Sean Walsh argues that for the BBC to rehabilitate itself it needs to interrogate its default assumptions and to get serious.
I was in the Question Time audience a year or two ago when the programme was hosted at the Arts Centre in Salisbury. Those were more innocent times; Brexit still seemed possible and very few people in the city had even heard of Novicchok. The panel was made up of John McDonnell (very short), Alistair Campbell (very tall), Anna Soubry (very shouty), Quentin Letts (very himself) and somebody from the SNP (very forgettable – also I don’t remember her walking out in a confected hissy fit so perhaps that SNP strategy was still in committee stage – as I say it was more innocent times). I tried to ask a question but luckily was not called. If I had been I’m pretty sure I would have defaulted to “My name’s Sean and I’m an alcoholic”; I was going to quite a few meetings at this point. David Dimbleby came out pre-recording to chat to us all and was quite charming. He will be missed.
Mr Dimbleby’s departure has prompted some discussion as to whether Question Time should be retired. And the issue of BBC bias has formed part of that conversation. But there shouldn’t be any suggestion that this bias would in any way be ameliorated by the axing of this one example of it. That would be like offering a patient a haircut when she is in need of a lobotomy. BBC bias is structural and embedded. It emerges by invisible hand from the default assumptions of its employees. It manages to be both predictable and frustrating.
We might distinguish two types of bias, bias of opinion and bias of attitude. The latter is insidious and takes several forms, one of which involves the reduction of the complex and objective to the trivial and personal. Everything the BBC discusses, in its news and editorial functions at least, is looked at through the prism of personality. The language of true and false has been replaced by the language of “appropriate” and “unacceptable”. All is soap opera. The BBC thought matrix confusedly rejects both God and contingency at the same time. There are no “bad things” there are only“injustices”. And somebody is always to blame.
On a recent edition of The Daily Politics the guest was Jordan Peterson. The presenter, Jo Coburn, eschewed engagement with Dr Peterson’s ideas in favour of a cheap set up. He was played a clip of Donald Trump in which, she claimed, President Trump was denouncing illegal immigrants and referring to them as “animals”. This, she said, was a logical consequence of Dr Peterson’s suspicion of identity politics. Except, as it turned out, President Trump was not referring to illegal aliens as a group at all, but to members of a specific Mexican drugs gang. Thus the BBC uses misrepresentation and sleight of hand in pursuance of its favoured “gotcha” moment.
This bias of attitude does not even amount to argument ad hominem. In an ad hominem fallacy the personal opinions or qualities of an interlocutor are taken as being relevant to whether or not his conclusions are true. But this at least involves some concern for the role of argument. What the likes of Miss Coburn and her colleagues are doing is not logical fallacy but a shaping of their questions according to some sense that they can do the shaping according to their own prejudices.
There is a role for the personal in politics. But not for invective. Jacob Rees-Mogg is popular because he recognises that courtesy, which is necessarily personal in form, is more effective than stridency. Courtesy involves treating the other as other. Invective is interested in the other merely for her failings, from which can be built a platform for the announcement of one’s own (imaginary) virtues. When Rees-Mogg meets the yob from Momentum with studied politeness he is demonstrating to that yob that he inhabits a different moral universe. This was always the real meaning of “turning the other cheek” which is a call not to be submissive but to be provocatively non-violent. Mr Rees-Mogg, a scholar of the scriptures, will surely know this.
The BBC usually denies bias in either form on the grounds that it manages to offend “all sides” and therefore must itself be neutral or “doing something right”. This is a ridiculous argument, one that assumes that political space is arranged in some sort of line and that neutrality means being conceptually equidistant between the opposite end points of that line. This is a cousin of Mrs May’s neo-Hegelian approach to Brexit, according to which the “correct” position emerges from opposition between Leave and Remain. It is in any case a peculiar claim, that to offend everyone means that one must be doing something right. Presumably its defenders also think that the Krays were “doing something right” since they managed to upset both the police and the Richardson gang.
If the BBC is to rehabilitate itself then it needs to stop thinking its job is to discern some fictitious point on a contentious political spectrum. It needs to interrogate its default assumptions and to turn away from soap opera.
In short, it needs to get serious.
Happy retirement Mr Dimbleby!