In Focus: The Case for Privatising the BBC – Institute of Economic Affairs.
I have been reading another of the books I snagged at the recent Think! conference organised by the IEA. You can read it too, online for free. It's a well-researched, well-reasoned piece of work. It won't please those on the Right or Left who rage at Auntie's perceived bias because it reaches a nuanced conclusion. Yes, the BBC has a bias but it's not a crudely political one. It's the predictable bias of the kind of middle class professional person who chooses to work in a public service broadcaster. In the chapter "Why is the BBC biased?" written by Stephen Davies of the IEA, he explains why people with views as radically divergent as, say, Owen Jones and I all feel that the BBC is against us;
...certain views are marginalised and either misrepresented or even ignored. It is not a straightforward matter of either left or right views being treated in this way. Rather, all views that are not in the conventional wisdom are slighted, even if they are widely held among the public. Examples from the right would be support for radical reform of the welfare system or the NHS; from the left, it could be the popularity of public ownership of utilities ... Certain views are clearly represented as being uninformed or exotic, such as scepticism about man-made climate change, hostility to immigration or doubts about the benefits of formal education. Sometimes this judgement may be true, but to simply ignore and disregard a view is actually counterproductive if your aim is to inform.
In addition there is an intensification of the structural tendency of the modern media to see political and intellectual divisions in binary terms. This leads to many perspectives being simply ignored or misrepresented. In the last 30 years for example, it has become part of the conventional BBC view that opposition to the EU is definitively located on the right. This means that the continuing and at one time prominent socialist critique of the EU is simply not represented. On the other side, opposition to immigration is thought to be associated with other views conventionally placed on the right, so that left-wing opposition to labour migration is airbrushed out, despite being common among many Labour voters. At the same time, the strong support of most free-market advocates for freer immigration is ignored and glossed over. In other words, the very existence of certain kinds of combinations of views is simply ruled out, and they are not even considered, despite being perfectly coherent intellectually and widely held.
The last discussion I had on immigration, for example, was just this week with a new friend who is an active member of the Labour Party. He is of the same vintage as myself and is a "Old Labour" socialist from the provincial working class that founded the Party. He is uncomfortable with the "Metropolitan elite" now in charge and is more scathing about identity politics than any Tory I know. He is firmly in favour of restricting immigration; believing that it has reduced working class wages. I, on the other hand, would be in favour of open borders if we could first abolish the welfare system that distorts the labour market and attracts unproductive immigrants. For so long as that system exists, I favour a liberal immigration policy that actively encourages skilled workers to come here, regardless of their origins, but offers no welfare benefits to first generation immigrants unless and until they have paid a minimum contribution into the system.
Neither of us fit the simplistic right/left BBC narrative, so our views never feature. He and I haven't talked about the BBC yet, but it would be perfectly understandable if we both thought it was biased. That wouldn't matter so much if the BBC was not (a) funded by state force and (b) the provider of 75% of all television news viewed in the UK. Though the internet is undermining its near-monopoly it still shapes the views of most voters, who rarely ignore its narrative. Hence Auntie's conniptions at the result of the EU Referendum. A decision was made on the basis of opinions outwith her conventional wisdom. It's from "out of left field" as our cousins across the pond say and must be wrong, or mad, or both.
So who are these people who choose to work for a public service broadcaster, bringing their unconscious biases with them?
The initial factor is the very narrow and restricted background of BBC staff, both of presenters and producers. The proportion who are privately-educated (and, by extension, upper-middle class) is several times the national average (Milburn 2014). Generally they come from professional backgrounds rather than commerce or business, much less from working-class households. Much of the critical comment on the narrow base from which the BBC draws its senior staff emphasises the lack of ethnic or gender diversity; but, while there is undoubtedly something to this, it is swamped by the social origins phenomenon. The women and ethnic minorities who do work for the BBC in roles such as producer, presenter and senior manager are likely to come [my emphasis] from the same kind of educational and social background as their white, male colleagues.
What this naturally leads to is a common shared set of beliefs and attitudes, deriving from common or shared experience. In a very real sense the conventional wisdom referred to earlier is the shared outlook of a specific social group or formation. The problem, of course, is that, in the absence of challenges or dissent from people from a different background, all kinds of beliefs remain unquestioned, with the status of 'obvious truth' or 'common sense' attached to them. These kind of unexamined assumptions exist at the level of general principles rather than particular issues. Examples might be that it is always good to help the less fortunate or that most social problems should be understood as having structural causes rather than being explicable through individual agency or action, or that business activity is a zero sum game. Moreover, once a particular set of attitudes becomes widely shared within any organisation, it tends to attract people who share them, and so the situation becomes self-perpetuating and reinforcing.
Then there is the fact that no-one who disapproves of an organisation funded by force would dream of applying for a job there. This is a problem for all state organisations, not just the BBC. I could not live with knowing that every penny I "earned" had been taken by force from my fellow men. I would be as ashamed of working for the Government or the BBC as I would be to work for the Mafia – and for the same moral reasons. I derive my self-respect from taking care of myself and my family and from being a burden to no-one. I am proud of the fact that every penny I have earned came from voluntary transactions with clients who had plenty of other choices. That is why it's difficult to get classical liberals of any stripe into Parliament, Whitehall or the BBC. The self-selected political and administrative classes comprise people who have no moral objection to living parasitically on their fellow-men. We can't expect such people to favour a smaller government, privatisation of the BBC or less state intervention in private life. If they did, they wouldn't be there.
Some may go into politics, the Civil Service or the Beeb with the honourable goal of relieving the burdens of oppressed taxpayers. Few stick to that objective. They will find most of their colleagues bemused by them while they are junior, fearful when they are senior and downright hostile if they come near the levers of power. If not independently wealthy (and why would they work in such mundane roles if they are) they will find themselves under financial as well as social pressure to conform. Their advancement is very likely to depend upon the approval of people who share the conventional wisdom.
This is an interesting book and worth a read. I would love to hear your views on it, gentles all.