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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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BBC Bias and the Republican Other

Friday, October 10, 2008

I have noticed quite a few US-based commenters on various message boards (see here, here, and here) lamenting the way in which the European media have been biased in their coverage of the US election; in particular, they criticise the BBC for leering across the Atlantic with a typical leftist lean. Now I suspect that over the course of the election it has probably been true that Obama has received more coverage than his Republican rival (though a Google News search for stories containing Obama and McCain shows the latter outweighing the former by 181 to 824 occurrences over the last month). What I object to is the way in which the word "bias" is used here in a pejorative sense, as if we should expect the European media to offer impartial coverage of an election in a foreign country. I am not at all sure that the onus should be placed on them to do this; indeed, the reasons for any bias seem to me to be so comprehensible that it is hard to imagine what a more "objective" European media would look like. Further, I would argue that where any bias does exist, it is not so much the fault of European-based broadcasters as the failure of the American right to make itself understood to the world.

The term "bias" raises that old fallacy that objective and impartial reporting means giving fifty percent of the coverage to each side in any bipartisan contest or debate. But we would not expect the BBC to dedicate half of its coverage of climate change to those 5% of scientists who disagreed with the anthropocentric global warming hypothesis in the IPCC report, even though this too is essentially a binary position (either global warming is happening, or it is not).

In practice, in and between UK elections the BBC's public service remit generally does lead it to fairly represent to the two major parties, with proportional representation of the views of minority parties on appropriate issues (the Green Party in relation to environmental politics) and at pertinent times (during the Liberal Democrat convention, for example). But even here, the coverage is not quantitatively divided. Naturally, the incumbent party will receive more airtime than the opposition, and naturally at certain times - during terrorist crises, for example - the broad rallying of the opposition behind the government means that it is pointless to repeat the same opinions simply because they are voiced by the other side. The aim here is not so much that the BBC represents every single voice in a noisy democracy, but rather that the BBC avoids swaying UK voters, allowing them to make up their own minds based on the evidence of the manifestos and personalities in the political arena as a whole over an extended period.

With the US election, the aim of an organisation like the BBC is surely different. Whilst undoubtedly the outcome of the US election will have huge foreign and economic policy implications, because UK voters do not have any direct say in the result, the need to report stories that will be of interest to the public becomes more significant than the need to report stories that may be intrinsically dull (NHS waiting lists, for example) but that are still a significant factor in deciding who to vote for.

In the case of the US election, it is personalities, not politics or manifestos, which are of dominant interest. And which personality is the more interesting? The folksy "ordinary" white guy who waves his arms around a lot (I mean McCain, not Bush), or the charismatic candidate who might well become the first coloured President of any major Western power, let alone a United States in which half a century before he would have been ineligible even to vote? Quite clearly, the public interest in historical terms lies in covering the American election through the prism of Obama.

Secondly - and the most significant contributing factor to any Democratic bias in the European media - is that it has become increasingly evident since the first election of George Bush that there is simply no political bloc or ideological grouping in Europe that compares to American Republicanism. It is very difficult for the European mind to conceptualise the dynamic relationships of evangelism, subscription to the myth of the self-made American, and geography, that ensures that the poor Southern white voter is most likely to cast in favour of the pro-life and low-tax Republicans even though that party is the least likely to improve their socio-economic status.

The Republican party have claimed that Obama will bring with him a "European-style Socialism," as if this politics ranks there with Islamic fundamentalism and Cold War Communism as an alien to be kept out of American life. With this statement, it becomes clear that the low voter turnout in Europe as compared to America does not indicate in any strong sense the failure of democracy, but the broad convergence of politics to a centre-left position such that neither side has much to say that is different from another. Though it is clear with the credit crunch that liberal Blairite economics is by no means the best way of macromanaging an economy, France, Germany and Italy all share New Labour's (failed) ambition that although the state should allow business to run itself it needs also to ensure that welfare support is provided at the very base of society. The state is responsible for ensuring both that wealth is allowed to accumulate at the top, but also that it is redistributed to the bottom.

It is, for example, inconceivable that any future Conservative government would abolish the National Health Service, whereas for a time during the 1980s and early 1990s that establishment seemed to be destined to fade into privatisation. Today, the only significant difference between New Labour and Cameron's Conservatives is where they decide to draw the bottom line: New Labour drew it through the lower-middle classes who provided their supporter base, whilst the Conservatives would suggest support should be provided only for the very severely underprivileged, and would appeal to that class by being strong on issues such as immigration. In America, by contrast, the lower it digs through the social strata the more Republicanism finds voter-rich seams of support. And it is difficult for the secular, European political mind to comprehend what drives this bloc. What commingling of ideology, religion and history leads Republican voters to believe not only that business and corporations at the top should not be pulled down by the state, but that they themselves should not be helped up?

In spite of the valiant efforts of the BBC's bloggers and correspondents (such as Justin Webb) to get among the trailer parks and into the minds of this community, they remain ideological others, taking over from the coloured minority who previously assumed that role in American culture. And so, I would contend, it is not any deliberate strategy but the sheer incomprehensibility of the Republicans that leads organisations like the BBC to any bias in their coverage. I am not suggesting this is a good thing. If Bush's foreign policy has been immoral because he has refused to attempt to understand the very sincere beliefs that drive terrorists to commit atrocities, at a time of global financial crisis it is vital that we try to understand what motivates Republicans genuinely to feel they are doing the right thing even if that seems so different to European politics. Simply castigating them as Others will not help. But I would argue that when right-wing commenters condemn the BBC for its bias, these Republican complainants ought to be a little more self-reflexive. The real problem is that they need to make themselves known and understood to the world. A world which, until that time, will continue to cast an overwhelming preference for the Democratic model, even without the obvious anti-Republican catalysts of the Iraq war and the Wall Street credit crunch.

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Posted by Alistair at 1:30 pm


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