Why Is The Right So Obsessed With The BBC?

Grant Shapps recently got himself into the news with what appears to be a thinly veiled threat to the BBC to become more right-wing in its reporting or face losing its funding. This was, a few days later, followed up by an Opinium/Observer poll, which showed that there was a, not large but still significant, public perception that the BBC’s reporting had a left-wing bias. This was their graph:

Source: Opinium/Observer

Source: Opinium/Observer

The view on what is left and what is right is quite subjective though. If you read the Daily Mail every day and then read a BBC article it probably does seem left wing (it probably seems like extreme Communism) and if you read the Daily Mirror every day it probably seems very right wing.

It might therefore be useful, when interpreting the data, to take into account the newspapers that people read. What does that look like? These are the 2013 January circulation figures for all UK newspapers with circulations above 100,000. The divisions by Right, Left or Not Obvious are my own.

Title Right-Wing Left-Wing No Obvious Political Persuasion
The Sun 2,409,811
Daily Mail 1,863,151
Daily Mirror 1,058,488
Evening Standard 695,645
Daily Telegraph 555,817
Daily Star 535,957
Daily Express 529,648
The Times 399,339
i 293,946
Financial Times 275,375
Daily Record 251,535
The Guardian 204,440
The Independent 76,802
TOTAL  6,989,368  1,514,463  646,123

If you want you can put the Independent as left-wing, (which it is in terms of issues like climate change, less obvious whether it is politically), either way it doesn’t change the overall picture much. The press is overwhelmingly right-wing:

UK Newspapers' Circulation by Political Persuasion

UK Newspapers’ Circulation by Political Persuasion

If we take into account the information that is fed to people by the newspapers they read, plus the huge campaign from Tory politicians and the right-wing media to convince people that the BBC is a left-wing organisation, the only surprising thing in the poll is that more people didn’t find left-wing leanings in the reporting of the BBC.

But rather than a simple poll of people, why not actually look at all of the political reporting the BBC does and actually analyse whether it gives more time to the views of the left? Well that would be a huge task, far beyond the capacity of this blog. Fortunately it wasn’t beyond the capacity of Cardiff University and the most comprehensive analysis I have seen on the subject. Yes, from all their research they found no left-wing bias.

I want to move on to my personal view on the BBC but before I do, I need to make a (possibly) surprising admission – I actually don’t consider myself particularly left-wing. The red in my ears came a long time before the blog and is no way a reflection on a political persuasion. I actually consider myself a fairly neutral individual who has unfortunately awoken in a very right-wing world. If I found myself in a country governed by left-wing idealists and dominated by a left-wing press, perhaps my criticisms would run the other way.

I would not be BlueEaredBunny though – as I said, the ears have nothing to do with it. My position is simply that I will do my best to base my opinions on the best available evidence. At this time that position makes me slightly wary of the Labour Party and entirely conflicted with the Tories.

In this position though, I too take big issues with BBC reporting. Not because I am worried about their lack of impartiality, but because I see their need for impartiality above all else, as completely obliterating their objectivity.

Take for example, the subject of climate change. In one corner, we have science and in the other we have the political ideals of the right-wing. The BBC, in its desire for impartiality above all else, reports both sides’ arguments with equal weight and this narks me because, on the subject of climate change, I don’t feel those two sides should be represented equally. I understand the BBC’s position of needing to remain impartial but seriously people, this is important stuff and on a matter of science, scientists saying one thing and George Osborne saying the opposite should not be reported with equal weight. The best scientific minds, the people with the most knowledge of the subject, are telling us we must act now and George is telling us it isn’t a priority.

A quote from Michael Shannon it in the excellent film Take Shelter puts it better than I could:

There is a storm coming! Like nothing you have ever seen! And not a-one of you is prepared for it!

(If you haven’t seen that film, you should rectify that soon.)

Moving on from climate change, reading Stephanie Flanders’s BBC articles over the past few years has also narked me because although I rate her ability as an economic journalist very highly, her reporting seems to have often be constrained in a way that says, economists say this but the government says that. (And understandably, the Labour Party says something wishy-washy that no one really understands.)

Add immigration or welfare into the argument and the trend continues. We have evidence on one side and political ideals on the other. On each subject, the BBC reports both sides of the argument with equal weight, desperate to maintain impartiality over objectivity.

You might conclude from that that I think the BBC is rubbish. Wrong. I think the BBC panders to politicians too much but they do a fantastic amount of good outside of politics. Let’s think about their wildlife documentaries for a moment. Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, Africa, The Frozen Planet. The list goes on and on. But I’m not just listing the best BBC wildlife documentaries – I’m listing the greatest wildlife documentaries that have ever been created by any television company ever.

The sole reason that we have those programmes, and many other great programmes in other fields, is due to the way that the BBC is funded. Take way their funding and make them rely on adverts and everything would change. Making Planet Earth was never about getting the best return on investment. If you were to rely on advertising revenue, you would make far more money by just making more reality TV programmes with C-List celebrities than you would by paying some poor camera crew to sit in the Antarctic winter for months filming emperor penguins balancing an egg on their feet.

My thoughts are this: Programmes designed to maximise revenue are available everywhere, we are almost drowning in them, but those designed to be more than that are only available on the BBC. Yes their political reporting annoys people from both sides simply because we give them a mandate of impartiality over objectivity.

Yet when we see all of the good they do in other areas, that is a small price that we all have to live with and it is definitely a price worth paying.

RedEaredRabbit

Economic Bloodletting II: Revenge of the Quacks

Britain, 1642. A patient, Mister Edmund Conomy of London, sits up in bed, sipping broth from a bowl. People stand around his bed amazed at his miraculous recovery.

Four long years earlier, Edmund had been struck down with a severe case of anaemia. The new local physician, Doctor Gideon had fortunately arrived early on and prescribed a course of bloodletting to treat his condition. Doctor Gideon had pumped out a few glugs on his first visit, then returned each month and never noting a change in his patient’s condition, continued, each time, to pump out a few glugs more.

Mister E. Conomy’s housekeeper was a lady by the name of Miss Carmen Sents. Miss Sents, had taken issue with Dr Gideon’s prescribed treatment:

“He’s weak enough already.” She told the doctor. “Removing his blood will just weaken him further.”

“Rubbish,” snapped Dr. Gideon, “The cause of this man’s illness is clearly that his previous physician allowed him to produce too many blood cells.”

“Look, if anything he needs more blood cells, not fewer. If you can’t see that, then at least leave him as he is and wait for his body to eventually recover on its own.”

Miss Sents’s protests were ignored and over the next three years, Dr. Gideon continued his policy of letting blood from Mr E. Conomy. Mr. E. Conomy didn’t recover though. In fact he looked worse than ever.

By the fourth year, Dr. Gideon, noticing the pale and shrivelled look of his patient, decided to drastically reduce the amount of blood he was letting at each visit but he didn’t want to tell anyone he was doing that. He did just a tiny bit each time to show he was sticking to his “tough policy” because he was afraid of what people would say if he changed course.

Then the miracle happened. Mr. E. Conomy started to recover and once he started to recover, the recovery was quick. With every month that passed, his strength grew and within a year he was almost as strong as he was when the illness struck.

Dr. Gideon was made a hero. Stories of the success of his bloodletting on Mr. E. Conomy spread far and wide. Perhaps it would not be unfair to say that Dr. Gideon was a major factor in spreading them.

And what became of Miss Carmen Sents? When Mr. E. Conomy learned exactly what had cured him, and of the erstwhile protests of Miss Carmen Sents, he fired her and sent her out of his house to live on the streets. After all, the success of his treatment was obvious and where would he have been if people had listened to her?

Sadly, in all of the bravado, no one seemed to notice that in every previously recorded case of anaemia, the patient had, without bloodletting, recovered much faster than had Mr. E. Conomy.

Sadder still, they now thought that bloodletting was the best way to solve anaemia.

RedEaredRabbit

Facts? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Facts!

So the European Commission have, for three years, been asking the Cameron government to provide evidence to substantiate his claim that the UK is suffering from a problem of “benefit tourism”. Having received nothing back in response, today they called “Shenanigans“.

As I have discussed on here before, the effects of immigration are overwhelmingly positive to the UK economy. Immigration increases economic growth. Immigration doesn’t increase unemployment. Immigrants contribute 30% more through taxes than they take through public services. In short, we would be doing significantly worse without immigrants.

You will notice that there is a marked difference between the messages I just gave you and the messages that the government sends out when discussing this subject. The biggest difference though, is that my messages are based on evidence and facts as opposed to the creation and fuelling of prejudices. (Read my earlier post, “The Immigration Fallacy” for more detail and links to comprehensive studies on the subject.)

The Daily Mail gave us a fact though, “600,000 Unemployed EU Citizens Living in Britain!” Except that it wasn’t a fact. Their definition of unemployed being different to everyone else’s by including people who weren’t seeking work such as students, retired people and spouses of employed people. The number of EU immigrants claiming job-seekers allowance, it was pointed out, was actually not 600,000 but 38,000. Now we can of course, quibble about the definition of unemployed, but if we were to use The Daily Mail’s one then overall UK unemployment, as Jonathan Portes noted, would be in excess of 15 million people, or around six times higher than our current way of measuring it.

Looking for supportive evidence was obviously a failing strategy when attempting to justify their policy of demonising immigrants, so Number 10 instead told us to forget the facts and appreciate that we needed to act due to “widespread and understandable concern” over people coming to the UK to access benefits. Well of course there is widespread concern now! The government have spent the last three and a half years trying to convince people that immigrants and benefit claimants are the root of all evil.

I’m not sure the tactic of:

  • Scare people into believing there is an immigration crisis
  • Get tough on immigration because people are now scared about an immigration crisis

…..is necessarily better than:

  • Look at the overwhelming evidence
  • Create a sensible policy based on it

The whole “benefit tourism” thing is an example of a Phantom Problem – a key tool in the government’s spin arsenal. I wrote about them in detail here, but essentially Phantom problems work like this:

  • You decide on a policy you want to implement based on your political ideals
  • Because it is based on your political ideals rather than evidence you can’t sell the policy to the public based on facts
  • You put a huge amount of effort into convincing the public that there is a crisis that can only be dealt with by implementing your tough policy
  • You implement your policy off the back of the huge public panic you have created
  • The public thank you for being tough and sorting out that crisis that was about to happen

Obviously I can understand why this disingenuous approach to policy-making is so attractive to the Conservative Party. On this, any many other issues, the evidence is simply at odds with their political ideals. I understand it but seriously, don’t we deserve a bit more than that? Ok, they have shown that using a basic framework of ignoring the facts but marketing their idealisms can be effective in molding the country as they’d like it to be, but it’s not hard to see why that is not an optimal strategy for delivering benefit to the majority.

Given that the evidence shows that immigrants contribute significantly more on average, I do see a certain irony when I see the Tories standing up behind a lectern on which is emblazoned the phrase, “For Hardworking People”.

For Hardworking People

For Hardworking People

Perhaps all they need is a wider lectern so it can say, “For Hardworking People…. As Long As You’re Not a Foreigner.”

RedEaredRabbit

The Crazy Right

I note that the US is again leading the way in showing the world how great democracies work.

Yes, the Republicans are once more holding the country to ransom, this time blocking the passing of a new government budget unless the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is postponed/reworked/abolished etc. What this means is that the Republicans are happy for hundreds of thousands of government employees to go on unpaid leave, for markets to panic, for GDP to take a hit and for many public services to be unavailable, if it means a chance of hijacking a law that has nothing whatsoever to do with passing the new government budget.

And the ACA, (or Obamacare as it has become commonly known), is a law. It was passed into law by both houses in 2010. Having failed to prevent it being passed into law and having prevented getting it repealed, Republicans have now resorted to using the American people as hostages in an act that is nothing short of shameful.

But what is the ACA? I’ve had a look and on the face of it, it’s hard to understand why someone would hate it so much. Prior to it, if you couldn’t afford private health care in America you were pretty much stuffed. Even if you could do you were by no means safe. The ACA makes it illegal for insurance companies to refuse to continue to insure you if you become sick. It makes it illegal for insurance companies to refuse to insure you if you have a pre-existing condition. It allows sons and daughters to remain on their parents’ insurance policies until they are 26 rather than having to finance the cost of health insurance themselves.

Why would Republican voters hate those things? It’s a good question and guess what? They don’t! When asked about the individual elements of the ACA, Republican voters actually support them. But the Republican Party has spent so much money on convincing people that “Obamacare” is a terrible thing, that their voters still think they don’t want it. Please do watch this short video by Jimmy Kimmel to show how ridiculous this situation is.

Yes, you didn’t imagine it – there was someone in there whose primary reason for not liking Obamacare was that it was “Un-American”, whatever the hell that means.

Moving on from voters though, Republican politicians know that the ACA and Obamacare are the same thing and they do know all of the initiatives that make it up. So why do they hate it?

Firstly, being a politician in America is an expensive business – getting elected means huge campaigns, TV commercials, travel, televised addresses. That money’s got to come from somewhere and health insurance companies donate millions of dollars to political parties and guess who gets the vast majority of it? Yep the Republicans. Why would Health Insurance companies donate lots of money to political campaigns? Well, it could be that they just like a particular politician’s stance on peace in the Middle East. Or perhaps… maybe… just maybe… they expect to get something back. Yeah – democracy my arse.

It’s not just a question of funding though. The Republican Party are what we call “Starve the Beasters” – that is that they believe that the lower the tax revenue the government takes, the better off things will be. By starving “The Beast” the private sector will surely expand to fill its place! The ACA is clearly at odds with this, as health care for those who can’t afford to go private is financed by the government.

The thing that the “Starve the Beast” rhetoric always ignores is that some things do work better when paid for through taxes. I mentioned a few of those towards the end of this post and the idea that everything works better when private than public is as stupid as the opposite scenario. The question is then, is healthcare one of the things that should remain entirely private for the US or could some government intervention help? The fact that 60 million Americans have no private health insurance, plus the fact that even Republican voters actually like all of the individual parts of the ACA probably tell you something about the answer to that question. If you feel that 60 million people shouldn’t have access to health care because they can’t afford it but state intervention would be “Un-American” then you are entitled to that view, but I would counter it by saying that you are a massive twat.

You might wonder why, as a British person, I care so much about what’s going on in the US. After all it doesn’t affect me, does it? Three points on that:

Firstly, 60 million people without access to healthcare in a country, where it could so easily be provided, saddens me greatly. Whether or not it is the country in which I live is irrelevant. Yes, of course there are many poor countries where people have no access to health care but remember folks, this is the largest economy in the world and it is a problem for which the means to solve it are easily understandable and easily available.

Secondly, the world economy is still very much dependent on the health of the US economy. When Republicans decide to screw it up for nothing more than their own nefarious agenda that affects all of us in some way.

Thirdly, when I look at the Republican party, I don’t just see some crazy people at whom to laugh. I see a party whose only concern is to make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else and that just strikes too close to home for comfort. At the moment I’m just watching the Tories going in exactly the same direction. Simon Wren-Lewis is similarly concerned. Could that really be the future to which we have to look forward? It’s not looking good:

Taxes for rich people? Let’s reduce those. Benefits for poor people? Let’s reduce those too. Public healthcare? Well, we can’t just bin it overnight but we can dismantle it bit by bit. Public education? Make schools “Academies” and then make them private. Climate change? Not a priority. Starve the Beast? Absolutely – we’ll cut the public sector throughout our next term too, whatever the state of the economy!

The Conservative party is undoubtedly moving swiftly to the right, but there is a strategy out there to try to hide that. Both they, with their “Red Ed” campaign and their friends in the right-wing press, with their attack on Ed Miliband’s “Britain Hating” dead father, are trying to position the whole thing not as their own move to the right but as the opposition’s move to the left.

It’s not hard to see the reality though and if the present weren’t bad enough, the trend suggests that the future will be worse with the gap between the moderately crazy Conservatives and the thoroughly crazy Republicans narrowing more and more. When I look at the US political right I don’t just see a bunch of nutters – I see our future.

By the way, you might be interested to know that the term, “Obamacare” was coined as a pejorative term by the Republicans – an attempt to debase it without having to directly address all those good things in it. Sadly, as you can see from the Jimmy Kimmel clip, that initiative has been effective. My hope, however, is not that this term will be disbanded. My hope is that with the rare victory over the crazy right that the ACA was, the name “Obamacare” not only replaces ACA in popular use, but remains in popular use for a very long time to come, as a tribute to a man who managed to do something great. Something that, in the face of such opposition from the crazy right, gave millions of poor people access to healthcare that they’d never otherwise have been able to afford.

And what Obamacare shows is this. No matter how crazy they are, no matter how extreme they get, no matter how much private funding they can muster and no matter how strongly they campaign for the interests of the 1%: Good things can still get done.

Perhaps, after the way things have gone recently in the UK, those of us outside the crazy right should take something from that.

RedEaredRabbit