My 'biased' view of the Biased BBC blog

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 14 March 2007

I'm sure that I qualify genetically as a Beeboid, and so view the site through a prism of my own telly-tax funded bias, but I enjoy reading the Biased BBC blog. And I do mean enjoy. I always used to keep it in my subscribed RSS feeds when I worked at the BBC, and still dip into it from time to time in Austria.

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And there are a few reasons why I still find it an useful and enjoyable place to visit on the internet, not least of which is the fact that the issues being debated on the pages of the site are issues that link me back to home.

Whilst most of the people there politely disagree with anything I publish in the comments section, I generally find the community on there to be a collection of intelligent people, well-versed in current affairs, well-read, and with a passionate viewpoint. Albeit one I mostly disagree with.

So why visit?

Well, for one reason, however diverse the BBC might claim their employment policy to be, and Jonathan Ross recently had a few words to say about that, there was one minority group I never encountered when I worked at the BBC.

I worked with Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists. I worked with people I knew to be Labour voters, Liberal Democrat voters and Conservative voters. I worked with men and women, tall people and short people, gay people and straight people, and people I got on with and people who annoyed the hell out of me. And I worked with people of all sorts of ethnic mixes.

But I never, to my knowledge, ever worked with anyone at the BBC who thought that it should be abolished.

For that reason alone, I always thought it was important to visit sites like Biased BBC, as they represented a viewpoint and collective 'groupthink' that was different to any possible BBC 'groupthink'. The BBC's own Points of View message board was also a useful resource to hear voices that disagreed with the BBC's very existence, but Biased BBC was much more raw, and untouched by BBC moderation.

Of course, one of the stereotypes perpetuated on sites like Biased BBC is that all BBC staff live in Islington, read the Guardian, and enjoy the odd decaf latte from some sort of fair-trade coffee outlet.

[This is patently absurd of course, since on a scale 4 to scale 6 BBC salary you couldn't possibly hope to afford to live in Islington :-) ]

The stereotypes go both ways, and I think a lot of people at the BBC would dismiss the crowd at Biased BBC as a bunch of right-wing cranks, fantasists, and conspiracy theorists who believe that there is an organised cabal within Broadcasting House plotting to use the airwaves to bring about a socialist and/or Islamic utopia.

In fact, if you read the comments on the Biased BBC blog for a while you get a very different feeling - that there are several different viewpoints being expressed there, united by one common enemy, the BBC.

Mentally, I divide the contributors into several groups with varying numerical strengths on the site:

  • People who think the BBC is a good idea, and would happily pay for it, if only it wasn't full of lefties.
  • People who think that the BBC used to be a good idea, but since it is now full of lefties, and they can't see it getting any better, don't think people should be forced to pay for it anymore.
  • People who think that the BBC used to be a good idea, but regardless of any bias, think technology has now out-paced the need for a TV Licence fee, and that the BBC should therefore be abolished/privitised.
  • TechCrunch's Michael Arrington*
  • People who think the BBC was always a bad idea, that people should never have been forced to pay for it, and that since TV went colour it has become full of lefties, and so having to pay for it is a slap in the face.
  • People who think the BBC was always a bad idea, that people should never have been forced to pay for it, and that even before TV went colour it was full of lefties, and so having to pay for it is a slap in the face.
  • People who think the BBC is a stealth propaganda arm for militant Islam in the UK.
  • People who think the BBC should be abolished on free market principles, regardless of any perceived bias.
  • People who think the BBC should be abolished on principle. And also that once it is abolished, the ex-staff should be beaten with sharp sticks. And that this should probably be broadcast on ITV, with some sort of premium rate phone-call determining whether Jonathan Ross or Anne Robinson should be jabbed the hardest.

And collectively they can be a suspicious lot too.

When the News Sniffer site was launched by John Leach, he targeted BBC News and The Guardian online because he was interested in seeing the way that the mainstream media distorted topics that he was interested in. Since these were left-leaning causes, the initial reaction on Biased BBC was to distrust the software. As I wrote at the time:

On the News Sniffer blog I saw that the person behind the site had recently contacted Biased BBC about it. I loved some of the comments it generated, where initial glee quickly turned to mistrust as they realised the person behind News Sniffer was "left leaning" and generally a "not-we". One commenter suggested that the News Sniffer site would turn out to be biased itself. It took me a few minutes to get my head around the concept of being instinctively biased against a site that sets out to detect bias in a news source you already believe to be biased :-)
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Likewise the other day I posted into one of the comments threads on Biased BBC about some new prototypes that Matthew Somerville had made on the web displaying various slices of data about the BBC News site.

The almost instant response was "Matthew's toys are fun but seem to be betas. It'll be good to see what they produce when fully working", with, it seemed to me, the underlying assumption that the data couldn't be trusted.

But as I say, I do enjoy visiting the site, and it has not been without success in pricking the BBC's editorial conscience on some issues. One of the BBC's editorial guidelines team clearly reads the site, and sometimes posts comments agreeing that a piece of content on BBC News has breached the guidelines in some way, and that action is being taken to redress the situation.

It was also at least partly as a result of the Biased BBC comments thread that the notorious From Our Own Correspondent piece where Barbara Plett said she cried about Yasser Arafat has been appended with a note that the piece had been the subject of a complaint that had been upheld by the BBC Governors.

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However, I do find that a lot of the attempts on the Biased BBC blog to uncover the evil conspiracy behind the BBC to be wide of the mark, and in the next part of this series of posts I want to look at some of the common traps that the accusations fall into, before going on to look at some areas where the Biased BBC site raises some really interesting questions about the BBC's output.



*Just to clarify, TechCrunch's Mike Arrington probably hasn't actually ever contributed to the Biased BBC blog, but he did call for the abolition of the BBC.

9 Comments

One of my favourite ever "Biased BBC" commenters, proclaimed that all BBC staff should be sacked because they're all lefties, and that the organisation should then be restaffed from scratch.

Not sure by whom though :)

Good post Martin.

Just to say that I am currently on attachment in another part of the BBC, so I am not working in Editorial Policy at the moment .

I think it is important to remember that Biased-BBC is an umoderated site. There is no "groupthink" behind it at all. There are no groups. Anybody can post there. Picking on a particular individual is therefore pretty disengenuous. It is a free-speech site - so you will get nutters posting there that undermine its credibility at times.

The BBC is a group and suffers from "groupthink" as all organisations do. Sadly it is not an organisation that promotes free speech, as its firmly moderated blogs testify.

There was a time when the BBC prided itself in its professionalism. Sadly those days have gone. It seems to be more and more influenced by the kind of journalism that appears in the dead tree press - views rather than news. Opinion rather than fact.

If it stuck to reporting fact rather than opinion it would not face charges of bias. Unfortunately it seems to be heading off in the direction of entertainment rather than information.

Personally I find that the BBCs willingness to discuss current government policy within fictional drama (Waterloo Road, Holby City, Casualty) is actually a greater cause for concern.

Re the BBC. It is biased and I have thought, so based on personal observation, for quite a few years. I allow for the bias in my interpretation of their reporting. I would like to see a little more objectivity.

Some of the stuff being read from the auto queue sometimes makes me wince, because it seems to be gibberish, or using words wrongly. Worse than it used to be.

Personally, if the BBC channels were pay channels, it is still good enough that I would probably subscribe to quite a few of them.

The BBC is still far better than many other channels on offer - and so is their program making.

But I really object to being forced to pay for the BBC. To having absolutely no choice at all.

>> I think it is important to remember that Biased-BBC is an umoderated site. There is no "groupthink" behind it at all. There are no groups. Anybody can post there. Picking on a particular individual is therefore pretty disengenuous. It is a free-speech site - so you will get nutters posting there that undermine its credibility at times.


Hi Phil. I disagree - I think I have identified several different kinds of "group think" on the Biased BBC blog as I've identified above. I don't believe my post does pick on a particular individual - it uses anonymous quotes to illustrate the kind of points made on the site. It would just be a long list of sweeping generalisations without specific quotes to back it up.

Unless you are referring to the mention of Michael Arrington, of course, which is simply an online techie in-joke about one of the web's more colourful and outspoken characters. As I stated, he has never, to my knowledge, posted on the Biased BBC site, but he has called for the BBC to be abolished.

You just prove how dreadfully ignorant you are. You need to check other sources of information before declaring that the BBC always tells the truth. It does not. It tells it from a let wing perspective
You need to read the stories bearing in mind whatis missing as well as what is said. You need to consider the use of particular langauge depending on the cause involved.
You need to consider the differnce between news reporting and editorialising i.e. lecturing to the tax-payer.

It's inevitable that Biased-BBC should attract strong opinions with a bias of their own. But who would deny that with the blunderbuss of Birtism and the cultural isolation of a Dyke, the tradition that the BBC had built over 70 years should have been destroyed. This was their aim. Established staff mentored in the old way -'we don't do it like that in the BBC'- couldn't take it and walked out. As producers with permanent contracts and a pension scheme,they had enjoyed virtually complete individual creative freedom; their task was to produce the best. I know of no occasion when they were directed or instructed in what to do or how to do it; but they would get a kick if they failed or broke the unwritten as well as the written rules. That security and creative freedom was destroyed by the whip-hand of the short-term contract. The new managers dictated content and above all style; conform or you're out. Here's an example: a well-established free-lance contributor on music wrote and compiled an account of the career of the great opera singer, Maria Callas. It surveyed her achievements, her roles and the special character of her art. A new producer turned up an hour before the recording and forced the contributor to scrap this and focus on her private life and what he called the scammy side - the tabloid view. He was also told to drop the accent - as if it were switched on and off. And of course he protested - and was dropped in favour of those who would conform. He is now in demand with US and other foreign radio stations. Last year a Radio 4 feature about the great Italian Medici dynasty was trailed with the name mispronounced - MeDEEchy. I looked up the producer and called him, in case he hadn't heard the trail. He said he had decided to use the wrong pronunciation because that's how many people said it and he didn't want to put them off. So the programme had the British contributors sounding like wallies because the American and Italian experts pronounced it correctly - MEDichy.

This approach utterly destroys the tradition of correctness at all costs - there is (or was) a Pronunciation Unit that could get us round the sneeze effect of Polish or the balance of stresses in Sri Lankan. Does anyone care now - foreign names and phrases are joke material.

The actual sound quality has crumbled - within a few minutes you'll hear in succession, muffled, bright, and top-cut tones. Studio managers and producers prided themselves on the continuity of quality and could be a pain in the neck adjusting, or even changing the mike, repeating speech tests until they got it right, and adjusting the level and quality of inserts. We have the
synthesized sound of the voice-over in trails with absurdly emphasized and prolonged final syllables - often, as in the Today programme, surrounded by muttering, and incomprehensible gabbling. They have forgotten how the elderly, like me, and the hard-of-hearing and the unsighted rely on the radio, and don't forget the millions who listen in their cars.

Oh - the accent, an obsession with the new managers. If it were not so absurd it would be funny - girls (I know she's grown up but I mustn't call her a lady or a woman) like Sue Barker are tolerated - she's terrific at her job - but men who speak like her make the new managers uncomfortable, so the opening of the Olygames was introduced by a sad, colourless chap who dropped it right off the Richter scale of excitement. And throughout that extraordinary opening there were these two miserable voices, droning away, audible enough to irritate, but not enough to inform - crass, inept, typical of the sports department.

Conspiracy theories are out - yes. but we know that the new managers impose on all aspects of production, and if there is a section which daily feeds the conspiracy theorists it is the comedy department.

What shred of balance is there in Mark Thomas, the Now Show, Gianucci - I've just heard someone call Boris Johnson the village idiot, but I have yet to hear Red Ken called the Robert Mugabe of Britain. Could you imagine a right-wing comedy show ever getting a toe in the door of BH?

And what's the favourite butt? - accent. In the last weeks there have been so many blatant assaults on accent as a badge of class that even the most hardened sceptic could believe in a plot. Bonekickers on TV - well what a joke that is, in the guise of archaeology it's a weekly assault on the English.

In the first the villain was a grotesque, posh-spoken (get it?) Christian fanatic who wanted to kill the wicked invaders of Britain. He said he had an army, that turned out to be a couple of equally nutty young thugs who we were told were reincarnations of the Knights Templars. One of them happened to be walking through an underpass with a huge sword when he came upon a Muslim, who assured him that Islam was a religion of peace . This didn't go down well with the Knight, who swung his sword and chopped off the poor fellow's head. Well that was only the start - we had underground chambers with 666 white doves - a collection of rotting crosses and CGI spectaculars. The geeks were saved by the heroism of their black assistants, the villains went up in flames and the Geeks retired hurt but happy - especially the white male who is obviously a drunk. Later episodes had an English officer in the first war shooting Germans in the back because they wanted to make peace.

On Radio 4 they gave us (again) Hut33, a grotesque caricature of Bletchley Park, where the posh-speakers are cretins, crooks or wimps, and the only worthwhile chap happens to speak broad Geordie. Painfully unfunny but ludicrous - I know for I was there.

And then there is Today, Tomorrow a bizarre attempt to rubbish the old BBC before the brilliant new managers took over. Its setting is 1961, in a studio where a sci-fi serial is being recorded. The programme director is another posh villain; in the first programme he tells the writer to turn the Martian invaders into wicked allies of the Russians; he is backed up by a visit from Sir Somebody from the Home Office, who instructs the writer to turn his episode into feeble anti-Russian propaganda. It could have come straight out of those old Russian English-language broadcasts.

In the second episode broadcast last Monday night, the programme director and Sir Somebody from the Home Office are members of the board of a tobacco company; they tell the writer to use the episode to promote smoking by using the language of their commercials. The actors in the sci-fi use exaggerated ‘posh’ voices in a caricature of acting that resembles nothing that I have heard in my 80 years of listening to the BBC, and 40 years of working for the corporation. The series is introduced with a sneer as the golden age of broadcasting. It opens with a bizarre voice- a fantastic idea of a 1960s Light Programme continuity announcer. This grotesque touch amused me because my 11-year old grandson has just been given CDs of the Goons and there is Wallace Greenslade announcing. Has Mr Damazer ever listened to the Goons? And they retired I think in 1960. Does he not know that a lot of other people have the Goons CDs so they know that a LP announcer did not sound like a funeral director with laryngitis.

The series is (?)helped by good actors giving a fine impression of bad actors, who of course have those hated 'posh' voices. Isn't it sad that these new managers, like 6-year-olds, should glory in this playground bullying. Like those of Hut33 the scripts are so pitiful that I wonder that these actors didn't find another use for them. The curious thing is that they are apparently comedies, but I couldn't raise a single laugh except at the crass ineptitude of a BBC chief who could commission this bag of... words fail me.

Now I had a look at the Radio Times for that period - I chose November 1962 -because that was the month when we celebrated 40 years of the BBC - the first broadcast was in November 1922. And Mr Damazer will be thrilled to know that congratulations were received from Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and wait for it, the king himself, Elvis Presley. And they had Sci-fi plays - one by someone you may have heard of - John Wyndham. And there was the serialisation of that great futurist epic Aniara by the Swedish writer, Harry Martinson. For comedy there was The Men from the Ministry with Wilfred Hyde White and Richard Murdoch written and produced by Edward Taylor. Comedy Playhouse - Peter Sellers, Richard Burton, Ian Carmichael, Beryl Reid.

There was Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow - (Irish accent) and Dorothy Baker's Return to the Black Country (Northern accents) Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye (cockney accents) Shelagh Delaney's The Taste of Honey (Salford accents).

There was a play by Ingmar Bergman - A painting in wood - that later became a film, The Seventh Seal. Another by Harold Pinter - The Collection.
And for the kids ,The boy detectives, Norm and Henry Bones. And the round Britain schools quiz.
And the names - giants of broadcasting - Val Gielgud - you could not imagine what he would have said to a script like TT; DG Bridson a pioneer writer and producer who brought everyday life to the air with plays such as Aaron's Field and a new one for the time, Aaron's Fall-out Shelter.
Let Mr Damazer's staff listen to the Dark Tower by Louis McNiece, or Moby Dick. And celebrate not sneer at the work of a team of writers and producers they could only dream of today.
Headed by Val Gielgud they included Louis McNiece, DG Bridson, Reggie Smith, Nesta Pain, Giles Cooper, Stan Barstow, Frederick Bradnum, Henry Reed, Douglas Cleverdon, Cedric Messina.

It WAS a golden age - and therefore a pain for their sad successors who know it.

I woke up to another concern about the BBC yesterday, which is its sheer SCALE. I picked up a magazine belonging to one of my kids and it was called "Match of the Day". Safe enough, but the BBC logo was up in the top corner.

The BBC produces many magazines, together with books, DVDs, websites, multiple national radio stations, multiple local radio stations, multiple TV stations. Its news team is ten times bigger than the news team of the Daily Mail. It is bigger than all the national newspaper news teams added together.

A democracy needs to have appropriate checks and balances in place to survive, let alone thrive, and if you are under the impression that having a media organisation of the scale of the BBC as an arm of government is reasonable then I am afraid you are wrong. It is dangerous, and if you believe it isn't dangerous then I can only suggest that its danger to the listening and viewing public is only too well exemplified by the effect it has had on you.

If the BBC were a purely commercial operation, would it not be regarded as infringing the laws against unfair market strength that Brown walked over in setting up the Lloyds/HBOS bank?

News and Current Affairs now have complete control over the World Service. Programmes that enjoyed considerable following round the world have been axed. These include:

News about Britain. Music Magazine. Record Review. Daily soap set in a doctor's surgery in N London. Book programmes. Drama. British poetry programmes. New British scientific developments. Write On - an independent spot where listeners' views were aired - probably dropped because listeners complained about the poor English spoken by the presenters, and the failure to present life in Britain.

The obvious intention is actually to avoid associating the BBC WS with Britain. The tedious repetition of those letters is the worst example of product promotion I have ever encountered - five or more times in the 45 seconds or so preceding the news. It is designed to match and defeat CNN. The addition of background noises, "music"(yuck) and sound effects has become quite farcical.
A day or two ago in a report which mentioned an operation codenamed drumbeat we were given, you've guessed it, the sound of a drum. Even the trail of Desert Island Discs now has a dribble of sound. How soon may we expect the weather forecast to be backed by Gene Kelly, raindrops and howling winds? Thought for the Day could have PLainsong, or a Cantor, or a Muezzin -sorry I forgot the humanist, who naturally would speak to the sound of bulldozers. It's down to the level of Lord, Privy, Seal, vividly illustrated in TW3.
AS for the political slant - this has so conditioned audiences that a mention of the middle class, the Daily Mail, a 'posh' accent, is a standard comedy cliche. And whom did Today invite as guest producer but Jarvis Cocker, a schoolboy Marxist, who believes that Quantum Physics is a Buddhist sect, and chosen no doubt because he wears horn-rimmed glasses, the Hollywood badge of intellect.

And yet it seems that the whole corporation is being groomed and shaped as a purely commercial operation against the time when the Tories abolish the licence fee. The programmes are timed to suit foreign commercial stations by the dreary, insufferable intrusion of trails, regardless of their effect on the mood of the surrounding programmes.
Yet no commercial boss would allows the depth of obscenity to which the BBC now sinks. What would the world have said 25 years ago to the news that in the last two years the BBC had been fined over half a million pounds? But those episodes exposed the pitiful calibre of the top management. They sneer at the BBC that they have gleefully destroyed but do they look forward to their assessment in a future history of the BBC?

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