Fri 19 July 2019

2018 has been a troubling year for those who support public service broadcasting and the national broadcaster’s remit to INFORM not just entertain.

First off, a declaration of personal interest. I’ve worked on and off for the BBC, mainly as a dramatist, for 34 years, and the mother of my two children was a senior news executive for most of that time. The observations below aren’t comprehensive, and they only concern BBC News and Current Affairs domestic coverage, not its other output or its well regarded overseas reporting. The criticisms aren’t directed at individual BBC journalists either — I know how this works — but the higher echelons of BBC management and editorial policy.

How the BBC Failed to Investigate the Brexit Scandals

There were promising signs at the beginning of this year that BBC News and Current Affairs were preparing to rescue their reputation after a torrid time during the EU referendum. Their coverage in 2016 was widely panned by senior insiders like John Simpson and Justin Webb for not checking the factual claims made during Brexit debates, and putting too much weight on ‘balancing’ opinions rather than some more objective test of accuracy and truth. 

But, behind the scenes, something big was stirring. For nearly two months in early 2018 BBC One’s flagship documentary programme, Panorama, was looking at a stunning set of revelations from two whistle-blowers.

There were promising signs at the beginning of this year that the BBC News and Current Affairs were preparing to rescue their reputation. 

The first was the testimony of Chris Wylie, the former head of research at Cambridge Analytica. Founded by Alexander Nix, Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon in 2013, this data-based electioneering company would deploy military-grade propaganda tools and weaponise the hacked information of 170 million Facebook users, both in the 2016 UK EU referendum and the US presidential election of Donald Trump.  

In preparation for the programmes, Wylie was interviewed at length by the BBC, and so was a second whistle-blower, Shahmir Sanni, a co-founder of the campaign group BeLeave. 

Sanni produced evidence that BeLeave wasn’t in reality separate from Vote Leave and proved that the official campaign, fronted by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, had therefore broken its spending limits by £625,000. This second scandal connected back to Cambridge Analytica too, because all that money was funneled — along with most of Vote Leave’s entire election spending — to a formerly obscure Canadian company called AIQ. Originally named SCL Canada, AIQ was an offshoot of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL. 

But then, quite suddenly, Panorama withdrew from producing the planned programmes exploring the stories of both Wylie and Sanni, Cambridge Analytica and AIQ, Vote Leave and BeLeave. (For the record, both Wylie and Sanni were strong Eurosceptics who supported Leave in 2016.) 

Why this was the case is in need of further inquiry, but it was clearly not for lack of reliable evidence.

When Chris Wylie’s revelations were finally published by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer in March along with the New York Times, Cambridge Analytica became a global story, with important new follow ups from Channel 4 News and CNN. Cambridge Analytica was raided by ICO officers with warrants and soon shut down. At one point, Facebook lost nearly $150bn on its share price valuation. 

Meanwhile, Shahmir Sanni’s revelations forced the Electoral Commission to reopen its investigations into Vote Leave. They found multiple examples of law breaking and the matter is now referred to the Metropolitan police. 

So, why was Panorama so reluctant to expose any of this?

How the BBC Did Cover the Scandals when they Broke

It is sad, but not surprising, that BBC management wavered at the political risk of breaking these scandals first. It has always been cautious in this regard, and —because it is so trusted — tends to deploy its weight and authority in comprehensive follow-ups. But even this was lacking with these stories.

Much more disturbingly, the BBC actively tried to defuse their impact. The broadcaster’s coverage was not only minimal by most estimates, but often favoured the subjects of the allegations over the allegations themselves. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke over the weekend of March 18, Newsnight led the next day with Alexander Nix’s pre-recorded interview denying the allegations. There was a report on the Observer’s findings, but it was secondary to the rebuttal.

More egregiously, when the Vote Leave scandal was exposed the following week, its campaign manager Dominic Cummings’ ‘prebuttal’ was highlighted by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg before the Observer had even gone to print. (Cummings had received a request for comment with the standard couple of days in order to reply, but used the interim to shape the information battlefield in advance.)

Things didn’t improve. Two months later, when Sanni’s claims were investigated by the Electoral Commission, the Vote Leave chief executive was interviewed by Kuenssberg well before the findings were made public — another ‘prebuttal’ that gave Matthew Elliott a virtually uninterrupted platform to get his retaliation in first: “They haven’t followed due process…”

When the Electoral Commission’s findings of illegality were leaked Kuenssberg subtly, perhaps unconsciously, echoed the Vote Leave attempt  to minimise the law-breaking aspect: ‘Watchdog expected to find Vote Leave broke RULES’

This tendentious take was supported by the senior editor of the BBC’s live political programmes, Rob Burley, who seemed to equate the official findings of an independent watchdog as one side of a ‘debate’ with the Vote Leave campaign.

Burley already had form for ignoring genuine concerns,  dismissing criticisms of Elliott’s a ‘prebuttal’ as “another stain-glassed (sic) window in the cathedral of conspiracy”. 

None of this is as bad as the response of the BBC’s main election night interviewer and host of the Daily Politics, Andrew Neil. Throughout the summer of 2018 he dismissed both scandals as ‘conspiracy theories’ and often retweeted articles by Alex Wickham of the Guido Fawkes blog depicting Carole Cadwalladr as a tin-foil-hatted conspiracy theorist.

Though Neil’s twitter feed is not a BBC account, and he is a freelance employee, he remains a powerful and significant figure in the corporation. Despite later deleting a tweet describing Cadwalladr as ‘Karol Kodswallop’ he never apologised or explained.

But Hold On… At Least the BBC Covered It! You can’t Deny That. 

Of course, defenders of the BBC’s coverage of these two scandals can point to some obscure article buried away in the tech section or to an interview with Chris Wylie days later. But, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the BBC’s main news headlines and big audience talk shows belittled both the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave evidence. This despite the fact that Panorama had the material on these stories for many months, and knew the gravity, reality and seriousness of the allegations in advance.

Another measure of the BBC’s problem is the way it has represented Carole Cadwalladr, the lead journalist on all these scandals. She has only appeared live on the BBC once, on The Andrew Marr Show on March 23, but even then, she was invited onto the programme as a newspaper reviewer rather than an interviewee. There, while expecting to talk about the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave stories, she was confronted by author and Leave.EU supporter Isabel Oakeshott decrying her work as ‘chasing unicorns’. Andrew Marr did nothing to establish the facts in this argument. 

Oakeshott is closely connected to the third scandal Cadwalladr broke in June (with some help from me) about emails Oakeshott had obtained seven months earlier, but withheld. These emails revealed that Leave.EU founder Arron Banks had lied about the multiple meetings he had with Russian officials during the Brexit referendum campaign.

While Oakeshott has been a regular on shows such as Question Time and the Daily Politics, the only other appearance of Carole Cadwalladr on the BBC this year has been a brief defamatory mention of her by Banks in an interview in November after his election finances were referred to the National Crime Agency for investigation.

Banks’ libelled us both about how we obtained his emails.  It was predictable, we were easily identifiable and Rob Burley was warned of this well in advance. And yet despite complaints about this gross breach of all their guidelines, BBC News and Current Affairs have never given Carole nor me the right of reply (though Sky News did the next day in the same circumstances).

It’s not all bad news for the nation’s broadcaster. BBC Northern Ireland produced a Spotlight investigation into the DUP dark money in Brexit first exposed by Open Democracy. Manveen Rana has been relentlessly pursuing Arron Banks’ diamond mine interests in Lesotho. And the unstoppable John Sweeney finally picked up the question of Banks’ Russian connections after I emailed a Newsnight producer about Andy Wigmore’s claim to her that Banks was in Russia in February 2016. Sweeney has been pressing ahead with new revelations.  

But given the scale of these three momentous scandals about illegal hacking, data misuse, overspending and dark foreign money, this still feels like too little, too late.

Quite how the BBC has got into such a parlous state should be the focus of a major inquiry. Read why, here in part two: The BBC on the Edge of the Abyss: THE ARGUMENT

More stories filed under Fact