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.