Coverage of the threatened strike by BA cabin crew on the BBC 10 o’clock news reached a new low last night. I’ve been following the story over the last few days on the flagship bulletin, and it provides a case study in the nonsense of the concept of impartial journalism.
When the result of the ballot was announced, the report concentrated almost exclusively on the impact this would have on passengers. At the end of a report on how “Christmas chaos” would “ruin” many a holiday, viewers were left none the wiser about the reasons for the dispute. When the courts injuncted the strike it was reported as a victory for consumers. The implications of a 9-1 vote being shoved aside in such a manner was not really examined.
I don’t like to attack the BBC, because I broadly support the principles of public service broadcasting. And, for transparency’s sake, I should point out that I am a trade unionist and generally sympathetic to the cause of labour. But you don’t have to be a union militant to be worried about the way this story was covered.
Of course the impact on passengers is part of the story, but so is the motivation for union members voting for action in such numbers. Despite the narrative beloved of the mainstream media, workers do not strike for fun, or because they are manipulated. Going on strike means loss of income and potentially the loss of employment. There’s usually anger at poor management in the mix too. And yet these angles were covered in the most cursory manner, if at all.
The bulletin which reported the banning of the strike was especially disgraceful because of the serious implications of that ruling for the free organisation of labour in the UK. It is now virtually impossible for unions to effectively oppose a belligerent management and stay within the law. And yet this was ignored in favour of a celebratory tone stemming from an editorial decision to run a ‘good news for Christmas’ line.
There were arguments in my house about the wisdom of the strike and its timing. I sympathise with the view that it seemed a little mean spirited and designed to hit passengers more than BA’s management. But I’m also aware that however much is said about the need to gain public support, that support is increasingly rare in materialising. As for the media, when was the last time even the supposedly progressive media brands supported any industrial action of any kind? In these circumstances, is it really a surprise if union members are relying solely on their own ability to secure a better deal, rather than the concept of ‘public support’?
There are serious implications for labour organisation and industrial democracy that stem from the BA case. But you wouldn’t know it if you relied on the BBC. No doubt the BBC will argue it has been impartial, but examination of its coverage clearly shows it deciding to take a particular angle which reflects a particular set of interests. It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. As John Pilger, whose views on the myth of journalistic impartiality seem to be truer with every passing day, so rightly said: “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.”