The BBC’s Groupthink on Immigration Stinks

The Sunday after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, I walked the few hundred yards from my flat in Woolwich to the spot where he had been savagely cut down, and which was now marked by a mountain of flowers, flags and poignant written messages: patriotism mingled with sorrow and deep sympathy. By this time, the national media was in full multicultural control mode, making much of the united response to this act of barbarism, their photos and footage emphasising the different ethnicities of those who had come to pay their respects. But on that day at least, around three-quarters of the large crowd at the scene were white working-class, of all ages, many of them families. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a crowd in Woolwich, and it took me aback.

Woolwich is one of those outer-London boroughs that have been transformed by years of mass immigration; in the past decade alone the white population has shrunk by 10 per cent. Seeing the people that day was briefly to see the Woolwich of my youth, a working-class military town with a significant immigrant population which was for the most part happily accepted. Now it is home to everybody and nobody. It is more common than not for me to walk from home to the station in the mornings and not hear English spoken once. Unity or not, in reality it no longer has any definable identity at all.

There was, therefore, a slightly surreal quality to the scene: the people and the flags gave one the impression of an identity gone underground, but one which still had a remarkably intact sense of itself. It displayed itself in public that morning, and in doing so formed a little cultural pocket of the familiar amid now unfamiliar surroundings.

These people showed little interest or excitement at the presence of TV cameras. I think they have become wary of being stitched up, of being condemned by their own words. They see the media, like the political class, as being on the other side, and it is hard to blame them. They can now sense when they are being handled, and the handling in the aftermath of any atrocity such as this has become so predictable you can set your watch by it.  

When a group of immaculately-dressed Sikhs arrived to show their respect on the day I went, a TV reporter fell on them hungrily, as if their presence was especially important. And when the BBC’s Newsnight came down to Woolwich a few days earlier, the reporter noted the reluctance of some to speak to the camera for fear of being labelled racists. He asked one woman for her view, who replied that what she felt would never make it on to the air. When pressed, she said that the people who did this should be “sent back where they came from”.

A confused response perhaps; one of the two accused was British-born. But what was more interesting was the fact that she had assumed her view would be unacceptable for broadcast. This was a completely understandable reading of the situation on her part. Unlike the more varied and quarrelsome print media, Britain’s TV and radio broadcasters stick largely to the prevailing liberal orthodoxies, which in the case of multiculturalism and immigration means a constant emphasis on the celebratory. Its downsides don’t interest them, if they even admit (or are aware) that such downsides exist.

In this, they are unquestionably led by the BBC, which sets the news agenda and to an overpowering degree the terms of debate. When one considers that 93 per cent of the UK population consumes some part of the BBC’s output every week, and that the corporation accounts for some 70 per cent of news coverage, it is hard to overstate its influence. Of course, we can always watch Sky News or ITN (and, unlike the BBC, we don’t have to pay for them either). But the fact remains that the BBC is the public broadcaster, which prides itself (to an almost arrogant degree) on its journalistic standards.

Impartiality is a declared sacred value of BBC News, but on the biggest issues of our day it consistently, almost wantonly, falls badly short. Two new publications highlight the extent of the failings. Ed West’s report for the New Culture Forum (of which I am director), Groupthink: Can We Trust the BBC on Immigration? (£10) looks specifically at how that issue has been reported and discussed by the BBC since 1997. Having trawled through hours of broadcasts and transcripts, West proves what many people have sensed for years but have found difficult to put their finger on: that the BBC has given overwhelmingly greater weight to pro-immigration voices even though they represent a minority viewpoint.

In its coverage of the economic arguments for and against immigration, the BBC has devoted far more time to the pro-immigration argument, while at the same time ignoring many of the social costs. In the 16 years under study, West found only a “tiny handful” of TV, radio and online reports in which the anti-immigration voices had not been outnumbered.    

“Is it possible,” asks West, “for a news organisation that is dedicated to celebrating ‘diversity’ in British society to deal impartially with the question of immigration?” The short answer to that, as supplied by this report, is obviously not. So much of the bias in BBC immigration reporting has been a matter of bias by omission, but West has included examples of a quite brazen lack of balance.  So when BBC Online covered a 2007 report into new immigration figures, the Conservative MP Damian Green and Andrew Green, founder of MigrationWatch UK, were “balanced” by four supporters of mass migration. When the 2011 census showed a truly historic demographic transformation — that white British people in London were now, for the first time in its history, in a minority — Newsnight presented the change as of little consequence, and the ensuing discussion was again essentially three against one.    

Sometimes, the analysis offered by the BBC’s correspondents is nothing short of propaganda. Either that, or they are living in an alternate universe, or perhaps in denial. Earlier this year, the Today programme considered “white flight” from London, a term that presenter James Naughtie called “loaded”. Having spoken to white Britons who had left the East End in recent years, the home affairs correspondent Mark Easton informed us that it was all about property prices, that it was essentially a story of whites benefiting from increased prosperity. “It’s a story of aspiration,” he concluded, “it’s a story of success.” No mention, of course, that it might be due to an alienation brought on by a sense that their neighbourhoods were taking on an increasingly unfamiliar air, or that schools and hospitals were overcrowded. Not that there has been any white flight so far as the BBC’s soap EastEnders is concerned; as West points out, “The show is stuck in a 1980s demographic time warp: a realistic East London soap opera would have to show a white family moving out every year, to be replaced by Bangladeshis or Somalis, and much of the programme would need to be subtitled.”

The complacency and arrogance with which the BBC treats its critics is not restricted to those it considers to be outside. Can We Still Trust the BBC? (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is the updated and expanded version of Robin Aitken’s 2006 book, which deals with the crises which have hit the corporation where he spent 25 years as a journalist. When first published, Aitken’s book was ignored by the corporation, even though, like Ed West’s report, it went out of its way to point out the value of the BBC as an institution in the life of the nation. Its account of the Andrew Gilligan debacle at the Today programme, and the dominant anti-war political mindset which in so many ways allowed it to happen, is riveting. But Aitken sees the reputation of the BBC as most damaged in recent times not by bias but by the Savile affair and the disastrous attempt by Newsnight to claw back some of its editorial bite by broadcasting the now infamous McAlpine story, which led to internal soul-searching and much — in BBC-speak — “standing-aside” of various personnel.       

That damage would be done to popular trust in the BBC by the fallout from a sex scandal is something those more interested in the issue of bias could not have foreseen. The terrible miscalculation over the dropping of the Newsnight Savile report, and the almost incredible sloppiness evident in the journalism of that programme’s infamous claim to have unearthed a paedophile Tory grandee, could be seen as the kind of things which tend to happen when a programme is already in decline-which, with falling audiences and an increasing air of irrelevance, Newsnight is. But last year also provided an example of how the BBC could no longer be trusted to do what it had always prided itself on. The wretched coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which trivialised and vulgarised a national event of historic importance, and which drew 4,000 complaints, was evidence not just that the BBC could no longer be relied upon in such circumstances. It also showed a certain attitude: at best a simple inability to understand those who might want to celebrate, at worst an instinctive distaste for something it would regard as old-fashioned and nationalistic. It was far happier with the overtly multicultural Olympics, its coverage of which was consequently a great success.

The BBC has been engaged in its own impartiality review, which will report next month. It is not the first and, to be fair, in recent years the corporation has admitted that its reporting on some issues has not been what it should. The former director-general Mark Thompson admitted to an anti-Thatcher bias in the 1980s, and the BBC’s undoubted and unbalanced enthusiasm for the EU has been acknowledged. On the latter there has certainly been an improvement in coverage: Eurosceptics are no longer treated as though mentally impaired. In his report, Ed West also sees some signs of change in the reporting of immigration.

But this is still minor progress. It is almost impossible to quantify how much damage the BBC may have done by the way in which it has chosen to present the most important issues of the day and consequently influence the drift of events. While the BBC remains in thrall to a kind of groupthink, there is little hope that the situation will change significantly. Sure enough, only last month Ian Katz,  deputy editor of the Guardian, was named as the new editor of Newsnight — appropriately enough, considering that readership of that newspaper far exceeds that of all others at Broadcasting House.

There is in Britain little support for the abolition of the licence fee. The BBC still does many things exceptionally well, and there remains a solid base of popular, albeit diminished, goodwill. I am probably fairly typical in being anxious and infuriated by much of its news output, yet at the same time having little desire to see it disappear completely. What is needed is simply an alternative. There is nothing more useless or demoralising than standing in the kitchen all night complaining about the awfulness of the party going on in the next room: either leave, or hold your own party. A British version of Fox News would inject new dynamism into our monolithic broadcast media and  our increasingly disembodied political debate. With an alienated, non-metropolitan country feeling a growing sense of disfranchisement, there would surely be an audience for such a channel. It would act as a balance, and a much-needed challenge. The BBC would then, surely, sit up and take notice.

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