Bias cut: why journalists should embrace the angry mob

Watching television pictures of the demonstration outside the BBC’s Scottish headquarters yesterday, I felt concerned for my friends and colleagues who work there.  Estimates of the crowd size outside their place of work started at around 1,000 – some called it well above that.  The coverage I saw looked good-natured enough – but the chanting and goading had the full-on quality of a football crowd.  Many would quite reasonably feel terrified at the prospect of becoming the focus of such a group’s ire.

The demonstration of ‘Yes’ campaigners were galvanised by two clips taken from a press conference.  The first is part of an edited package in which the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson says that SNP leader Alex Salmond failed to answer a question.  In the second, apparently unedited clip, it is clear that Salmond devotes some time to taking up Robinson’s point – although whether what he says constitutes and ‘answer’ is clearly a matter of reasonable conjecture.

These two clips provided the spur for the march to Pacific Quay, but anger at the BBC’s coverage of the independence referendum goes deeper.  Two months ago, Scotsman columnist Joyce McMillan told me that, in her view, the BBC’s coverage of the coming vote was a disgrace.  “I have been shocked by the BBC’s bias and its failure to reflect the scale and importance of the Yes campaign”, she told me.  McMillan has spent her adult life defending journalists and is anything but a knee-jerk nationalist.  Her misgivings reflect a deep sense among ‘Yes’ supporters that the media has been against them. It is not entirely surprising – only one of Scotland’s ‘national’ newspapers supports independence.

The nationalists are not the only ones to complain about media bias, however.  In 2012, Ian Davidson, a Glasgow Labour MP, appeared on the BBC’s then flagship Scottish news slot, Newsnight Scotland, and repeatedly referred to the program as ‘Newsnat’.  He later explained that his was a deliberately robust stance against what he saw as the ‘assumptions’ and ‘bias’ that he suggested were frequently evident on that program.  As a result of this, the NUJ’s Scottish organiser Paul Holleran issued a statement condemning the bullying of journalists by politicians.

I know myself what it is like facing down a crowd, some of whom are displaying anger at perceived one-sidedness in the media. A fortnight ago at a meeting of Irish trades unionists in Belfast, I encountered a barrage of accusations about pro-Israeli bias in the reporting of the recent conflict in Gaza.  In the company of the NUJ’s Irish Secretary and General Secretary, I spent over an hour batting back interventions from an audience, some of whose enthusiasm for shooting the messenger was palpable.

This is never a comfortable position for journalists or those who seek to represent them. However, before condemning the protesters, it is worth considering this.  This level of engagement, whether angry or pacific, runs contrary to the popular narrative that ‘big media’ is in steep decline.  According to this view, social and micro media have chipped away at the importance of that which is ‘broadcast’, to the extent that some imagine Twitter one day supplanting the Ten O’Clock News and the Today program.

The evidence from Glasgow on Sunday suggests that people care more than ever what the big media says – and use the micro media to discuss their concerns and devise means to express their points of view.  The Glasgow demonstration certainly appears to have its roots in social media.

As journalists, rather than panicking in the face of the approaching mob, we should welcome the affirmation of our enduring relevance.   There was a time when Marks and Spencer managers boasted that, of all retailers, they received the most complaints; it was confirmation of customers’ certainty that M&S would take their concerns seriously, they reasoned.

Journalists should take a similar attitude.  If those who consume our product care sufficiently about what we do to complain, we should welcome them – however they make us feel.  Where an apology for bias or inaccuracy is appropriate, then that should be offered – and where we can mount a robust defence of our work, then we should make our case without fear.  Facing down an angry crowd is never comfortable, but its better than the easy ride of irrelevance.