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The BBC on the Edge of the Abyss 1: The Facts

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

The BBC on the Edge of the AbyssThe Facts

2018 has been a troubling year for those who support public service broadcasting and the national broadcaster’s remit to inform, not just to 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, 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 was preparing to rescue its reputation after a torrid time during the EU Referendum.

Its coverage in 2016 was widely panned by senior insiders, including John Simpson and Justin Webb, for the lack of checking of factual claims made during Brexit debates and the putting of too much weight on ‘balancing’ opinions rather than a 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.

The first was the testimony of Chris Wylie, a former employee of the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. Founded by Alexander Nix, Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon in 2013, this now defunct data-based electioneering firm would deploy military-grade propaganda tools and weaponise the hacked information of 170 million Facebook users, both in the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK and in the US presidential election of Donald Trump in the same year.

In preparation for the programme, 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 was not, in reality, a separate organisation from the Vote Leave campaign and proved that the official group, fronted by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, had therefore broken its spending limits by £625,000. This connected back to Cambridge Analytica 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. 

Burley seemed to equate the official findings of an independent watchdog to one side of a ‘debate’ with the Vote Leave campaign.

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 officers from the Information Commissioner’s Office with warrants and soon shut down. At one point, Facebook lost nearly $150 billion on its share price valuation. 

Meanwhile, Sanni’s revelations forced the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, to re-open its investigations into Vote Leave. It found multiple examples of law-breaking and the matter has been referred to the Metropolitan Police. 

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

How the BBC Covered 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.

More disturbingly, the BBC actively tried to defuse their impact.

The broadcaster’s coverage was not only minimal by most estimates, but often favoured giving a platform to the subjects of the allegations over the allegations themselves. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke over the weekend of March 18, for instance, its Newsnight programme 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 law-breaking 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 electoral wrongdoing were leaked, BBC News subtly – perhaps unconsciously – echoed the Vote Leave attempt  to minimise the law-breaking aspect. A headline on a piece Kuenssberg authored read: Watchdog expected to find Vote Leave broke rules

This 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 to one side of a ‘debate’ with the Vote Leave campaign.

“The whole discussion here about Vote Leave/Electoral Commission and [Matthew] Elliot is disputed. The respective sides say different things about and it’s not resolved,” he tweeted.

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

But, none of this is as bad as the response of the host of the BBC’s 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 of the corporation, he remains a powerful and significant figure there. 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 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 stories.

This despite the fact that Panorama had the material on both 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 Observer journalist on all these scandals. She has only appeared live on the BBC once, on The Andrew Marr Show in March, but even then she was invited onto the programme as a newspaper reviewer rather than an interviewee. During this appearance, she was confronted by author and Leave.EU supporter Isabel Oakeshott decrying her work as “chasing unicorns”. Marr did nothing to establish the facts in this argument. 

There was too much weight on ‘balancing’ opinions rather than a more objective test of accuracy and truth.

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

While Oakeshott has been a regular on BBC 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. But, BBC News and Current Affairs has 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 pursuing Arron Banks’ diamond mine interests in Lesotho. And 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 stories 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 Part 2: The BBC on the Edge of the Abyss – The Argument

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