Thursday, 31 March 2011

Libraries, bias, and the BBC

Yesterday morning, author Zadie Smith appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme delivering a speech about the value of public libraries. By the afternoon, The Telegraph had published an article criticising the BBC for showing bias: the critics include an anonymous Twitter user, an anonymous BBC insider, and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The BBC is accused of allowing Ms. Smith’s comments to become a “party political broadcast” (The Telegraph presents this quote without attribution). I’d like to argue that the accusations of bias reveal more about the political motivations of the accusers than the BBC and that because of this they are ultimately self-defeating.

Libraries are not a central Government issue. As one of The Telegraph’s bloggers points out (after the main article, The Telegraph published two blog posts about Zadie Smith’s library speech), closure of libraries is an issue for local government rather than central Government. Library advocates are challenging Conservative-run councils and Labour-run councils: if, four years ago, the Labour Party had presided over library closures, Voices for the Library would have been set up four years ago. Library activists are not in opposition to the Government or any political party: they are in opposition to anyone who would close functional library services. Criticism of the Government was not the core of Zadie Smith’s message and although it is true that she made a mistake in equating central Government with library closures, the critics make a bigger mistake in going along with this equation.

By labelling the speech as a “party political broadcast”, the critics conflate ‘closure of libraries’ with ‘the Coalition Government’. Some comments on the Telegraph article go as far as to say it represented a bias not only away from the Conservatives but a bias towards Labour. Libraries are not party political: there is no party that included the closure of libraries in its manifesto. The accusations of political bias therefore implicitly establish the Conservative Party as anti-libraries and the Labour Party as pro-libraries: this is a position that I’m sure the Conservative Party would be publicly keen to reject or at least distance themselves from.

Since libraries are neither an issue for the Cabinet nor a party political issue, there is no political bias in broadcasting a defence of them. The BBC also broadcasts defenders of other institutions and beliefs: these are permitted because they are not party political issues. Brian Cox can discuss science for an hour because the issue is not party political. The same is true of libraries and the implication that a pro-library speech is necessarily anti-Coalition is a dangerous precedent.

I have argued that a pro-library position shows no political bias and that the allegations of the TaxPayers’ Alliance et al are unfounded. However it is possible to ignore the apolitical pro-library core of Zadie Smith’s message and to believe that her surface accusations against the Big Society were motivated by political belief. In this case her comments would have been biased but the BBC almost immediately corrected this by broadcasting Shaun Bailey’s anti-library comments defending the Big Society concept. Shaun Bailey’s comments have attracted less popular support or commentary because of the mistakes involved: he based his argument on library statistics and didn’t present any actual figures; he mistakenly argued that library usage is in decline; he falsely implied both that ‘everyone has the Internet’ and ‘everything is available on the Internet’. Shaun Bailey argued – quite rightly – that library closures are a council decision and that in the case of well-used library services, councils would be loath to close them because of the political backlash: his mistake here is ignoring the obvious political backlash that has accompanied closure announcements – including Save Libraries Day, petitions attracting thousands of signatures, and a march for public services which over half a million people attended. Despite this backlash, councils such as Gloucestershire are continuing with library closures thus demonstrating that the Big society, intended to give power to local communities, is incompatible with local authority funding cuts which are taking power away from local communities.


libraryhelen said...

Very interesting - it's funny how people assume that if you are pro-libraries you are anti-Conservatives. It might be true in some cases as the ideology of libraries is closer to socialism than capitalism, but as you say: if these cuts happened under Labour we would still be fighting them. Libraries should not become a political cause. They are a local cause. I don't believe that the beeb demonstrated any political bias here as it was counteracted by Shaun Bailey's big society speech.

Lauren Smith said...

Hi Simon,

I'm going to have to disagree with you on the "Libraries are not a central Government issue" front!

It is true that local councils have the power over the library budget for their area. They decide how much council tax is spent on libraries. They're responsible for deciding how many libraries will close, how many opening hours will be cut, how many staff will be made redundant, how much the resources budget will be cut by etc.

However, national government has the power over the amount of money local councils have. Their budgets have been cut by up to 25ish per cent. As a result, they have to decide where these cuts are going to fall. And they fall on libraries, because councils don't see how libraries can help them (I wrote about how libraries are of benefit to councils here:

The reason councils see libraries as a soft target is because national government has (and it's not a new thing) failed to properly articulate the value of library services to society and local councils. At the moment, national government is failing to properly superintend local councils, who are slashing library budgets here there and everywhere. National government could, and should, step in, to stop councils from destroying a fundamental part of our culture, education and civil society. But they're not. And local councils have very little choice but to cut library budgets. They've already reduced so-called 'back office' costs. They've already got rid of expensive staff, at the expense of a professional service. There's nothing left to do, in many cases, but to close libraries.

I think what I'm getting at is: it's both the fault of local councils and national government. Being pro-library pretty much inherently means you're anti-cuts, which is in itself a political position. But it doesn't mean it's party political. We all know Labour would probably be doing something similar, because the problem is still there - the 'library offer' isn't clear to those who hold the purse strings at local and national level. They're interested in pounds and pence, which is hard to translate from the values of wellbeing, knowledge, learning, culture, community, civic pride etc that libraries bring.

BUT. Basically I agree with you on everything else. The BBC didn't do anything wrong, and it seems to me that there are a lot of people bricking themselves that they chose to mess with a service that in its very nature helps to create informed, engaged and articulate citizens. And we're willing to fight for that service.

Simon Barron said...

I would argue that it's perfectly possible to be pro-library and not subscribe to any political party. Whether being pro-library is an inherently political statement is another question.

I largely agree with what you've said, Lauren. What I was trying to say is that libraries aren't a central Government issue in the way that Zadie Smith was implying ie. that the Cabinet actively planned to close libraries because they don't care about them. As you say, central Government do have responsibilities with regards to funding and statutory protection. In that case, central Government may commit a crime of omission by not stopping councils from cutting library services. They're letting it happen - and maybe through the cuts indirectly making it happen - but I would argue it's the local authorities who ultimately hold the responsibility for the destruction of library services.

Anonymous said...

It is very unfortunate that the original post was written without reference to Zadie Smith's 5 minute monologue.

It is highly unusual for _anyone_ to be given this privilege of airtime with no challenge on the Today programme except for speakers on thought of the day. That is what made it a party political broadcast

Ms Smith also made a large number of factual errors which would have been challenged on the spot if she had to debate with an opponent like everyone else on Today

Ultimately, councils that are closing libraries are still funding silly things like study on social cohesion or campaign against political apathy. It's just a matter of the council understanding the correct priority

Simon Barron said...

Hi Anonymous,

What do you mean by 'the original post'? If you mean my blog post, the whole piece is in reference to the 5 minute speech.

I've argued that the speech was not party political because libraries are not a party political issue: analogously religion is not a party political issue so the BBC can broadcast religious speeches without challenge. The speech may have somewhat insulted the Tories but this was a mistake on Ms. Smith's part and not the BBC being biased. Though the BBC could (and probably should) have corrected her mistakes there, they felt no need to respond to her statements on the value of libraries because 'the value of libraries' is not a party political issue.

And I thoroughly agree that councils should see libraries as a priority. Ultimately responsibility for library closures rests with councils - Labour, Tory or Lib Dem - and they need to sort out their funding priorities before talking about closing libraries.