The BBC in a post-truth world

Standpoint June 2016

Nothing revives memories of Marxism so much as Communism’s former opponents on the Right. Their denunciations of uncomfortable facts as the lies of malicious men, and their determination to control heretical thought, reek of the cultural commissar.

Accept, or at least entertain, the comparison and the Right’s rage against broadcasters is no longer mysterious.

At first glance, it is not only mysterious but inexplicable. British broadcast news is required to be impartial, yet it receives levels of abuse far beyond anything directed at conservatives’ avowed enemies in the left-wing press.

The Murdoch papers, Telegraph and Mail go for the BBC on the smallest pretext or no pretext at all. Naturally, the existence of a publicly-funded rival infuriates them—a good materialist reason for their media-class hatred which Marx would have understood. But no one should doubt that ideology trumps commercial interests. The BBC competes with the liberal and centrist press too. Yet the Guardian, Observer, Economist and FT deliver none of the same venom.

The ideological assault on broadcasters is bringing practical consequences, which threaten liberal society. Only the Conservative government’s slender majority stopped it bending the BBC to its political will by packing the corporation’s board with government supporters. When ITV said it was going to hold a debate between Nigel Farage and David Cameron, Vote Leave (which wants to promote its own Boris Johnson or Michael Gove in Farage’s place) delivered a warning full of dictatorial menace: “ITV has effectively joined the IN campaign and there will be consequences for the future—the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary and Vote Leave campaigner, did nothing to disassociate himself from the thuggish threat. He called on ITV to think again or face a referral to Ofcom about its “extraordinary” decision. (Never, incidentally, has that Soviet bloc title “Culture Secretary” sounded more minatory than now.)

The Left is aping the Right. Supporters of the Labour leader launched a petition to sack the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg because of her alleged bias against the party. Peppering their assault with cries of “bitch” and “whore”, they proved yet again that sexism is as persistent a vice on the far Left as anti-Semitism. There is a danger of getting lost in the minutiae of each dispute, and missing the passions that drive so many of them. As British society fragments, its pieces hold on to their “truths,” which are not true in whole or even in most of their parts.

The old Marxists provide a warning. They had their truth: “scientific socialism”. They held that those who contested it could not be acting in good faith. Their class privilege compelled them to the truth of Marx and Lenin’s findings. What strikes me looking back was they did not only direct their polemics at Marxism’s avowed opponents. Just as the Left of the 1980s would sometimes say that at least Margaret Thatcher stood up for the interests of her class, unlike the Labour sellouts, so Marxists could accept the capitalist critic as honest in his own way. Far more insidious were the supposed purveyors of impartial fact who hid their prejudices behind a mask of objectivity.

The Marxisant thinkers of the Frankfurt School went further than traditional socialists and said that the supposed purveyors of objective “fact” and practisers of “impartiality” (please note the obligatory scare quotes) were fooling themselves along with their audience. They were victims of a false consciousness so pervasive they could no longer recognise that it had captured their own minds along with the minds of their dumb audience. The sardonic Ernest Gellner observed in his assault on relativism: “The truly critical thinker (à la Frankfurt) did not waste too much time, or probably did not waste any time, on finding out what was; he went straight for the hidden substance under the surface.” He knew what the truth should be, and could see through the lies and self-delusions of those who were providing camouflage for the status quo.

Marxism? The Frankfurt Group? Are these not forgotten philosophies from long ago? Not so forgotten, and not so long ago.Postmodern “philosophy” (and for once the scare quotes are justified) may be dying in academia but it has told a generation not to believe in any version of objectivity. Marxists, and at a pinch the Frankfurt School, still believed in the truth of historical materialism. It was only their enemies’ truths that were false. For the postmodernists all claims to objectivity were equally false. Your “truth” depended on who you were, and no one could gainsay it.

Although a generally leftish sensibility prevails in the universities, the great marketing advantage of the postmodern sensibility was that any consumer could buy it. Indeed, the belief that you can own your own truth may be the most capitalist philosophy yet invented. As Richard J. Evans, Deborah Lipstadt and others complained, if facts are just ideological creations, why shouldn’t the “truth” of the Holocaust denier be as valid as the “truth” of the historian of Nazism? Why not dismiss the undoubtedly hard and always contested search for evidence and say that Auschwitz was not a death camp but merely a discourse?

What applied to Holocaust deniers applies to today’s conservatives and Corbynites. The Left has its truth: Britain wants a left-wing government. If BBC reports of Labour’s feeble electoral performance everywhere outside London suggest otherwise, it must be because the BBC’s biased Political Editor is deliberately covering up what left-wingers said in all seriousness was “a good result for Labour”. If, as one pro-Brexit MP was forced to admit, she could not name a single reputable study that showed Britain would be better off if we left the EU, this is merely evidence of the bad faith of the producers of the allegedly reputable studies and of journalists who report their alleged findings. It does not make the “truths” of British conservatives any less valid. No one has the right to judge them, or “privilege” one narrative over another.

Broadcasters must admit error, as should we all. But how many of them understand that they are dealing with sizeable sections of the population that treat any reporting that affronts them as lies delivered with malice aforethought? No complaints or arbitration procedures will satisfy them. As thoroughly as any Communist militant or postmodern obscurantist, they have wrapped themselves in chains of wishful thinking and denial from which they may never break free.

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