Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

12 June 2008

Campaign For Plain England No. 8: The BBC is told to ‘say England’

I can confirm that I am not Professor Anthony King, the author of an independent report commissioned by the BBC Trust, which appeared yesterday. I feel I need to point this out, as so much of the report could have been lifted directly from the analyses in this blog – particularly, this Campaign For Plain England series – of the way news reporting frequently describes the England-only decisions and statements of government as if they related to the whole of the UK.

So much of my analysis is there:

  • the way in which the TV or radio audience is often not “made aware by clear labelling which facts relate to which nations of the UK”
  • the way in which this leads viewers or listeners to assume that “the story applied to the whole UK when it did not”
  • the “common practice for presenters and newsreaders to mention at the top of a story that the story related only to England but then never to mention that fact again, even in the course of a lengthy programme”
  • the fact that “it was extremely rare for an attempt to be made to compare and contrast an event or development in England with a comparable event or development in one of the devolved nations”
  • the fact that in the Radio Four Today programme’s coverage of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] commitment to train British workers for British jobs (which in reality meant only English workers and training), “the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ were used only three times in the course of six items; the words ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ were used 46 times, and there were two unexplained references to the UK and ‘the country'”
  • and the fact that this lack of clarity was very much reflected in the government’s own communications, as exemplified by a press release that left it to a footnote at the end to make clear that “this press notice relates to England only”. Actually, in my experience, the wording is usually even more insulting: “This press notice relates to ‘England’ [in quotation marks] only”.

The focus of Professor King’s report is somewhat broader than my analyses. As he puts it, “the BBC Trust . . . asked us, in essence, a single question: in recent years, has the BBC’s UK-wide network news, current-affairs and factual programming kept pace with – and responded adequately and appropriately to – the United Kingdom’s changing political, social, economic and cultural architecture?” His answer to this question is an emphatic ‘no’. Specifically, he criticises not only the way England-only stories are misleadingly presented as UK or ‘British’ ones; but also the failure to report adequately, in national UK news, on politics and government in the devolved nations, which would properly inform people (particularly, English people) about the different ways the nations are governed, allowing them to make informed comparisons of the very divergent policies being pursued by each national government. The two failings are obviously interdependent: if England-specific news is presented as if it were UK-wide, then it would be rather inconsistent to make a big effort to point out how differently things are being done in the other UK countries.

Well, it’s nice to be able to say ‘I told you so’ once in a while! Where I take issue with Professor King is in two minor but significant areas. First, he refers to the fact that media present England-only stories as if they applied to the whole of the UK as exhibiting “a general bias in favour of stories about England or telling stories from an England perspective” and as “Anglocentric”. This is despite the fact that he also makes clear – as in one of the examples I refer to above – that ‘England’ is often hardly mentioned explicitly in such reports, and everything is described as relating to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’. It scarcely seems fair to call this ‘Anglocentric’. It’s only Anglocentric insofar as England precisely is not differentiated from the UK (and hence English politics is not differentiated from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics). In other words, such stories articulate an assimilation of England to the UK / Britain, such that it amounts to a replacement of ‘England’ by ‘Britain’: when politicians and media reports really mean England, they say Britain.

This relates to my second point of divergence from Prof. King: his diagnosis of why this ignoring of the differences in the politics of the UK nations has occurred, even on the part of the BBC with its public-service remit. The Professor identifies this as reflecting the London- and Westminster-centric mindset of the national media, and their being “accustomed to a nation in which almost everything that really matters – politically, culturally, socially, financially – happens in or near London”. There is also a “symbiosis between BBC journalists and Westminster politicians. . . . They have a shared professional interest in convincing themselves – thereby perhaps unwittingly convincing
others – that nothing has changed, that God is still in his heaven and that power, real
power, is still located uniquely in the Palace of Westminster”.

It’s with this ‘perhaps unwittingly’ that I disagree. The failings in the BBC’s news reporting are so completely consistent with government practice that it is hard not to come to the conclusion that there is deliberate collusion between Westminster politicians and BBC journalists. The piece that is missing from Professor King’s analysis – in fairness, it wasn’t part of his brief – is a study of how government has practiced to deceive in exactly the same way: referring systematically to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ where England is really intended.

Professor King is pointing to a traditional mindset that did, and still does, exist: the identification between England and Britain, reflecting the fact that England was the centre of power of a unitary UK that no longer exists. But, overlaying this under New Labour in the post-devolution world, has been a more sinister and deliberate refusal to acknowledge that so much of the work of the UK government applies to England alone. And the reason why this has been done is that the establishment (and this includes the opposition parties, which carry on exactly the same deceit) doesn’t want the English public to be aware of the anomaly that England is the only UK country that doesn’t have a devolved national parliament to deal with its nation-specific affairs. Hence, playing on English people’s traditional identification of England with the UK, and bolstering the illusion by plentiful references to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ when the subject matter being discussed involves England only, is a deliberate tactic to prevent English people from grasping the realities of devolution and so demanding a piece of the action for themselves.

Professor King gets very close to this, to me, totally obvious inference; perhaps he realises this is what is going on but doesn’t say so, as his remit is to analyse only what the BBC has been doing, not to make assertions – however well backed up by abundant circumstantial evidence – as to the political motivations. The Professor talks about the benefits that would result from the BBC reporting much more clearly and accurately about the differences in governance between the UK nations. He writes: “we have been struck by the network’s apparent reluctance to explore or even take note of the UK’s emerging institutional variety, even when that variety is of UK-wide political significance and may ultimately impact upon the future of the UK itself”. Well, precisely: the BBC, in common with the UK government, doesn’t want this particular can of worms to be opened up.

Again: “the union’s variety, the state of the union and the future of the union should be threads running throughout the network’s output”. Of course, this is what should happen; and the fact that it hasn’t is precisely because the powers that be wanted to pretend that it was Westminster business as usual and that the ‘future of the union’ was unquestionable. And again: “Even when mention was made of the fact that a news item related only to England, it was extremely rare for an attempt to be made to compare and contrast an event or development in England with a comparable event or development in one of the devolved nations”. Well, exactly: the government doesn’t want people in England to make such comparisons because then they’ll realise there are alternatives to unpopular England-only policies being pursued by an unrepresentative UK government, which they could get if they had an English parliament elected under PR like those of Scotland and Wales.

All the same, Professor King’s report makes refreshing reading: it’s a breath of fresh air when an impartial person with the authority to call the BBC to account makes very similar observations to one’s own concerning the inadequacies of the media to ‘say England’ (and, indeed, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘Northern Ireland’) when that’s what they mean.

The number’s up on the cosy collusion between the national media and the Westminster political class. Let’s hope the BBC puts its house in order even if the House of Commons won’t!

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13 Comments »

  1. We’ve noticed over the years that people in the establishment have used ideas and comment that could have only have come from the Witan.
    Tim Luckhurst writes about the beeb today as per link.

    Comment by tally — 12 June 2008 @ 9.39 am | Reply

  2. This is only a sop to give a semblance of deference to the English, where we need to hear England mentioned by name more often is in the HoC. Much mentioned is “this country” when referring to England or “Britain” when the speaker really means “England”, most galling is the “Nations and Regions of the UK”. The 2012 London olympics committe is designated the Nations and Regions Committee, I have emailed Mr. Coe on this subject and have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. I also emailed Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London, pointing out that Cardiff was the capital of Wales where the Welsh lived, Edinburghn was the capital of Scotland where the Scots lived, as he was the Mayor of the capital of England what did he consider to be his nationality, his secretary replied that Mr. Livingstone deemed himself to be a Londoner. This is the brick wall against which the English must continuously batter, my emailed enquiries are, in isolation, only tiny pinpricks but if you all get down and busy, who knows?

    Comment by Patrick Harris — 12 June 2008 @ 10.46 am | Reply

  3. Tally,

    It’s interesting that some people (as in the Times article you link to) have read the BBC Trust report as continuing to deny England a proper voice and representation in the media, primarily because it does not challenge the asymmetric devolution settlement either as it relates to the BBC itself (the BBC having to serve dual purpose as the British and English Broadcasting Corporation) or UK governance: it says in one place that “England has itself become a devolved nation along with the other three” without signalling the difference, which is that it has no separate political institutions.

    I do, however, think that if the report’s recommendations were implemented, this would mean that viewers and listeners of the BBC’s national news output would become better informed about devolution and would be made more aware of just how much of what they thought was UK-wide governance is in fact England-only and ought therefore to be elected only by English people. However, we probably won’t get an EBC or BBC England until England, too, is a fully devolved or semi-autonomous, federal nation.

    Patrick, I’ve written to national politicians, too, and asked them their nationality (including Scottish ones), and the only reply I got back was from David Cameron: a highly equivocal one saying he felt both English and British. I suppose Ken Livingstone’s reply has a grim logic to it in that, apart from Scotland and Wales, London is the only other ‘devolved’ part of the UK. To be honest, my own view is that we’d have to drop London as the political capital of a federal or independent England: too long the capital of Empire and the Union to give up its habits and mindset without a fight.

    Comment by David — 12 June 2008 @ 11.03 am | Reply

  4. the story is good

    http://www.khyalking.net

    Comment by almoogaz — 12 June 2008 @ 11.37 am | Reply

  5. Never, Never, Never.
    London, since I was born to this great country of England, has always been the Capital of England it has never been the capital of the UK or of Britain. It will never be so cosmopolitan that it is severed from it’s historic roots. If you love England then London is part and parcel of that land.

    Comment by Patrick Harris — 12 June 2008 @ 2.34 pm | Reply

  6. I largely agree with you, Patrick. I guess my point was, could you imagine an English government (whether devolved, federal or independent) simply taking over the Westminster Parliament and whichever ministries applied, and not taking on the old bad habits of the UK establishment: centralism, indeed London-centrism; feeling they can ignore the will of the people and that Parliament always knows best; sleaze; lack of accountability, etc. So maybe to make a proper break with the UK, it would be necessary for the political capital to be located elsewhere; while London would of course remain a vibrant economic and cultural capital. But then again, maybe that would be just too complicated and expensive; so, in the event of devolution, federation or independence happening for England, I guess the English institutions will just step into the shoes of the UK bodies.

    I’m a regular visitor to London, where I was brought up and have family. And it’s one of the least English places I know, on one definition of Englishness – and the least British. So I think we’ll have to incorporate cosmopolitan multi-culturalism into our sense of Englishness if we do want London to be integral to England’s future and sense of identity.

    Comment by David — 12 June 2008 @ 3.57 pm | Reply

  7. I felt that Prof King missed the main point.

    Even with the absence of references to Wales or Scotland on the BBC’s News at Six, there is a means to access Welsh and Scottish news stories on Wales Today and Reporting Scotland, the national programmes that follow News at Six.

    What is missing, of course, is an English national news service, so News at Six has to double up as both English National and UK state news.

    Tinkering with the format of the 6 o’clock news won’t change the confusion that this dual mandate causes. The only real answer to the problem s to extend the SNP’s “Scottish Six” idea to all of the UK’s nations.

    Comment by Alwyn ap Huw — 12 June 2008 @ 4.25 pm | Reply

  8. If we get an English Parliament then it will be sited at Westminster where it existed before the British took it over, if anybodys going to move it will be the British Parliament, there are enough existing buildings in Britain for them to sit, so in a stroke an EP will not mean another expensive building.

    Comment by Barry (The Elder) — 26 July 2008 @ 7.47 pm | Reply

  9. the english, scottish and welsh are together the british, inhabitants of great britain. they should be united and governed from westminster in london. devolution is the biggest load of crappo-tosspot-bollocks ever devised and implemented in this country. we have our differences, but it is those differences held together in unity that made us the greatest nation in europe then the world. we need to learn to accept that our fates are inevitably entwined and work together to make a greater britain, a greater british. if we did that we wouldn’t have such problems identifying who, where or what they’re talkiing about on the shitty bbc.

    rule britannia.

    Comment by britforever — 21 August 2008 @ 11.58 am | Reply

  10. […] the range of governance across the UK following devolution (in line with the recommendations of a recent BBC report also commented in this blog), this would also free Scottish and Welsh viewers from being bombarded […]

    Pingback by A TV Of Nations and Regions « Britology Watch: Deconstructing ‘British Values’ — 25 September 2008 @ 8.32 pm | Reply

  11. David,

    Do you believe that it is in the interests of journalists to pretend that nothing has changed since devolution? If so, why do you think this is?

    Thanks.

    Comment by Joe — 24 November 2008 @ 5.23 pm | Reply

  12. Thanks for the question, Joe, and sorry for the delay in replying. It’s dangerous to generalise, and I feel the situation has improved a little since Professor King’s report: I’ve noticed more news reports on the BBC beginning with mention of the fact that the story is limited to England. However, an initial reference is still very often all you get; and, indeed, with some topics, you still wouldn’t know they were talking just about England unless you happened to know already. Examples from the last couple of weeks: the child protection story centring on poor ‘baby P’ and the suggestion that people should be presumed to have given their consent for their internal organs to be taken for transplants after their death unless they’d opted out – both England-only stories.

    I think it’s definitely in the perceived interests of many national media organisations for which journalists work that devolution is not made too obvious to the people of England. Those organisations want to be ‘national British’ bodies, not ‘merely English’. Like the politicians themselves, they enjoy the thrill of being at the hub of UK power and the glamour of the British state. So long as they maintain the illusion that everything that goes on in Westminster and Whitehall relates to Britain as a whole, both domestically and internationally, they can continue to immerse themselves in this rather rarefied and self-satisfied environment, cozying up to ‘real power’.

    By contrast, if there were an English government to deal with England’s internal affairs, things would (in their eyes) suddenly become much more prosaic and provincial. In fact, they might have to start covering stories in an altogether more serious, less polarised and less sensationalising manner because politics itself might become a more collaborative affair in which representative elected politicians might actually try to do some good for the people, rather than play their incessant party-political power games. Decidedly less exciting and less prestigious – supposedly – for the media and their journalists.

    A second and more fundamental point, perhaps, is that there is a mutual dependency of the political and media establishments: they feed off each other and rely on each other. This means that, for instance, the BBC tends to mirror the way politicians want to present their policies and field of action, rather than taking a radically different line and creating a competing narrative of British civic life. So it’s because the Westminster politicians of all parties consistently gloss over the effects of devolution, and deliberately create the impression that English matters are in fact UK-wide matters, that this is what comes across in the media: the media follows the politicians lead; and in turn, it gets protection and privileged access to the establishment, and acquires all the status of being an informed, ‘official’ voice for ‘the nation’ – i.e. Britain.

    ‘You don’t rock the establishment boat, nor will we’ is the implicit understanding, it seems. ‘Otherwise, we’ll end up being England not Britain, and you won’t be the BBC anymore but the EBC, SBC, WBC and NIBC’. Power, status, influence and money: they all back the status quo. So yes, for journalists that want to get on, it could well be perceived as in their interest not to ‘say England’.

    Comment by David — 24 November 2008 @ 11.35 pm | Reply

  13. Thanks David. You raise a lot of interesting points. Great blog, keep up the good work!

    Comment by Joe — 25 November 2008 @ 2.55 pm | Reply


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