The BBC on the Edge of the Abyss
The BBC has failed the license fee-payer in its core duty to inform when it comes to three of the biggest stories of recent years. Peter Jukes explores why should this concern each and every one of us.
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 EU Referendum; Brexit campaign group Vote Leave’s overspending 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.
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’.
“If we are featuring people on BBC political programmes who you disagree with, this is proof of impartiality not bias,” he has tweeted. “If we weren’t hearing dissent from your position then you’d have a reason to be worried.”
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.
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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”.
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 – when the duty to inform was most pressing – than the subversion of democracy by overspending, unlawful 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 Jimmy Savile scandal, the pressures exerted on it by David Cameron during the 2015 General Election, and then the appointment of John Whittingdale as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport during its charter renewal.
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.
An “over-rigid” obsession with “due impartiality” could give “undue attention to marginal opinion”.
Because of its hierarchical structure and special funding, there is a constant danger that senior BBC executives 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 which, because of parliamentary privilege, does have a platform to expose these scandals on the BBC, but has chosen not to. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has mentioned the Vote Leave scandal only once in the past 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 Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who first spoke out at the 2018 Byline Festival, to demand a public inquiry into potential 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
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Spiked Online, despite recent revelations that it received hundreds of thousands of pounds of US right-wing funding, seems to have a regular seat at BBC debates. Whether it is 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
After extensive reporting and three books on Rupert 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.
If the BBC’s 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 more than 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 a ‘no deal’.
For almost a year now, they have been kept in the dark by our public broadcaster about historic overspending, electoral law-breaking and the issues around foreign interference in the EU Referendum.
As Britain approaches the cliff edge of Brexit, 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.
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It may 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 license fee-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.