Artillery Row

Batting for Biden: the BBC and the US election

The BBC has been wholly partisan in its coverage of Donald Trump ever since he was elected

There’s a little acronymic game played by critics of the BBC which involves finding other words to fit those familiar three letters. Leavers dubbed the Corporation “The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation” because of its clear bias in favour of Remain. In advance of the US election next month I’m joining in the game: to me the BBC is now the “Biden Broadcasting Conspiracy” because of the way it has mounted a concerted campaign to help ensure that Trump doesn’t win again.

The BBC has been wholly partisan in its coverage of Donald Trump

I know, I know – it’s not really very clever – but it is a tiny revenge that gives a little satisfaction whenever I contemplate the sheer extent of the BBC’s departure from its professed commitment to “impartiality”. For the plain truth is that the BBC has been wholly partisan in its coverage of Donald Trump ever since he was elected. There is something about the 44th president of the USA (some say 45th because Grover Cleveland won two, non-consecutive terms) that has aroused in the BBC’s corporate breast the deepest animosity. The fact that this time round his opponent is a man who is plainly in his dotage doesn’t matter; for the BBC it has become “anyone but Trump”, and that has coloured its news coverage in a way that makes a mockery of its claims to be even-handed.

For those of us who treasure moments when the smug certitudes of the liberal establishment collide with unforgiving reality, election night 2016 was one of the best ever. The horrified disbelief on the tear-streaked faces of the Clinton camp were mirrored by BBC staffers as they came to terms with the awful truth. The negativity set in immediately, and from that day on the tone of the BBC’s coverage of Trump settled into a sour, derisive hostility. In the first days of his presidency Trump issued an executive order banning people from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States, which he justified on grounds of national security.

The BBC has mounted a sustained campaign of detraction against the president

The BBC was outraged (despite the fact that Obama had done something similar when he was in charge). The story dominated its news bulletins for weeks and it seemed beyond the Corporation’s journalists to comprehend that this ban (inaccurately dubbed the “Muslim travel ban” even though most of the world’s Muslims were unaffected) met with the approval of the majority. And not only in the US. In 2017, following Trump’s move, Chatham House sampled public opinion in ten European countries asking their opinion of Muslim immigration; 55 per cent wanted all Muslim immigration stopped with only 25 per cent disagreeing. But the fact that Trump’s ban had popular support counted for nothing; to the BBC it was evidence of Trump’s wickedness.

That story set a pattern. At every stage of the Trump presidency the BBC was in the vanguard of those pursuing stories to his discredit. It was eager to amplify the charge made by the Democrats that Trump had “stolen” the election with the help of sinister right-wing billionaires and Russian interference. In 2018 the Guardian and New York Times published their great expose of Cambridge Analytica. In breathless terms it was explained how, with devilish cunning and smart algorithms, Cambridge Analytica had firstly swung the Brexit referendum in favour of Leave and then helped Trump to dupe the American electorate.

The damage to Trump’s reputation and the validity of his election was done long ago

The BBC enthusiastically bought-in to this narrative which – as was finally revealed this month in a comprehensive investigation by Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner – was without foundation. The whole story was an overheated journalistic confection – a complete fantasy. There was no evidence of Russian involvement and CA had been using methods widely practised in the industry. So, no conspiracy, no story, nothing to discredit Trump’s victory. But of course, the damage to Trump’s reputation and the validity of his election was done long ago. Needless to say, the BBC barely reported Denham’s debunking report.

And then there was the great impeachment farrago. If ever there was a low political manoeuvre masquerading as a high principle this was it. It was, from the start, obviously phony and also, because of the political arithmetic, doomed to fail; but that didn’t stop the BBC treating the whole charade with solemn portentousness. The BBC never misses an opportunity to further blacken Trump’s name.

Trump is the first politician in my memory who has so determinedly taken on his media enemies with the charge of “fake news”. I think he is much misunderstood when he uses this term; I also think he is justified in levelling the charge against the likes of the US TV networks, the big print outfits like the New York Times and, yes, the BBC. All these media indignantly deny the charge; “Who, us?” they shriek, “We’re the liars? Not so it is the orange braggart who lies. We check our facts. We tell the truth”.

Media outlets, including the BBC, distort the truth by pumping out negative stories about Trump

This is a disingenuous defence which misses the point. These media, including the BBC, distort the truth by pumping out only negative stories about Trump. And here is the real, underlying, truth: you can be strictly accurate and factual in your journalism and yet still be unfair, and in a larger sense untruthful, if you weight your stories in a negative direction. It is, if you like the difference between calumny (a lie) and detraction (a truth told to do harm to another’s reputation) as defined in the old Catholic catechism; the BBC has mounted a sustained campaign of detraction against the president by presenting only those facts which are to his discredit.

And that is the real charge against the BBC in advance of this important election. By putting everything that Trump has done in the worst possible light and by ignoring the good things he achieved, Trump has been made out to be a villain without any redeeming features. It might be argued that it doesn’t matter all that much because a British media outlet will have little impact on an American election, but the BBC is an important player in the US with a claimed audience of 38 million people across the states. Many of those Americans using the BBC do so because, perhaps naively, they trust it more than their own outlets. If so, they are deluded: the BBC is as rabidly anti-Trump as is MSNBC or the Grey Lady herself. The Corporation is no more objective or impartial than is Fox News. In ideological terms the BBC has skin in the game.

The BBC has a Manichean worldview where liberal = good and conservative = bad

This requires explanation, for it might not be immediately obvious why the BBC should be so heavily invested in Trump’s defeat. It comes down to the BBC’s core beliefs and worldview. The BBC has a Manichean understanding of the world which comes down to liberal = good, conservative = bad. In this schema Trump stands on the wrong side of every divide: he is against open borders (a hallmark of leftist utopianism); he is against military intervention in pursuit of liberal democracy; he is highly suspicious of pillars of the international order like the UN which he sees as anti-American; he has his doubts about Islam; he thinks “globalism” hurts the American working class; and, perhaps most importantly, he is pro-life.

This last indictment on the charge-sheet is the one which goes to the heart of the BBC’s hatred of Trump. The BBC is wholly committed to the doctrinal tenets of militant feminism, foremost among which is a woman’s “right to choose” under all circumstances. Nothing offends the Corporation’s journalists more than the belief that abortion is a moral evil which is why you never hear that matter fairly debated on the BBC’s airwaves. For decades now the BBC has resolutely shut-down the abortion debate in Britain, unlike in the US where it is one of the defining issues. Leave aside, for the moment, whether Trump’s support for the pro-life movement is anything other than opportunistic; maybe he opposes he pro-choice lobby purely for reasons of political advantage, but that doesn’t matter. What matters are outcomes.

Should Trump prevail on 3 November – an outcome which looks increasingly unlikely – there will be further restrictions on the availability of abortion and possibly, at some point in the future, some new legal protections established concerning the rights of the unborn. The bigoted liberals who call the shots at the BBC would then fear ideological contagion; if American law does, at some point become pro-life how long, they wonder, before that idea crosses the Atlantic? The BBC has no sympathy for those who believe, to coin a phrase, that “Unborn Lives Matter”. It is abortion – that quintessentially moral issue – that most fundamentally shapes the BBC’s heartfelt opposition to Trump.

All of the foregoing above will be open to the objection of the BBC’s supporters that mine is an entirely subjective view and that the BBC is, as it claims to be, impartial, honest, truthful, etc. And it is true that “proving” bias is not an easy matter; one man’s bias is another’s objective truth. However, sometimes the BBC’s mask of impartiality slips to reveal the belief system that lies just beneath the surface. For instance, in 2017 one of the BBC’s senior North American correspondents, James Cook (now the face of BBC News in Scotland) wrote a piece for the BBC website headlined: “Giving succour to the far-Right, Trump breaks with American ideals”. In the piece Cook opined:

Did American soldiers fight and die on the beaches of Normandy so their president could promote fascism? It is an astonishing question, absurd even. To many it may seem offensive even to ask. But it falls to reporters to describe in plain language what we see, and the promotion of fascism and racism is all too easy to observe in the United States of 2017.

So, here is Cook posing as fearless truth-teller. Leaving aside whether Cook’s sloppy use of the “f-word” undermines his argument (it’s the kind of usage one can forgive from callow undergraduates of Marxist persuasion, but a seasoned reporter surely should know better), there can be no doubt that this BBC correspondent is nailing his colours firmly to the mast. It still shocks an old BBC hand like me that what Cook wrote could be considered anything other than a serious breach of the Corporation’s doctrine of impartiality. But – typically and predictably – the BBC’s complaints unit had no difficulty exonerating their man.

“It is not unusual” the unit decided “for correspondents to offer their own take on developments … BBC News does not have an opinion on Donald Trump’s presidency … we do not aim to denigrate or to promote any view. Our goal has simply been to report and analyse…”

The BBC’s high-flown claims about impartiality and fairness are a sham

Which I take to mean that Cook’s opinions are his own and the fact that they appeared on the BBC website should not be taken to mean they have the Corporation’s nihil obstat. This doctrine, if applied more generally, seems an open invitation for BBC staffers to sound-off on just about anything. Which is what another BBC North American correspondent, Nick Bryant, did in August letting himself go in one of his dispatches about coronavirus. He wrote about Trump’s “ridiculous boasts”, his “mind-bending truth-twisting”, his “pettiness and peevishness” and his “narcissistic hunger for adoration”. However, in this instance the BBC’s Complaints Unit decided that Bryant had, indeed, overstepped the mark and displayed bias against Trump. Bryant was admonished but is still in post and reporting on the campaign.

The apparent contradictions between these two rulings are evidence, some say, of an internal debate within the Corporation about the need to renew the organisation’s vows of impartiality in the face of threats to the license fee privilege. However that is not the point here (though, in passing, I cannot see how labelling Trump “fascist” is a lesser crime than saying he’s a peevish narcissist); rather it is that two senior BBC reporters have made it very clear where they stand on Trump and all his works. Most of the time BBC correspondents find subtler ways of condemning Trump but these two instances allow some insight into what the Corporation generally manages to keep well disguised: a consistent, politically motivated antipathy to Trump.

The BBC’s long and successful campaign to paint Trump as unworthy, incompetent and wicked will not determine the outcome of the US election, but it will have had some effect. And it is not my intention here to argue that Trump has been a perfect president – he is a flawed individual who, despite the campaign of vilification he has endured, has managed so do some good things. My point is that the BBC’s high-flown claims about impartiality and fairness are a sham as its treatment of Trump so clearly demonstrates. Americans, no less than the British themselves, should be aware of the reality beneath the sugared blandishments.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover