What do the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ mean? Well, if you are the BBC, ‘left wing’ is a term used mainly in sport. Insofar as it is used in politics, it is used to describe the mainstream. ‘Right wing’, by contrast, is a term used to describe political fringe groups: racist, violent, and illegal groups.
A search on BBC news makes this dichotomy very clear. You are on the last match on page six before you find a single linking of the term ‘left wing’ with any violent or illegal group: a story from 2002 about IRA suspects arrested in Columbia after training ‘left wing rebels’.
There are 314 pages of matches for ‘right wing’ and only 268 – a number inflated by stories about the Columbia space shuttle – for ‘left wing’. On the first page of matches, all ten for ‘right wing’ are political. Just three are political in the search for ‘left wing’ with four relating to sport and three to Columbia.
Of the first ten matches for ‘right wing’ it used in all cases in a negative way, though not, of course, always by the BBC. In some cases they are quoting. Their first match is Menzies Campbell using the phrase as a term of abuse. But it is the BBC which links the term to the BNP, the National Front, twice to terrorism in South Africa. (And, yes, they do use the word ‘terrorist’ without putting it in inverted commas, something the BBC refuses to do when talking about bombings in London or Baghdad). The BBC also links the term to fringe politicians such as Pim Fortuyn and Jorg Haider, neither of whom advocated policies recognisably associated with the right wing in Britain.
As we progress through the first six pages we see both sporting and military uses of the term, but also see it linked with fringe politicians such as Patrick Buchanan and Jean Marie Le Pen – both advocates of left wing, protectionist, economic policies. If Buchanan qualifies as ‘right wing’ because he campaigns against gay people, why then is Pim Fortuyn, the late gay activist from Holland also so labeled?
The phrase ‘right wing’ is often accompanied by words such as ‘extremist’ or qualifiers such as ‘far right’. For example, the search ‘far right’ produces 142 pages while ‘far left’ only 54. ‘Right wing’ and ‘extreme’ generates 29 pages while ‘left wing’ and ‘extreme’ just 18. This is because the BBC links the term ‘right wing’ with the BNP and National Front, while the search for ‘left wing’ does not produce any early matches linking to stories about the Socialist Workers’ Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, or even Respect, a party which won a seat at the last general election, and which is dominated by the SWP.
So what does the term ‘right wing’ mean to the BBC? It is a general term designating any political philosophy with which the BBC corporately disagrees. ‘Left wing’, by contrast, is a playing position in football and rugby.