In the inaugural Steve Hewlett memorial lecture, Nick Robinson delivered a speech which made a number of curious claims. Firstly, he stated that alternative news sites are waging a “guerrilla war” against the BBC in an attempt to promote their own editorial agenda (no sh*t Sherlock!). Secondly, he made the claim that alternative news sites, caught in their own media bubble believe that journalists are “at best craven – obeying some dictat from our bosses or the government – and at worst nakedly biased”. Thirdly, he appealed to the BBC to promote and celebrate its impartiality, by publishing the BBC’s ‘producers’ guidelines’ that outline how its news coverage should be impartial, and by also revealing the discussions and decisions at editorial meetings.

For me to properly dissect these astounding and hugely problematic claims, we first have to take the two essential steps towards constructing an anthropology of political polarisation. Bear with me.

Step 1

Perception is diacritical. In lay terms, this means that because of the way the human mind is structured, we are predisposed to perceive the world in binary form. Humans have thus created an infinite set of arbitrary divisions from which we construct meaning. High/low, strong/weak, interesting/boring, intelligent/stupid, tasteful/crude, important/trivial, beautiful/ugly, etc. Such binaries are the fundamental building blocks of political discourse. Although people can move between binaries, depending upon the situation they find themselves in, they cannot readily hold two opposing perspectives at the same time – one cannot be both pro-establishment and anti-establishment concomitantly.

Step 2

Politics is the process by which people seek to conserve, or transform the structures of the social world. Political struggles tend to take place between individuals and groups who either want things to stay more or less the same on the one hand, and those who want change on the other. The general rule dictates that those who perceive themselves to be in a favourable position tend to favour the status quo, while those who feel they are in a less favourable position will tend to want change. Sometimes the people striving to conserve the structures in one context, may want to transform them in another. What makes this process difficult to apprehend is the fact that people’s actions are guided by dispositions which are both cognitive and embodied. In fact, some people may have beliefs that are so deeply embodied, or have been imperceptibly internalised over time, they (instinctively it seems) feel attraction or repulsion to certain concepts, ideas, or indeed people, without having to think about it.

In essence, people express their particular vision of the world through numerous binaries (divisions) in order to construct, and then conserve or transform the structures of their social world (what’s important/what’s not important, what needs to be taken seriously/what is superfluous, what stories to cover/what stories to ignore etc.). This political process is so deeply internalised and embodied that, all too often, people are not even conscious of it.

So, when Nick Robinson is drawing a distinction between ‘news’ (produced by the ‘mainstream media’) and ‘alternative news’, he’s creating a dichotomy based on the concept of legitimate versus illegitimate knowledge (and the package of interconnected dualisms which come with it – good/bad, official/unofficial, professional/amateur, worthy/unworthy etc.).

When this process is played out on television, then very particular points of view – typically those of the dominant – become universalised. The opposite viewpoint is thus made to disappear, because all opposition to the dominant viewpoint is made to disappear. This is, undoubtedly, one of the most potent forms of hidden media bias, among others.

What Nick Robinson completely fails to acknowledge is that the new forms of social media have arisen out of the gaping hole which was created by a long process in which the BBC came to almost exclusively adopt a very particular political perspective.

The poverty of Nick Robinson’s intellect prevents him from seeing that alternative news sources such as the Canary, RT, even Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland collectively arise from opposing the BBC’s perspective on almost every single political issue. This fact, that there are ‘actually existing alternatives’ to the BBC’s perspective proves the point I am making.

The true and astounding extent of Nick Robinson’s intellectual ineptitude is evidenced here by his total inability to grasp other people’s understanding of media bias. As every school child knows, bias, like privilege, is completely invisible to the beholder. Even the few people who haven’t seen Noam Chomsky calmly tell Andrew Marr:

“I’m sure you believe everything that you say, but if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting”, know the hidden significance which one’s political position plays in advancing one’s career in public life.

As many in the industry attest, a revolving door policy has operated between the BBC and the Conservative Party for decades. The BBC also actively recruits from the tabloid media which also has close ties to the Tories. This rightward political turn was more overt when it is acknowledged that between 1982 until 1985, Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, an (alleged) MI5 Officer who became the Special Assistant to the Director of Personnel at the BBC, was tasked with expelling left-wing members of staff and vetting new potential entrants for their left-wing tendencies. The film maker Ken Loach was one of his many victims.

The space which opens up by the BBC’s continued rightward trajectory has not only been occupied by alternative media sources, but also by increasing numbers of young people across the UK. Those seeking alternative news sources do so in their quest to transform the structures of the social world in a way that rebalances the uneven weight currently attributed to the interests of an aging, white middle class audience.

I would therefore implore the intellectually impoverished Nick Robinson to read political philosophers like Michel Foucault in order to better understand how ridiculous his claim to ‘impartiality’ really is.

“The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”
(Michel Foucault (1971), The Chomsky – Foucault Debate: On Human Nature)

So, ironically it is not the consumers or producers of alternative news who live in a bubble, but Nick himself. And yes, they are waging war on the BBC because, from where they’re standing, the BBC represents a political reality which is vastly different from their own. Oddly Nick doesn’t seem to know this, but then not everyone thinks that those ‘responsible for billions of pounds of profits’ are in anyway beneficial to the lives of ordinary people struggling to find meaningful jobs or decent affordable homes. I know that for many people, myself included, they believe exactly the opposite.

There are two sides to this political polarisation. A clear dichotomy has been cleaved that cannot be bridged by sending round producers guidelines, or the minutes from editorial meetings. Recent electoral support from Jeremy Corbyn in England and the SNP in Scotland is not a sign that the mainstream media is revising its ‘binaries’ (legitimate/illegitimate, official/unofficial, representative/unrepresentative, a household name/ an unknown, electable/unelectable etc.). Rather, it simply means that the British mainstream media is losing its cast iron grip on the de facto monopoly of information and comment it once enjoyed.

At least Nick Robinson has the intellectual capacity to see this as a threat to the dominant order. Unfortunately for the ‘status quo’, and those dominant groups who invest so much in its maintenance, the Robinsons of this world are so intellectually impoverished, they do not know what the ‘real’ problem is, or what exactly to do about it.

 

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