Baiting the goody-goody

When it comes to ethical standards in journalism, the BBC is in a league of its own

Some of us, upon reading the headline "BBC guilty of liberal bias", probably let out a cheer. Since on any day of the year another headline could truthfully declare "National press guilty of conservative bias", and a third might reasonably claim "Government guilty of conservative bias", it's comforting to be told somebody is on our side.

But on second thoughts we might scratch our heads. This is the BBC of John Humphrys, Andrew Neil, Jeremy Clarkson and David Dimbleby? The BBC that gave us Andrew Marr eulogising Margaret Thatcher? The BBC that invited Tony Blair to perform in a charity show? The BBC from which Jeff Randall and Rod Liddle have departed, leaving who knows how many more like them behind? What's so liberal about that?

And if your idea of liberal bias is a sick-making Richard Curtis drama about a G8 summit miraculously seeing the light on world poverty, then you can keep it, thank you very much.

Impartiality, as the BBC's new "guiding principles" acknowledge, is a slippery business. Here is an organisation that is required by law to be impartial, having to admit that there's no pleasing everyone, that the nature of bias varies according to time, place and type of programme and - trickier still - that impartiality is not always to be found in the middle ground.

The arguments about this can never be won or lost and the problem, if there is one, cannot be solved - no matter how much advice is offered by the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. What is good here, and deserves our applause, is that once again the BBC is demonstrating that it tries.

No other British organisation of any size that engages in journalism puts half as much effort into considering the ethics and the propriety of what it does. Most of our newspapers (and in particular those that are the most enthusiastic BBC-baiters) are far more concerned with what they can get away with than with what is right or ethical. They pay a lot of people a lot of money to keep them on the right side of the law - just - but they pay almost nothing to ensure that they behave morally.

And it shows. Rupert Murdoch's News of the World is the paper whose royal editor was jailed for phone-tapping - an activity funded from his expenses, and which he would still be doing if it had been left to his paper to catch him. The Mail, meanwhile, is the paper that, after it was outbid for Faye Turney's story about her captivity in Iran, promptly turned around and denounced the government for allowing the story to be sold at all.

There are many things wrong with the BBC (and this magazine has written about some of them), but in terms of attempting to uphold journalistic standards in an organised way, it is in a league of its own. And the result, as we know, is that by and large the British public trusts it more than any other source of news.

So, what is happening to the BBC? A relentless and dispiriting succession of staff cuts. Its news staff has been shrinking for two years, with some of the best talent taking voluntary redundancy. And following the government's licence fee decision in January, another round of cuts is planned. If the leaks are correct, this will involve the loss of around a hundred staff, coupled with a trimming of the foreign bureaux and the merging of various news bulletin operations.

"There is," I read recently, "a market in providing serious, balanced news. There is a desire for impartiality. The way that people get their news may be changing; but the thirst for the news being real news is not."

Wise words indeed. They came from our outgoing Prime Minister, in that famous "feral beasts" speech. Serious, balanced news is what the BBC tries to produce, and it tries harder than anyone else. So if, like Mr Blair, we want to keep the average standard of news journalism in Britain as high as possible, isn't it short-sighted to be squeezing the BBC?

The week of Richard Ingrams

Every Saturday, the Independent carries a column by Richard Ingrams that is just as amusing and acerbic as you would expect, but I am never able to read it without irritation. Above it, you see, is a little sketch of the man and the title "Richard Ingrams' Week".

I know, I know, I need to get over this. Pretty well all the punctuation gurus agree with me that it should be "Richard Ingrams's Week", but most of them, I am forced to concede, will tolerate "Richard Ingrams' Week" as a matter of "taste". I find it an eyesore.

It's not as though the paper is consistent, for you are far more likely to find "Prince Charles's wife" in the Independent than "Prince Charles' wife". A few weeks ago Ingrams himself referred in the column to "Haines's account". (When I spotted that I said "Aha!" aloud, just as Sherlock Holmes would on finding a vital clue with his magnifying glass. Perhaps I need a holiday.)

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis