Who can we trust? The BBC? Mostly yes.

(2017) Well – I had embarked on this before I knew an election had been announced in the UK. The UK has very strict laws on election reporting – you literally have to count up the number of people in each party represented in a programme, a phone-in show, a magazine show etc etc during the official three weeks of the campaign. It’s a reminder that by law, (and by statutory obligation under the BBC’s licence fee arrangement) broadcasters are required to be politically impartial and balanced in their overall output. Which means that, (outside of election campaigns) while individual items or programmes do not have to be always meticulously balanced, the overall output of any broadcaster in the UK has to be. The same rules do not apply to newspapers. If broadcasters are clearly proven to be in breach of these laws they can be subject to censure, or being taken off the air.

I am writing this for various reasons – one of which is the following. I am disturbed at frequently coming across a kind of global scepticism: meaning a generalized distrust of the media, a distrust of official statistics, a distrust of experts, of scientific findings, coupled with a generalized distrust of government – encapsulated by the phrase “you can’t trust anyone.”

This is manifested, for example, in determined movements not to accept the following, despite overwhelming scientific evidence for all three

  • that vaccines are safe
  • that climate change is caused by and connected to human activity
  • that GMOs are safe for human consumption

This at a time when we have the most extensive array of human knowledge ever assembled, literally at our fingers tips, via the internet.

But anyway, this is more particularly a focus on what I perceive to be increased and more vitriolic attacks on the “lamestream media,” which I see as linked to this pattern.

I do not dispute that scepticism and questioning are healthy. I do argue however that certain kinds of global scepticism are not warranted and don’t make sense.

I’m also arguing that it is reasonable and rational to mostly trust that there are quite a few journalistic organizations out there who are committed to reporting accurately and impartially, even though they may fail in some instances.

I’m going to therefore disappoint the expectations that the title might have aroused: I am going to argue that the BBC is one those journalistic organizations that it is reasonable to put trust in. Its record, by and large, I contend, is of commitment to impartial coverage of events.

tvFull disclosure: I worked for the BBC from 1987 to 1998 as a reporter and producer.

I am writing this since I’ve become aware that the BBC, more typically under attack from the political right, which considers it pro-left biased, has recently come under more frequent attack from the left. It’s not entirely new – the Glasgow Media Group’s studies in the 1970s and 80s accused mainstream television – the BBC and ITV – of anti-left biased reporting on political issues, and I’ve read other reports from that period alleging the same.

More recently there’s been an attack from Cardiff University Lecturer Mike Berry and also the Media Reform Coalition – which criticized the BBC’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn (current leader of the Labour Party).

I’m going to take a look at all of these reports in some detail. For reasons of time and space I’m not going to examine the right-wing attacks on the BBC – partly because I perceive that the latest left-wing attacks are somewhat newer and warrant more current attention.

But first let’s just remind ourselves that there’s a strong history of criticism from the right – saying exactly the opposite of the left-wing critiques: that the BBC is biased and pro-left. A recent example is the “Bias at the BBC” report published in the Telegraph.

There is also a thriving industry of right-wing websites devoted to proving that the BBC is left-wing – for example these two: biasedbbc and news-watch.  Then there’s this recent right-leaning report alleging the BBC’s bias in its pro EU coverage.  And again, there’s this fairly recent allegation by a Tory minister that the BBC has an anti-business slant.


This pattern of attacks from both left and right is nothing new. In the 1960s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson complained loud and often about the BBC’s alleged anti- government bias, as did Tony Blair’s government. On the other side, Mrs Thatcher repeatedly attacked the BBC – famously alleging strong bias in the BBC’s coverage of a bombing raid in Libya in 1985 – producing a detailed document of the alleged bias, which was then rebutted by a detailed reply from the BBC.

Sniping has continued to the present day. In short, it’s fair to say that pretty much every government over the past fifty years at least has complained about the BBC, whether they are Conservative, Labour or Coalition, all alleging that the organization is biased against their political positions.

(It’s hard not to note one of many ironies here. Internationally, according to surveys I’ve seen, the BBC is regarded as one of the most trusted and prestigious media organizations in the world. It’s arguably one of the most prominent contributions of the UK to the globe as a whole. This is not to say it’s never controversial – authoritarian governments from Russia to Sri Lanka tend to hate it and dismiss its reports. In Sri Lanka I heard the phrase “Bloody Biased Corporation.” The BBC’s crime? It reported extensively on the widespread persecution of Tamils by the government and army in the north east of the country.)

This is all to give some context and background. The standard BBC argument – that if both sides are criticizing the organization then it’s probably doing the right thing – doesn’t of course prove that the organization is not biased. However, it’s not an insignificant point. If criticism only came from one political side, I think one could reasonably argue that the BBC should be more worried and self-critical than it currently is. And the fact that it is criticized by both sides does open at least the possibility that the BBC is not kowtowing to either political grouping, left or right, and therefore equally annoys people with opposite political views. So I think it is reasonable to use this phenomenon as an indicator that’s worth noting, while not presenting it as something that is conclusive.

bbc 3

Now I’m going to consider three instances of reports from left-leaning organizations, all alleging pro-right bias.

This report by the Media Reform Group argues that the BBC early evening news (and also later evening news) did not report fairly or impartially on Jeremy Corbyn during a ten-day period in 2016 following the mass resignations of the Labour shadow cabinet.  It should be noted that even this critical report acknowledges that the BBC’s online coverage was balanced, and that other parts of the BBC – and it names Newsnight and the Andrew Marr show – compensated by giving prominent air time to Corbyn supporters. So the report itself is not an indictment of the BBC as a whole, just of the evening news on television in that ten-day period.

The argument is that more hostile language was used toward Corbyn and his supporters, that more critics were interviewed, that greater air time was given to critics and the general slant of stories were negative. (The report also criticizes coverage by other press, newspapers etc but as mentioned these are not covered by the same requirements for balance.)

Drilling down a bit the actual statistics on the BBC early evening news, according to the report are these: the news featured 13 Corbyn critics against 9 Corbyn supporters, and gave nearly twice as much airtime to critics during the ten day period on the news at 6, while ITV news had a more or less balanced amount of airtime for critics and supporters.

The report also recorded a much greater proportion of negatively framed issue reports in this period, by the BBC. There follows a qualitative report on use of language, citing instances of negative language being used by reporters re Corbyn. So that’s the argument.

I am not asserting that there is nothing to the criticism. For me the most troubling is the amount of airtime given to critics (not so much the numbers of critics). It’s possible that the evening news did make too much of the critical side. I will return to this later.

However, I don’t find the rest of the report convincing. Firstly, most of the report is commentary by the lead guy, Dr Justin Schlosberg, not statistics and figures. And there are some problems with that. Schlosberg argued in a separate, outside commentary that everyone has political views and that’s fine so long as those political views don’t colour the objectivity of the report. I agree. But in fact the writing in the report (ironically enough) isn’t scientific or objective. Take this extract:

“Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the party less than 10 months ago with an overwhelming and unprecedented mandate from hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. He was elected on a platform of principled opposition to austerity, privatisation and the Iraq War” etc etc.

Beside the tone, the key word here is “principled”. That is not an objective word – it is completely evaluative and should have no place in a scientifically objective report. Again ironically, no BBC reporter could get away with describing a political candidate in a direct description as “principled” since it’s obviously a political endorsement. (For the record, I actually think Corbyn is almost certainly principled – but that isn’t the point – as a BBC reporter I could not, and would not, have used such an evaluative word.)

It’s fairly clear that Schlosberg is sympathetic to Corbyn – not a problem in itself – but, to repeat, as he himself argues, it should not leak into a credible report. And more unfortunately, Schlosberg made a statement during public discussion of his report that the BBC was a “mouthpiece for the right wing press.” That statement is significant since it isn’t supported by his own report, which, as I mention, DIDN’T accuse the whole of the BBC as biased, only the evening TV news (ie not radio, not the rest of BBC television and not BBC online). So this is a strong generalization not supported by his own research, which clearly reveals his bias, which did leak into the report.

That’s why I’m not inclined to give the report the benefit of the doubt on its qualitative selection of language used by the BBC. I’d like to see a proper quantitative account of the language used, from an unbiased source.

tv2There’s another major flaw with the report. It accuses the BBC of framing its reports negatively. But let’s remember what it was reporting on – an unprecedented crisis in the Labour Party in which large numbers of shadow cabinet members resigned, leading to an overwhelming vote of no confidence by Labour MPs in the leader. To my knowledge no such thing has ever happened in the party before, and was clearly a very significant crisis. OF COURSE the story was framed in a negative way – it was a major crisis! Arguing, as this report does, that the BBC was negatively slanted, is the equivalent of complaining that coverage of an earthquake or natural disaster was overly negative. It ignores how journalism operates in the real world: a crisis is legitimately reported as a crisis. If the BBC hadn’t reported it as a crisis it would quite reasonably be accused of being pro-Corbyn.

There’s also a logical fallacy to the argument: it points out that the BBC’s framing (ie how the stories were headlined and presented) was more negative than ITV’s. Does that, objectively speaking, mean that the BBC was biased? No it doesn’t. It might, perfectly logically, mean that the ITV coverage was biased and pro-Corbyn, and that the BBC’s wasn’t. The issue is that we are talking about two relative measures not absolute measures. How do we know, without further context, whether either organization was right to be either more or less negative. Is that nit-picking? No – a scientifically objective report would need to address that question. It doesn’t.

So overall, the report’s bias undermines its credibility. Most of the report is commentary, which reveals a lack of impartiality, though I do make an exception for one set of its statistics. It is of course ironic that a report that claims objectivity in its criticism of the BBC for lack of impartiality, actually lacks impartiality itself.


OK on to the Glasgow Media Group’s report “More Bad News” from the mid-70s. I read this thoroughly. The contention is that the BBC (and this time ITV too) gave more airtime to proponents of a particular view that the Glasgow Media Group disagreed with; secondly: that the media controlled the debate, rather than reflecting the debate, which was about the causes of inflation. The implication is that a media organization should reflect various opinions not set an agenda or try to lead them. Without getting into details, the report’s own figures clearly refute the report’s own contention. The representatives shown on the BBC of various views closely reflected the actual spread of views across the political spectrum on this issue.

Extract from my own commentary:

“They (Glasgow Media Group) state quite clearly in the intro, that the Glasgow Media Group believes that the principle underlying cause of inflation is the lack of investment in industry in the UK, leading to too much capital chasing too few goods.

Here’s where I think they go wrong in their argument: their principle point is that television news controls the debate – rather, presumably, than reflecting it. But let’s look at this in context: the Glasgow Media Group’s position can easily be identified with the left of the Labour Party at the time – very familiar to me, since I held precisely these views. The centre and right of the Labour Party, including the cabinet, and the major ministers at the time didn’t hold this view – and frequently stressed the need to rein in wage demands – to maintain the deal of the Social Contract. The Conservative Party had some slightly different angles, but also focused on excessive wage demands – especially by public sector unions. Thus the majority of the members of by far the largest parties focused on wage demands, giving a roughly five to one ratio advantage to those arguing for wage restraint.

What do their own figures show about coverage (they cite both ITN and the BBC): – ie on the specific issue – what caused inflation at the time?

Main figures – 96 references to wage demand argument, with 12 rebuttals

33 references to lack of investment. 29 references to rise in oil prices; 22 government borrowing, 22 government expenditure (others much fewer)

Remember that the majority of the main political parties supported the wage inflation argument.  We have a 3 to 1 ratio of wage restraint argument to lack of investment, with about 3/7 of the coverage reporting other arguments. These figures therefore show a fairly close reflection of the main political arguments – in fact if anything they favour the lack of investment argument to some extent. They don’t support the idea that the media controlled the debate at all – rather that they pretty accurately reflected the spectrum of opinion on this issue (crudely speaking).

My conclusion from this was that the Glasgow Media Group had confused too things. They clearly disagreed with the main arguments being put forth on this subject, as conveyed by the media. That’s fine, anyone can disagree. (For the record, my views at that time were pretty much wholly in alignment with the views of Jeremy Corbyn, with the exception of the EU. I’ve moved to a more centre-left, social-democratic, Obama-like position in recent decades. As Schlosberg argues, that doesn’t vitiate my position, so long as my arguments are logical and objective.)

The problem is that the BBC’s role is not (obviously) to put out reports that people agree with, and, in the realm of politics at any rate, they are not obliged (or in fact not capable) to put out reports that can be deemed objectively correct, since there is pretty much no agreement in politics on what is objectively correct on highly political and contentious issues such as – what is the correct level of taxes? Or how much should a government invest or borrow? Yes, philosophically-speaking there is, I think, a fact of the matter – but these issues are so closely related to values that in a practical sense it’s all but impossible to reduce these arguments to sheer, objective facts.

The Glasgow Media Group in my opinion clearly conflated and confused these two things. In effect, the report shows that the BBC reflected the balance of political opinion in the country at the time, as represented by the positions of the political parties, and the various wings of those parties – and it just happened that the majority opinion was one that the Glasgow Media Group disagreed with.


As a general remark, I think this is a somewhat more subtle and nuanced example of a more widespread phenomenon that I see today: if a media outlet carries views you disagree with, you instantly dismiss it and loudly proclaim on the internet that it’s a biased and untrustworthy media organization.

Turning to the last and final left-leaning report. This is a report by Mike Berry of Cardiff University. I’m not going to go into this in as much detail, to avoid exhaustion, which may have already set in. Berry alleges, by comparing coverage of political events in 2007 and 2012, similar biased coverage against the left – namely that Tories get more airtime than Labour politicians, (and also secondarily that the BBC gives higher profile to people anti the EU). Extract:

“In strand one (reporting of immigration, the EU and religion), Gordon Brown outnumbered David Cameron in appearances by a ratio of less than two to one (47 vs 26) in 2007.

In 2012 David Cameron outnumbered Ed Milliband by a factor of nearly four to one (53 vs 15).

Labour cabinet members and ministers outnumbered Conservative shadow cabinet and ministers by approximately two to one (90 vs 46) in 2007; in 2012, Conservative cabinet members and ministers outnumbered their Labour counterparts by more than four to one (67 to 15).

In strand two (reporting of all topics) Conservative politicians were featured more than 50% more often than Labour ones (24 vs 15) across the two time periods on the BBC News at Six. So the evidence is clear that BBC does not lean to the left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices.”

Which is on the face of it damning. But then if you drill down into the original report that this is based on, it turns out that the report did not state the conclusions that Mike Berry did. In fact Mike Berry was just one of 21 researchers. So it seems that his article is like a minority report voicing his personal dissent. The fact is though, the original report does not slant the same way and is much more cautious and nuanced, as follows:

1“There is no clear statistical evidence of a change of approach between 2007 and 2012 to reporting the three topics – although there is a slight increase in the breadth of opinions represented across the years of our samples in BBC coverage of religion,          immigration and the UK’s relationship to Europe.

  1. There is a striking dominance of party political voices in the output and topics analysed. This has increased between 2007 and 2012 in stories about the UK’s relationship with Europe, where the debate is dominated by British mainstream political positions.
  2. Although political voices dominate, and the ruling party has a larger share of voice, the Conservative dominance in 2012 is by a notably larger margin than Labour dominance in 2007 (although the two governments were at different points in the electoral cycle), and there is only a relatively limited presence of Liberal Democrats across both years.”
  • And then later:

This points to a cautious conclusion that Cameron was a more newsworthy opposition leader than Miliband in the context of the three topics, and that his coalition government has likewise been more successful in attracting coverage than the Labour leadership that preceded him. It might also reflect the tail end of a long period of Labour rule, with the opposition making ground, against the early years of a Conservative-led coalition government with the opposition regrouping.”

If you read the above, you realize that Berry has left out these very important caveats and qualifications – that the reporting of the two governments (2007) and (2012) came at times when the governments were in different parts of their cycles – so that you are comparing apples with oranges if you draw direct conclusions from the numbers without this context.


A theoretical question is raised by all this. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that one group is supported by 20% of the population, and opposed by 80% of the population. How should a broadcaster report on this situation objectively? The answer is not straightforward. If the broadcaster gives equal weight to the opposing views, (in terms of framing, numbers of interviewees and airtime) couldn’t it therefore be reasonably accused of introducing bias – since the weight of opinion is not 50/50 – but 80/20?

The rough rule of thumb in political reporting is to give equal time – but is that always the right approach? I think there’s a rational argument that sometimes broadcasters should reflect differences of political popularity. A comparison that comes to mind, which admittedly is in a different field and not pure politics, is reporting on climate change: eventually broadcasters came under legitimate criticism for over-representing climate sceptics, when 98% of climate scientists had concluded that human activity was affecting the climate. Broadcasters were accused – rightly – of giving too much airtime to sceptics, giving the impression that the scientific debate was actually balanced between the two points of view.

This raises a separate issue. Are organizations like the BBC in some senses “too balanced” – or to put it differently, do they report with false equivalence between two points of view, when one of those points of view is clearly refuted by the evidence. This is Economist Paul Krugman’s complaint in the US: that the media give equal weight to views put forward by the Republicans and Democrats, whereas, in his view, the reality is that the Republicans are much more extreme than the Democrats in making false statements that are in direct contradiction with the evidence. So in his view media organizations are not reporting correctly if they give both points of view equal air-time.

OK so that’s a lot of discussion of reports and statistics. I’m now going to speak more anecdotally.


As previously mentioned, I worked for the BBC from 1987 to 1998. My views through this period were to the left – mostly very similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s. I think it’s true to say that in every single report I broadcast that had the slightest political content (and that was frequent) I included viewpoints that I personally disagreed with. This was especially true in reports which involved interviews with politicians.

The expectation at the BBC, very clearly understood, was that as a reporter I had to be really tough on any politician and to press them hard on any controversial point. I remember grilling Eric Heffer, the left-wing Labour MP on the party’s policies and outlook, and also pressing Edwina Currie on a local health service issue.

The point being, that in my experience over those eleven years, you simply had to be tough with politicians from any part of the political spectrum. I would have been called out and strongly criticized by my editors if I hadn’t. This is the culture of the BBC as I know it – that, in practice, you can’t let politicians get away with making their political pitches without strong challenge, and this absolutely applied if you were interviewing a left-leaning politician or a right-leaning one. This culture permeated local reporting and national reporting – and I would argue that pretty much anyone who has worked for the BBC as a reporter would recognize what I say.

I’m going to now turn to another report – commissioned by the BBC governors (at the time the body that oversees the BBC’s editorial independence) and carried out by an independent panel on the organization’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I turn to this because this is a good example of a highly contentious issue with strongly opposing viewpoints. I remember receiving faxes and comments on this story, more so than on anything else, when I was working as a reporter and producer, alleging that the BBC was biased toward one side or the other.

israel pThis was the Report of the Independent panel for the BBC Governors on impartiality of BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, April 2006.

Their conclusions were as follows: (very briefly summarized)

  1. “Apart from individual lapses, sometimes of tone, language or attitude, there was little to suggest systematic or deliberate bias; on the contrary there was evidence, in the programming and in other ways, of a commitment to be fair, accurate and impartial;
  2. there are identifiable shortcomings. There are, in particular, gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective. … These included an absence of historical background and deficiencies in the provision of other contexts (such as the role of the wider Middle East in the conflict), and insufficient analysis and interpretation of some important events and issues etc etc”

I quote this report because, from my perspective, it rather accurately reflects my own experience of working for the BBC. Yes, there was an overall commitment to impartiality. But at the same time, reporters and producers have to produce pieces often under severe time pressure. Balance is crudely managed – grabbing a quick interview with the two sides. Above all, and this is a criticism that can be made of almost all news broadcasters, it was difficult to place things in an adequate historical and societal context, given the time constraints. So the praise and criticism of the above rings true.

Needless to say the above report didn’t assuage groups on both sides of the conflict or stop them from continuing to accuse the BBC of bias.

Because of the above considerations, a reporter is more likely to resort to the familiar and well-known representative of a point of view. There is a tendency therefore for an organization like the BBC to reflect a more mainstream and establishment range of voices. So if you are in a political group that is not in the mainstream, but is more to the left or the right, you are less likely to receive as much coverage.

So I think the BBC and others are “guilty” in practice of covering the more mainstream views in any society. Certainly if you are in one of those groups you are likely to see that as a defect.

But is the BBC wrong to more often reflect mainstream views? Remember the Glasgow Media Group’s argument that a broadcaster shouldn’t control the debate but should reflect it? I think that’s right – so a tendency to reflect the views held by larger parts of society is not, in my opinion, a defect.

So what could be done about that? In an ideal world, even more airtime would be given to political discussions, which would then allow more context and more room for smaller groups in society. Television, in particular, probably doesn’t do that enough – and a lot of the problem is simply lack of air-time and lack of time to prepare. If more air-time was given, more voices could be included. So it is a fair criticism to say that television could and should include a broader range of voices across the political spectrum.


So overall I think that the BBC does have an overall commitment to impartial reporting on political questions. However, it’s limited by the hasty pragmatic choices reporters have to make in day-to-day reporting which results in a lack of sufficient context and analysis, and means that political groups representing minority opinions don’t get as much airtime as an ideally informed public should get.

Reporters and producers are human and fallible. Even though the culture at the BBC is to press for impartiality, individual editors and reporters can and sometimes do nudge the framing back and forth in ways that are not wholly fair. The BBC does fail sometimes. Sometimes also it’s hard to be entirely objective when an overwhelming narrative has been developed in all media across the nation – including newspapers and online. It’s hard for a BBC editor or producer not to be influenced by mainstream thinking.

Mainstream thinking – as reflected by polls and the overall media environment – has generally not been sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn. That’s undoubtedly true. As mentioned above, bloggers and newspapers are under no constraint whatsoever to be fair or objective, and they patently aren’t. It’s only broadcasters who are under that constraint, which in turn means they have an even greater responsibility to report fairly.

As mentioned before, the single statistic that bothers me in the reports above is the much greater proportion of airtime given to Jeremy Corbyn critics on the BBC’s 6 pm news in a ten-day period in 2016. (For reasons given I don’t find other accusations persuasive.) This might well be a prima facie case that this particular TV bulletin (and its editor) did give unfair coverage of Corbyn.

Let’s look at the context. Corbyn and the Labour party are in a major crisis. In my opinion that means that negative coverage is warranted of this event. However, a reasonable balance between supporters and critics should obviously be maintained. The context is – re support for Corbyn – that there are three basic constituencies:

party membership: strong majority in favour of Corbyn;

MPs in parliament: strong majority against Corbyn;

public at large (as far as polling indicates) strong majority against Corbyn.

So following my previous arguments, it might be reasonable for there to be somewhat more weight given to criticism and opposition, given this context and the story (a crisis). Let’s say a ration of 12 – 9 – very rough rule of thumb – might be arguably fair. The actual distribution of critics to supporters was 13 – 9 – which is just about defensible, but maybe a bit too slanted.

But, and here’s the rub, the airtime given, was a ratio of around 17 – 9, andI don’t think that is defensible. So in this instance, the report makes a fair point.

If so, the BBC did fail in this instance and the BBC should rightly be held to account for this. But let’s remember, even this report didn’t allege overall bias by the BBC – it said that BBC online was fair and balanced, and that other parts of the BBC – Newsnight and the Andrew Marr show – gave prominent airtime to Corbyn supporters.

So scrutiny of the BBC is welcome – in fact it’s vital in a democracy. Well-founded and evidence-based criticisms should be responded to by the BBC.

At the same time, I haven’t come across any convincing study or evidence that the BBC as a whole is biased politically. It doesn’t accord with either the historical record, the weight of the evidence such as we have it, or my personal experience.

And to conclude: impartial media organizations are, quite literally I believe, one of the most important elements of any democratic society. They are extremely precious, and are outnumbered by vast numbers of partial media outlets, (and by outlets that are deliberately focused on spreading propaganda and false information).

There is a place for partial, opinion-led outlets, but we do need also to be able to turn to media organizations that we can trust at least to be trying hard to report fairly. It personally drives me crazy to listen to a media outlet in which the only voices I hear are ones that I agree with and are not challenged. On the BBC political viewpoints are pretty always challenged – and that’s a good and valuable thing.

We should, in summary, hold media organizations like the BBC to account when they do fail. But we should also value them and support the tradition they represent – it’s an extremely precious and vital tradition.

Postscript: since 2017 the BBC has been regulated and monitored by the statutory body called Ofcom, whose role is to check that broadcasters are complying with the law on impartiality and accuracy. In 2019 this is what they are saying about their current review of the BBC:  “”This review will not assess the BBC’s formal compliance with the ‘due impartiality’ and ‘due accuracy’ requirements of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Since we took on our current duties in April 2017, we have not found the BBC to be in breach of the ‘due impartiality’ requirements of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. “


A Couple of Postscripts (2023)

As I write, the BBC is between a rock and a hard place. The current Conservative government clearly sees the BBC as a wedge issue that they want to exploit politically. Perceived on the right as left-wing biased, quite a few in government would be happy to effectively scrap the BBC by abolishing the licence fee (which provides public funds to the broadcaster). Short of that, they want to put so much pressure on the BBC that the organization will not dare to challenge it politically. The totally unscrupulous Boris Johnson appointed a Chairman who donated substantially to the Tories, and even helped arrange a personal loan for the former Prime Minister. This Chairman should clearly resign.

But then, on the other side, as I describe above, the BBC is seen by large swathes of the Left as right-wing biased. The BBC has never been wholly and perfectly independent – the government does appoint its overall managers and if the government is unscrupulous, as at present, it will try to influence the output through its appointments. But I argue that overall, in its history, it has mostly managed to find a line that is reasonably impartial – while not making anyone perfectly happy.

My gut feeling, honestly, is that, as some studies argued, there was a slight to the left tilt of the BBC during the 70s and 80s – (but only marginally so) – and this slight bias has been corrected more recently and now the BBC is dead centre. Hard to prove that, but that’s my anecdotal opinion.

Anyhow, we now have critics on the Left, like economist Simon Wren-Lewis, who argue that the BBC has kow-towed to pressure in its coverage of, for example, Brexit. He says that 75% of economists said that Brexit would have a negative impact, but the BBC maintained a balance of commentaries on the economics of the issue, both negative and positive. This is a complex one, but I don’t actually agree with Wren-Lewis on his criticism, even though personally I agree with his political and economic opinions and, like him, was very opposed to Brexit.

To put this case in more detail: What is a fact, according to polling and the actual vote, is that the UK was split right down the middle on Brexit – essentially a half and half balance. As argued above, one of the BBC’s roles is to accurately reflect public opinion – not guide it – and so there was a logic to the BBC giving equal space to both sides of the argument. You might argue that economics is entirely fact-based – but it isn’t – it’s an extremely political area with left-leaning economists strongly disagreeing with right-leaning economists because of their different values. Especially on a highly contentious political issue, in which all the facts are disputed, I don’t think the BBC had any other choice than to balance out the voices, for and against, on Brexit. Realistically, any other approach would bring tremendous criticism for bias (yes, it received that criticism anyway, but it would have been even heavier, in my opinion, if it hadn’t balanced the perspective.)

And then secondly, there’s Wren-Lewis’s opinion on the, now famous, Newsnight introduction by Emily Maitlis after Dominic Cummings was found to be in breach of Covid rules. Maitlis was reprimanded by the BBC for not being impartial. I’ve watched the intro several times, and while I personally agree with everything Maitlis said, the intro is quite clearly not impartial.

Wren-Lewis argues that Maitlis report was full of facts and that the BBC was wrong to reprimand a presenter for presenting a factual analysis. But Wren-Lewis is wrong on this, and apparently very naive. A report can be entirely filled with facts, but also not impartial – by, for example, selecting only facts that show one side of the story, and by slanting the presentation of the facts. In addition, it’s not true that Maitlis only quotes facts.

For example, Maitlis says that “the nation” is shocked that the government cannot see that Cummings broke the rules. That is clearly an opinion and not necessarily a fact. Many in the country supported Boris Johnson’s policies, and didn’t think that Cummings made any serious breach of the rules, and thought the whole thing was overblown. Maitlis is not reflecting this duality, she is giving her personal opinion on this. And nor should a reporter in such a case claim to be speaking for the whole nation – that’s both hubristic and, as I argue, false – a lot of the country wasn’t “shocked.”

Maitlis then goes on to say that Johnson tagged the “lazy label of elite” on those who disagreed with him. Johnson had used the word “elite” but saying it’s a “lazy label” is an opinion, not a hard fact.

“He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools,” Maitlis says of Johnson. Again, an opinion, and definitely not shared by the whole country, many of whom agreed with Johnson.

“The Prime Minister knows all this (anger, disquiet etc)…but has chosen to ignore it.” Yes, you could argue that – but is that a non-weighted way of describing the situation? Did he “ignore” it, or choose to respond in a different way? Let’s be real, the intro is, quite obviously, an out-and-out criticism of the Prime Minister. The problem is, it comes from the presenter of the programme, not one of the interviewees giving an opinion. The BBC was quite right to call out Maitlis.

The fact that I personally agree with Maitlis’ opinions here should not influence, at all, my judgement of whether it is impartial or not. But clearly, this is what is happening frequently around the country. Many of those who agree with Maitlis insist it was an impartial report. But the BBC isn’t there to solely present views in line with whoever is watching it. It is there to accurately reflect opinions in the country, whilst also doing its best to report accurately on the facts. That, of course, is sometimes a very difficult balance. The BBC doesn’t always get it right. But to be attacked from both sides, for doing its job, is not the way forward.


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