The BBC, 'Objective Journalism' and Myth
With polarised politics, fake news, increasingly sophisticated social media bots and all manner of other diversions and illusions, it’s perhaps no surprise that many yearn for journalism that is objective, unbiased and nonpartisan. Such a thing does not, of course, exist. In fact, the idea is a dangerous one. To strive for some invented standard of objective journalism is a process of mythologising a particular way of understanding the world. There is no greater illustration of this (for me as a Brit, at least), than the BBC.
What I mean by mythologising here—without getting too bogged down in the details of my PhD thesis—is a process of arbitrarily connecting concepts in such a way as to make that connection feel natural. Like that’s just the way it is. These different connections are linked by an anchoring concept, a central metaphor to which more meanings are attached.
Outlets like the BBC, which strive so much to be ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased’, must necessarily mythologise the political. Politics cannot be commented on objectively or without bias, so to attempt to do so is to attempt to mask the subjectivity and bias involved in sourcing, writing, curating, editing and publishing any given piece.
This denies audiences of the opportunity to take these biases into account in their reading of the piece. Personally, this is a huge reason for why I have long since stopped using the BBC as a reliable source of news, and of political news in particular. I would much rather read analysis from The Guardian, or The Telegraph, or Novara Media, because I can see where their analysis is coming from and factor that into my interpretation.
In a Novara Media podcast, a particularly egregious example of BBC coverage was brought up, which illustrates these points well. As a humanities-oriented scholar, the specific economics of the situation are not within my expertise. Rather, I want to focus on how the message was delivered.
Economic myths from the late 2000s
The headline of the report I want to take a closer look at is ‘Coronavirus: How much will it cost the UK?’, by business reporter Ben King. At the top of the article is an explainer video presented by economics correspondent Dharshini David.
The myth is that of the household economy. Using the household economy as a central concept, government spending is assumed to follow the same rules. Above all, the household economy in this understanding aims to be in a budget surplus and as debt-free as possible. This is achieved, in the household economy metaphor, by aggressively minimising spending and paying off debt.
It doesn’t take an economist to see that this approach to government spending is, frankly, bollocks. For one thing, in a household reducing spending does not reduce income. At a national level, it does. For a more detailed dismantling of the economic claims of this approach and of the above BBC explainer video, I’d recommend this clip from a recent Novara Media podcast, presented by Michael Walker and Aaron Bastani, and with economic analysis from James Meadway:
Indeed, it is not even framed as an ‘argument’ as such. In fully mythologised fashion, the logic of the metaphor is taken as an essential truth. This is just how government spending works. “And like anyone who’s facing debts,” says David, “the government has three options.” These three options, for the BBC, are to cut spending, raise taxes, or to borrow more.
Not only are there other options, such as monetary policy, but the framing of each choice is also misleading. Raising taxes, for instance, is presented as simply unconscionable. The explanation for spending cuts, in following the household myth, does not take into account that reducing spending at a governmental level also reduces income. Borrowing more is waved away with the tired argument that it “leaves our grandchildren to pick up the tab”, also not acknowledging that alternatives to borrowing—especially cutting spending—could easily be far, far more damaging to the economy, leaving ‘our grandchildren’ with a higher ‘tab’ and a more painful economy overall. This follows the logic of the household myth: taking on more loans (beyond an initial mortgage) is often presented as a very last resort, after attempting to cut outgoings and looking for more income.
So the danger of myth, and the danger of this particular myth, is that is naturalises certain logics. Despite being itself political, myth masks the political, reducing political and moral choices to simple reasoning and calculation, while hiding the premise of that reasoning.
The BBC has absorbed this Conservative myth into its own worldview. It is the most recent failure in a litany of failures over the past decade or so for the BBC. In looking more closely at how myth is used in journalism, we get a better idea of what so-called objective and unbiased journalism really is: the political presented as apolitical. And that is extremely dangerous.