After nearly a decade, Paul Reynolds has left his position as world affairs correspondent for BBC online news and in his final article about the future of journalism, he claims that the internet has reinforced the BBC's commitment to balance and impartiality. His argument provides a good example of the fallacy known as the argumentum ad temperantiam:
"I engaged in quite long e-mail correspondences with various critics. Of these, I remember an American living in London who thought the BBC very overrated and very leftist. On the other side was Media Lens, whose editors and contributors believe that the BBC is a corporatist supporter of the establishment.
"Both, in fact, had corrections to offer and lessons to teach. But the BBC could not survive if it took advice solely from either of them."
By framing the issue of bias as a debate between two opposing extremes, Reynolds allows the BBC to emerge as a fair and balanced institution that overcomes the errors but incorporates the elements of truth in the cases put by both groups.
Some people including, Peter Sissons, do argue that BBC is inherently very leftist. However, as the British historian Mark Curtis puts it, if Sissons "really believes this, then I apologise for saying that I think he needs serious medical attention. There is overwhelming evidence that the BBC and commercial television news report on Britain's foreign policy in ways that resemble straightforward state propaganda organs" ('Web of Deceit', 2003, p.379). To elaborate, 'our' leaders' justifications for invading Iraq and Afghanistan are believed to be pure and basically identical to those presented in official discourse. Consider the following examples:
"The coalition came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights” (Paul Wood, defence correspondent, BBC1, News at Ten, December 22, 2005).
"Tony Blair passionately believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed a grave threat." (Reeta Chakrabarti, BBC1, Six O’Clock News, February 24, 2009).
The war in Afghanistan is "not just about women's rights or more clinics and schools. It's about stitching the fabric of a nation together" (George Alagiah, BBC News at Ten Wednesday, 17 November, 2010)
When I wrote to Helen Boaden, the Director of BBC News, to point out the BBC should not marginalise the credible claim that George Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan for rapacious reasons, she sent me this reply: "We don't agree with point you make because it is simply a fact that Bush has tried to export democracy..." (Email, January 08, 2008).
Journalists are free to question the attainability of democracy or the wisdom of those who try to 'export' it - but questioning the purity of the motivations or their legitimacy places oneself outside the parameters of respectable debate. Bridget Kendall made it clear that she understands this when she asked: "Was it (the Iraq war) justified or a disastrous miscalculation?’(The Six O’Clock News of March 20, 2006). The suggestion that many innocent men, women and children continue to be killed in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily for oil, power and profit is not even considered to be worthy of serious attention let alone presented to the public as fact.
Paradoxically, when Kendall et al focus on the actions of those who have been designated official enemies - including Hamas, Iran , Venezuela and Russia, the exact opposite is true. They often demonise them and do not feel the need to present their proclaimed intentions as their real goals. Vis-a-vis, they try to find "hidden" economic and strategic goals. For example, Emily Maitlis described Russia's justifications for invading Georgia in 2008 as "the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud" (Newsnight, August 11, 2008).
Bridget Kendall added:
“And that opens up the question of whether Russia's humanitarian justifications were always only a pretext.
"Or was this operation part of a much more ambitious plan to reassert Russian control over a region Moscow has for centuries claimed as its rightful sphere of influence, and which it feared was about to be turned - by the Americans - into a Nato outpost in the Caucasus?”
Restricting the question to whether Russia's invasion of Georgia was "justified or a disastrous miscalculation" would, of course, place Kendall outside the bounds of respectable debate.
Reynolds may believe that the internet has made the BBC's news output more balanced and impartial but on every major issue, including the economy, it continues to act as a conduit for elite opinion. Or to put it another way, the fact that the most important people at the BBC continue to be appointed by the government ensures that pro-establishment bias is written through the BBC's very DNA.