Monday, 13 September 2010

Strikes at the BBC and accusations of "bias" as a propaganda tool

The Daily Mail tells us that "BBC unions last night declared war on the Conservatives with an extraordinary threat to black out coverage of David Cameron’s keynote speech to the Tory party conference." This gives them the opportunity to attack to favourite bogeymen - unions and the BBC - at once.

They claim that "the two 48-hour walkouts, in protest at plans to overhaul the corporation’s gold-plated pensions, have been deliberately timed to wipe out coverage of the two most high-profile events in this autumn’s political calendar." And, of course, the Tories are convinced that this "demonstrates the inherent left-wing bias that still exists" at the BBC.

In fact, this action doesn't demonstrate anything of the sort. Not least because those striking don't have any control over programming or TV schedules. And, unless you're a Tory dogmatist, you can't really blame workers for being biased against those trying to slash their pensions.

According to an email sent to staff by Director-General Mark Thompson, "pension reform at the BBC is inevitable" due to "a large current deficit" and "long-term pressures."

According to the Mail;
Under the corporation’s proposals, its defined benefit pension scheme will close to all workers joining the BBC from December 1. Although existing staff can remain in the scheme, the value of their pensions will collapse because from April next year, the increase in their pensionable pay will be capped at 1 per cent.
This creates a two-tier pension scheme out of which newer staff do worse. But it also means that those in the existing scheme have to pay for a £2bn deficit which falls at the feet of the bosses.

When writing about a similar problem at BT, I made the following point;

The Thatcher government introduced the concept of "pensions holidays," allowing employers to simply renege on their contributions for as long as they choose. (And, I hasten to add, the obligation to such contributions was laid out in contractual agreements, the sacred cow of the free market right when it happens to benefit employers.)

Delighted by this and consumed by the ultra-short-termist thinking that blights all corporate entities, many employers immediately leapt into the scheme. Even when the inevitable news that this was resulting in a massive pensions crisis hit home, employers carried on taking the "holidays."


The [implication] is that any argument in favour of employees bearing the cost of economic recovery is an argument for theft. When bosses already owe their workers so much, the answer is not to keep taking more. If cuts must be made, then those responsible for the financial decisions (i.e. shareholders, board members, and chief executives) must face them rather than workers.
With that clearly not happening, the workers have every right to take action in response. Moreover, given that the effectiveness of a strike comes from demonstrating how much the company suffers without the labour of its workers, they are only being sensible by striking when it will cause maximum disruption.

The idea offered by Tory Philip Davies that the BBC "don’t want to get the Conservative message across because it doesn’t fit in with their agenda" is thus exposed as transparent garbage.

This is an action against the BBC by its workers, not against the government by the BBC.

But then, the idea that the BBC is riddled with left-wing bias is a core tenet of the conservative faith. If they can use it as a stick with which to beat striking workers, all the better.

As I explained in relation to coverage of the Middle East, there is no such thing as balance in reporting;
Even if one tries, scrupulously, to be impartial and to tell both sides of the story, there will be bias. If this doesn't come out in the actual wording of the report or article, it will in the presentation. The choice of facts, quotes, even pictures - which to use, which to shelve betrays bias. As Howard Zinn once noted, "you can't be neutral on a moving train."
The demand for "balance," however, serves a useful propaganda function.

Accusations of "bias" act as a form of thought control to keep the media in check. As Medialens have noted, "the demand for 'balance' means that journalists can say pretty much what they like in favouring powerful interests, but they will be severely castigated for losing 'balance' when they criticise the wrong people."

The BBC faces this more than anywhere else because - devoid of advertising and state-owned - it isn't prey to the other filters of the propaganda model.

The fact that the date chosen by workers to strike against the BBC is offered as proof of bias by the employer should demonstrate how ridiculous the arguments about the broadcaster's "left-wing bias" are. As should the fact that, the BBC's own coverage of this story give less of a voice to the unions involved than the Mail's coverage.

Ultimately, the bias that needs to be challenged in the media is that against the working class and towards powerful vested interests. In challenging that, our solidarity should be with the workers facing off against the BBC along with others gearing towards industrial action in order to defend themselves.