Nick Robinson is wrong – alternative news sites have an important role to play

Nick Robinson. Picture by Tom Page (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

BBC Radio 4 presenter Nick Robinson is quoted in the Guardian today bemoaning alternative media such as Wings Over Scotland, the Canary and Westmonster.

These alternative news sites are waging a “guerrilla war” against the BBC and undermining the public’s faith in their national broadcaster, he says.

Perhaps Nation.Cymru would also make it onto the list of ‘alternative news sites’. Last month the BBC’s Welsh Affairs editor indicated that he considered this site and Wings Over Scotland to be birds of a feather.

I agree with some of Nick Robinson’s criticism of these sites. They are overtly political in many ways and often go to much greater lengths than the BBC to bend the truth to serve their agenda.

The Canary’s ongoing war against BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg is a good example of this.

However, if the public is becoming more critical in their analysis on news from the ‘mainstream’ media, that’s no bad thing.

The problem is when they begin to swallow news provided by other alternative news sources, be they the Canary, Wings Over Scotland or Breitbart news, with the same credulity.

Nation.Cymru exists to provide a perspective which is currently lacking in English language online news – a national Welsh perspective.

However, the aim is to expand the Welsh public sphere, not to raise an army of blinkered followers who get all their opinions from Nation.Cymru.

In the age of digital journalism, most news sites are inevitably going to cater for niche tastes. To get all your news from any one narrow perspective is unhealthy.

As it is, sites like the Canary and Wings Over Scotland play an important role, which is to point out that there is nothing inevitable about the political status quo.

The BBC is deeply embedded within the British nation-state because it’s dependent on the institutions of that nation-state for its information.

It’s ‘biased’ insofar as one of the most centralised nation-states in Europe has created a national public service broadcaster that is just as centralised.

The BBC can’t help but reinforce the status quo because it’s largely dependent on those in charge to shape the daily narrative.

Inevitable

‘Impartiality’ and ‘bias’ are worthless concepts when what you’re dealing with are systems that are man-made.

‘Impartiality’ just means looking at what those in power are saying and presenting a case that’s somewhere in the middle.

For instance, Brexit was largely presented as an argument between old Bullingdon Club mates David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

What the BBC generally doesn’t do is ask the question ‘why are these people in power and why are we listening to them and not others?’

What alternative news sites do is say ‘hang on, there’s nothing actually inevitable about the current political order’.

Accident of history

The conflict between Wings Over Scotland and the BBC is a good example of this dynamic at work.

The BBC were ‘biased’ during the Independence Referendum campaign, but not because the organisation had an implicit agenda.

They were biased because journalists amass like insects drawn to by light around institutions that produce news – even if they’re mostly soap-opera-like pseudo-events.

Most of the BBC’s top political journalists are inevitably London-based because that’s where the news is. As a result, their analysis is inevitably skewed by a small collection of London-based politicians.

Sites like Wings Over Scotland point out that there’s no good reason why Britain’s political firmament is the way it is. It’s just like that because it’s like that, an accident of history, and there’s no good reason not to change it.

This brings it into inevitable conflict with the BBC because while WoS points out that the Emperor has no Clothes, the BBC’s first instinct is to ask the Emperor’s tailor for comment.

Fact-check

I’m in Brussels today and will be speaking later at a conference at the European Parliament on stateless nations and the media.

There is a big contingent of Catalonian journalists here and one explained to me that his primary job every day is to write an op-ed column for the main Catalan paper fact-checking the Spanish press.

It’s interesting to see that, even in a country that is at the cusp of independence, with a very well-developed media, that journalists play a very similar role to Wings Over Scotland and Nation.Cymru.

That is, to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. And, on top of that, why is he Emperor in the first place?

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