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Ed West: Yes, the BBC needs more diversity – of opinion, that is

West EdEd West is the deputy editor of The Catholic Herald. Follow Ed on Twitter.  

I’m always fearful that one day I’ll end up as one of those angry men who shout at Radio 4 - the wife raising her eyes, thinking to herself “here he goes again”. And I suspect that the early signs of BBC bore syndrome are already showing.

Yet the funny thing is that I love the BBC. It’s something I grew up with and as Bart said to Homer, it’s done more of a job raising me than you have. I love the sound of David Attenborough’s voice and – some Tories may disagree with me on this one – Stephen Fry’s. I like nothing better than evenings in drinking wine in the kitchen with Front Row playing. Part of what I like about being British is our great institutions, and the BBC is central to that, a comforting familiar voice we all love.

So my report into bias, Groupthink: Can We Trust the BBC on Immigration?, recently published by the New Culture Forum, was troubling to put together.

While I’ve long been aware of Tory complaints about BBC bias, having watched and listened to countless hours of BBC footage going back to 1997, I was surprised by just how skewed it often was. What was interesting is that, from about 2006-2008, people started saying “it’s not racist to talk about immigration” and “we can talk about immigration” so much that even I began to think “ok, enough, let’s talk about something else please”. And yet looking back at BBC reporting in 2000 and 2001, it’s clear why people were worried about being called racist – because the BBC effectively treated them as such. The tone of their coverage of William Hague’s warnings about Labour immigrant policy was one such example; in contrast they covered the then immigration minister Barbara Roche’s fairly radical changes with virtually no criticism or scrutiny.

But how does one define impartiality? In a sense there’s no such thing, it’s in the eye of the beholder. But we can try to measure how many voices the BBC features, and although it would be difficult to total up the full number, all the examples where anti-immigration voices get the lion’s share are listed in the report – I found two. The number of available articles or news bulletins where there are more pro-immigration voices than antis- is vastly larger; it’s not unusual to find a BBC report which has three pro-immigration voices against one, sometimes four to one, and on occasions four voices in favour with no sceptics.

I also looked at various subjects which are outside the “liberal comfort zone”, as the BBC’s 2007 impartiality report called it; asylum seekers, Islamic and white extremism, crime and disease. These are all wince-able subjects that are disturbing and attract the disturbed but, as the recent grooming cases have illustrated, the media should tackle the uncomfortable. (I also looked at BBC coverage of U.S immigration because I felt that this was perhaps the most one-sided reporting of all.)

The BBC has done some things well. There have been some very informative and fair episodes of Panorama, such as those tackling segregation in Blackburn and illegal migrants living in London sheds. On some issues, the Beeb was early to the story, such as people smuggling. But these are mainly areas where immigrants are victims as well as villains, and so are less contentious. The BBC does not do awkwardness. The chances are if something would raise a silence at a dinner party then it won’t be on the BBC. That’s why Channel 4, despite also being of a Leftist bent, has led the way in looking at issues such as cousin marriage, or extremism in Islamic schools.

That is perhaps because the BBC was founded not just as a broadcaster but as a national institution, one that would help to forge social cohesion during the troublesome post-First World War period. It succeeded, to an extent. But as Britain became more diverse from the 1960s, and as there was a very real fear that minorities might be victimised or excluded, the BBC quite rightly began to see integration as its duty. And to the generations raised after the War, support for immigration, diversity and multiculturalism became central parts of the liberal moral order that dominates western societies. As Jeff Randall, a former business editor, was told during his time there: “Jeff, the BBC internally is not neutral about multiculturalism. It believes in it, and it promotes diversity.”

But how does an organisation fit its roles promoting diversity with honestly reporting on some disturbing trends? The reality of multiculturalism is messy and complicated and has its ugly aspects as well as its beautiful, and ignoring them has corrupted our culture as well as allowing problems to multiply. What happens when the media becomes engaged in promoting comfortable untruths is that a cynicism develops, and people are put off political discussion altogether. (I think multiculturalism promotes quietism rather than extremism.)

So what do I propose? The BBC needs more diversity – of opinion. When any group of likeminded people get together they are going to be radicalised, and the essential problem with the Beeb is the same as the problem of British intellectual life generally: there are just so few conservatives around that there is little stopping an echo chamber developing which pushes the agenda in a radical and unbalanced direction. That's a dangerous and destructive thing; and I should add, it would be exactly the same if conservatives had a moral monopoly on society.

But technology is making it harder to justify the BBC as it presently stands. A new generation using computers as their main entertainment station do not need the TV licence fee and this link, once broken, will be hard to restore. Ironically, the very atomisation that social liberals encourage has helped to weaken the future role of the BBC, originating as it did in a highly cohesive society. That’s an opportunity for conservatives, whose support the corporation will need if it is to retain its position.

I want the BBC to thrive, as a force for good around the world as well as in Britain, but it must reform. It has to pro-actively tackle bias, and that means employing high-profile officials whose job it is to scrutinise the major news stories, active efforts to ensure that heretical, conservatives voices are heard as often as liberal-Left ones, and programmes dedicated to discussing bias within the BBC.

The BBC has always been good at self-criticism, even joining in at times – it’s what makes its so quintessentially British. I hope it finds ours helpful.


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