Media bias

Readers of weblogs will have read many items complaining about alleged bias from the BBC, particularly in their coverage of Iraq.

Now John Pilger, darling of the Stoppers, joins in the discussion in his column for the New Statesman:

Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director general, has attacked American television reporting of Iraq. “For any news organisation to act as a cheerleader for government is to undermine your credibility,” he said. “They should be… balancing their coverage, not banging the drum for one side or the other.” He said research showed that, of 840 experts interviewed on American news programmes during the invasion of Iraq, only four opposed the war. “If that were true in Britain, the BBC would have failed in its duty.”

Did Dyke say all this with a straight face? Let’s look at what research shows about the BBC’s reporting of Iraq. Media Tenor, the non-partisan, Bonn-based media research organisation, has examined the Iraq war reporting of some of the world’s leading broadcasters, including the US networks and the BBC. It concentrated on the coverage of opposition to the war.

The second-worst case of denying access to anti-war voices was ABC in the United States, which allowed them a mere 7 per cent of its overall coverage. The worst case was the BBC, which gave just 2 per cent of its coverage to opposition views – views that represented those of the majority of the British people. A separate study by Cardiff University came to the same conclusion. The BBC, it said, had “displayed the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster”.

Did Pilger say that with a straight face? The pro-war BBC? Well, I suppose if your approach to media analysis is counting how many minutes members of anti-war groups given on air, you might be able to reach such conclusions. But does Pilger really believe that a media outlets coverage can be analyised by such a primitive method?

One of the main arguments of, ahem, Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, was that media sets the frame for debate in many diverse ways:

Elite media are sort of the agenda-setting media. That means The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major television channels, and so on. They set the general framework. Local media more or less adapt to their structure.

And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.

Many of the critics of the BBC argued that the corporation’s selection of topics, distribution of concerns, bounding of debate in certain limits was slanted towards certain assumptions. Not those of the dominant elite groups in society that Chomsky refers to but, I would argue, towards an assumed liberal consensus on the issue that was dominant within the media elite that Pilger is part of.

And it is clear that the assumed liberal consensus over Iraq ranged from scepticism and cynicism over US and British intentions to outright hostility. The BBC is a vast organisation with a huge output but I don’t think it would be unfair to state that many programmes and presenters did fit within that liberal consensus. When British and American officials were interviewed on the BBC the arguments of opponent’s of the war were certainly put to them – not by Tariq Ali or George Galloway but by the BBC’s presenters.

Where I depart from many of the Beeb’s critics is that I think it is perfectly right that interviewers put those questions. A large number of the BBC’s licence payers, were opposed to the war and it was right that their opposition was put to the government and that they were given a chance to respond to the criticism. That is what public service broadcasting should be about. The more legitimate criticism of the BBC’s coverage was whether this was done in a balanced way and whether the overall tone of the coverage was impartial enough.

But the idea that the Radio Four’s Today programme was pro-war or even comparible to the flag-wrapped cheerleading of Fox News, is hard to take seriously. But then Pilger is capable of believing anything to convince himself of the rightness of his postures – he is, after all, the man who described the Bush administration as “The Third Reich of our times”.

Pilger’s complaints are part of a highly irritating tendency on the part of the anti-war movement to pretend that they have been marginalised from the debate over Iraq. It may suit their self-image to portray their movement as ignored by the powerful pro-war media but the facts rather dispute this.

The Guardian opinion pages have featured the likes of George Galloway, Andrew Murray and Tariq Ali among the more prominent supporters of Stop the War and of course many of the in-house columnists have opposed war in Iraq. The same can be said of the Independent while he weekly New Statesman, which publishes Pilger’s fortnightly column, has been totally dominated by the anti-war perspective.

When the Stop the War Coalition have held their marches they have been given extensive coverage in all the media, very sympathetic coverage in the liberal media. The BBC website linked to the protest organisers and asked demonstrators to send in their photos. Few media outlets, especially not the BBC, have bothered to ask the leadership of the Coalition any difficult questions about their broader political agenda, instead they have too often just gladly accepted the soundbites.

Nor, despite the Stoppers constant and patently false claim to “speak for the majority” has there been much attempt in the media, liberal or otherwise, to understand why the polls show more British people now believe that the military action taken to remove Saddam was justified.

The reality is that an anti-war movement, led by Stalinists and ultra-leftists, has had an incredibly easy-ride in the media and that it’s main mouthpieces have been given plenty of space in print, broadcast media and the bookshops to present their views.

The real problem is that there has been little in the way of a robust opposition to them.