of Tony Blair and the New Labour project. He is a known Europhile and was a key supporter of the UK joining the Euro currency.
Marr joined the BBC as a political editor in May 2000 and gave his full support to the Iraq war. Outrageously he triumphantly stated on the BBC that Blair’s critics “aren’t going to thank him – because they’re only human – for being right when they’ve been wrong… It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger Prime Minister as a result.”
He may now regret his choice of words, but his New Labour values most certainly have not been lost on him. Marr revealed his contempt towards the left during a full-on ten-minute berating of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2018 Labour Party conference. Marr dutifully echoed the campaign of Labour’s right wing to paint Corbyn as an anti-Semite, despite there being no evidence to back this up.
Marr has a pro-capitalist outlook on the world and can be relied upon by the establishment to defend their views.
Nick Robinson & James Landale
Nick Robinson of the BBC’s Today Programme, was formerly its chief political correspondent, and is now its current presenter. He has been at the forefront of political reporting for many years. But in his younger days, Robinson was the President of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
James Landale is yet another Etonian who has made his way to the BBC. He was a former reporter for The Times newspaper. He is the current BBC diplomatic editor for the BBC News Channel, where formerly he was the chief political correspondent. He also worked as a deputy to Nick Robinson. Lansdale was the other top candidate for the role of Theresa May’s spin doctor in the summer of 2017, which went to Robbie Gibb instead (see above).
Robinson had also been touted for the role of spin doctor for the Conservative Party. The fact that two of the most senior political correspondents are clearly establishment figures, with close links to the Conservative Party, says all we need to know about the BBC.
These are just but a small number of the key figures at the BBC. James Harding, Rona Fairhead, Evan Davis, Kamal Ahmed, Chris Patten, Jeremy Paxman, Thea Rogers, Craig Oliver, Stephanie Flanders are just a handful of the many other names we could examine to illustrate their links to the Tory party and big business.
As the examples above show, a revolving door exists between the mainstream press, the BBC, and the Conservative Party. Even if there were or are news presenters or editors who wanted to deliver a ‘workers’ news’ from their own class point of view, this would be incredibly difficult when they are surrounded by a mass of people who toe the line of the ruling class.
The majority of the news is reported and commented on by a mainstream press that is owned by the billionaire class. You can see this quite openly (as with all news programmes on other channels), whether it is BBC Breakfast or The Andrew Marr Show, where they have a newspaper section discussing their main articles and headlines. And rarely, if ever, have we seen the Morning Star let alone Socialist Appeal reported as a part of these sections.
Beyond the news
BBC bias and the output of its content goes beyond just the normal BBC news cycle, but into the numerous documentaries that are commissioned too.
Since the beginning of austerity in 2010, the BBC has commissioned numerous programmes about benefits and the welfare state, which have acted to justify the government’s cuts. The Future of the Welfare State, presented by Jonathan Humphreys, was just one of these programmes which the BBC itself later said broke its own rules on impartiality and made misleading statements about benefits spending.
Note as well the more explicit political documentaries that are commissioned like Labour – the summer that changed everything. The documentary follows a handful of Blairite MPs such as Stephen Kinnock and Lucy Powell during the 2017 general election. The intention of the programme was clearly to document what they thought would be a disaster of a campaign, with Corbyn squarely to blame. Instead, Kinnock and co. ended up with egg on their faces, as Labour’s left-wing campaign was met with enormous enthusiasm.
“Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation”?
In the mid-1980s, the Conservative MP for Leicester East, Peter Bruinvels, labelled the BBC the “Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation”. He ridiculously urged Conservative voters to boycott watching Casualty, claiming it contained “Labour propaganda” about the NHS.
In the 1980s, in particular, there were many in Margaret Thatcher’s government who often claimed that the BBC had a “left-wing bias”.
This accusation is still bizarrely claimed to this day. The BBC however has never been left-wing and is institutionally anti-Bolshevik. Almost since its very founding in the 1930s, the BBC politically vetted candidates for positions with the help of MI5 due to the fear of “communist subversion”. This vetting has been publicly acknowledged to have been practiced until the 1990s, and probably continues to this day to one degree or another.
Room 105 of the old Broadcasting House in White City is where much of this vetting of candidates took place. And it was not just a small number with editorial powers that were checked over. The likes of engineers, librarians and makeup and wardrobe staff were vetted too!
There were three categories which MI5 had for anyone who was potentially seen as ‘subversive’. Category A was the most serious, and MI5 would state: “The Security Service advises that the candidate should not be employed in a post offering direct opportunity to influence broadcast material for a subversive purpose.”
Later down the line there was some concern expressed over far-right organisations like the National Front. But the main target was always, and remains to be, those on the left. Those to be refused work included any members of (or simply associated with) the Militant Tendency, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Revolutionary Party.
The BBC had continually lied about this practice for decades. In 1968, when questioned by a Sunday Times reporter, the former BBC director general Sir Hugh Greene lied, stating that the BBC did in fact have communists amongst its staff and that, “We don’t conduct an inquisition on people who join the BBC”.
But declassified files revealed that it was in fact MI5 that drew up instructions for how Greene and others at the BBC should handle the Sunday Times interview, to keep their practices secret!
Media Reform – a question of ownership
The BBC is essentially a state broadcaster and it represents the views of the ruling class. Fundamentally, in this respect, it is no different from state broadcasters in Russia and Iran, such as RT and Press TV, that are so frequently – and hypocritically – attacked by the liberal establishment in the West. The BBC is of course more subtle in how it achieves this same aim, presenting an allure of impartiality that makes it all the more potent in deceiving people.
But this ruse was let slip in the past – for example during the 1926 general strike. Winston Churchill, who at the time was in charge of government propaganda, called for the BBC to be directly incorporated into the state. Stanley Baldwin, the Tory Prime Minister, argued against this on the grounds that it would play a more effective role if it was seen to be independent.
Scratch this veneer of impartiality, and its role as an establishment mouthpiece becomes clear. It is evidenced at the very top in its vetting of candidates for jobs, the choice of political pundits that are allowed on, and who is selected as their chief political correspondents.
The bias against the left, and how the BBC is run, are not the products of conspiracies. They are products of its design.
True, the BBC does occasionally feature left-wing voices. Certainly, the likes of Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Neil can roast the Tories too when they want to. Yet when it comes to defending capitalism as a whole, the ruling class knows that the BBC can be relied upon to protect the status quo.
It is within this context that Jeremy Corbyn’s recent proposals on media reform and the BBC are a welcome step forward. Corbyn’s proposals include curtailing government influence over the BBC by ending the charter system, whereby the BBC’s deal with the government over its public obligations is renewed every ten years.
The Labour leader does not cynically recommend privatisation or austerity to combat the BBC, but correctly brings up the question of ownership and control.
Corbyn recommends empowering the BBC’s workforce and licence fee payers to elect the board of the BBC. He wants to introduce transparency over pay and people’s backgrounds at the BBC, as well as the private production companies who now produce so much of the content that is commissioned. Importantly, he wants to involve the unions as a part of this process.
Corbyn’s proposals would go some way to begin democratising the BBC. But if the BBC – and the media more generally – is to be fully democratised, Corbyn must go much further.
Reforms need to include the elections of commissioners, editors, and all heads of departments by all staff, including journalists, researchers, engineers, camera operators, runners, coordinators, and producers.
Moreover, not just the BBC, but the apparatuses of all the mainstream media, including the printing presses, studios, editorial suites, and other resources need to be nationalised and taken out of the hands of a tiny clique of billionaires. Use of them should be democratically allocated to groups according to the amount of support their viewpoints hold in society, not the size of their bank balances.
The BBC’s transformation, however, cannot be done in isolation. It would require all the other institutions of the state and the ruling class (e.g. the banks, major industrial monopolies, etc.) to be bought under democratic workers’ control too. That way, the viewpoint of a small minority, the capitalists, cannot dominate over the many using money and influence.
If any of these initiatives are to be successful, trade unions such as BECTU must not limit themselves to just improving the terms and conditions for their workers, but must play an active political role in transforming the ownership and control of the media itself.
The left has generally done well in calling out bias from the BBC. But there is more to be done in highlighting the BBC’s hypocrisy. The question of ownership and an expose of who runs the BBC is required be known by all socialists.
Moreover, if Jeremy Corbyn is to get his reforms through to radically change the ownership and control of the media (including the BBC), he will no doubt face fierce resistance. The BBC will be at the forefront of the ruling class’ efforts to undermine a Corbyn-led Labour government. This point cannot be stressed enough.
The key players who run the BBC are vehemently anti-left and anti-working class. Only a radical overhaul in how the BBC, the media, and society as a whole are run, will begin the process of changing this. It is something for the unions to step up and fight for.
Picture of Andrew Neil by Financial Times, CC BY 2.0
Picture of David Dimbleby by UK Parliament, CC BY-NC 2.0