The BBC’s famed ‘independence’ does not mean it is unbiased, fair or impartial – R. Jagannathan


R. JagannathanCalling the BBC names is easy, but not helpful. The only way to undercut the BBC is to understand where it is coming from, and steadily undermine its claims to objectivity. – R. Jagannathan

India is not handling the misinformation challenges it is facing from western news organisations, including the BBC, sensibly.

The “Beeb” has been in the Modi government’s crosshairs ever since it aired a two-part documentary on the 2002 Gujarat communal violence titled India: The Modi Question.

The government tried to block the documentary, and February 14th the income tax department launched a “survey” of the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai to check for possible evasion of taxes. In the process, it has only invested the BBC with more credibility that it deserves.

When dealing with colonial era relics like the BBC, which operates under a royal charter and is forcibly funded by a licence fee imposed on British citizens, there are only two ways to deal with it.

One is to ignore it and critique the inadequacies of its programming, and the other is to do it the China way.

The China way is about proscribing it and enticing it to toe the Chinese line by giving it covert funding for semi-propagandist programmes. Since the second is out of the question for a democracy like India, it is the first option we must choose.

That, unfortunately, means taking the high road and doing a lot of homework, at least more homework that the BJP has done by calling the BBC a ‘Bhrasht Bakwas Corporation. This is no different from what a former British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said when he blasted the BBC’s anti-Brexit programming, calling it ‘Brexit Bashing Corporation.

Calling the BBC names is easy, but not helpful. The only way to undercut the BBC is to understand where it is coming from, and steadily undermine its claims to objectivity.

The BBC’s operational “independence” is not the right issue on which to attack it, for this is difficult to deny.

The BBC is a public service broadcaster, and derives its constitutional legitimacy from a Royal Charter it received from King George V, starting from 1 January 1927.

This charter has been renewed and currently is slated to be in force till the end of December 2027. Hopefully it will be divested of this monopoly and forced to fend for itself by producing better programmes that truly serve its various audiences.

Since the charter originated when British colonialism was at its peak (read the original charter here), it should be easy to understand why some elements of its initial DNA persist in today’s BBC.

The original charter expected the BBC to play the role of trustee “for the national interest”. The “national interest” in colonial times was linked to the extension of colonial power and spreading “enlightenment” among the “natives” of the lands Britain ruled over. This part of the BBC’s DNA refuses to go away. To this day, the BBC continues to carry the “white man’s burden” without saying so.

The current charter, signed by Queen Elizabeth II (read the version here), guarantees independence of action to the BBC in the following words:

“The BBC must be independent in all matters concerning the fulfilment of its mission and the promotion of the public purposes, particularly as regards editorial and creative decisions, the times and manner in which its output and services are supplied, and in the management of its affairs.”

The charter lists five major objectives which are defined as public purposes. The first objective is:

“To reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world: the BBC should provide high-quality news coverage to international audiences, firmly based on British values of accuracy, impartiality, and fairness. Its international services should put the United Kingdom in a world context, aiding understanding of the United Kingdom as a whole, including its nations and regions where appropriate. It should ensure that it produces output and services which will be enjoyed by people in the United Kingdom and globally.”

Given this brief, it does not make any sense to attack the BBC’s independence, because “independence” is not the same thing as neutrality, freedom from bias or even fairness. It merely means that the producers of its programmes are free to do their own stories, which includes pandering to their own biases.

For example, Swarajya is an “independent” publication, but that is not the same thing as saying that its news and opinion choices will be “neutral” between our current preferred focus on civilisational issues and playing cheerleader to the India growth story as opposed to catering to woke agendas. We can be independent and still have an agenda of our own.

The question is, where does the BBC get its anti-India biases from? Given its 2002 documentary, made two decades after the event, we should actually ask whether its bias is essentially anti-Hindu, since it would seldom consider covering the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan or Jammu & Kashmir.

The British, like the Anmericans, were on the wrong side of the Bangladesh war, where genocide was the aim of the Pakistani army before India defeated it in the 1971 war and took 90,000 prisoners.

Simply, the royal charter grants the BBC “independence”, but not freedom from bias, which is its other claim. That does not bear scrutiny. The BBC is as biased as any other news or opinion publisher, and for proof we need only quote from the various British studies which examined its biases.

But before we come to that, we must examine how the BBC is able to indulge its own biases.

It comes from the huge funding it receives from taxpayers, not through the British budget, but from a licence fee which is currently £159 per annum. You are required to pay this fee if “you watch or record live TV programmes on any channel … and this applies to any (service) provider you use and any device, including a TV, desktop computer, laptop, mobile phone, tablet, games console, digital box or DVD/VHS recorder.”

Contrast this with how much India spends from the Union budget on its own public broadcaster, Prasar Bharati. In the latest budget, the government provided Rs 2,808 crore for Prasar Bharati, which on a population base of 140 crore amounts to a meagre Rs 20 per head – or Rs 100 per household. On the other hand, the licence fee of Rs 15,900 per household that the BBC gets (at current exchange rates of Rs 100 per pound) is money for jam.

A House of Lords report on BBC funding had this to say about its finances: “The BBC is principally funded through the licence fee paid by UK households. In 2021-22 this generated £3.8bn. In addition, the BBC’s commercial operations, such as BBC Studios, provide supplementary income. In 2021-22, the BBC made £1.7bn through its commercial operations. The BBC World Service also receives some funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).”

The BBC is able to fund all its programmes lavishly because it gets huge funding without making any effort to earn its viewership. It’s like giving your spoilt brat huge amounts of pocket money and not expect him to waste some of it on pub crawling or even doing drugs.

The BBC’s ability to fund all kinds of agenda-driven programmes comes from its licence to splurge, just as that other British fiction icon, James Bond, or 007, gets his jollies from a “licence to kill”.

Now, for the bias part.

In 2013, the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-of-centre think tank, studied the Beeb’s biases and found that it was heavily biased towards the Left-liberal viewpoint. Here are the conclusions from the study (read the fuller report here):

The study looked at how often the BBC cited 40 think-tanks between 1 June 2010 and 31 May 2013. It discovered that it was heavily biased towards the Left-liberal view, with The Guardian being its prime ideological soul-mate. The study concludes:

“The statistical evidence is clear: The BBC citations of these 40 think-tanks are “more similar” to that of The Guardian than that of The Daily Telegraph (which is shorthand for more conservative opinions). In particular, the number of articles on the BBC website mentioning a given think-tank is more highly correlated with its number of mentions in The Guardian than its number of mentions in The Daily Telegraph.”

The study also found that “right-of-centre think-tanks are far more likely to receive health warnings than their left-of-centre counterparts (the former received health warnings between 23 percent and 61 percent of the time while the latter received them between 0 percent and 12 percent of the time).

A “health warning” implies that though someone may be quoted, the BBC gives its own clues on whether it thinks that source needs to be taken seriously or not. “A higher proportion of left-of-centre think-tanks than right-of-centre think-tanks are referred to as ‘independent’ by the BBC.”

A 2021 report by media watchdog Ofcom noted that that audiences “consistently rate the BBC less favourably” for impartiality. The Week noted that “complaints about BBC content have more than trebled since 2017-2018, jumping from 1,673 four years ago to 5,429 this year. Describing the national broadcaster’s commitment to delivering impartial coverage as a ‘complex challenge’, Ofcom warned that the BBC has been hit by ‘historical failings’ during the past 12 months.”

The Week quotes a former Sun executive editor, Dan Wootton, of accusing the BBC of being “staffed top to bottom by Guardian-reading, quinoa munching, Brexit-hating lefties who despise what you and me stand for.”

Other reports have accused the BBC of bending over backwards to please those in power, especially during the Iraq war where Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair supported the US claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, when not a single piece of evidence supporting it was found (read here and here). The BBC is not very good at speaking truth to power, especially when that power is its own government.

Little wonder, there is now a popular movement to defund the BBC. The Indian diaspora must be encouraged to join this movement unless the Beeb gets out of bed with its chosen ideological partners, the Left-liberals and Islamists of various hues.

Unless the BBC is forced to seek audiences from those it can now choose to treat with disdain, it will not even try to reduce its biases. The market is the best way to break the ideological lenses it now chooses to wear. – Swarajya, 15 February 2023

> Jagannathan is the Editorial Director of Swarajya.