Nick Robinson’s Intellectual Poverty

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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Comments (20)

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  1. Welsh Sion says:

    Nick “He didn’t answer” Robinson is cut from the same cloth of privilege as he reports on.

    “Robinson was a founder-member of Macclesfield Young Conservatives (YC) and rose through the ranks, becoming Cheshire YC Chairman (1982–84) and became a key activist in the moderate-controlled North West Area organisation. Philip Pedley, as National YC Chairman, co-opted Robinson onto the YC National Advisory Committee in 1983 and appointed him National Campaign Director of Youth for Multilateral Disarmament. Robinson was elected National Vice Chairman in 1985–87, was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1985, and succeeded a fellow moderate, Richard Fuller, when he was elected Chairman of the National Young Conservatives on the moderate ticket against strong right-wing opposition (1987–88).

    He studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University.

    Full text of Robinson’s speech here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/correspondents/nickrobinson

  2. Jim Bennett says:

    What an excellent article, Joe Crawford!
    Of course the irony is that the very Steve Hewlett, whom the Robinson lecture honoured, was himself a victim of Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, the (alleged) MI5 Officer named in the article.

    1. Really? Have you got a reference for that Jim? Thanks

      1. Welsh Sion says:

        Here you go, Mr Editor of Bella.

        https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/20/steve-hewlett-obituary

        You may also like to consider his track record with interviewing this person:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peta_Buscombe,_Baroness_Buscombe

        (Referencing this comment from the Wiki piece on Steve Hewlett:

        Hewlett was a media-columnist for The Guardian and The Observer.[10] This brought him to the attention of BBC Radio 4’s then-controller Mark Damazer, who asked Hewlett to create The Media Show in 2008.[11] In 2011 Hewlett won the BBC’s Nick Clarke Award for “the best broadcast interview of the year” for his The Media Show interview with Peta Buscombe, the then chair of the Press Complaints Commission.[12] Probing the PCC’s inadequate handling of the phone-hacking scandal, Hewlett’s interview is credited with playing a role in ending the career of Buscombe.[5])

          1. Jim Bennett says:

            From the Guardian obit:
            “But when Nationwide’s editor, Roger Bolton, tried to hire him on a proper contract, this came to the attention of the BBC’s notorious Brigadier Ronnie Stonham, the spook who vetted all applicants, and the request was rejected. Bolton told the personnel department he would not be dictated to and Steve was eventually given an extended contract, but by then he had been attracted by the burgeoning independent sector and in 1983 decided to join Channel 4.”

  3. Clarinda says:

    Spot on.
    Who else but himself – “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, an’ foolish notion.”
    I fear Mr Robinson is doomed to continued blunders and foolish notions for some considerable time yet as the BBC London bubble is made from Portland stone and Pacific Quay from sandstone. How interesting to note that the architects for Pacific Quay were the Chipperfield group – whose namesakes also appeared to produce circuses?

  4. James Coleman says:

    Excellent piece. Of course the BBC is biased and the worst “examples”of this bias is the news which it doesn’t show because they disagree with it or are following a biased political agenda,eg, Scottish Independence and now Catalonia. And this latter type of missing “news” cannot be measured in any meaningful way to prove or disprove bias.

    But Chomsky is correct, the purveyors of bias on National news don’t realise they are biased or that they were chosen because they are biased.

  5. CathyW says:

    Very much agree with this on the whole. I’d just add that it isn’t simply a question of the BBC cosying up to the Tories: the whole rightwards drift (pre-Corbyn at least) of all the main Westminster political parties meant that the supposed balance point between Right and Left shifted rightwards too. BBC ‘impartiality’ is reduced to aggressive questioning about irrelevant and hair-splitting differences of style, presentation or personality rather than serious analysis of different political possibilities. Believing political options to be no more than a simple two-way split between Right=Tory and Left=Labour is fallacious anyway: but when they are both neoliberal parties following broadly the same agenda the BBC (and much other media) is ever more embedded in an establishment world view that excludes a real understanding of most people’s lives and needs. And it elevates myopic mediocre plonkers like Nick Robinson to the role of political pundit-in-chief.

  6. John B Dick says:

    “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”

    Of course they can. For centuries many accepted both frr-ill and determinism.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      John B Dick, your counterexample to holding ‘opposing perspectives at the same time’ of ‘free-will and determinism’ is not the ‘clincher’ you seem to think. ‘At the same time’ is not intended as the same thing as ‘simultaneous’. People who adhered to both free will and determinism used one in some contexts and the other in other contexts. These people could have explained something in terms of ‘free will’. That explanation would be in their memories, while they were deploying ‘determinism’ in the present time.

      It is an example of the phenomenon of ‘cognitive dissonance’. If the conceptual distance between two ideas is sufficiently large, people can hold contradictory opinions. But, if the distance is not great, then there is a conceptual tension and the mind eventually resolves this in favour of one concept.

      Joe Crawford was writing of polarised ideas, which, by definition, have a great distance between them. So, in one context a person can favour one pole, but, in a different context will hold the other One or the other is at the forefront of consciousness at any specific time.

  7. DAVID SMART says:

    Excellent piece of writing….It’s got the neural pathways firing aff in all directions…Impartiality is something that we can never achieve… There is always a bias…It’s how the bias is used that is interesting…Im not clever enough to understand it… Others are though and make full use of human frailties.

  8. gerconnolly says:

    I liked Steve Hewlett.
    Sad that this was the best they could manage to honour his memory.

  9. Graham Hewitt says:

    “Publish the BBC’s ‘producers’ guidelines’ that outline how its news coverage should be impartial”. Well, that’ll kill all criticism. How about publishing some independent, academic research on bias at the BBC? Prof John Robertson did and was hounded by some functionary at the BBC in Scotland.

    I’m not sure that recruitment targets those known to be biased, it’s more that they look for people like themselves – that’s why most company boards comprise white, elderly males and few women, for example – they are unlikely to recruit a real iconoclast because such a person won’t reflect their background and world view.

  10. Raibeartmac says:

    Don’t know the author, so, no personal offence intended but . . .
    I’m sorry, I didn’t really get the point of this piece at all. Of course, Robinson is beyond the pale – his bias was exposed long ago. We all know that but, I suppose, if you want to take another pop at him, it won’t do any harm. The guy’s a wank after all and he deserves it.

    What really worried me about this article, though, was its ‘Bella-ishness’ – the need the site apparently has to come over as an “I’m more of a smarty-pants than you: just look at the big words I know” type of forum. This approach is self-harmingly exclusive and I do not believe it is helpful to the independence movement in the slightest. As a retired academic I’ve had my fill of verbosity and prolixity and I know for sure they do not win you any friends. So, just stop it, OK?!

    But, if you must use big words, do make sure you pick the right ones – otherwise, you end up with such “student-howlers” as:
    “Progression 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.”
    FFS, Really? Diacritical? I’m just a mere lay-person, so tell me – would that be in the “acute, grave, or circumflexial” sense of the word? Or maybe the author meant “dialectical”, who knows. Does anybody proof-read this stuff?
    As for the gratuitous name-drop reference to Foucault – just Fuck Off, that’s all!
    I could go on but I’d be up half the night.
    OK, I’m being a tad rude now. Sorry. But I hope you get my drift.

    1. Thanks Raibeartmac.

      The Canary is said to have a reading age of 8 deliberately as that is what The Sun pitches at. I don’t see the point of this at all.
      People are grown ups. People can handle complex arguments.

      Your analysis seems to be “The guy’s a wank after all and he deserves it.”

      If that’s where you want to be then go for it. There’s hundreds of blogs that will deal in that level of analysis and you should enjoy them.

      It wasn’t just a case of “having a pop” at Robinson but trying to unpack what’s going on.

      Diacritical: is about duality. You can’t say a tree is big without indirectly making reference to the fact that you have seen a small tree. Tasty food is always juxtaposed by bland food. You couldnt say a book was boring without having read an interesting book. Strong is always compared to weak, happy in comparison to sad. Phenomenologists have long said that the brain is predisposed to think in binary form. Perception is therefore said to be diacritical.

      PS
      I’m sorry I don’t know what ‘verbosity’ and ‘prolixity’ mean, can you use simpler language?

      1. Graham Hewitt says:

        I don’t see any problem with this article, in fact I would say it was pretty good and the language was well judged. (are we to avoid the terminology of debate because some might have to use a dictionary?) After all, Robinson attacked the integrity of online media, like Bella, and seemed to question their right to criticise the BBC as if the BBC is sacrosanct and as if it is sufficient to say that they have guidelines on impartiality therefore they are impartial. It’s a poor argument. Show us the evidence, Nick.

  11. Frank says:

    This piece seems to be driven by a hatred of Nick Robinson more than anything else which gets in the way somewhat. The BBC is biased on certain issues but it’s overall commitment to impartiality is something worth defending especially in an era of fake news and where news has become politically contested.

    The Foucault quote is also taken out of context. Foucault was talking about the prison and psychiatric systems in France in the 1970s so we need to be wary of generalising too much from his quote.

  12. David Allan says:

    For me this was an interesting and informative article. Well crafted Mike.

    Some of our fellow readers are so hard to please.

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