What's Auntie for, exactly?

Impartiality and the BBC

Recently:

  • Science ran a piece on how changes to the stratosphere will affect surface climate. It concluded [PDF] that predicting the dynamics was "a substantial task", and one not yet undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  • Nature had an essay on the dynamics of ocean mixing, which in the long term could offset slowing of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation brought about by more rain and more melting at the North Pole. It argued that "much remains to be discovered" [PDF - subscription required].
  • The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published on the "irreducible" imprecision of computer models of atmosphere and oceans.

Each of these uncertainties has a texture as chocolatey as the BBC Trust's beloved Wagon Wheel. Yet the BBC insists on the old dry Seesaw approach. It repeatedly puts reporters in front of fast-dripping glaciers or spreading deserts and gets them to express their personal shock, awe, loss, and disgust. Then, back in the studio, a gnarled "sceptic" may occasionally be wheeled on to show that the Beeb still gives a voice to Creatures from Another Planet.

What we need from the BBC is leadership, and - as far as is possible - dispassionate enquiry, objective facts, and dispassionate presentation of those facts. Instead, we get dumbed-down moral absolutes, far-out footage, and a sprinkling of "balance". Nobody at the BBC says this is the strategy; but BBC News, in particular, applies it with the utmost vigour.

One might ask why.

The answer is that, faced with falling ratings, the Beeb is desperate to find emotional connection with the masses. That's why, for instance, it has continued to milk the abduction of Madeleine McCann for all it's worth.

In this kind of approach to the world, the BBC is not alone. The same loss of clear identity, mission, nerve, and legitimacy, and the same flight into a subjective, Narnia world of Good vs Evil, afflicts all other institutions of the British state. For proof, look only at the British Army in Iraq.

Now that it thinks its business is online advertising and iPlayers, what's the British Broadcasting Corporation for, exactly? To answer that, Britain will first have to learn anew what Britain is for. ®

James Woudhuysen is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester and a contributor to Spiked.

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