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Bias and the BBC

The charge that the broadcasting corporation is left-wing has been repeated so often that it goes almost unchallenged. If anything, Mehdi Hasan argues, it is a bastion of conservatism.

For years, I have been puzzled about why arguments over whether the BBC is biased seem to feature only two points of view. The right argues that the BBC is biased in favour of leftists and liberals. In his 2007 Hugh Cudlipp Lecture, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, proclaimed: "It is, in every corpuscle of its corporate body, against the values of conservatism . . . by and large BBC journalism starts from the premise of left-wing ideology." The other side responds by pointing to, in the words of Polly Toynbee, doyenne of the liberal left, "the BBC's perpetually self-critical striving for fairness and balance, unique in all the media . . . the only non-partisan voice". The idea that the corporation might be more sympathetic to a conservative view of the world than a liberal one never figures in the discussion.

But should it? In November 2005, a well-known BBC presenter delivered the 14th annual Hayek lecture at the Institute of Economic Affairs, in which he called for "a reorientation of British foreign policy away from Europe . . . a radical programme to liberalise the British economy; a radical reduction in tax and public spending as a share of the economy; a flat tax . . . the injection of choice and competition into the public sector on a scale not yet contemplated . . . excellence in schools with vouchers for all".

These are views, drawing on the libertarian philosophy of the long-dead Austrian free-marketeer Friedrich Hayek, that are to the right even of the modern Conservative Party. The BBC presenter was Andrew Neil, whose shadow looms large over the corporation's coverage of Westminster. Neil is on air roughly four hours a week, presenting Daily Politics, Straight Talk and This Week - where one of his co-hosts is the former Tory defence secretary Michael Portillo. Neil and Portillo often gang up, ideologically, on the soft Labour lefty Diane Abbott. Here is the legendary BBC "balance" in action.

But this is not about Neil, who has been on the Thatcherite right for decades now, first as editor of the Tory-supporting Sunday Times and now as chief executive of the Tory-supporting Spectator. This is about double standards, and about how the backgrounds of various prominent BBC employees have been curiously unexamined in the row over "bias".

Can you imagine, for example, the hysterical reaction on the right if the BBC's political editor had been unmasked as the former chair of Labour Students? He wasn't - but Nick Robinson was chair of the Young Conservatives, in the mid-1980s, at the height of Thatcherism. Can you imagine the shrieks from the Telegraph and the Mail if the BBC's editor of live programmes had been deputy chair of the Labour Party Young Socialists? He wasn't - but Robbie Gibb was deputy chair of the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980s, before it was wound up by Norman Tebbit for being too right-wing. Can you imagine the howls from the Conservatives if the BBC's chief political correspondent had left the corporation to work for Ken Livingstone? He didn't - but Guto Harri did become communications director for Boris Johnson within months of resigning from the Beeb.

Much has been made in the right-wing press of the comments by the Telegraph's editor-at-large, Jeff Randall, on the BBC's "liberal" bias - "It's
a bit like walking into a Sunday meeting of the Flat Earth Society" - during his four-year stint as the corporation's first business editor. The bigger question is: what on earth was an outspoken free-marketeer doing as the supposedly neutral BBC business editor to begin with? So much for Auntie's "Marxist" attitudes towards business and enterprise.

How about foreign policy? The BBC is constantly accused of anti-Americanism, but three of its most recent correspondents in Washington - Gavin Esler, Matt Frei and Justin Webb - have all since written books documenting their great love and admiration for the United States. Esler even used the pages of Dacre's Daily Mail to eulogise Ronald Reagan after the latter's death, claiming that he "embodied the best of the American spirit". Can you imagine the reaction on the right to a former BBC Moscow correspondent delivering a similar encomium to Leonid Brezhnev in the pages of the Guardian?

On Iraq, right-wing voices such as the Tory MP Michael Gove have accused the BBC of pushing an anti-war agenda - yet empirical analysis has yielded the opposite conclusion. The non-partisan, Bonn-based research institute Media Tenor found that the BBC gave just 2 per cent of its Iraq coverage to anti-war voices. Another study by Cardiff University concluded that the BBC had "displayed the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster".

Then there is the claim from small-c conservatives such as Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips that they are ignored by the BBC. Is this the
same Hitchens who is a frequent guest on BBC1's Question Time (according to the screen and cinema database IMDB, he has appeared on the show every year since 2000, and twice in 2007)? And the same Phillips who is a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze?

So where are the counter-accusations of right-wing bias from the left? The sad truth seems to be that this canard "the BBC is left-wing" has been repeated so often that it has been internalised even by liberals and leftists. How else to explain Andrew Marr's confession of the "innate liberal bias inside the BBC" simply because it is "a publicly funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large"?

“The left always feel faintly embarrassed at attempting to promote their own political agenda," says Steven Barnett, professor of communications at Westminster University, "and since the 1980s have consistently failed to bang the drum about the issues on which they might equally be able to pillory the BBC - for example, human rights abuses and the failure to regulate corporate greed." Barnett believes that allegations of bias are a concerted attempt by the right to "discredit any journalism with which they disagree and to promote a political agenda which is more consistent with their own". Liberals such as Marr, he says, feel "slightly guilty about their own liberalism" - unlike those on the right, such as Randall, who feel no such guilt.

Barnett does not believe the BBC is biased "in any particular direction". And yet, from top to bottom, in structure and staffing, in history and ideology, it is a conservative organisation, committed to upholding Establishment values and protecting them from challenge. Take two institutions not normally associated with liberals or left-wingers: the church and the monarchy. Wouldn't a "culturally Marxist" (to use Dacre's phrase) institution have long ago abandoned Thought for the Day and Songs of Praise? In 2008, the BBC broadcast more than 600 hours of religious programming on television and radio, up year on year. And can anyone really disagree with Jeremy Paxman's accusation that the BBC "fawns" over the royal family, behaving more like a "courtier"? The corporation's coverage of the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations and the marriage of Charles and Camilla was stomach-churning both in its excess and in its deference.

The BBC's bias is thus an Establishment bias, a bias towards power and privilege, tradition and orthodoxy. The accusation that the BBC is left-wing and liberal is a calculated and cynical move by the right to cow the corporation into submission. "The right in America has waged a long and successful battle to brand the news as liberal, and the same is happening here [in relation to the BBC] with the aid of a predominantly right-wing press," says Barnett. "I fear they may have similar success in redefining the centre ground of politics to suit their own political agenda." With a Tory government on the verge of power, it is time for liberals and the left to fight back and force the BBC to acknowledge its real bias.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman. To read his NS blog, visit: www.newstatesman.com/blogs

The Edinburgh International Television Festival runs from 28 to 30 August

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

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Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same

Gilmore Girls is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons are crucial in exploring those themes.

If you’re out on the road, feeling lonely and so cold / All you have to do is call my name / And I’ll be there. The Gilmore Girls theme, a special version of Carole King’s “Where You Lead” featuring extra vocals from her daughter, plays each episode over images of autumnal New England foliage, and always reminded me of another song on Tapestry, “You’ve Got a Friend”. Winter, spring, summer or fall / All you have to do is call / And I’ll be there.

“Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer” and “Fall” are the episodes that make up Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Netflix’s revival of the Noughties TV series. Fans won’t be at all surprised to see Netflix lean on the four seasons to organise the new show, a fundamental principle of the original series. This integral structure remains even as they dispense with other structures of the previous seven seasons, instead of the original 22-episode year, there are just four episodes used to narrate the Gilmores’ 2016, and each one has ballooned from 45 minutes to 90. And that familiar opening? Gone.

MISS PATTY: And flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter… and leaves! Where are my leaves? I got pumpkins, I got Pilgrims, I got no leaves.

Until 2016, every episode of Gilmore Girls included the same opening credits, with shots of red and gold leaves, a Connecticut town in the throes of autumn. So, those leafy fall shots would appear at least once an episode, even though the show’s picture-perfect town, Stars Hollow, would spend each series transitioning in and out of each of the four seasons. Of course, Stars Hollow is not a real place under the influence of real changes in the weather: it’s filmed on the perpetually sunny Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles. And New England is so inextricably associated with autumn splendour, Stars Hollow so relentlessly idyllic, you might have expected the makes of Gilmore Girls to suspend Stars Hollow in a perennial fall, with Rory and Lorelai clutching hot coffees as they tread autumn leaves underfoot all year round. (It might make thematic sense, too: Gilmore Girls’ narrative of a precocious 16-year-old, brimming with brains and potential, slowly failing to achieve her own impossible goals fits both with the season’s connotations of academic beginnings and promise, and with its longer-standing cultural affiliation with maturity, pensive reflection and wistfulness.)

DARREN: Stars Hollow is charming. The last time we drove through there, there was a pumpkin patch.
LORELAI: Sounds like us.
DARREN: In March.
LORELAI: Oh, that would be the year the pumpkins arrived late.

The idea of Stars Hollow in perpetual autumn even comes up in a few episodes. Pumpkins arrive in March, autumnal events continue until the very end of November. Fall decorations are seemingly mandatory for local businesses.  But while every Gilmore Girls viewer can immediately conjure an image of Stars Hollow in fall, so too will they have an equally memorable selection of images of the town in winter, spring, and summer. No season goes unmarked. In fact, in the hyperreal utopia of Stars Hollow, seasons are exaggerated and picturesque: an overabundance of harvest vegetables, fluffy snow, budding blossoms, or falling leaves.

LORELAI: Grass is just not this green — not outside of Pleasantville, it isn’t.
CHRISTOPHER: So, what exactly are you saying?
LORELAI: I’m suggesting they brought in sod.
CHRISTOPHER: You suspect sod.
LORELAI: Yes, or spray paint. Maybe they spray-painted the grass when they spray-painted these trees, ‘cause, I mean, there’s autumnal foliage and then there’s autumnal foliage. It’s over the top, people.

But the seasonal obsession is more than just a way to emphasise the perfection of Stars Hollow. It’s an organising principle for the show’s structure, action and themes.

***

When Kelly Bishop (the actor who plays the most senior Gilmore girl, Emily) received the script for Gilmore Girls, she was stunned by the sheer weight of it. “I kept flicking it over, and looking at the thickness of it,” she told EW. “It was too thick to be a sitcom.” Gilmore Girls, consisting of hour-long episodes that make little sense out of order, but with its emphasis on witty dialogue over dramatic plotlines, hovers in a strange space between sitcom and drama.

Sitcoms are, by definition, situational — they often rely on characters thrown together in a confined space, be it the family living room, friends flatsharing or colleagues in a shitty office space. Comedy is often drawn from the familiarity of the specific surroundings: as a result, fans of The Simpsons or Friends or The Office could accurately draw floor-plans of the shows’ unchanging sets. So, too, could you draw a map of Stars Hollow, if you’ve seen enough episodes (trust me, I’ve done it). The action of a sitcom is often suspended in time and space: episodes end back where they began, the next opening as though nothing of note has happened since. Dramas, though, tend to thrive on progression of both character and plot; casts moving inexorably forward through time and space.

LORELAI: God, the town looks beautiful.
LUKE: Same as always.
LORELAI: No, it’s always different this time of year. It’s magical.
LUKE: If you say so, sure. Oh look, there’s the magical plumbing supply store where I bought a magical float for my toilet last week.
LORELAI: You disappoint me.
LUKE: Oh look. There’s the magical Luke’s Diner, right underneath the apartment that Jess magically lit by leaving every stinkin’ light on.

So, for Gilmore Girls to straddle both these genres, Stars Hollow must hold most of the show’s action and the majority of its ensemble cast, while still allowing the passing year to make its mark on the town. The seasons allow this. Much of this work is done in the background, as the set design changes from episode to episode, but characters are also constantly remarking on the changes in the town with each passing month, as Lorelai does when snow envelops the square.

The result is not just a keen sense of place, but of a place moving through time.

***

TAYLOR: Every other store in town has fall decorations.
LUKE: Hoorah for the mob mentality.
TAYLOR: We’re talking a few streamers and a paper turkey. How’s it gonna hurt to have a paper turkey?
LUKE: No turkey, no squash, no pumpkins. Nothing colored orange.
TAYLOR: OK, you don’t like orange. That’s fine. Autumn has many varied hues to toy with. This is the Autumn Festival. Your shop is right across the street from the Horn of Plenty! You’re smack dab in the middle of everything. You have to decorate.
LUKE: I don’t have to do anything but serve food.
TAYLOR: We’re talking about the spirit of fall!
LUKE: You know where you can stick the spirit of fall?

Gilmore Girls, with its principle cast of family members, and its sprawling ensemble cast of Stars Hollow residents, is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons similarly become an important device for exploring those themes.

Small rural communities have long organised themselves around the seasons. Stars Hollow is no different — except in the ridiculous extent of its embrace of all things seasonal. Each season of Gilmore Girls is organised around the constant onslaught of annual festivals: the End of Summer Madness Festival that, well, ends summer, the Teen Hayride, the 24-Hour Dance Marathon the Autumn Festival complete with Cornucopia Can Drive and Horn of Plenty, November’s Old Muddy River Bridge Knitathon, the commemorations of the Battle of Stars Hollow, the Winter Carnival, the Snowman-Building Contest, the Christmas Procession, January’s Founders’ Firelight Festival, the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, Groundhog Day, St Patrick’s Day, the Purim festival, a whole host of springtime weddings and engagement parties, the springtime Movie Night in the Square, the annual Easter Egg Hunt, the Hay Bale Maze at the Spring Fling Festival, and the Festival of Living Pictures are just selection of the events honoured in Stars Hollow.

LORELAI: Oh, hey! Turn out the lights.
LUKE: For what? It’s not the real procession, it’s just the rehearsal.
LORELAI: So, it’s pretty.
LUKE: And why do they need to rehearse it? It’s the same thing every year.
LORELAI: Come on Luke, please. It’s hard to imagine living somewhere else isn’t it?

These aren’t just background quirks, lending us an increased sense of familiarity with the town as we’re told over and over that these events unfold in the same, strange way every single year. They’re linchpins which hold key plot events in place. Both Jess and Dean tell Rory they love her, with less than positive consequences, during the supposedly romantic Founder’s Firelight Festivals. Rory’s romantic relationship with Jess speeds up when he bids on her basket at the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, which is also where Sookie and Jackson become engaged. Her relationship with Dean ends (the second time) in spectacular fashion at the Dance Marathon. Luke begins his romantic relationship with Lorelai when dancing with her amidst springtime decorations in the town square at Liz and TJ’s wedding. The list goes on.

The result is that the lives of our main characters, the lives of the smaller Stars Hollow characters, and small-town seasonal events are all inextricably linked to the same calendar. Particularly in the early seasons, every significant relationship, for both Rory and Lorelai, becomes rooted in the community of Stars Hollow. Public acts of citizenship and private expressions of love overlap. To live in Stars Hollow is to live every aspect of your life communally, communing with others, and with nature itself.

LORELAI: Do you know that the best things in my life have happened when it snowed?
RORY: Why, yes, I do.
LORELAI: My best birthday.
RORY: Your first kiss.
LORELAI: Your first steps. They all happened when it snowed.

***

The seasonal structure of the show also brings with it a sense of inevitability, as, in the midst of these reliable annual ceremonies, Gilmore Girls explores ideas of inheritance across the generations. In the grand houses of Emily and Richard’s world (and Lorelai, Christopher and Logan’s youths) inheritance both metaphorical and literal is an encouraged part of family life: but it feels forced and uncomfortable, restricting individuality in favour of decorum and reputation. In Stars Hollow, inheritance functions in a different, but no less crucial, way: more subtle and natural, as constant and eternal as the circles of life. For children who grow up with their parents in Stars Hollow, inheritance seems predestined, even if it didn’t seem so to the characters it affects.  

Many characters are surprised by what they inherit from their parents: Luke never expected to care so much for his father’s old hardware store, Lane is shocked to discover that after years of aching to break out of her mother’s conservative ideals, she’s not comfortable with having sex before marriage. Jess never thought he would pick up a book on intimacy from his uncle Luke, let alone read it sincerely, nor to learn so much valuable advice from him about communication in relationships.

LUKE: You do not want to grow up to be like your mom.
RORY: Sorry, too late.

Of course, that sense of inescapable legacies is taken to extremes in Rory and Lorelai’s relationship: in the very first episode, Lorelai exclaims to her daughter, “After all, you’re me!” While Rory at 16  is, in some ways, a vision of everything Lorelai at 16 was not (responsible, excited by her education, chaste, keeping a constant, serious eye on her future), as the series unfolds, that changes, as Rory becomes more impulsive, reckless and romantic. Viewers are relentlessly confronted by parallels between Rory and Lorelai’s romantic choices: Christopher is to Lorelai as Logan is to Rory, Luke is to Lorelai as Jess is to Rory. Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same.

LORELAI: He kind of looks like Christopher.
LUKE: The grocery kid?
LORELAI: Yeah. He looks like Christopher.
LUKE: And Christopher is Rory’s dad?
LORELAI: The hair, the build, something about the eyes. He reminds me of Christopher.
LUKE: Well that’s not too surprising.
LORELAI: You’re going to quote Freud to me? ’Cause I’ll push you in front of a moving car. This talk was going so well.
LUKE: You and Rory are a lot alike. It’s not surprising you would have similar tastes in men.

It is an inexorable, unavoidable logic, then, that sees Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a show with more interest in the unfolding seasons and the passage of time than ever, that sees Rory finally become her mother. The show’s much-anticipated final four words (“Mom,” “Yeah?” “I’m pregnant”) see Rory at 32, the same age as her mother when the series began, in a similar position to her mother at 16: single, pregnant, unfocused in her career. Some found it frustratingly obvious and pessimistic, others found it optimistic and apt. I’d sum it up in the same way Lorelai comments on her repeating circumstances with her own mother: with a grimly ironic toast “to the circle of life”.

But however you feel about the ending, Gilmore Girls has pulled off one impressive feat. As Lorelai and Rory sit together in the bandstand, and the show cuts to black, it doesn’t feel like the show has ended at all. The fictional landscape of Stars Hollow has a life that extends beyond the screen, as inevitable as the seasons themselves.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.