Unconscious bias

Politicians aren’t supposed to get angry at the media. Ideally, they are supposed to adopt an attitude that achieves a nice balance between vaguely amused disdain and theatrically solemn respect. However they might rage and rail in private at some printed or broadcast affront to truth or decency, in public they must respond with a practised smile and small shake of the head which signals indulgent tolerance of a minor foolishness; or a mirror-tested straight-faced nod that indicates accord with the perspicacity and sagacity of some utterly banal observation or woefully shallow analysis. Never anger or outrage. Or, at least, never anger or outrage that isn’t echoing the media’s hypocritical condemnation of one of its own who has been caught on the wrong side of the wispy line dividing proper conduct from unacceptable behaviour.

Generally speaking, politicians are well-advised to treat the media with considerable caution, if not outright deference. So it’s significant that Alex Salmond has been so harshly critical of the BBC over its presentation of an interview with Ross McEwan, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland. And not for the first time. It would have been strange indeed if the former First Minister had not condemned this latest bit of ‘misreporting’ given that it is almost identical to a similar incident during the first independence referendum campaign which he had previously spoken out about.

Basically, the bank makes a very mundane statement about the need to have registered offices in both Scotland and England after independence. This is then spun by the media as a threat to take the bank’s entire Scottish operation down to London if the people of Scotland choose to end the anomaly of the political union and normalise their nation’s constitutional status. Ross McEwan explicitly states that what he is talking about is “a technical matter with no implications for jobs or investment”, but that does nothing to prevent headlines and captions that powerfully suggest a massive loss of jobs.

Note that there is not necessarily a lie here. What Alex Salmond is chastising the BBC for is not dishonesty, but ‘misreporting’. He judiciously avoids saying that the BBC lied. He merely points out that they have allowed the possibility that their audience may take from the report a mistaken appreciation of the facts. Others must decide for themselves how much regard they have for the fine distinction between a deliberate lie and something that merely has the effect of a lie.

And here we must sound a note of caution. When assessing the BBC’s coverage of Scottish politics and the now undeniable bias in favour of the British establishment it would be a mistake to think in terms of a formal conspiracy. If you’re imagining a cabal of managers, producers, directors, journalists and presenters secretly conniving together to do down the SNP and the independence movement, you are entertaining a fantasy. There is no organised plot. Nor is there any need for such a thing. What, with hindsight, has all the appearance of having been carefully contrived is, in fact, no more than the incidental outcome of an ‘organic’ process with no purpose or direction.

Just as ‘misreporting’ may be indistinguishable from deliberate dishonesty, so what looks like a conspiracy may be only a mirage. It may be no more than the impression left on history by lots of unconnected, or only loosely connected, events. It may be a pattern without a plan. It may be conspiracy as an emergent property of an organisation which, not being effectively managed towards its true purpose, tends towards the dominant agenda within its own structures.

All that is required for the appearance of conspiracy to emerge is that there should be a sufficient number of people; with a sufficient amount of influence; and a sufficient commonality of interest.

This is what has happened in the BBC. And most particularly in BBC Scotland. It is not wholly accurate to say that either is institutionally biased; although the BBC is undoubtedly the broadcasting arm of the British establishment and can be expected to behave accordingly. It would be more apt to describe BBC Scotland as organisationally, or structurally, biased. Over time, a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing process has led to the organisation being populated with people drawn from, or with intimate connections to, a Scottish political establishment that was, for a formative period of decades, the almost exclusive province of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). BBC Scotland is stuffed with people who still regard what they like to call “Scottish Labour” as rightfully the dominant force in Scottish politics. Many are inclined to treat it as if it still is. They genuinely see nothing wrong in packing every studio panel with BLiS worthies because they cannot accept how irrelevant the pretendy wee party has become.

The inevitable corollary to this collective and largely unconscious (or unthinking?) pro-British/pro-union/pro-BLiS bias is antipathy to the SNP. After all, the SNP has not only supplanted BLiS as the primary force in Scottish party politics, but also represents a threat to the British state, which the BBC is institutionally inclined to regard as the ‘natural order’.

Obviously, this is a problem. For the public service broadcaster to have succumbed to organisational bias is a very serious issue for the functioning of democracy in Scotland. But in order to properly address a problem it is first necessary to understand it. To think in terms of conspiratorial plotting is to miss the point. This is a management problem. Or, more precisely, a problem of management failure.

I have no background in broadcasting. But the basics of good management are pretty much universal. They apply to every organisation. And it is glaringly obvious to me that BBC management has failed abysmally. I firmly believe that the BBC is institutionally sound. Moreover, I regard it as a crucial bastion of public service broadcasting. I have to recognise, however, that the BBC is in danger of being delivered into the hands of those who, for political or commercial motives or both, would see it destroyed. It is being betrayed by a generalised failure of management.

There was no production meeting at which the various people involved discussed how the RBS story could be spun against the SNP. It’s actually worse than that. BBC management have, by their incompetence, permitted the development of an environment in which these things, quite literally, just happen.

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9 thoughts on “Unconscious bias

  1. Dan Huil

    It’s got to the stage where the bbc, especially in Scotland, has now become so paranoid about accusations of bias, misreporting etc, that it automatically denies, in ever-increasing shrillness, any hint of bias, whilst at the same time refusing to even look back at what it has published and broadcast. It is consequently now unable to even contemplate any self-criticism.

    What we, the bbc, broadcast is always balanced. How dare anyone say otherwise!

    Thus the falling standard of bbc journalism is trapped in its own downward spiral.

  2. Iain Barker

    There is no such thing as unconscious bias when it comes to not just the BBC but the Brit Press and Media collectively, it is quite deliberate bias.

    There is a culture of “we are just following orders!” at the BBC in particular but the same can be said for most of the rest of the British Press and Media.

    When oh when are the SNP and other politicians going to take the gloves off and tell it straight as it is – The BBC and nearly every organ of the Brit Press and Media just tells lies.

    1. Jim Rodden

      Absolutely 100% correct Iain, this article points to all the indications of a conspiracy but, then says it is not, if it smells like shite, it is usually shite causing the smell. The anti SNP/Indy spin on all newsworthy things Scottish is no accident, neither is the ill concealed aggressive stance taken against SNP spokespersons on their various political programmes. It’s high time the SNP tore these conspirators a new one.

  3. Sandy

    I usually subscribe to the cock-up theory rather than conspiracy but I lean towards deliberate bias by the BBC. There may not be production meetings where specific stories are spun against the Scottish government but there are meetings to decide on appointments that wouldn’t consider a pro-independence candidate for a second.

    I suspect we won’t know the truth for some years. Regardless, the BBC has to go, time for an organised campaign of non-payment of the licence fee.

  4. Graham

    No it isn’t a conspiracy, it’s an ethos, an expectation of the “right” sort of spin to put on a story, a group-think on the way an issue is to be presented, knowing that if you go against the prevailing orthodoxy there will be consequences.

    The BBC always maintains, as others have said, that it is impartial. Well, I’d like it to produce some evidence to support that contention, because there’s plenty of evidence from the likes of GA Ponsonby, (Prof) Robertson and others that it’s not impartial.

  5. Angry Weegie

    Whereas I would accept that there are no production meetings to discuss how any story can be spun as SNPbad, I really don’t see how the RBS story can really have happened almost by accident, or at least without a deliberate decision on somebody’s part.

    All in all, there are just too many items where good news stories are turned into SNPbad and too many good news stories which are either missed completely or are reported with minimum visibility. It can’t all be accidental or even carelessness.

  6. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh

    A remarkable article at this stage in our outrageous ongoing broadcasting scandal. North British Labour Feathered Nest factor duly granted. Crass Pacific Quay Management factor duly granted. Camouflage, decoys, and useful dupes. The 2014 Scottish Referendum campaign coverage was UNDOUBTEDLY accorded the most sophisticated Deep State attention. Cold. Clinical. Effectual. And nothing is about to change. Let’s not be distracted by spotlit clowns but warily scan peripheral shadows.

  7. Pingback: Kicking arse at the BBC – Towards Indyref2…

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