One of the issues that comes up regularly is the question of BBC bias. In actual fact, there doesn’t seem to be much question there. BBC News is very biased against the left and in favour of the Tories. There have been studies done by media monitoring organisations in Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere. Mike over at Vox Political has pointed out that the Beeb will ignore certain strikes, or grudgingly give them coverage only online. There was anger the other week when the panel on Question Time was nearly all composed of right-wingers. Nick Robinson censored and distorted one of Alex Salmond’s speeches during the Scots independence campaign to make it appear he didn’t answer a question when he did. Robinson was the former head of the Young Conservatives at Manchester University. And Laura Kuenssberg doesn’t really bother writing her own material any more. She just recycles press releases from Tory central office.
But ’twas ever thus. One of the commenters on this blog pointed out that the Beeb ran government propaganda against the strikers during the General Strike. Yet still the right jumps up and down ranting about ‘liberal’ bias at the BBC. There are liberal voices there, but they’re increasingly kept away from the main news and comment.
Kampfner in his book Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty describes the development elsewhere in the world of similar political bias and censorship in television. He looks at the way Sarkozy in France and Berlusconi in Italy both overtly sought to extend state control over television in order to suppress or censor unfavourable broadcasting. In the case of Sarkozy, the centre-right president passed a series of legislation in 2009 which reinforced government control over publicly owned television stations. This was aimed at phasing out commercial advertising, which would be replaced by government funding. Kampfner states that this made French television dependent on the goodwill of the central government. He also removed the responsibility for nominating the Chief Executive of France Televisions, and instead made it one of the powers of the presidency. He also ensure that the contract could be severed at any time, and the CEO dismissed. (p. 181).
It’s not hard to see parallels between this and the way the government has continually exerted pressure on the BBC. I can remember John Major’s administration threatening the Beeb with cuts in the licence fee, or refusing to raise the licence fee to extent desired by the broadcaster. The Tories have also made noises about not renewing the Corporation’s charter, and privatising it, either wholly or in part.
The most extreme example of state political control of television in Europe outside Putin’s Russia and the former Soviet bloc is probably Berlusconi in Italy. Kampfner states that Berlo not only owned the major private broadcasters, but also very strictly controlled state television. Editors and managers, who refused to toe his line were removed from their posts after the diminutive Duce had a few words with the board. Those TV shows he didn’t like, or which criticised him, were taken off the air. One of the most notorious of these was the satirical show, Raiot, shown late nights on Rai Tre, Italian TV’s third channel. This directly lampooned Berlo himself, and so not only did the vain squadristo with the dodgy hair implants have it pulled from television, his private TV station, Mediaset, sued. Sabina Guzzanti, the show’s writer, made a film about this debacle, entitled Viva Zapatero. This became a surprise hit and the Cannes Film Festival It’s title is not just a homage to the film, Viva Zapata, but also a tribute to the Spanish centre-left president, Jose Zapatero, who removed the right to nominate the head of the state television authority from presidential control.
Censorship and political bias at the Beeb long predates the modern, insistent Tory bias, but it seems to be a part of the increasing right-wing authoritarianism across Europe, a process that needs to be tackled before free speech is gradually snuffed out across the continent.
More about the Raiot affair can be read here, on the site for US Citizens for Peace and Justice: http://www.peaceandjustice.it/o25-viva-zapatero.php
I found this English language interview from 2008 with Guzzanti, where she talks a bit about the Raiot incident, and her forthcoming movie, Sympathy for the Lobster. Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s film about the Rolling Stones, she says that this movie is about what happens when you want to change society politically, but can’t because politics is too corrupt. She also mentions that she has two more films in production, one on satirists and censorship, and another which was to be a straightforward documentary on Italian society.
If you can speak Italian or Spanish, here’s the trailer for the film Viva Zapatero itself. It’s in Italian, with Spanish subtitles. There are piece of English. This includes a sketch she did as Berlusconi with our own Rory Bremner as Tony Bliar, and a Spitting Image-like puppet sequence where Dubya and the other leaders sing ‘We fight the world’. Oh yes, and at one point two of the characters from Pulp Fiction leap out and shoot Berlusconi.