To whom should the BBC be accountable?
To those who fund it through the licence fee and who depend on the Beeb to be impartial?
Or to the government, which has a the BBC on a very much shorter and tighter leash, and which depends on Auntie NOT to be impartial?
Durrr! It’s the latter of course. Whenever the government has a tale to sell, as with the Skripal affair, or it is in real trouble, as it is in Parliament over Brexit, we can expect Auntie to leap into action to frame the narrative just the way the government wants us to understand it.
Yesterday the House of Commons delivered a much-needed kick up the backside to the government’s attempts to strong-arm the Withdrawal Bill through Parliament with minimal effective say by MPs. As explained by Ian Dunt at Politics.co.uk (my emphasis):
…today, Bercow took a stand.
[Dominic] Grieve had tabled another amendment, this time not on the nature of the meaningful vote, but on the timing. Instead of it having it take place 21 calendar days after [Mrs May’s] deal was rejected, it would have to be after three sitting days.
Technically there is no way that amendment should have been voted on. The government had put forward the same updated business motion for the new debate on her deal as it had last year. And that motion said that only ministers could amend the motion – not parliament. But then Bercow did something extraordinary. He selected it for a vote anyway. And MPs passed it by 308 votes to 297 – a majority of 11.
…this was an unprecedented step. That business motion had been passed by the Commons in December. Bercow was effectively overriding the votes of MPs denying themselves power.
So how did the BBC cover what will doubtless come to be seen as one of those defining moments in the history of British democracy? A day when the people’s representatives drew the line on being ridden over roughshod by the executive?
Speaker’s Brexit ruling ‘extremely concerning’, say ministers is today’s headline on BBC news (second story from the top on the news app this morning).
That sounds awful – and the BBC is well aware that 90% of online readers will only read the headline.
The few who press on into the body get a, let’s say, nuanced retelling of the story. It gives the government, in the form of Andrea Leadsom, full rein to tell us proles that it’s a very bad idea for Parliament to be given the chance to change its mind over a motion that is now itself very clearly a bad idea (i.e. it gave the government a massive stick to beat MPs with in, the form of repeated chunks of 21 days to sit on its hands if it didn’t get its way – in the face of an increasingly probable hard Brexit that is now only weeks away).
Note that the BBC is not reporting here what was said in the chamber, where many MPs spoke up against the furious attacks mounted by Leave-supporting members on Bercow’s decision. It’s reporting what Mrs Leadsom told Robert Peston on ITV afterwards.
In other words, when you want to make the narrative the safest thing to report is other sources retailing the narrative.
Leadsom was too canny to directly accuse Bercow of partiality so the BBC reports an ex-minister who did: just about the only paragraph of its report taken directly from the Commons debate.
Even better, from Auntie’s point of view, is having Auntie quote herself:
The BBC’s parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy said it was a “massive ruling”, made reportedly against the advice of the Commons Clerk, Sir David Natzler.
He said it drove a coach and horses through accepted normal practice, and will have huge implications for the course of Brexit.
It’s very hard not to see the way the BBC frames this story as having three narrative goals. First, the headline, “Speaker’s Brexit ruling ‘extremely concerning’, say ministers”, implies there is something worrying, wrong and cavalier about the move. That sentiment is echoed in the BBC’s reporting of its own correspondent’s opinion of the move.
Second, the framing revolves around implied bias on Bercow’s part. The story does quote Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg defending the Speaker, though the semblance of balance is undermined quoting an MP popularly regarded as an out-of-touch hypocrite and loser.
The third is the sum of the first two: the BBC frames this story not as the historic stand-off between the Executive and Parliament it undoubtedly is but as being primarily about Bercow’s personal behaviour – alleged bias, “extremely concerning” ruling, etc. Which is not very far from the BBC blowing a dog whistle in the direction of its own extensive reporting of bullying allegations levelled at the Speaker.
A supposed ‘balancing’ para at the end of the story is a gross over-simplification:
Since being elected in 2009, he [Bercow] has angered many Tory MPs for his handling of business and treatment of MPs, but he also has many admirers, particularly on the Labour benches, who believe he has transformed the way Parliament holds the executive to account.
We have to go back to Ian Dunt on politics.co.uk to hear the highly relevant fact that:
…the last time Bercow went against convention so aggressively was in 2013, during the Queen’s Speech, when he allowed an unprecedented third amendment about the absence of a bill for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. When he breaks the conventions for Brexiters, they say nothing. When it is against their interests, they scream about parliamentary procedure.
If Auntie had not been so preoccupied with telling us what the government was telling ITV, it might have got round to including that nugget in its own coverage.