Thu 27 June 2019

In 2018, the BBC dropped the ball in covering three of the biggest news stories of the year, inextricably linked with the future of this country: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the stealing of millions of people’s data and then its manipulation during the Brexit referendum; campaign group Vote Leave’s over-spending in the run-up to the vote; and the questionable finances of Arron Banks, the donor who bankrolled the unofficial campaign to leave the EU, Leave.EU.

I have set out the facts surrounding how the BBC failed the license fee-payer in its core duty to inform when it came to these three scandals here. But, why should it concern each and every one of us?

The BBC’s defence of its abysmal reportorial record seems to be that its coverage is more ‘balanced’ than Channel 4 or CNN. Indeed, Rob Burley, editor of the BBC’s live political programmes, has suggested that being hated by both sides is some kind of kite-mark or ‘proof of impartiality’.

But let’s be clear. There are not ‘two sides’ to law-breaking, just as there are not ‘two sides’ to the earth being round or flat.

Impartiality doesn’t mean the BBC should surrender its aspiration to be honest and truthful. As the geneticist Professor Steve Jones explained in a 2011 report for the BBC Trust, an “over-rigid” obsession with “due impartiality” could give “undue attention to marginal opinion”. And there’s something even more important than impartiality involved when it comes to criminal allegations — a high burden of proof.

The BBC has a duty to ‘inform’, but absolutely no obligation to reflect widespread but evidence-free opinions about MMR vaccines, global warming, fake moon landings, 9/11 inside jobs or Obama’s birth certificate. The natural and logical corollary to this duty to inform is an obligation to fight misinformation. And what bigger story could there have been in 2018 – where the duty to inform was more pressing – than the subversion of democracy by overspending, illegal coordination and potential foreign funding of the most important constitutional vote in our lifetimes? 

What Went Wrong?

Quite why the BBC has got into this parlous state should be the focus of a major inquiry. The corporation is vulnerable and defensive, still reeling from the Savile scandal, the pressures exerted on it by David Cameron during the 2015 election, and then the appointment of John Whittingdale as Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport during its charter renewal.  

The BBC is still following the bankrupt precept it must reflect all shades of public opinion regardless of merit, accuracy or origin  

This constant political pressure makes the BBC risk-averse, and probably even more so with a subject like Brexit that begs big questions about the future of the country and its national security. Because of its hierarchical structure and special funding, there is a constant danger that senior BBC execs see their political masters as their most important customers rather than the license-fee-paying public. 

None of this is helped by the official opposition who, because of parliamentary privilege, do have a platform to expose these scandals on the BBC, but have chosen not to. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has mentioned the Vote Leave scandal only ONCE in the last year and never raised the Russian connections and ‘impermissible’ donations by Britain’s biggest ever political donor, Arron Banks. With the frontbench inexplicably quiet, it has been left to deputy leader Tom Watson, who first spoke out at the 2018 Byline Festival, to demand a public inquiry into Russian influence.

The BBC is still following the bankrupt precept that it must reflect all shades of public opinion regardless of merit, accuracy or origin, and has relied recently on right-wing think tanks such as Legatum, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Matthew Elliott’s Tax Payers’ Alliance to produce hard Brexit spokespeople. Spiked Online, despite recent revelations that it received hundreds of thousands of pounds from US right-wing funding, seems also to have a permanent seat at BBC debates. Whether its laziness, venality or something worse, these practices should stop. 

If the BBC remains captured by the vagaries of the two major parties, opaque lobbyists, or indeed the groupthink around the Westminster Lobby, it will increasingly be a hostage to politics, rather than an observer of it. 

The Worst of Both Worlds

Britain has the least trusted press in Europe, but the most trusted broadcaster in the world with the BBC. After extensive reporting and three books on Murdoch’s phone hacking scandal and the dark arts of the tabloid press, I came to the conclusion that at least we had a public service broadcaster that could mitigate the misinformation. But something has happened in the interim, and now we could face the worst of both worlds – an oligarch-owned feral press and a supine, fearful public broadcaster. 

Democracy needs universal, accurate news, free at the point of use, in the same way it needs education and healthcare. There cannot be ‘informed consent’ over any vote or election if that information is not forthcoming. 

For over two years, the British public has had little guidance from the BBC about the impossible and contradictory promises of the Leave campaigns, which ranged from staying in the single market to varieties of customs unions, and now to the economic and social catastrophe of ‘no deal’.

The BBC is important across the world as a gold standard of accurate and independent news. If that reputation is lost, it is not only bad for us, but good for every tin-pot tyrant and demagogue who thrives on misinformation and censorship. 

 For almost a year now, they have been kept in the dark by our public broadcaster about historic overspending, illegality and foreign interference in the EU referendum. 

As Britain approaches the cliff edge of Brexit in less than 100 days, the real danger is that British citizens will feel stunned and betrayed if a ‘no deal’ disaster befalls us, just as the German population did in 1918 when their war effort collapsed and the armistice was declared. Because of heavy press censorship in Germany a hundred years ago, Germans were never informed of the shortages of military materiel and men and the battlefield reverses that led to the Versailles treaty. As a result, they could only comprehend the unexpected defeat as the product of a conspiracy; a cabal of traitors in their midst: the infamous ‘stab in the back’ which soon directed itself to German Jews and fed the rise of Hitler. 

The BBC is important across the world as a gold standard of accurate and independent news. If that reputation is lost, it is not only bad for us, but good for every tin-pot tyrant and demagogue who thrives on misinformation and censorship. 

It may well be too late for this generation of senior BBC news executives to recover their lost reputations. But it is not too late for the BBC to perform the service it was created for: to inform their license payers of the realities at a time of national crisis. If it doesn’t reform in a hurry, the future – that of this country and beyond – will be darker than any of us can imagine.

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