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!