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‘They’ Don’t Need Minitruth – The BBC Charter suits ‘them’ just fine

November 30, 2014

In Orwell’s dystopia, Minitruth was one of the four great ministries that served the Inner Party of the Ingsoc state. It was a massive bureaucracy, whose job was to continuously rewrite history in the most minute detail. In reality it could never have worked perfectly. Certainly it would have been incompatible with either democracy or the sham version of it we experience.

For those like Edward Bernays, who in 1928 published his book ‘Propaganda’, there was a problem with democracy. If everyone was allowed to develop their own opinions there would be chaos. A country would become ungovernable. There would have to be ‘manufactured consent’. People would have to be told what to think. This has worked pretty well. The majority of people rely on the mainstream media for their perception of social and economic reality. Those with direct experience of a particular corner of reality realise the distortions and feel that they are victimised, but they may not realise that such distortions apply right across the board. It is only those with the time and the determination to actively use the internet and other sources, who realise that too often we are being fed a totally unbalanced and misleading version of reality.

Very often the distortions arise from things that are not covered rather than direct lies about what is covered. But there are significant distortions in what is covered. Who for example, looking at their household bills, believes that the Consumer Prices Index represents any meaningful reality? Certainly the study by the Joseph Rowntree Trust did not find so. In these days of zero hours contracts, what meaning do figures of numbers of people ‘in work’ have? David Cameron reports that ‘we are paying down the National Debt’. No they are not; they are trying to reduce the deficit (i.e. the rate at which the debt increases) but they are well below target on that. The BBC, for example, never seems to challenge any of these things. People are taken in by these distortions; for example the government likes to portray all recipients of benefits as ‘scroungers’, in spite of the fact that many on benefits are working their butt off, but cannot make ends meet. But those same people buy the lie and criticise all other recipients as scroungers.

It is obvious why commercial media are happy to convey the distorted message. They have to satisfy the interests of their advertisers and the prejudices of their proprietors. However under the BBC Charter, the first of its public purposes is, “sustaining citizenship and civil society”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? What does mean in practice? The Charter itself does not say, but it gives the Trust the job of defining ‘purpose remits’. The remit for “sustaining citizenship and civil society” reads,

“SUSTAINING CITIZENSHIP AND CIVIL SOCIETY

The Charter and Agreement note the importance of sustaining citizenship through the enrichment of the public realm and obliges the Trust to ensure that the BBC ‘gives information about, and increases understanding of, the world through accurate and impartial news, other information, and analysis of current events and ideas.’ In doing so, the Trust is obliged to ‘have regard to the need to promote understanding of the UK political system (including Parliament and the devolved structures) including through dedicated coverage of Parliamentary matters, and the need for the Purpose Remit to ensure that the BBC transmits an impartial account day by day of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament.’ The Trust is also obliged to have regard to ‘the need to promote media literacy’, and the importance of sustaining citizenship through the enrichment of the public realm.

What the BBC will do to achieve this purpose:

1. Provide independent journalism of the highest quality.

BBC journalism should be independent, accurate and impartial – providing news and current affairs of relevance, range and depth which audiences trust. BBC Journalism should offer a range and depth of analysis not widely available from other UK providers…”

There are three important points about this: The focus on how things are done in Britain as opposed to how they might be done, the use of the word ‘impartial’, and reliance on what [the majority of] audiences trust.

Given that distrust of politicians is at an all time low and things have got worse for the majority of people, surely the BBC should encourage constructive discussion on how things might be done better, including reform of the political system. The Trust does not seem to see things that way.

What does the word ‘impartial’ mean? The Trust does not appear to have defined it. Surely the word should mean the opposite of partial, i.e. all sides of the story should be told. I see no sign that the Trust understands this. The one thing the Trust does try to measure is public perception. In their annual report for 2013/14 they write,

Impartiality is central to the BBC’s role as a public service broadcaster, funded by the licence fee. It is one of our principal concerns in terms of editorial standards, particularly in relation to news and current affairs. Each year, the BBC runs a survey of perceptions of the impartiality and trustworthiness of BBC News compared with other media. In this year’s results, released in June, 50% of respondents said that BBC News was the source they were most likely to turn to for impartial news coverage. This is a much higher figure than for any other broadcaster and remains at around the same level as last year…”

But surely if only 50% of people say they would turn to the BBC for impartial coverage rather than to commercial media which have obvious motives for biassed reporting, that is an appalling commentary on a public service broadcaster. More importantly if most people rely on mainstream media, all of which are biassed towards ‘orthodox’ views, how can they possibly judge which media are more impartial? The system does nothing to encourage the BBC to challenge orthodoxy.

The government of the day does not officially tell the Trust how to judge the BBC, but members of the Trust, who are appointed by Order in Council, no doubt know what is expected of them.

How does the ‘establishment’ get away with its orthodox view of reality, largely unsupported by evidence? It is possible that politicians think there are no such things as truth, only interpretations, a carry over from the late 20th century philosophy of post-modernism. In the academic world this philosophy has largely played itself out in absurdity, but politicians appear to think that they justify their actions in terms of their unsupported beliefs, even where these are contradicted by the facts.

The BBC should give weight to all ‘heterodox’ opinion that is supported by fact, and represents a credible challenge to that orthodox opinion. However it should be a criminal offence for anyone whatsoever to knowingly lie to the public. Democracy cannot function properly without these measures.

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