The BBC doesn’t have a Corbyn problem, it has a centrism problem

If balance is what you seek, the obvious solution is to pick a central point.

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In some ways, The Hat is like The Dress, only much, much worse. Everyone sees what they see, and no amount of explanation about the science behind it can or will change minds.

Was it photoshopped? Did it look more Russian on the Newsnight background, or less, than when it was originally perched atop Jeremy Corbyn’s head? Did the hat even matter, or was it really all about a colour tint/Red Square background/cheeky smile?

That one end of the political spectrum jumped on an ambiguous piece of imagery to cry conspiracy at the BBC isn’t much of a surprise in 2018 (hell, it was pretty common in 2017, 2016, and 2015 and before). But what it shows is how vehemently the UK’s biggest broadcaster is seen as biased by those at the farther ends of the political spectrum.

I have had numerous conversations with friends online about the BBC’s alleged anti-Corbyn bias. While allegations of surreptitious hat tinkering are easy to dismiss, a suspicion that the BBC has a general inclination against Corbyn is harder to shake off. It is, after all, less than a year since an election in which he was written off as electoral poison only to win another 30 seats.

Yet every time those on either left or right scream that BBC plotters are trying to undermine their chosen cause, or push their own elitist/pro-establishment/pro-liberal/politically correct/bigoted line, it’s worth remembering that cock-up is almost always a more likely explanation than conspiracy.

And the BBC isn’t entirely at fault for its cock-ups when it comes to covering Corbyn, or any polarised political issue. The Corporation is legally required to pursue “due impartiality” – but in our increasingly post-truth world it is getting ever harder to define what an impartial viewpoint is.

And so, instead of impartiality, editors tend to focus on balance. If balance is what you seek, the obvious solution is to pick a central point and weight yourself on either side to ensure you don’t tip to one side or the other.

That might work in a world where both sides carry the same heft – but when most of the UK’s newspapers are far over to the right, the scales will almost inevitably tip. A centre point between the Mail, Express, and Telegraph on one side, and the Guardian on the other, is going to look a lot like right-wing bias to those on the left.

The UK’s newspapers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the population, of course. But as in Parliament, many of the BBC’s journalists leaf through a selection of printed papers first thing in the morning. Attempts to balance out newspaper reviews with digital sites like BuzzFeed help – but those folded pieces of paper have decades of inertia supporting their status.

The Beeb’s problems here are exacerbated by social media’s algorithm-driven penchant for outrage. A piece of coverage that can be construed as biased, or at least presented as such, will get shared far and wide. The much more numerous, straight down the line reports will flash by without a murmur.

There is, of course, an argument that because the BBC attracts the ire of both sides in nearly equal measure, it must be doing something right. But this analysis risks missing the impact that coming under fire for so long can have.

All that outrage contributes to an oppressive atmosphere which makes it even harder for BBC journalists to inch even slightly outside their comfort zone. When you’re under attack from all sides, shrinking back to a narrow band of centre ground is pretty much your only option. Centrism becomes its safe place.

Those clamouring for the BBC to answer for each and every instance when it hasn’t given Corbyn a completely fair hearing are diminishing the appetite, if not the ability, of the BBC to deal with the tricky topics it is so often accused – by both left and right – of ignoring. 

In some ways, that is the most depressing thing about this whole hat debacle. The more we harangue the BBC for imagined slights, or even real lapses, the less able it is to be the phenomenal broadcaster that, for all its faults, has made it both one of the UK public’s most loved institutions, and the envy of the rest of the world.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.