In which The Author reflects on media bias
Self-reference is ubiquitous. It happens every time a newspaper prints a story about reporters, every time someone writes a book about writing, designs a book about book design, makes a movie about movies, or writes an article about self-reference.
Metamagical Themas, Douglas R. Hofstadter. 1986, Harmondsworth: Penguin. p.7.
In the previous entry I referred to the way that the BBC, and other mainstream media organisations, love to report on peaceful protests against oppressive régimes – just as long as they don’t actually take place in the UK.
I was thinking especially of the anti-austerity demonstration which took place in central London on Saturday. It was attended by an estimated fifty thousand people and addressed by speakers including Russell Brand, whose presence alone should have attracted some media attention. al-Jazeera and Russian television covered it, but if you were watching TV in the UK you wouldn’t have known the march had taken place. After a number of people contacted the BBC asking what had happened to their coverage, a short video clip – taken by one of the marchers – eventually appeared on their website on Sunday afternoon.
This lack of news attention has given rise to a couple of online petitions and at least one complaint to Ofcom. (I say ‘at least one’, because my uni mate Steve S. is on record as having contacted Ofcom.) In essence, they’re asking the BBC to return to its former position as an unbiased purveyor of news, instead of simply being the unofficial mouthpiece of the government.
Steve S. pointed out the BBC’s fantastic hypocrisy in this matter yesterday. Journalists throughout the world, including a number of BBC staffers, had held a minute’s silence to mark the imprisonment of three al-Jazeera reporters in Egypt. The BBC had featured the protest on its website, needless to say. The case has been widely reported in the British media, and covered at considerable length by the BBC. Steve was justifiably incensed by the difference between the way the BBC newsroom has handled this story, and Saturday’s effective (and efficient) media blackout.
I told him that I wasn’t at all surprised by the contrast in tone. After all, the story of the detained journalists affects some of the BBC’s own media family. Self-reference is the reporter’s stock-in-trade, and has been for pretty much as long as I’ve been taking an interest in politics. Even before the Miners’ Strike, the broadcast media had reported at epic length on the end of Fleet Street and the whole Murdoch/Wapping affair. It affected a relatively small number of people, and whose repercussions were fairly limited – yet it generated acres of press coverage and endless days’ worth of broadcast news.
The primary reason that Wapping generated so much interest in the media was because it involved the media and affected the media. To the vast majority of people in the country, it was just another labour dispute – one of many which we’d lived through during the 1970s and early 80s. Yet every night the TV news was full of coverage and analysis of what was a fairly trivial affair on a national scale, and insignificant in terms of global events.
That was over thirty years ago, so I wasn’t at all surprised by the way the BBC handled the al-Jazeera story. I’ve seen it happen so many times in the intervening years. Take a single recent example: BBC hacks have spent countless hours on the BBC discussing events within the BBC. How much airtime – and hot air – were generated by the relocation of some production facilities from London to Salford? More to the point, did anyone outside the BBC actually care about the move?
Okay, I got to visit Manchester at Auntie’s expense a couple of years ago, and probably had a much better time than I would have by visiting London (again!) However, I would argue that the overwhelming majority of the population neither know nor care whether Brain of Britain is produced in London or Salford. Aside from a couple of thousand people who were directly involved in the move, nobody gave a damn!
Like so many other BBC stories, it was totally irrelevant in the wider context; however, navel-gazing is what journalists do best. This is why yesterday’s PM focused almost exclusively on the phone-hacking trial – the latest in quite literally several weeks’ worth of broadcast news and analysis of a story which revolves around the media themselves. The political fallout will probably contaminate a fair section of the government and the media in general, but in essence it’s just reporters reporting about reporters again. This is why I wasn’t surprised by the attention given to the al-Jazeera story by the BBC.
And it’s why I wasn’t surprised by the lack of coverage of the anti-austerity march on Saturday. Somebody on an anarchist forum suggested that, maybe next time, bricks should start flying through the windows of Starbucks and KFC. Someone else responded that, next time, the protesters should storm
Brainwashing Broadcasting House itself. That seems like a better idea, in my opinion. Not only would it keep the non-violence ethos intact – but there’s no chance that the BBC would be able turn a blind eye this time.