And speaking of news and current affairs, it’s worth addressing the institutional biases that you find even in public service broadcasting. This isn’t the question of alleged leftwing bias at the BBC often raised by such paragons of objectivity and balance as, er, the Daily Mail and the Sun. Actually, the Beeb used to have a long-running vetting procedure precisely to stop anyone too radical getting into the corporation. Their loss, when you consider what a great Panorama reporter Paul Foot would have made.
Broadcasting regulations in Britain, of course, enforce impartiality in the party political sense. This however has a down side, which is that opinion is bounded by the very narrow ideological spectrum at Westminster. It’s also fair to say that a big institution like the BBC will reflect the worldview of the English middle class, with an increasing tendency to the young and trendy wing of that layer as old fogies retire and are replace by, well, young trendies.
What does that mean in terms of attitudes? It probably means that there is a liberal bias in certain narrow areas, like sexual morality. But on economics, by no means an important field, there is a distinct rightward tilt. Not just in terms of Friedmanite macroeconomics – which is uncontroversial in terms of the British political establishment – but, say, in the common assumption that the insane housing market bubble is a good thing for the population at large.
What really annoys me, though, is the very real insularity of the news. There are basically three big types of story:
1. What is El Gordo doing?, with a subtheme of What is Rankin’ Dave Cameron doing? and other stories of concern to the Westminster village.
2. What is Bush doing?, with a subtheme of What is Paris Hilton doing? and other stories of concern to the American media.
3. What are the mad mullahs doing?, and other stories relating to the War on Terror.
Throw in a crime story and a health scare, and that’s pretty much a bulletin filled.
Now, let’s think about foreign affairs. You will get the odd story from Africa, usually relating to famine or Aids. You will get the odd story from India or China, usually about kids stitching trainers. (This is why the India-Pakistan season, while it’s been a little uneven, has been a big breath of fresh air.) And Latin America is almost invisible, except if Chávez has done something to annoy the Yanks, in which case Venezuela enters into Category 2 and Kirsty will trill, “Venezuela – what should the West do?” (West of Venezuela, of course, is Colombia, but the term is used here in its ideological sense of the US plus Airstrip One.)
That’s the Third World, but Europe doesn’t fare much better. Coverage of France normally revolves around how mad the French are. Germany, on the other hand, has two standard stories. One is of the reporter, seated in a biergarten, holding forth about Germany’s “ailing” and “sluggish” economy (record exports last year) which is said to need “free market reforms”. The other is when a few racist yahoos get elected to a regional parliament, and Hitler can then be brought up again. This probably explains a lot about British attitudes to Europe.
By the way, this isn’t exclusive to the broadcast media. Most of the print media is a good deal worse, which is why, if you know a European language, you probably don’t pay much attention to the London press. And if not, you could always try the Indian press, where moreover you’ll find a much higher standard of written English.
If like me you’ve spent a lot of time away from these islands, it’s the stultifying parochialism that you notice. There are few places more insular in journalistic terms than Britlandia – the United States, sure, but it’s really a continent, and I suppose Western Australia might fit the bill, but that’s about it.
Oddly, the RTÉ news seems to be slightly less parochial than its Sasanach oppo. A lot of this has to do with Catholicism. Of course there are the opportunities provided by papal jetsetting – if the Pope is going to Peru, we’re quite likely to find out something about what’s going on in Peru. But another aspect of this is the huge number of Irish missionaries and volunteers who’ve gone to all parts of the globe in the post-Emergency decades. The Irish person abroad will recognise the scenario where you’re trudging around a desolate part of Bangladesh, and suddenly you bump into a nun from Galway, and within minutes it turns out you both know so-and-so from Roscommon…
One of the persistent complaints of the D4 neo-democrats is that Ireland is insular and xenophobic, basically on the premise that Ireland isn’t England. But, to turn things on their heads, could it be that in important ways our culture is a little less insular than that of our big imperial neighbour? At least in our ties to other post-colonial countries?