The concept of ideology appeared in France at the end of the eighteenth century to describe a sort of ‘science of ideas’, and can still be used in a neutral manner, just to describe ways of understanding the world. But it wasn’t long before it took on another sense, of systems of beliefs which misrepresent the real world.
This meaning is now associated especially with those inveterate funsters Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were concerned among many other things with how people are led into beliefs which work against their own interests. An ideologue is therefore someone who misunderstands or misrepresents the world because blinkered by a narrow set of beliefs. You can choose your own current examples.
Misrepresentation can work in different ways. It can work by omission: for example the British media, decade after decade, tended not to draw attention to all the benefits brought to the UK by EU membership.
It can work more actively, for example by reducing the EU to a bureaucracy which is obsessed with the shape of bananas.
In its most extreme form, ideology can turn reality upside down. Fred Engels, as some of us affectionately refer to him, borrowed the notion of a ‘topsy-turvy’ world in which people in modern societies might end up with an inverted understanding of the processes which shaped their world.
Which leads me indirectly to the four nation approach to Covid-19.
On 7 April, the Guardian newspaper, which, whatever your opinion of it, has not been slow to uncover the appalling deficiences in the Westminster government’s response, ran a multi-authored piece titled ‘No 10 battles to regain control of lockdown messaging amid fierce criticism’. The article discussed the UK government’s ‘mixed messages’ and how this has led to premature press headlines about getting out of lockdown.
The article further notes how ‘the mixed messages emanating from the government also infuriated the Scottish and Welsh governments, threatening to rupture the “four nations” approach No 10 has sought to pursue’.
The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, warned that it would be a “potentially catastrophic mistake” to move too quickly. And a statement from the Welsh government said: “Some of the reporting in today’s newspapers is confusing and risks sending mixed messages to people across the UK.”
The article quotes various other criticisms of the Westminster government.
BBC Scotland’s editor on the same day took a very different view of events. In a highly personalized piece – you may recognize the style – she concentrates on Nicola Sturgeon, who ‘says she must extend the lockdown’. It’s all about Nicola:
- ‘Nicola Sturgeon is obviously concerned’
- ‘These decisions are, she says, quite literally a matter of life and death’
So far, no more than the conventional Scottish media tendency to reduce the Scottish government to personality – Cap’n Nic is in sole command with not a medical or scientific adviser in sight. In this account the SNP doesn’t do science. Cap’n Nic doesn’t even do SNP. It’s just personal.
But then: in comes the topsy-turvy bit, and I had to read this two or three times:
Despite her caution Nicola Sturgeon has already made public more details of how lockdown could eventually be lifted.
These include proposals for allowing more outdoor activities, allowing people to meet up with others from outside their households and getting the NHS back to normal operations, while simultaneously saying the rule for now remains “Stay Home”.
She doesn’t seem to be concerned that this sends mixed messages about what we are and are not allowed to do. But if the restrictions diverge significantly across the country it may become more confusing.
Now if I were trying to come up with a mini-case study of the presentation of reality in inverted form, this would do very nicely.
Compare this with the Guardian account. In that version, the mixed messages have been coming from the British government, leading its London press acolytes into jumping the gun and encouraging everyone out of lockdown prematurely. The Scottish and Welsh governments are therefore very annoyed.
In the BBC Scotland news website account, and in just three paragraphs, we get the whole ideological package: omission, misrepresentation and topsy-turviness.
Omitted are the mixed messages from the UK government, not least Boris Johnson’s, and the lack of Westminster government consultation with the other nations, which is the actual cause of foiling a joint approach.
Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals are misrepresented: neither the First Minister (a title the BBC news website piece doesn’t use) nor anyone else in the Scottish government suggested simultaneously staying at home and going out. It is perfectly clear that this is a sequenced process.
BBC Scotland’s editor is a journalist. On what factual basis does she assert that the Scottish First Minister ‘doesn’t seem to be concerned that this sends mixed messages’? That is, apart from the fact, as the Guardian notes, that the mixed messages have been coming from London. Has Nicola Sturgeon in some unimaginable fashion shown unconcern over her non-existent mixed messages?
It is in these ways that BBC Scotland’s editor manages a complete inversion of the facts.
This leads to another question, which is how BBC Scotland can contemplate the publication of such a commentary on its website. It seems unwise in a general sense, and also more specifically.
The Corporation is serially cloth-eared over criticisms, and has been for much of its existence. Nothing new there, on either side of the border. Rebuttal mode is the reflex for BBC responses to criticism.
But many of those who would have been its natural defenders, when its enemies in government come after it for real, are less disposed to do so after its craven handling of Tory performance in the many domains in which that performance is – to borrow an adverb from the PM – epically dismal. Its collapse over EU coverage in the face of Brexiter pressure is another very sore point with a great many people who might otherwise be the BBC’s allies. The Corporation needs to think more intelligently about which constituencies it’s prepared to alienate.
And, obviously, about where they may be most alienated. This is the local and specific significance of a commentary of this sort.
Sadly it’s become merely a truism that many licence fee payers north of the border distrust the BBC on the Scottish constitutional question, many of them having written off, however fairly or otherwise, the very possibility of balanced reporting and commentary. It is significant that this criticism is not, or not to nearly the same extent, visited on the BBC’s Pacific Quay neighbour STV.
But it’s one thing to produce news and commentary open to some debate as to whether or not it meets broadcaster obligations to be impartial. It’s quite another to be openly provocative, in flagrant disregard for these statutory obligations. And a piece like this one has no place on a BBC news website.