Future passive: BBC News' "balance" is so demented that it keeps falling on its face

As a passive voice saturated news story lets Julie Burchill off the hook, Evan Davis gets a part-time job as a government PR man...

There’s this canard that BBC people like to roll out. It goes like this: “If the right-wing think we’re lefties and the left-wing think we’re Tories, we must be doing something right.” It’s self-satisfied, self-justifying, assumption-supporting shit. It’s not true.

The right frames the BBC as a nest of scum and left-wing ‘villainy’ because it wants it stripped for parts, the licence fee abolished, and any programming that is to the left of General Franco defenestrated. The left would like to actually get a word in edgeways on news programmes that often resemble establishment dinner parties.

If you’ve read this newsletter before — or consumed any media criticism on the hell island of Britain… ever — you’ll know that the ‘debate’ about BBC impartiality and balance comes up about as often as questions about Boris Johnson’s parenting, concerns Jacob Rees Mogg is actually some kind of Victorian demon inhabiting the body of a 21st-century man or the realisation that Jan Moir is an avatar of pure evil. But still, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the bullshit.

Today I’m going to look at two examples of the problem with BBC News particularly. Often, when we talk about criticisms of the BBC, we’re actually talking about the broken output of the News division. Most people aren’t horrendously angry about Eastenders or throwing their toys out of the pram about CBeebies (with the exception of some real headbanging right-wing provocateurs who think it’s abhorrent to tell children that racism is wrong).

The examples in this newsletter come from yesterday but there has been a real glut of this balanced unbalanced behaviour since the 2019 General Election was called. Remember the punch that wasn’t a punch?

First up we’ve got PM presenter Evan Davis leaping in to explain what a government minister meant to say in an interview on the Today programme:

I’m sure Davis would argue that he was simply providing analysis and context on an interview that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, the station where he plies his trade at the opposite end of the schedule to Today. But try this little rough-and-ready thought experiment:

When Diane Abbott — during the 2017 election campaign and before she was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes — misspoke on police figures, in one interview in a series of interviews, did Evan Davis explain what she had really meant? No. His colleagues at BBC News were part of the chasing pack that covered the incident as if Diane Abbott, Britain’s first black female politician and a high-achieving Cambridge graduate even before that, was an idiot.

Certain politicians are given the benefit of the doubt, while others are not. Abbott, who receives huge amounts of abuse, is almost universally treated in bad faith. Yet, for some reason, Davis decided to leap in to explain what Robert Jenrick, a minister around whom a cloud of misconduct and corruption allegations swirls, actually meant.

You might think I’m putting too much weight on a single tweet and that’s fair enough, but if you pay attention to the things BBC News reporters and presenters say, you will start to see a pattern. Commentators, analysts, and politicians on the left have to justify their every utterance while people from the right get to play on easy mode, their assertions and worldview treated often as beyond any substantive critique.

So it is that the Conservative Party throws half of its manifesto out of the window and that goes largely unexamined while a perfectly reasonable Labour policy on democratising internet access was seriously called ‘broadband communism’ by journalists who would consider themselves serious.

It’s about the prism through which BBC News tends to view things. And that’s where today’s second example comes in. I’ve already written about Julie Burchill, Islamophobia and her long record of lashing out for fun and profit so I’m not going to rehash that material. Instead, this BBC News article about her book being cancelled simply serves as a good example of how bias floats up through apparent ‘balance’:

Let’s look at the specific language used. I’m going to bold up the words and phrases where the topspin applied to the story is apparent — including in the headline:

Julie Burchill's book about cancel culture cancelled over Twitter row

The incident referenced was not a ‘row’ — which implies a clash in which both sides engaged — but rather an intervention by Burchill, attacking Ash Sarkar after she had, like many others including me, criticised a recently resurfaced column by Rod Liddle in which he implied that he could never have become a teacher as he would have had sex with his students.

The publisher of a book about cancel culture by Julie Burchill has cancelled it after the writer was accused of Islamophobia on Twitter.

The implication in the above line is that it’s a kind of laughable irony that Burchill was writing about ‘cancel culture’ — a fairly disputed term — and then had that book ‘cancelled’. In fact, Burchill, who is revelling in the controversy she deliberately triggered, knew exactly what she was doing when she went for Sarkar — it was a publicity stunt by a woman with over thirty years experience in media manipulation.

For a reader unfamiliar with the incident, the story contains little context. Burchill’s words to Sarkar are not included so it would be easy to include that it is simply a vexatious accusation rather than a widely-held view based on the older woman’s actual words. She quizzed Sarkar about Muhammad’s wives, before pinging a series of increasingly unpleasant tweets at Sarkar.

The book, Welcome to the Woke Trials, had been due to be published by Little, Brown in April.

But Burchill got embroiled with a row with fellow writer Ash Sarkar.

The passive tense is a coward’s trick. The phrasing above suggests that Burchill tripped, fell, and did some racism. For an uninformed reader, the implication is that Sarkar was equally involved in the chemical reaction, rather than simply existing with opinions that Burchill doesn’t agree with. What Burchill did was, in the words of Half Man Half Biscuit, “a drive-by shouting”.

Sarkar accused Burchill of Islamophobia after the Sunday Telegraph columnist made comments about the age of one of the Prophet Muhammad's wives.

The story again minimises what Burchill said — her comments also included personal attacks on Sarkar — and ignores the many other examples of this kind of behaviour in her three decades as a bigmouth for hire. The journalist then simply regurgitates the original Little, Brown press material about the book:

According to Little, Brown's official description, Welcome to the Woke Trials was inspired by the "vitriolic reaction" Burchill received in response to an article she wrote for The Observer in 2013, after which she was "pursued by the outrage mob".

The publisher billed it as "part-memoir and part-indictment of what happened to Burchill between then and now, as the regiments of the woke took over".

Without further context or any comment from Sarkar or anyone besides Burchill and her former publishers, though admittedly their quote is strong, the reader is given ‘anti-woke’ rhetoric without any kind of balance. The entire framing of this short news story — why was it even worthy of coverage? — is of a famous journalist being ‘silenced’ because of an online ‘mob’.

You also shouldn’t consider that short piece in isolation. BBC News programmes have frequently hosted debates about ‘wokeness’ and the ‘limits of political correctness’ in recent years, giving ample air time to the likes of Toby Young, Douglas Murray, and Darren Grimes. In the interests of ‘balance’, the BBC has unbottled some of the most unpleasant bastards in British public life.

There are a lot of reasons for BBC News now having all the balance of a person with a serious inner-ear infection. They include the ascent of former Tory council candidate and management drone Tim Davie to the top of the corporation, the BBC’s growing fear that the only way to prevent destruction is to bow deeply to the government, and the increasingly unserious attitude taken by a generation of hacks who are increasingly chummy with ‘government sources’, Tory spinners, and gobshites.

In 2006, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Stephen Colbert — then still using his exaggerated right-wing ‘Stephen Colbert’ persona — said this:

Now, I know there are some polls out there saying [George W. Bush] has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias ...

Those last 7 words — “… reality has a well-known liberal bias…” — have become a kind of zombie quote, floating around the place as a kind of truism.

Those words also sum up the general position taken by right-wing talking-heads in the UK, only they are livid that the facts lean leftwards and go further to insist that right-wing views (despite a Tory government and most newspapers coming from the right) are under-represented. But listen to hours and hours of BBC News coverage — as I sadly do — and you realise that many presenters and shows lean so far rightwards that they’re increasingly walking in circles.