The BBC is far from perfect, and sometimes bad decisions are made. But there's no corporation-wide conspiracyby Catherine Neilan / April 6, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Brexit debate was in many ways a low point in recent British democracy, and it’s no surprise that nearly two years on from the referendum we are still a nation torn in two.
Meaningful dialogue appeared to collapse during that time: instead of a conversation between opposing views, we saw bubbles forming in which both sides were utterly convinced of the strength of their argument and equally convinced they would win. That was fuelled by the rise of alt-right and alt-left blogs, who scorn the idea of unbiased reporting in favour of campaigning for what they believe.
Since the 2016 vote, the BBC—trying to maintain a level of almost quaint bias-free reporting—has come under attack by pro-Remain groups who believe there’s a plot afoot to push Brexit through without a fight.
Conspirator-in-chief is former minister and Labour peer Andrew Adonis, who has been tweeting up a storm about what he calls the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation.”
The truth about “Ed Pol”
In particular, the ex-transport secretary has “uncovered” the BBC’s Editorial Policy unit, which Adonis describes as a “shadowy BBC Censor [which] vetoes Brexit related programmes likely to offend No 10.”
Of course, it does no such thing. Ed Pol, as it’s known, has existed for years and acts as a guidelines advisory service for programme-makers. There are legitimate criticisms to be made: in the past, it has been blamed for engendering an environment of caution, particularly among documentary makers, through lack of support, excessive red tape and “the Daily Mail factor.”
But what it doesn’t do is stipulate how a news story should be covered because it’s worried out licence fee funding.
While the BBC—along with pretty much all mainstream outlets—has decided to stop covering “the binary choice” offered during the election, it’s still demonstrably covering the consequences of the vote.
Editorialising has its place
Remainers—and I speak as one myself—might not like the fact that the vote went against them, but the government has made it clear there will be no second referendum. If that were to change for some reason, no doubt the BBC would cover it: as it has done with the Gina Miller appeal, the proposals for various forms of Soft Brexit, and yes the ongoing anti-Brexit marches.
Adonis might want a march in Leeds that he attended to lead the Ten O’Clock news, but he’s not a journalist. On the same day around 2,000 people marched against Brexit, hundreds of thousands marched for tighter gun control. It was a newer story. It was a bigger story. It led.
The alternative would have been for the BBC to run a dispassionate list of all the things that had happened that day, but this is virtually guaranteed to have viewers switching off in favour of someone making editorial judgements, whether they agree with them or not.
There are valid complaints
There are many valid complaints to be levelled at the BBC. For example, it can be clunky in the way it handles editorial “balance” by giving equal weight to opposing views, often without fully taking into account the authority of those voices. There are still not enough diverse experts being used to grapple with the issues of the day. And sure, it does feel like Nigel Farage gets a lot of airtime, although even that has dropped off since he resigned as the leader of Ukip (again).
There are no hard and fast quotas that explain Farage’s multiple appearances. It’s more a case that the BBC is trying to bring balance by having a voice that represents a certain view—one that Adonis and many on the left may not agree with, but is not any less valid because it doesn’t sit comfortably with “progressives.” If the BBC can be accused of anything here, it’s lazy booking. Producers should be finding more individuals able to articulate that side of the argument.
Certain issues—the anti-vax campaigners or climate change—are no longer subject to the BBC’s balance requirements because the science is so overwhelming. Clearly with politics, it’s more a case of opinion than fact.
Critics also point to the number of Tory-supporting members of BBC staff as proof that it is riddled with right-wingers, but this is an organisation that employs more than 20,000 people. You need to provide more than a handful of prominent journalists to show evidence of institutional bias, and no the one story that Laura Kuenssberg got wrong does not suffice. If anything, the fact the BBC investigated the Corbyn “shoot-to-kill” story and held its hands up shows just how seriously the Beeb takes impartiality and accuracy.
Adonis and pals, in their fact-free bubble, are also claiming trust in the BBC is at a low ebb. In fact, it’s higher now than since records began—although it’s fair to say it’s not been a straight line. Jimmy Savile and the faked competitions scandal were particular low points, but still it’s safe to say that Auntie is seen as more reliable than most alternative sources of information—either media or the country’s leaders.
The BBC is far from perfect: sometimes bad decisions are made, sometimes journalists get things wrong and sometimes their managers do too. But to suggest there’s a corporation-wide conspiracy is dangerous territory that will only cement the divisions of 2016, at a time when we should be seeking to overcome them.