Today
Sun 17 January 2021

As the national broadcaster continues to provide a platform for Coronavirus fringe science, Patrick Howse explores how its airing of opinions not evidence, and prioritisation of political – rather than health – reporters could be lethal during the COVID-19 crisis

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not everyone is entitled to a platform. In particular, not everyone is entitled to an invitation from Britain’s national broadcaster to give their opinion to a large audience.

Hamstrung by years of cuts and terrified of the existential threat posed by a hard-right Conservative Government, the BBC has retreated into a bunker, maintaining that almost every topic requires a “balance” of what it likes to call “voices”.

When you have knowledgeable people of goodwill and good intent discussing an issue from different stances, balancing viewpoints is perfectly laudable – you can tell both sides and let the audience decide. This notion breaks down, however, when the media platforms views that are driven by ideological dogma rather than evidence.

Instead of actually trying to establish the truth, BBC News programmes often now content themselves with merely presenting different – usually extreme – points of view. And it doesn’t seem to matter tremendously whether these opinions have any basis in reality or any evidence to back them up.

We’ve seen this over the issue of climate change – who can forget climate denier Lord Nigel Lawson being interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme to ‘balance’ the opinion of pretty much every single scientist working in the field – and with Brexit.

Instead of educating and enlightening its audiences, in recent years, the public service broadcaster has all too often presented a ‘he says this, but she says that’ narrative – fostering the perception that a legitimate debate exists when, in reality, it doesn’t.

The BBC has its pick of guests; it can select people who really know what they’re talking about; those at the top of their fields. And yet, instead, people like disgraced former Government advisor Toby Young are trotted out to address the nation about a global pandemic.

Apart from his repellant views on eugenics and gender equality, Young has been consistently and noisily wrong about the COVID-19 pandemic. His notorious Telegraph article of 25 June, in which he claimed that “the virus has all but disappeared” and confidently predicted that there would be no second spike, is just one instance of his spectacular misunderstanding of this subject.

Young has no medical or scientific training or knowledge. He is a commentator – or perhaps more accurately an outrage grifter – who pumps out controversial opinions to gain attention. It is simply inexplicable that BBC editors still ask him to grace their programmes, surely knowing his modus operandi.

This compulsion to seek bogus balance – honed during the Brexit period – has been projected into the Coronavirus age. Over the past year or so, there has been a tendency to balance the evidence-based views of epidemiologists and public health experts with people who oppose the concept of lockdowns for ideological rather than medical or scientific reasons.

Young’s latest BBC Newsnight interview last week – a week in which a new lockdown in England was announced – concentrated on whether YouTube had been right to briefly take down talkRADIO’s channel for allegedly breaking the social media platform’s COVID-19 misinformation rules. The interview involved Young being robustly challenged by presenter Emily Maitlis and his fellow guest Ian Dunt.

But giving people like Young air-time for the sake of political balance leaves the audience with the false impression that there is a genuine and legitimate debate to be had about whether lockdowns are really necessary – when the medical evidence overwhelmingly points in one direction.

Young is just one example of a whole genre of BBC guests, populated by Tufton Street pressure groups and opaquely-funded think tanks, who use BBC coverage to promote the agendas of their shadowy, unaccountable paymasters – often with feeble or non-existent fact-checking from journalists.

For producers – over-worked, under extreme time pressure, and with the ever-present fear in the back of their minds that they might upset their bosses (and so, indirectly, the Government) – these Tufton Streeters are an easy way of filling time and giving the impression of impartiality and balance.

Another low point was inviting Young’s fellow outrage grifter, Darren Grimes, on the BBC News channel to talk about last year’s Irish elections – even though he had just revealed on Twitter that he didn’t know those elections were conducted under the Single Transferable Vote system and thought that the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had lost his seat because he didn’t win on first preferences.

This approach is bad enough at the best of times, but it now risks the spread of dangerous misinformation during a health emergency.

Which brings me to academic ‘voices’ with a scientific background – such as oncologist Karol Sikora and epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta. These two now have established track records of being consistently wrong about the Coronavirus pandemic. Sikora predicted in the spring that things would be “back to normal by June” and in the autumn that the virus would “fizzle out”. Gupta also claimed in May that “the epidemic is on its way out”. They are both still being allowed on air in the name of balance – something which I know exasperates some BBC journalists.

There is also a feeling among some within the corporation that, in retrospect, they made a mistake by giving the lead to political journalists rather than to health specialists during the Coronavirus crisis.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” one senior former colleague told me, “that Hugh Pym and Fergus Walsh would have done a far better job of holding [the Government] to account than Millbank [the BBC’s politics division] have.”

“The health cluster go for the facts,” another experienced former colleague told me. “Laura Kuenssberg sees her job largely as just reporting what Johnson has said.”

In the UK, more than 83,000 people have now died of the Coronavirus. The responsibility for this lies with the Government, but the BBC’s erroneous pursuit of balance – which has challenged pro-lockdown scientific consensus – has certainly contributed to such a shocking state of affairs.

Patrick Howse is a former BBC reporter and producer


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