The Noble Liar: How and why the BBC distorts the news to promote a liberal agenda ||
DEAR READER, INDULGE ME for a few moments and enter into a thought experiment. Suppose you were to land in Britain from outer space, an alien explorer with no foreknowledge of the country, no understanding of its culture or history, how would you go about trying to make sense of the place? A useful place to start might be to try to determine where authority lay. ‘Who’s in charge here?’, the alien wants to know, deploying that intergalactic travel cliché, ‘Take me to your leader’. But unravelling the question – what makes this place tick? – yields a very complex answer with many ambiguities and conundrums.
Perhaps our alien would seek out and consult some constitutional expert to guide them through the formal structure. They might be told that Britain, aka the United Kingdom, is a constitutional monarchy, and that all power is exercised in the name of the monarch. They would hear how the Crown is a hereditary institution, with kingship passed down through the family line; that usually the monarch is male, but can be female if the family tree so dictates. It would then have to be explained that although the monarch is the head of state from whom all authority notionally flows, in reality, the individual sitting on the throne exercises almost no executive power.
Real power, they would learn, lies in the hands of Parliament (and its legislature), which passes laws in the monarch’s name; and that Parliament is the domain of people we call politicians, and that these people are elected by the ordinary citizens who, periodically, are asked to vote to elect those they favour. This system, we call ‘democracy’. We would have to introduce our visitor to the idea of ‘the rule of law’, which embodies the important principle that, once Parliament has legislated, everyone in the country is subject to the law – no one is above it – and that this system relies upon an acquiescence by all, even those who oppose certain specific laws.
This explanation, though, is far from comprehensive; to make sense of how democracy works the whole question of political parties would have to be untangled – as well as an elucidation of what ‘parties’ actually are. Namely, that they are voluntary groupings that coalesce around certain abstract philosophical and economic ideas. We would have to explain that, while all parties are to a certain extent tribes that stick together in the face of opponents, some of the smaller parties, like the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are much more tribal, and are largely concerned with group identity. At some point our constitutional expert would also have to try to outline that the foregoing explanation applies only to the House of Commons, and that, when it comes to the ‘Upper Chamber’, a whole different set of – sometimes illogical – rules apply. Luckily our alien is equipped with massively powerful cognitive abilities, so all this information can be taken in without trouble; they are, after all, only seeking to understand what the system is – they are not trying to interrogate our constitutionalist expert about any anomalies or inconsistencies.
So, Parliament, democracy and the rule of law succinctly explained, there we have it: that is where authority lies in contemporary Britain. Not so fast, alien truth seeker. We have many levels of complexity yet to unravel. There is, for instance, the European Union, and its authority superimposed on our domestic arrangements. It is true, we seem to be on our way out of that particular structure, but there are other international organisations of which the UK is a member, which can also lay claim to some authority in certain areas of life. The UN, NATO, the International Court of Justice, and so on: a whole host of organisations which can exercise some degree of authority. And then there are referendums – those occasional plebiscites that test the public will on matters of importance.
And so our visitor would come to see that though preeminent, Parliament’s authority is not absolute. And at this point, it would have to be explained that the account given so far only covers the formal structures of power. To understand why that power is exercised in the way it is we would have to introduce our alien visitor to another concept, which we might term moral authority. That is to say, the authority which flows from our understanding of fundamental truth. A grasp of this particular concept is necessary to comprehend why the politicians who we elect do what they do; and to understand the mechanisms by which the legislature is guided, so that it is in accord with the popular will. So, for instance, we hold it to be a fundamental truth that no individual can be executed by the state because we have decided that it is always wrong for the state to kill its own citizens. But from where does such a belief come? Not from the popular will, which has always been in favour of the death penalty; although support for the death penalty has been slowly declining and dipped below 50 per cent for the first time in 2015, according to recent figures. And if you discount the undecided, those wanting its reintroduction outnumber opponents by 45 per cent to 39 per cent. So, answering this question introduces a level of complexity quite above and beyond anything which our back-of-the-envelope introductory course on the British constitution has so far attempted.
From where does this moral authority derive? Our alien quite understandably wants to know. Where to start? Perhaps with Christianity and the ‘national church’ – the Church of England – and some elementary theology. At this point our alien would have to be introduced to the notion of an omniscient Creator who we call God; an entity beyond human understanding who brought our planet, and indeed the whole universe including our alien, into being through an act of inscrutable will at the beginning of the dimension we call time. One can foresee some potential problems here, but let us battle on regardless (we aren’t inviting a debating contest with this stranger, merely telling it how it is according to orthodox Christian teaching): God has handed down to us fundamental truths which, should we listen to our consciences, will guide our actions. But then we would have to heavily qualify this belief by explaining that the Church of England, though nominally the ‘national church’, has only a relatively small and dwindling number of members. And that, in fact, in the UK there are many other religions, some of which have significantly more committed adherents than the C. of E.
Our alien might, at this point, be forgiven for some confusion; after all, surely the ‘national church’ of which the monarch is the ‘supreme governor’ has some right to assert primacy in this area? The point could be argued, but not conclusively. There is no clear answer. And anyway, we would be obliged to point out that, according to polling evidence, many citizens reject this traditional idea of a Creator God along with the right of any of the many and various churches to lay claim to any moral authority whatsoever. Many Britons see themselves as secularists – actively opposed to religion of all stripes – and if one had to pigeonhole their philosophy, ‘humanism’ might be as good a label as any.
So what moral authority do these citizens, the atheists, acknowledge? Well, that is a devilishly tricky question to answer. We would have to admit that many citizens have but little faith in the moral authority of politicians but that – by way of counterbalance – there is widespread support for the notion of ‘the rule of law’. While many citizens are critical of the law as it stands, and believe it should be improved in ways that accord with their own preferences (so that there is a constant debate about what the law should be), the United Kingdom is a country where there is a consensus that the law binds us all. Leaving aside criminals, who obviously reject the law, here perhaps we have arrived on solid ground. It is in the law itself that true authority resides, and the fact that our laws derive from a democratic process invests them with a kind of moral authority. But our alien is puzzled; what, it wants to know, determines what the law should be? The politicians, our expert replies, who take their instruction from the voters. And how do the voters form their view of what the law should be? Ah, now we have hit upon a further complexity.
The voters formulate their views of how the world should be through their own intellectual processes, which in turn, are informed by a myriad of sources; everything from a conversation with a neighbour over the hedge (a quaint image – more likely these days to be a Facebook exchange), to their own reading and investigation of issues important to them, as well as following formal political debates accommodated by newspapers, radio, television and online sources. These interactions between individuals and the ideas floating around them are what the commentators, somewhat pompously, call the ‘national conversation’ – though it seems most of the time, most people are not included. It is a conversation heavily mediated by various forms of communication – books, newspapers, radio, television, the internet – doubtless all rather primitive in the view of this advanced alien. This debate, unceasingly conducted through all the different types of media available and contributed to by many different individuals and organisations, acts upon the politicians who then enact laws to carry into effect the will of the majority. Simple, n’est-ce pas?
Our alien visitor, because of their superior cognition, has easily grasped the main points; they get our drift. They see that, in theory at least, in the UK, the voters are the masters: authority flows from the people, upwards, to Parliament, which enacts the will of the people by passing laws that reflect the majority view. They understand that this is an imperfect system in the sense that it means no one individual is ever completely satisfied with the state of the law (because it is unlikely that any one individual agrees with every law), but that this collective expression of the majority’s preferences – what we call public opinion – is a serviceable starting point for ruling the country according to the will of the people. It does not then take our alien long to figure out that the most important influence acting on the whole democratic mechanism is this notion of the public’s aggregate opinion; if the system is working properly, a majority opinion emerges in the public mind and the legislators duly take notice and pass laws accordingly. And it follows from this that the institutions which mould public opinion play a very important role in the whole process. The ideal situation is that through a process of public debate everyone engages with a topic, the different sides struggle for supremacy and eventually one side emerges triumphant having persuaded a majority to support it. Then this winning idea is transmitted via the various mechanisms which act upon the legislators and, at the end of the process, new laws and regulations emerge reflecting the majority opinion. But is this, in reality, how our system works?
At this point our explanation needs to take a short detour to describe the country’s media landscape. The UK is a country rich in media sources. We have about 100 daily newspapers: some national, some regional, and about 450 weekly newspapers. There are also about 8,000 magazine titles, of which some are very specialist, but about 3,000 of which are aimed at a general audience (an increasing number are available only online). We have an enormously prolific book publishing industry – the UK publishes about 180,000 books per year,1 which is the highest, per capita, in the world. We also have nearly 500 television stations, which variously cater for both a broad range of tastes as well more niche markets, and there are about 600 radio stations. And, finally, there’s the internet, where the range and variety of sources cannot reliably be counted. What this amounts to is a cornucopia of information; we are surrounded by a sea of data, factual news reports and opinion. No one in Britain can plausibly claim to be starved of facts – seek and ye shall find.
Given all this our alien might conclude that the UK has the wherewithal to nourish a system that reliably reflects the popular will, and, in theory, that is the case. But if our alien, having absorbed the theory, set about doing some fieldwork among the natives, they would find that is not how it seems to an increasing number of citizens. Rather, the country appears at odds with itself over all manner of subjects. Our alien would discover that in the view of many people, the rules which govern our lives make no sense any longer; that there is a deep disconnect between the views of the ordinary citizen, based on their own ‘common sense’, and the prevailing orthodoxies which are promoted in the media and which often end up being enshrined in legislation. Many people feel something has gone wrong.
Thankfully, you might feel, we can now discard the rather tiresome device of our alien and bring the subject of this book into focus: it is an examination of why there is such a gulf between the world as the media presents it, and the world as most ordinary people experience it. Why is it that so many people find no echo of their own opinions in the big media outlets that serve them? And this brings the British Broadcasting Corporation to centre stage. The BBC, by a very large margin, is the most important media organisation in the country, and to understand what has gone wrong, we need to examine this mighty institution in close detail.
This book is about something so pervasive that it is difficult to see it clearly. It is like the story of the three fish. Two fish were swimming side by side in their pond; a third fish swam towards them and as he passed said, ‘Nice water today’, and swam on. After he’d gone, one of the fish turned to his companion and said, ‘What’s water?’ The mass media is the water we swim in and it takes an effort of concentration to see it as it really is. The etymology of the word ‘media’ leads back to its Latin root, meaning ‘intermediate agency’. In our common usage it implies all those intermediate agencies, like the BBC, which present us with information about the world. It is a function so commonplace that we hardly notice it, and yet it has a profound impact on the way we live. Without an understanding of its guiding philosophy we are in danger of being led blindfold into a way of thinking we have not freely chosen, but have merely absorbed.
In pursuit of better understanding our media, and particularly the BBC, the following pages will explore the size, scope and influence of the Corporation within the context of issues of contemporary importance; Brexit, for instance. The writer and social commentator David Goodhart coined a useful formula for a difference in outlook between two big groups in society; he said that people are largely divided into ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’. His theory is that ‘somewheres’ are more traditional types: the sort of people who feel rooted in a particular place in a particular culture. These are the sort of people who voted to leave the EU. ‘Anywheres’, by contrast, are the kind of people who feel pretty much at home anywhere in the Western world; these are the global citizens who feel as much at ease in Sydney, Saratoga or Sydenham. They have wider horizons and weaker national allegiances and they voted instinctively to remain in the EU. One of the things this book examines is why it has come to be that the BBC – which might be thought quintessentially British – so often sounds like one of these ‘anywheres’.
If my analysis is right, an understanding the BBC’s ‘deep state’ helps to explain certain obvious biases in its news coverage; why it is, for instance, that the Corporation is so nakedly hostile to Donald Trump’s presidency and Viktor Orbán’s ascendancy in Hungary. Also, why the theories that drive radical feminism are never challenged and why the difficult subject of Islam in the West is consistently soft-pedalled. Most importantly, and overarchingly, this book explains how it is that the BBC has become so deeply hostile to social conservatism – that way of thinking, shared by tens of millions of us, which values a traditional moral code that emphasises virtues like patriotism, self-restraint and decency. Social conservatives are at odds with a media culture which is obsessed with identity politics; they mistrust the campaigns of self-declared victimised minorities – whether defined by sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity.
The BBC has come to the point where it now, seemingly automatically, takes the side of the identitarians in every debate. It has become an unthinking champion of a set of values sometimes called ‘liberal’ (but in no way distinguished by the tolerance once thought integral to a liberal mindset), which has profoundly changed British society over the past half-century. The culture we inhabit – much of it trashy, tawdry and shallow – is in large measure the creation of our media. Individually, we have not willed this culture into existence, it is the work of many hands, but it has arrived nevertheless because there has been no apparent way to stop it, nor any concerted attempt to do so. The first step in reversing the process is for us to collectively understand it, which is precisely what this book sets out to achieve.
The title of this book draws on a concept originated in Plato’s Republic; a ‘noble lie’ is a myth or an untruth, knowingly propagated by an elite, in order to promote and maintain social harmony or advance an agenda. The BBC prides itself on being a ‘truth teller’: its hard-won, worldwide reputation is built on the foundation stone of audience trust. But what ‘truth’ is the BBC telling? It is the contention of this book that the BBC, along with its media and establishment allies, has become the vehicle for the propagation of a series of noble lies in pursuit of a political agenda.
Though the noble lie is always told with the best of intentions, there is an inherent problem with it: the deception misleads people and substitutes imagined problems for real ones. The great danger is that sooner or later people will realise they have been duped, and this will be a moment of great peril for the established order – with unpredictable consequences. This is the prospect facing Britain. What is urgently needed, this book will argue, is a new and bracing honesty which allows the nation to face its problems in full possession of some uncomfortable facts.
The Noble Liar: How and why the BBC distorts the news to promote a liberal agenda ||