The following is adapted from an article titled Unconscious bias
which was originally published by Indyref2 on 15 August 2016.
When assessing the BBC’s coverage of Scottish politics and the now undeniable bias in favour of the British establishment it would be a mistake to think in terms of a formal conspiracy. If you’re imagining a cabal of managers, producers, directors, journalists and presenters secretly conniving together to do down the SNP and the independence movement, you are entertaining a fantasy. There is no organised plot. Nor is there any need for such a thing. What, with hindsight, has all the appearance of having been carefully contrived is, in fact, no more than the incidental outcome of an ‘organic’ process with no purpose or direction.
Just as ‘misreporting’ may be indistinguishable from deliberate dishonesty, so what looks like a conspiracy may be only a mirage. It may be no more than the impression left on history by lots of unconnected, or only loosely connected, events. It may be a pattern without a plan. It may be conspiracy as an emergent property of an organisation which, not being effectively managed towards its true purpose, tends towards the dominant agenda within its own structures.
All that is required for the appearance of conspiracy to emerge is that there should be a sufficient number of people; with a sufficient amount of influence; and a sufficient commonality of interest.
This is what has happened in the BBC. And most particularly in BBC Scotland. It is not wholly accurate to say that either is institutionally biased; although the BBC is undoubtedly the broadcasting arm of the British establishment and can be expected to behave accordingly. It would be more apt to describe BBC Scotland as organisationally, or structurally, biased. Over time, a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing process has led to the organisation being populated with people drawn from, or with intimate connections to, a Scottish political establishment that was, for a formative period of decades, the almost exclusive province of British Labour in Scotland (BLiS). BBC Scotland is stuffed with people who still regard what they like to call “Scottish Labour” as rightfully the dominant force in Scottish politics. Many are inclined to treat it as if it still is. They genuinely see nothing wrong in packing every studio panel with BLiS worthies because they cannot accept how irrelevant the pretendy wee party has become.
The inevitable corollary to this collective and largely unconscious (or unthinking?) pro-British/pro-union/pro-BLiS bias is antipathy to the SNP. After all, the SNP has not only supplanted BLiS as the primary force in Scottish party politics, but also represents a threat to the British state, which the BBC is institutionally inclined to regard as the ‘natural order’.
Obviously, this is a problem. For the public service broadcaster to have succumbed to organisational bias is a very serious issue for the functioning of democracy in Scotland. But in order to properly address a problem it is first necessary to understand it. To think in terms of conspiratorial plotting is to miss the point. This is a management problem. Or, more precisely, a problem of management failure.
I have no background in broadcasting. But the basics of good management are pretty much universal. They apply to every organisation. And it is glaringly obvious to me that BBC management has failed abysmally. I firmly believe that the BBC is institutionally sound. Moreover, I regard it as a crucial bastion of public service broadcasting. I have to recognise, however, that the BBC is in danger of being delivered into the hands of those who, for political or commercial motives or both, would see it destroyed. It is being betrayed by a generalised failure of management.
It’s unlikely that there are any high-level meetings of BBC executives at which a propaganda strategy against Scotland’s independence movement is discussed and formulated. It is improbable that instructions go out from senior managers to be acted upon by the lower echelons. It’s actually worse than that. BBC management have, by their incompetence, permitted the development of an environment – an ethos – in which these things, quite literally, just happen.
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5 thoughts on “Conspiracy as an emergent property of organisations”
A very thought-provoking analysis.
Perhaps the bias you detect in management is connected to the fact that those now in post spent their formative years in the 1980s/90s at the time of the rise of neoliberalism in the USA and in Britain. At that time ‘New Labour’ expended a lot of energy and time in developing ways to shape the ‘message’ through penetration of the mainstream media.
It is interesting that broadcasts such as ‘Spitting Image’, ‘Little Blighty on the Down’ and ‘On the Hour’ which had a devastating impact on public perception if the John Major government, disappeared from the schedules after the election of the Blair government in 1997. Maybe coincidence, but it was a noticeable change at the time.
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I would postulate that the scenario you depict above has gone far beyond your analysis and that the BBC, especially BBC Scotland, see themselves invested as the protectors of the current constitutional settlement. As such, they must do everything in their power to prevent the advance of the SNP as a party, the current Scottish Government as an institution and the Independence movement as a whole.
Any organisation with, and I quote, “The BBC should bring people together for shared experiences and help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom” in their Charter cannot do otherwise against any organisation that they see as dedicated to destroying that very United Kingdom.
Either way, the BBC has become a publicly funded cancer in the heart of the Scottish body politic and is a far greater threat to democracy than any other single element of the British “establishment” that I can see.
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While I agree broadly with your analysis, Peter, I believe you are splitting hairs when you say the BBC isn’t institutionally biased. It is the very nature of institutional bias to be exactly as you describe – no overt conspiracy but an assumed shared viewpoint that does not in fact correspond with the required behaviour of the organisation as formally laid down.
As for self-enforcement of such behaviour, observing from the outside, one does get the distinct impression that it would be career suicide at the moment for any BBC employee with direct influence on any broadcast material to offer any succour to the independence movement. BBC Scotland’s reaction to recent events concerning Wings over Scotland appears to stem far more from their own wounded pride at being royally bypassed by London than it does from any inherent sympathy for independence.