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Can the BBC survive in an age of fracture?

If audiences are prone to believing conspiracy theories, a public service broadcaster needs new strategies to ensure it reaches them with the truth. 

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In his autobiography Into the Wind (1949), Lord Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, describes the corporation’s original mission to connect and inform every corner of the country, and beyond. The public broadcaster, he wrote, was about

the amenities of the town being carried to the country; about the myriad voices of nature (nightingales included) being borne to the city street. About the voice of the leaders of thought or action coming to the fireside; the news of the world at the ear of the rustic... About pronouncements and discussions fraught with grave portent being heard by millions of men and women throughout the world; the facts of great issues... put directly and clearly before them; a return of the City-State of old

In this vision, “public broadcasting” does much more than deliver the educational or niche content commercial media cannot provide. It seeks to create a full, free and fair public discourse. When Reith was developing the BBC in the 1920s and 1930s, he faced a media landscape where dictatorships were beginning to take advantage of a new communications technology, radio, and domestic debate was, in his own words, “distorted by partisan interpretation”. 

Today those dangers seem uncannily familiar, hypercharged by digital disinformation campaigns in the fractured landscape of social media. So how can the mixture of unity and pluralism conjured by Into The Wind be achieved? Is it still possible to attain “the City-State of old” through a public broadcaster, which, like some grand old cathedral, brings the country together under the editorial Holy Trinity of impartiality, accuracy and balance? How can we foster a sense of community and a common conversation (nightingales included) in an age of bots and trolls, dark ads, all-powerful algorithms and angry polarisation? The government is threatening to dismantle the BBC as we know it by undermining its funding model. But whichever shape the institution takes, the larger question is whether Reith’s idealistic vision is still possible.

In order for a public broadcaster to be both microcosm and metaphor for the whole country, its audience needs to see their interests and identities articulated in its content. This depends on a subtle chain of representation, a network of institutions and social infrastructure that connected individual interests and reflected them in the media. Previously in the UK’s history this rested on loyalties to newspapers, parties, trade unions, churches, ideologies and social classes. A Guardian columnist on a BBC current affairs show was meant to represent a coherent body of opinion; a Tory politician would be a stand-in for a set of political beliefs, a Labour one for a whole class. But what happens when these avatars for identity and ideas are no longer representative of stable social units, and when ideologies are less clearly differentiated? Reith could speak confidently about the “left” and “right” – and so also about impartiality – but what happens to impartiality when those categories become blurred? 

As YouGov founder Peter Kellner explained to me, for much of the 20th century, pollsters could predict who people would vote for on the basis of class. In the 1990s, as these once-solid blocks began to change, sociologists tried to define political loyalty according to commercial desires and lifestyle aspirations: “Mondeo Man” and “Worcester Woman”. Now voting behaviour is shifting even more. Some pollsters, such as Populus’s Andrew Cooper, formerly David Cameron’s director of strategy, have abandoned simple class categories as a way of defining people, and are attempting to map the relationship between people’s attitudes – how open and closed they are – and their sense of economic security. Others, such as the infamous British firm Cambridge Analytica, claimed to be able to define voters psychologically, whether people are neurotic or agreeable, for instance, as a way to sway them. 

With every election the connection between people’s supposed class and who they vote for diminishes, while the parties themselves are in a state of unceasing ideological transformation. If the meaning of political parties is in flux, if newspapers are no longer widely read, if traditional social roles, class identifiers and allegiances are in a swirl, then a BBC current affairs programme attempting to represent society with a panel made up of a Tory politician, a Labour politician and a couple of journalists will fail as a metaphor for the nation. And as the political landscape fractures, so impartiality becomes ever harder to attain. “Even as affiliation to political parties has weakened, the importance of values people identify with, such as religion, the monarchy or minority rights, have become stronger,” James Harding, the former director of BBC News, told me. “And so, with it, perceptions of bias and how people understand impartiality have changed, well beyond traditional ideas of left and right.” 

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This rupture in representation concerns not only immediate policy issues, but the deeper stories through which people make sense of their place in the world. In Bishop Auckland, a Labour stronghold that voted heavily for Brexit in 2016 and fell to the Conservatives at the 2019 general election, the former Labour MP, Helen Goodman, said that over the years her constituents had come to feel increasingly estranged from the narratives the media and politicians were telling about Britain. Bishop Auckland used to be at the centre of the nation’s economic and cultural life. Working in the local train works, an industry associated with Britain’s global success, bestowed pride and social status. But over the decades such older industries lost their glamour, and the new, semi-skilled warehouse jobs in the region were dull and depressing. The loss of status and meaning stung, and not seeing those experiences articulated and explored in the media was alienating.

It is in this space between reality and representation that a new generation of spin doctors operates. In Russia and the US, and increasingly now the UK, the political tactic is always the same: pounce on disorientation and the loss of meaning to refashion the complexity of this experience into simple binaries that momentarily give people something to hate, and someone to be: the “people versus the establishment”, “the Putin majority versus the fifth column”, “patriots versus globalists”, “us versus them”. These tactics ultimately make deliberative debate and any sense of national community impossible, since they cast political opponents as not merely having different ideas, but as being a priori illegitimate and mendacious. 

In the US and Russia, this polarising strategy has gone hand in hand with an attack on the very idea of “impartiality” or “objectivity”, to the extent where facts and lies are treated as near equivalent. “Objectivity is a myth imposed upon us,” Dmitry Kiselev, the TV presenter who runs the Kremlin’s Rossiya Segodnya agency told his journalists when they questioned factual inaccuracies in his programmes. Meanwhile, on Fox News, the host Sean Hannity likes to lament the lack of impartiality in the “mainstream” media, using this as an excuse to be so subjective in his own programmes that he treats conspiracy theories and scientific research as having equal claims on the truth. If everyone is biased and all media is part of an information warfare, the logic goes, then it is ones duty to be as partisan as possible. Used this way, the argument against “objectivity” becomes a way to make deliberative debate impossible. 

[See alsoThe BBC and the journalism of fear]

Organisations such as the BBC have often been attacked for not living up to their ideals, for not being impartial or balanced enough. But what happens when the ideals themselves are jettisoned? As the research of professor Bobby Duffy at King’s College London has shown, the UK now suffers high levels of what academics call “affective”, that is, emotional, polarisation centered on Brexit identities: people feel the country is more divided, and dislike those on the other side more intensely than before. The BBC has sought to be an arena in which contrasting perspectives can interact. If the corporation is hamstrung, or if it fails, the UK risks descending into a US-style scenario in which any hope for inclusive public debate has collapsed, and in which Fox and MSNBC viewers effectively live in alternate realities, each convinced the other is out to destroy them.

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Media that sees its mission as being a contemporary arena for public discourse has to learn to understand the population anew. We are in a race with the propagandists to find the unarticulated traumas and ignored issues that people care about, and to bring them into full and fair public conversation through news and entertainment before others, from hyper-partisan media to divisive political operatives, take advantage of them and make such dialogue impossible. 

Citizens’ assemblies have a role to play in this. So does deeper social research. Although people in the UK are more emotionally polarised than ever, Duffy’s work also reveals that when it comes to specific issues – whether it’s the role of the state in the economy, minority rights or even immigration –  people are actually closer together than we might expect, certainly close enough to engage in meaningful debate. During recent focus groups I conducted in countries supposedly suffering chronic polarisation, such as Ukraine and Hungary, it was remarkable to see how quickly the thin shell of divisive identity politics fell away to reveal common concerns and traumas. 

But for this approach to work, public service media has to take into account the effect of their content on the public. Does a piece of content encourage fact-based deliberation or fuel prejudice and distrust? Scholars such as Kathleen Hall Jamieson established in the 1990s that when the media treats politics as a competition between conniving Machiavellians, audiences become cynical and apathetic, and end up trusting both politicians and journalists less as a result. Jamieson showed that a focus on issues, rather than personalities, mitigated this “cycle of cynicism”. This is just one example of how the slightly esoteric social science of media effects looks for ways to increase trust in factual content, and to find formats and approaches that inspire more meaningful and respectful, or at least less toxic, debate.

Studying media effects is especially important if we are to deal with the flood of conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that proliferate online. New BBC director-general Tim Davie has declared that “in the age of fake news, social media campaigns, echo chambers of opinion, and noisy partisan media outlets, this, surely, is our time”. But simply firing out fact-checks and hoping they win out will fail in an environment in which it’s so easy to disseminate lies, and in which people can self-select their reality. A public service broadcaster needs to ask: if audiences are prone to believe conspiracies, what strategies can we develop to ensure we reach them with the truth? 

[See also: QAnon: how a paranoid delusion is growing in the UK]

The BBC virtues of “fairness”, “balance” and “impartiality” need to be seen not merely, or perhaps even not primarily as defining the type of content media puts out, but also the type of discourse and engagement it is trying to foster. Another approach that can help is for journalists to reveal more about why they are covering a story and how they crafted it. As the Centre for Media Engagement at the University of Texas has shown, this can help raise trust. An honest subjectivity, paradoxically, can be the path to a more objective discourse.

Engaging audiences who exist in what are in effect different realities is something only a public service media can do: unfortunately, most private media organisations see their role as to serve their own tribe, often increasing emotional polarisation rather than overcoming it. They are also often impelled to do so by the emotional and economic logic of social media, on which they depend for their ad revenue. Social media rewards likes and shares, and the easiest way to get these can be to play into pre-existing biases, which is best done by taking ever more extreme positions.

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The UK government is currently putting the finishing touches to an Online Harms Bill, which “is minded” to put Ofcom in charge of regulating tech companies. Were he alive today, I suspect Reith, too, would be focused on how to regulate the tech sector to help nurture his vision of a “City-State of old”. For starters, this would mean making the internet a much more transparent place, so that we can understand how political and other actors are targeting different online communities, what messages they are spreading, to whom and with which data. At the moment, much of this activity happens covertly. Greater transparency would at least enable those who want to communicate accurate information, to find out how political campaigns and information operations are trying to influence people, and to think about how to respond. 

But we need to ask more fundamental questions, too. Should it be required, for example, that if people see one political ad online, they should also see the other side’s? Should the algorithms defining what people see online, and in what order, be required to reflect a “fair, accurate and balanced” set of opinions, as Ofcom demands of news broadcasters? During the Covid-19 pandemic, tech companies put information from health authorities at the top of newsfeeds, but what of questions more nuanced than public health – the great social and foreign policy questions on migration or war, for example, where disinformation is rife? Tech companies sometimes make vague promises to address these issues, but the measures they supposedly take are so opaque that there is at present no way to trust them. 

Would Reith, I wonder, demand a public service social media space that is not commercial, where spin doctors and advertisers cannot use our data to target us, and where the economy of likes and shares is replaced by other metrics, such as the accuracy of posts, or whether they help to lessen polarisation? Invoking the creation of the BBC, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ethan Zuckerman has recently argued it is exactly this sort of non-commercial public space that the internet desperately needs. In the UK, the author Dan Hind has been a pioneer in considering how such an online space might work, in his concept of a British Digital Cooperative, a collectively owned institution that would, among other things, help to create a surveillance-free platform where citizens can connect.

But in order for us to decide on a Reithian algorithm, to agree what a “one nation” internet might look like, we need an arena in which this discussion can happen – the sort of space only a media dedicated to creating an inclusive public discourse can provide. The BBC can be the handmaiden of the Good Web. 

[See alsoThe BBC must strive to be impartial but it should never be timid]

Peter Pomerantsev is a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, and the author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia.