Show Hide image

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

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge