By Kenneth Roy
BBC News Online is the most popular news website in the UK. Its 40 million 'unique users' every week – of whom 25 million are in Britain – give it a position in the media market of enormous dominance and authority. That is why anything that happens on BBC News Online should be watched carefully.
And something is happening – something rather odd. Since the appointment of Tony Hall as director-general, the BBC has embarked on a perverse mission to save a failing British institution – the mainstream press.
Until recently, the daily summary of the newspapers on BBC News Online was about as exciting as the shipping forecast. Suddenly and without explanation, this modest feature has been transformed into one extremely big deal. Not only are the papers regularly promoted on air, mostly as a cheap way of filling the yawning hours before the latest 'breaking news'. They are also extensively gutted and filleted for consumption online.
Part of the new service is a daily facsimile of the front pages – as close to free advertising as it gets – so that the seediest of the tabloid pap is routinely republished by BBC News Online without the corporation requiring to exercise any responsibility for its content. Such behaviour used to be called the prerogative of the harlot.
Last weekend, this shabby practice enabled BBC News Online, on its Scottish home page, to share with readers the Sun's revelation of 'Bra queen's 4hr hotel tryst with Liz ex' – a story about a Scottish businesswoman which the BBC itself would never have published, since it involved an invasion of the privacy of an individual who is not a public figure. Yet the BBC had no hesitation in using the story vicariously, no doubt on the spurious grounds that it had nothing to do with them, guv.
The newspapers are bought in diminishing numbers and quickly discarded. But the facsimiles of their front pages stay online all day, courtesy of the BBC, and are accompanied by a thorough digest of the main themes of the day.
It is well enough done, up to a point. The mystery is why it is done at all. Circulations are in freefall, the power of the mainstream press has sharply declined, and the opinion-forming role of newspapers is being steadily usurped by the internet's greater independence and diversity.
There is another reason to be baffled by the BBC's obsession with a twilight industry. Its addiction to old-fashioned newspapers has coincided with the long trial at the Old Bailey of Rebekah Brooks and her friend Andy Coulson, the prime minister's former press secretary, on a variety of charges related to newspaper ethics and practices.
The trial has been poorly reported in the mainstream press (the only reliable account of it is to be found in James Doleman's daily blog) and any meaningful comment must be postponed until the middle of May, when the jury is finally expected to deliver verdicts. But it is no exaggeration to claim that the newspaper industry itself is on trial in London. Why, then, has the BBC chosen to have a dizzy affair with Britain's unloved press? Only the BBC can say, and it probably won't.
From Scotland's point of view, there is a growing political dimension to the BBC's slavish coverage of what the papers say. The public service broadcaster, which collects its licence fee with a zeal bordering on the fanatical, prides itself on the impartiality of its journalism – an impartiality which will be scrutinised and tested the closer we get to referendum day. But the newspapers have no such obligation. They can be – and are – as outrageously biased as they wish.
The danger of the BBC repeating, parrot-fashion, the prejudices of newspaper proprietors was spotted as long ago as 1959, during the general election campaign of that year, by Willie Marshall, the Scottish secretary of the Labour Party. Marshall complained that the BBC in Scotland was broadcasting a daily review of the newspapers. 'The practice,' he said, 'is to quote extensively from editorials, and since the majority of these editorials favour the Tory Party, it looks as if the BBC are not honouring their much-vaunted claim of providing impartiality'.
If this was true in 1959, it is true with referendum knobs on in the media and political worlds of 2014, when a vote on the constitutional future of the UK is less than seven months away. Yet the BBC behaves as if its duty to be impartial is confined to its own journalism. In reality, it has a responsibility to be fair in all it publishes.
The party that has most to lose from the BBC's slavish devotion to the press is the SNP. Few national newspapers (national in the sense of being British, the Herald and the Scotsman having rebranded themselves as 'regional' titles) support the Labour Party, but there is not one which supports the SNP.
This leads, on BBC News Online, to the sort of one-sided coverage we saw last weekend, when millions of consumers, including many in Scotland, were invited to access a press summary notable for its barrage of anti-SNP, anti-independence sentiments.
The BBC informed us that two of the Sundays were leading on the importance to Scotland's oil industry of staying in the UK; that the Independent on Sunday viewed the SNP's response to the rejection of a currency union as 'disappointing'; that, according to the Sun, the No campaign had been 'inspired' by David Bowie's statement at the Brit awards – a photograph of Kate Moss, who made the statement on Bowie's behalf, rubbing it in; that a new UK-wide poll showed that a majority of English voters were in favour of 'the whole country' having a say in Scotland's future; and that the Sunday Express was carrying an editorial extolling the 'untold advantage, tolerance and opportunity' of retaining the union and the 'tragedy' if it were to end.
None of this was surprising. The various beasts make their jungle noises as predictably as they ever did. Nor is it surprising that there was not a balancing word in favour of Scottish independence; it is conceivable that not a single national newspaper contained such a word. But if the BBC still values its reputation for neutrality it should consider the lack of fairness in these press summaries. The drip-drip of hostility to the independence cause, dutifully reflected by the BBC, cannot but have some effect on public opinion over the coming months.
If the result is a narrow rejection of independence, the SNP will be entitled to point to the bias of the BBC in influencing the result. That bias is already an issue.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review
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