Blog: The BBC’s political editor sounds like a government minister
"I believe [the BBC] was too slow to detect and reflect public concern and anger a decade or more ago," Nick Robinson told Today presenter John Humphries this morning.
The BBC was, as usual, shamelessly promoting its own documentary on immigration, with Robinson offering a personal (?) view on the corporation's own coverage of the topic.
Afterwards they had Nigel Farage on. God knows why. It was like the sound of a nation having a nervous breakdown. The leader of a fringe party really had no place doing the post 8am slot on a topic which really has nothing to do with him. Perhaps it was scheduled to disprove Robinson's argument in real time.
Dangerously, it became quite difficult to figure out who was asking questions and who was answering them. Robinson, Humphries and Farage all sounded like interviewer and interviewee, all on the same page.
But what was really troubling was Robinson's seeming inability to understand the function of the BBC. The job of the Beeb is not to reflect public views. It is to provide accurate information so they can come to their own view. Robinson has joined the ignoble ranks of those who want politics to be about perception rather than reality. Tellingly, the vast majority of such people are politicians. After all these years in Westminster, perhaps he's gone native.
Late last year, Theresa May was challenged on the fact that health tourism costs just 0.01% of the NHS budget. She refused to "quantify the problem" and said the public believes "there is an issue out there". In other words, truth doesn't matter. What is perceived to be true is what counts.
It's just a short skip and jump from that position to the one held by Iain Duncan Smith on the absence of a causal link between the welfare cap and people looking for work. "I have a belief I am right," he said. "You cannot absolutely prove those two things are connected – you cannot disprove what I said. I believe this to be right." IDS was forming government policy in the epicentre of his circular thoughts.
The sense that the BBC – or any other media outlet – should be seeking to reflect public sentiments about immigration rather than help the public form them is particularly galling given the public is startlingly misinformed about the subject.
As a recent Ipsos Mori report showed:
The public believes the foreign-born population of the UK is 31%. The real figure is 13%.
The public believes the most common immigrants are refugees or asylum-seekers. In reality, they are the least common.
The public believes the least common form of immigration is international students. In reality they were the largest category to migrate to the UK in 2011.
The media can have a role alleviating these concerns. After all, it is at least partly responsible for creating them.
People's concern about immigration in their local area is very low, but nationally it is high. In fact, there is a staggering 50% point gap between levels of national and local concern about immigration.
People in 'superdiverse', 'cosmopolitan London/periphery' clusters (sorry for the grotesque phrasing – these are Home Office categories) are least concerned. People in 'northern manufacturing and industrial towns' and areas of 'low migration' are most concerned.
It's usually worth defending the BBC. They do as good a job as possible fulfilling a vital but dreadfully hard political and editorial mandate. The Today programme is usually particularly good. But Robinson's comments this morning reveal that some of the most troubling elements of Westminster thought are poisoning its upper echelons.