The BBC is a liar. But is it noble?
Robin Aitken’s analysis is idiosyncratic but rings true
The BBC dominates British media. It whines about the rise of online media, but also brags about its presence in all media: 91 percent of British adults use a BBC service each week; the average adult uses these services for 18 hours per week; 80 percent access BBC news every week; 60 percent do so via television; and more than half regularly use BBC online.
The BBC refutes its dominance by pointing to public funding, but in reality it is as commercial as any other provider. (It exposes its hypocrisy every time it uses the free market to justify its fabulously paid staff.)
In any case, using public funding as a defence makes the BBC sound like state media. The BBC claims its independence is guaranteed by charter, but government approves its charter (around every decade) and its chairman and director-general (around every five years).
Aitken’s book is not a history, so his tracing of the BBC’s agenda is scattered
The BBC over-compensates with an anti-government bias, which has metastasised into biases against tradition, patriotism, and majoritarianism. The BBC is no longer representative of most Britons. Hence, the popular campaign to defund the BBC, the decriminalisation of the misnamed television license (it’s a tax, for the benefit of one broadcaster, in any media), and the interest of conservatives in taking over or establishing broadcast stations.
Thus, the timing is good for a new edition of Robin Aitken’s critique. Aitken left the BBC in 2006, published his first critique in 2007, and another in 2018. My first necessary and happy report is that the new edition really is updated to 2020 (Spring 2020, at least).
The title (“The Noble Liar”) comes from Plato’s writings about the “noble lies” that elites use to justify society to the plebs, such as a founding myth. In the conclusion, Aitken describes the BBC as a “hidden persuader”: “in the guise of impartiality…its real intention is to change the society it serves.” Aitken’s “contention” is “that the BBC, along with its media and establishment allies, has become the vehicle for the propagation of a series of noble lies in pursuit of a political agenda.”
Aitken’s book is not a history, so his tracing of the BBC’s agenda is scattered. He reminds us that the BBC started as a private company in 1922. It received Royal Charter in 1927, when “it was serious-minded, consciously aligned with traditional Christian morality, and conscious also of its obligation to be fair” (page 129). In the 1930s, the BBC asserted independence from conservative governments. Its public status also encouraged it to sympathise with the public sector. Left-wingers hand the run of things by the mid-1940s. In the 1960s, television coverage expanded and politics shifted most dramatically. Aitken claims (but does not prove) that leftists targeted television as a counterweight to the mostly right-wing press. That generation took over the leadership by the 1990s.
Aitken specifies only a few “noble lies”: political impartiality (page 101), religious impartiality (171), multiculturalism’s premise “that all cultures are deserving of equal respect” (241), and harmonious immigration (120-125).
Aitken’s book is about biases more than lies. Up front (page 12), Aitken lists “certain obvious biases in its news coverage.” It is “nakedly hostile to Donald Trump’s presidency and Viktor Orban’s ascendancy in Hungary [and] social conservatism.” Meanwhile, “the theories that drive radical feminism are never challenged” and “the difficult subject of Islam in the West is consistently soft-pedalled.”
The BBC’s mania for anything continental started in the 70s with a myth of national decline
Aitken rarely offers evidence, although this probably makes most people less uncomfortable than it makes me. Aitken’s evidentiary approach is to tell us his observations and quote the elite. This approach is easy to box as tilting at straw men. On the other hand, Aitken’s targets make his job easy.
Aitken’s first target is Chris Patten, who, after a prescient switch from Thatcherism, became a leader of the progressive age, including as Chairman of the BBC Trust from 2011 to 2014. Aitken uses Patten to “position” the BBC “on the British political spectrum,” primarily by quoting Patten’s autobiographical statement that his “political life” was “devoted” to everything that Brexit and Trump are not. Aitken quotes also Jeremy Paxman’s remark at a literary festival in 2017 about “most people” at the BBC voting Remain and Labour or Liberal Democrat.
Aitken himself observes that “[w]ithin the BBC there has always been natural sympathy for left-wing thinking.” Aitken adds the label “liberal,” but doesn’t qualify that much abused word until late in the book. Until then, Aitken appears to conflate “liberal” with “left-wing,” which is a progressive habit. Progressives are not classical liberals, who prioritise individual freedom. Belatedly (page 288), Aitken clarifies his awareness of the conflation. He notes that the BBC is not economically liberal (in the classical liberal sense), but is socially liberal (in the rights sense). Aitken uses the word “liberal” primarily to mean a rejection of “objective morality” (particularly Christian morality) in favour of “permissiveness.”
Aitken traces the BBC’s adoption of this perverted “liberalism” back to the 1960s (page 239). My contacts tell me that “liberal” is widely used inside the BBC today in the progressive sense. One of them blames a mania for youth speak.
Britons were allowed to talk about tolerance but not dissent, safety nets but not benefit fraud
The BBC’s inaccurate use of words, and its bans on other words for supposed bigotry (such as “cakewalk”), are alienating to most, inspiring to some. Demographically, the BBC remains unrepresentative, cloaked by virtue signalling.
Aitken characterises most BBC journalists as “much better-educated than most” and “from comfortable middle-class backgrounds.” The BBC’s most recent analysis shows that 23 percent of employees in the news division had attended fee-paying schools (nearly four times as many as the general population). The BBC’s wokeness is partly over-compensation.
Over-compensation is a vicious cycle: new victims are made, ignored, rediscovered, and favoured. The Director-General has just made an issue of the BBC’s privately-educated, Oxbridge graduates, but discriminating against them will discriminate against merit too, and against the minorities that are positively discriminated by schools already.
The BBC’s annual report for 2019 revealed that barely half of Britons feel the BBC reflects “people like them” or their “part of the country.” The proportion falls below half for the working class. The BBC’s “Director of Creative Diversity” has just admitted a disconnect from the white working-class, but a “Director of Creative Diversity” is the worst person to change that.
With biases come hypocrisies, such as posing as the “national broadcaster” while aligning with anti-British agendas. Aitken makes an example of Emily Maitlis of “Newsnight” spouting “they’re laughing at us” while interviewing a minister about negotiations to exit the EU in 2017.
The BBC is less of a liar than a censor. Aitken uses the industry term “discretionary”: most of the time the BBC can choose for itself what it reports, regardless of charter. The BBC refuses news outside its agenda, such as the effect of immigration on house prices.
Even when the BBC reports uncomfortable truths, it uses Orwellian speak and framing. Aitken is most vociferous on page 273: “Some of the journalism which is served up by the Corporation is little better than propaganda in the service of a clear, but never openly acknowledged, political agenda.”
Aitken gives as example (page 223) the BBC’s references to “the so-called Islamic State,” while pushing a line that Islam is a “religion of peace.” I remember that well, because I was then analysing the etymological gap between Islamist terrorists and Western political correctives.
Aitken does himself a disservice by not documenting the BBC’s many other crimes against language and reality. Even though the BBC is tangential to my own work, in the process I have publicised the BBC’s mischaracterisation of a left-wing manifesto for mass murder at a mosque in New Zealand in March 2019 as “right-wing.” I also pointed out the BBC’s refusal to admit that Iran is engaged in terrorism. And I complained that the BBC used the word “refugee” to describe anybody travelling across Europe during 2015. In 2016, the BBC conceded to call them “migrants,” but defined migrants as asylum seekers!
The BBC dominates British reporting, with about 5,000 journalists. It has more foreign correspondents than any other provider. Aitken points out the irony that the BBC’s reporting on Britain’s two most important partners (America and the EU) is woefully unreliable.
The BBC’s pro-EU bias is easiest to prove. By Aitken’s account, the BBC’s mania for anything continental started in the 1970s, when the leftist elite adopted a myth of national decline (without taking responsibility for it). Additionally, BBC journalists tend to be highly educated and privileged, and, therefore, by inculcation or over-compensation, herd around the EU.
The BBC’s EU-mania is well proven by two private research organisations funded by Lord Pearson (Global Britain since 1997; News-Watch since 1999). During the 1990s, the BBC featured twice as many pro-EU guests as anti, and proliferated EU propaganda while scorning sceptics. When Pearson discussed the findings in the House of Lords in 2002, the BBC buried the news in an online cul-de-sac. In 2005, after a change of chairman, an internal inquiry confirmed the external data, but denied deliberate bias. Aitken reports, perhaps from personal experience, “that from 2005 onwards there was a greater awareness within the BBC of the need to strike the right balance.” In practice, this was more appearance than reality. News-Watch established that from 2005 to 2015 barely more than 3 percent of the BBC’s guests on the EU were sceptics.
In 2016, the BBC treated the Brexit referendum like a two-sided election, and thus gave equal time to each, but thereafter it returned to form. In March 2017, Julian Knight a former BBC journalist and Remainer, organised 71 fellow MPs, from all parties, in an open letter to the BBC about its “pessimistic and skewed” coverage. The coverage even had a catch phrase: “In spite of Brexit…”
Aitken’s book really takes off in chapter 4, about one-third in, when he focuses on the BBC’s international reporting. His tacit knowledge is strongest here, and his outrage drives his narrative.
At this point, his book targets the wider elite that has turned Britain on its head. Indeed, the BBC becomes a secondary character, a conspirator more than an instigator, while a growing elite (leftist governments in the 1970s, educators in the 1980s, New Labour in the 1990s, and compassionate conservatives thereafter) champions politically correct subjects and suppresses everything else.
Consequently, Britons were allowed to talk about tolerance but not dissent, safety nets but not benefit fraud, workers but not shirkers, minorities but not the majority, multiculturalism but not Britishness, gay rights but not religious objections, easier divorce but not the benefits of marriage, abortion rights but not responsible parenting, Islam but not Christianity, free movement but not fake asylum seeking, the EU’s free trade but not its protectionism.
Robin Aitken worked for the BBC for 25 years, from reporter to executive. I kept expecting Aitken to use his experiences as evidence towards his conclusions. Aitken rarely clarifies whether he is observing as employee, consumer, or from hearsay. At times, his observations are threadbare. For instance, he states (page 41): “Many debates on the BBC now do not include anyone with a socially conservative viewpoint.” I agree, but “many” is an almost meaningless quantifier.
This doesn’t matter where Aitken is preaching to the choir, but is easily dismissed outside the church. I don’t have many contacts inside the BBC, but all agreed that most colleagues are ignorant or disinterested in Aitken’s writings, although all agreed that the BBC needs to take the criticisms seriously if it is going to survive.
One of the few explicit direct observations in Aitken’s book dates to the cusp of the 1970s/1980s: “As a London-based BBC reporter in those years I saw firsthand how deeply the BBC establishment opposed what came to be known as Thatcherism.” I would have liked to read more of the “what” and “how.” Aitken talks about Eurosceptics John Redwood and Richard Body being “much mocked” as “unenlightened jingoists,” but is unclear whether his observation was direct or even within the BBC.
Chronologically, Aitken’s next admitted memory is of reporting about 9/11 2001. He describes this event as prompting him to research Islam, multi-culturalism, female genital mutilation, and the organised sexual exploitation by Muslim men of non-Muslim girls. Concurrently, Aitken was pushing his superiors to report these subjects, but doesn’t describe his struggles in the book, although he repeats some of his complaints: “Scandalously, the BBC foreign news coverage has been skewed to mask the true extent of Muslim aggression around the world.” (239-240)
Aitken dates a subsequent observation to 2017, when he is clearly speaking as a consumer: “there was a pronounced tone of mocking hostility [towards Donald Trump] quite unlike anything I can ever remember from the BBC previously.” In the conclusion, written in early 2020, Aitken added: “I find it difficult to recall any single BBC report on Trump which portrayed him in a positive light.” Aitken attributes this to political bias, then adds a professional bias (Trump denigrated journalists). One of my contacts agrees that the BBC remains unquestioningly anti-Trump. This contact cites some ironic evidence: the BBC’s leadership regularly sends all-desk emails reminding staff not to hate Trump publicly!
Aitken doesn’t leverage his professional network. Perhaps his former colleagues wouldn’t cooperate. Perhaps he is too discretionary. Aitken’s direct experience ended in the “Today” programme, which the BBC still markets (with pretentious abstraction) as its “flagship” news programme on radio. Such a programme would be ideal for him to expose from the inside, but he barely mentions it, even though he spends a chapter describing Tommy Robinson’s counter-sting of a “Panorama” sting in 2019.
Aitken cites a former civil servant of the Foreign Office that, in the 1970s, pressured the BBC to get rid of Today’s presenter Jack de Manio, for being sceptical of European integration. In a footnote, Aitken refers to the BBC’s “stiff internal resistance” to broadcast of this admission in 2000 (within a history programme on Radio 4).
Strangely, Aitken doesn’t explore the “Today” programme’s decline to supplicant of New Labour. (Remember the programme’s gullibility towards its economic wizardry, crime statistics, expansion of the EU, and intelligence on Iraq – until too late.) By the 2000s, “Today” had become performance art by a few long-serving cult personalities: the chaotic James Naughtie, the pompous Sara Montague, the soporific Edward Stourton, and the domineering John Humphrys. They made the programme pointless, except to fellow contrarians and egocentrics. They pretended to know better than their guests, so wouldn’t let them talk. The BBC defended them as “tough” – a pivot beloved of pseudo-intellectuals.
Humphrys was the lead actor of this pseudo-intellectualism. The BBC further employed him to present “Mastermind” and other high-minded programmes. In 2019, Humphrys retired, after 53 years at the BBC, and 32 years presenting “Today.” In conservative newspapers, Humphrys criticised the BBC’s “institutional liberal bias.” By “liberal,” Humphrys meant illiberal: he criticised the BBC’s “Thought Police” and their censorship worthy of the “Kremlin in the 1950s.”
His former colleagues denounced him as a “Tory” and “Brexiteer.” (For the record, he describes himself as “middle-of-the-road,” a voter for all the mainstream parties at different times, and a voter for Remain in 2016.)
For me, the real lesson of Humphrys’ betrayal is not a revelation of BBC bias (duh!), but an exposure of the fakery of everybody involved. And these were the people in charge of the BBC’s “flagship.”
Aitken ignores the case, except to note (page 301) that Humphrys regretted his confrontational style and wished he had listened more to his guests.
The only direct interviewee I could find in Aitken’s book is David Keighley, who left the BBC in the 1990s before taking over the News-Watch team (around 2000). Aitken paraphrases Keighley as saying that “the journalists who operate within the BBC bubble simply cannot discern their own prejudices,” and that if officialdom would admit News-Watch’s evidence, then the BBC would be judged in breach of its charter.
Aitken clearly agrees. He concludes a different chapter: “In short, the BBC, driven by a dogmatic liberal idealism, has taken sides in dereliction of its own charter obligations and at the cost of distorting a crucial national debate.” He concludes the book by judging that “the BBC falls woefully short of its charter obligations on a daily basis” (although he wants it reformed, not abolished).
The BBC’s current charter is worth quoting: “The mission of the BBC is to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality, and distinctive output and services which inform, educate, and entertain.” Similarly, the BBC’s editorial guidelines state that: “Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences…considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views.” And BBC News online states: “The BBC is recognised by audiences in the UK and around the world as a provider of news that you can trust. Our website, like our TV and radio services, strives for journalism that is accurate, impartial, independent and fair.”
The BBC is in routine breach of its own charter and guidelines. It should lose its public funding on this ground alone. It should be fully exposed to the commercial consequences of its noble lies by abolishing the license fee. Then, when we turn off the BBC, we wouldn’t still be paying for it.
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