Issue 175 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Broadcast blues

Thousands have been angered by television coverage of the Nazis recently. Chris Lineham argues that such favourable coverage stems from the weakness of television news in other areas, but it can be challenged by the action of media workers themselves

The unrespectable side of the Nazis the television news ignores
The unrespectable side of the Nazis the television news ignores

Watching television news is almost always irritating and frustrating. Cameras should allow us instant access to key events and personalities, but instead pictures are cut up and used as meaningless 'wallpaper' to cover journalists' voiceovers. Politicians' statements to camera are staged and unchallenged and commentary always comes from middle class 'experts' or bureaucrats.

If news programmes have always seemed remote, recently they have become semi-detached from reality. Whatever their subject, reports seem to overlook the obvious points. Stories on the National Health Service endlessly debate the pros and cons of the latest Tory report, when everyone knows the problem in the NHS is underfunding.

While major events like the French students' rebellion are virtually ignored, Nazi candidates in Britain have been given an absurd amount of airtime in the run up to the local elections. 'Moral Majority' figures like David Alton and Olga Maitland have dominated the television news debate on social questions like violence and sex education, though their views are way to the right of the real majority.

So how is television news shaped and selected? The state controls broadcasting much more tightly than newspapers, partly because the original level of investment needed to establish them was so high, and nowadays because broadcasting is the most important source of news for the majority of the population.

The IBA and the governors of the BBC are the unelected guardians of the airwaves. A 1980s survey showed that, of 85 recent BBC governors, more than half had business or upper civil service backgrounds. Only six were trade unionists.

Such an arrangement is very convenient for the government. Even in times of crisis broadcasting has the illusion of being independent. Even this illusion of independence was too much for the Tories in the 1980s. Thatcher launched an assault on the broadcasters, particularly at the BBC, after a programme called Maggie's Militant Tendency pointed to links between far right fringe groups and members of the Tory Party. Government intervention of one form or another led to the banning or censoring of a string of programmes, including the Zircon programme about a secret spy satellite, a Real Lives programme interviewing Martin McGuinness, and a Panorama about the Gulf War. At the same time suspect liberals were cleared out of top television jobs and replaced by loyal Thatcherites and union busters like Marmaduke Hussey and John Birt.

As soon as John Birt arrived at the BBC he set about trying to smother the tradition of campaigning, investigative journalism using the argument of 'balance': 'Contentious issues must, I feel, be sensitive to the arguments on all sides of the question. And, quite frankly, there is not always this sensitivity shown.' The combined forces of the establishment pushed the line that television news was biased against the government. This was despite the fact that opinion polls throughout the 1980s showed that the public suspected an anti-Labour bias.

The Thatcherite offensive had its effect on the newsrooms. But the establishment has other longstanding methods of ensuring day to day news coverage is acceptable to their kind. Firstly, they recruit their journalists and producers from outside the working class, and pay them way over the average wage--a television producer can expect a basic salary of at least £30,000.

Never Again!

But the key to tame news reporting lies with the assumptions that underpin broadcasting. Newsrooms only continue to function because on the whole journalists believe in their own neutrality. This neutrality, however, is an illusion. Sir Charles Curran, a former Director General of the BBC, may have thought he was being ironic when he admitted that the 'BBC is biased in favour of parliamentary democracy'. In fact he had touched on a key problem of news output--the obsession with parliament.

A bias in favour of 'parliamentary democracy' is crippling to any sense of balance, because what little debate there is in parliament does not begin to reflect the reality of most people's lives. Unlike the population at large, the Westminster parties are united in their confidence in British justice, their respect for the royal family, and their belief in market forces. Parliament seems like an alien world to most of us, and yet any opinions that are not represented there are regarded as beyond the pale by the news media. Most people (94 percent of the population according to one MORI poll) take it for granted that politicians lie on television. But few reporters or presenters dare even suggest a politician is lying.

The 'bias in favour of parliamentary democracy' places news broadcasters completely outside their frame of public opinion. It also leads to distorted reporting. So the stories on the TUC anti-racist demonstration in March played down the extremely significant fact that 50,000 trade unionists had taken a stand against the Nazis, and focused instead on Paddy Ashdown complaining that he had not been allowed to speak at the demo.

Meanwhile, the obsession with electoral politics means that Nazis in the still marginal BNP and NF are given airtime simply because they have registered to stand in the council elections. Members of the 100,000 strong Anti Nazi League, on the other hand, representing a much bigger section of opinion, only get interviewed when there has been trouble.

The 'bias in favour of parliamentary democracy' allows the television to take a very strong class line at times of crisis for our rulers. Broadcasters link parliament with 'the people' to create a fictional consensus. Research by the Glasgow Media Group in the 1980s showed again and again how striking workers were treated as troublemakers, while directors who closed down whole factories forever were unfortunate victims of circumstance.

At best, the news treats industrial disputes as damaging to good industrial relations (even though they often lead to an improvement in the lives of the workforce, and should therefore qualify as 'good news'). When strike action threatens to generalise, as at times in the 1970s or during the 1926 General Strike, broadcasters will openly oppose it. Even though millions joined the General Strike, Lord Reith used the 'parliamentary bias' to attack the strike, arguing that the BBC 'was for the government in crisis' because 'the government in crisis was for the people'.

More intelligent media figures do sense a 'television credibility gap'. One current affairs executive was recently reported warning journalists not to be seen to 'take the side of the powerful against the people'. There is a trend towards more populist news and current affairs--with the new 'lad orientated' Radio Five and tabloid documentary series like Here and Now.

But the growing sense of bitterness and rebellion in the country remains largely invisible to the news editors and producers who are more likely to have dinner with a Tory minister than meet a single parent. With the Labour Party almost completely silent the populist agenda can be set by those sections of the ruling class beginning to attack Major from the right. The new populist current affairs up to now has been trivial or offensive. Here and Now reflected the anger against VAT on fuel by encouraging people to pay in advance.

The state of affairs need not worry us too much. Pundits on both left and right exaggerate television's influence. In fact, precisely because it is so out of touch, many viewers have a healthy suspicion of what they are told on the news--especially on issues that concern them directly.

At the same time the Tories have not completely tamed broadcasting. There is resistance to government at different levels--as the partial bypassing of the Sinn Fein ban shows. Many journalists resent the current editorial drift and many more the attacks on their pay and conditions. Traditions of independent and critical programme making survive. The consistently hard hitting World in Action regularly attracts 7 million viewers.

For years many on the left have believed that slickness and respectability are the key to media access and influence. The result is that the Labour Party has achieved virtual media invisibility. Campaigns that involve lively mass protest, on the other hand, will often get noticed. Individual demonstrations are sometimes ignored through censorship or oversight, but sustained campaigns cannot be completely overlooked. M11 campaigners have won regular and often sympathetic coverage for their militant protests. The miners' fight to stop pit closures dominated the news agenda 18 months ago when hundreds of thousands marched through London. Since the struggle was wound down, pit closures have hardly been worth a mention on the news.

A wider struggle involving millions against the government would have an electrifying effect on embittered trade unionists in television, and give confidence to more left wing producers. Union organisation within broadcasting is also crucial. Many individual journalists have protested publicly at government interference. The protests have made little difference.

It is going to take a collective response and the strengthening of union organisation within television to roll back the 'climate of fear' and give journalists the confidence to strive for real independence.

A 700 strong London meeting to launch Media Workers against the Nazis last month was a brilliant start to building such a response.

For details about Media Workers against the Nazis write to: PO Box 3739, London E5 8EJ.

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