We hear many complaints these days that the BBC is biased.
For some right-wingers, the BBC is representative of the “liberal metropolitan elite” that is wildly out of touch with most of the country. Take this fairly typical article from the Daily Telegraph not long ago which declared: “The BBC has never understood Conservatism – or indeed Conservatives, despite them paying a huge chunk of the licence fee.” The corporation was “wilfully blind to the priorities of ordinary voters,” it added.
But then there is criticism from the left of politics as well. Here’s The Guardian: “The influence of right-wing editors and journalists, while not insignificant, misses the longer standing establishment orientation of the BBC. Academic research shows that its reporting is strongly shaped by corporate interests, state officials and the political elite … Even some BBC loyalists concede that it too often follows the agenda set by the right-wing press.”
What concerns me, however, is less an overtly political bias than the subtle use of language to promote or deny – knowingly or unknowingly – various different viewpoints. And this should be of particular concern to us as Christians, concerned as we are about the truth, values and justice that are revealed to us in Jesus.
There has been a particularly interesting example of this linguistic bias in recent days. Reporting on the landmark overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States, the excellent Amol Rajan on Radio 4’s Today programme talked – twice – of “pro-life” campaigners. All well and good, you might think.
Except apparently not. The first thing that happened was that it generated a wave of hysteria. The Guardian, with the self-righteous outrage of those who proclaim objectivity on the one hand while stoning blasphemers with the other, observed with wide-eyed horror (in a news report) that the term “is considered partisan”. My darlings, reach for the smelling salts!
A representative of the Women’s Equality Party said that “anti-choice campaigners” had “long tried to hide behind the façade of being ‘pro-life’ when the reality is that they are anything but…” Oh, those unenlightened zealots who believe in protecting unborn children! Meanwhile someone from the group Abortion Rights, claimed (hilariously) that “pro-choice” was the “neutral” position. Spiralling off completely into an alternative universe, she continued: “We know from the strong connections between the gun lobby and anti-abortion activists that they are not pro-life. Pro-life for who?” At which point we all hear Homer Simpson saying: “Doh!”
What’s also concerning, however, is what came after that: the BBC response. A spokesperson said: “The style guide suggests ‘anti-abortion’ as the preferred term, but the use of the term ‘pro-life’ by presenters and contributors is not against the BBC’s editorial guidelines.”
So let’s get this right… if you are born a woman and then define yourself as a man, the BBC will no doubt accept your personal pronoun of choice. Indeed, only yesterday, it was reported that a transgender group providing BBC training sessions encouraged corporation staff to explore an array of “gender-neutral pronouns” such as “xe, xem” and “xryrs” – among “150 ways” of self-identifying yourself. Yes, you read that right – one hundred and fifty. The trainer also told staff that “he / she” pronouns can “create ‘discomfort, stress and anxiety,’ for gender non-conforming people.”
And yet – at the same time – when pro-life groups self-identify as “pro-life” their designation is somehow less than acceptable (although apparently allowable if it slips through).
Watch out for other BBC linguistic twists as well. Recently in radio news bulletins there has been a sudden spurt in the use of the loaded word “insisted” rather than more neutral words such as “said,” “stated,” or “declared” when reporting the comments of some public figures. The word “insist” of course carries unspoken implications – ie insist “in the face of all the evidence”. (Having drafted this article I then heard an example of this on the very next Radio 4 bulletin I listened to).
It is worth listening out for which figures get ascribed the more neutral “said” and which get the more loaded “insisted”; let’s just say there appears to be a certain form of bias at work.
Another comparatively recent change has been that after somebody dies and a funeral takes place, it is now customary to refer to the person (eg Fred Bloggs) being laid to rest rather than – as was the case – the body of Fred Bloggs being laid to rest. That small change says so many things: death is final; the body is all there is; we are simply material beings. And thus a particular worldview is subtly enforced.
For some years the Today programme also seemed to make a linguistically tortuous decision not to use terms such as “Mr” or “Mrs” but only to use a person’s full name, with no title, over and over again in the same news item. This made for painful listening for anyone with an ear attuned to naturally-flowing English. But it also, of course, subtly devalued the whole concept of marriage. Happily, this does now seem to be slightly less the case than it was.
Christians should be on alert for the linguistic turns of phrase that the BBC uses. Since so many people hear or watch its broadcasts, the trickle-down effect of language usage should not be under-estimated, both in terms of how people speak but, of course, in how people think.
We are called to be people who are “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” (Romans 12v2). The problem is that minds are being transformed – but not in healthy ways – by the way much of the secular media use language.
So listen – but listen discerningly. And if you are actually heartened by the BBC’s perhaps inadvertent use of “pro-life,” why not submit a quick comment to the BBC in praise of the fact that it was heard? You can do that in less than a minute by clicking here right now. If all of us reading take just 60 seconds to do that, might it make a difference?
After all, as the BBC says there, it is “helpful to know what you think”… We need to tell them.
David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now, available at www.e-n.org.uk in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.