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‘The BBC’s Pursuit of Bogus ‘Impartiality’ Finally Crashes and Burns’

After years of appeasing its enemies, former BBC journalist and producer Patrick Howse believes the BBC’s destruction from within has been spectacularly exposed

Gary Lineker. Photo: Mark Pain/Alamy

BBC’s Pursuit of Bogus ‘Impartiality’ Finally Crashes & Burns

After years of appeasing its enemies, former BBC journalist and producer Patrick Howse believes the BBC’s destruction from within has been spectacularly exposed

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It may seem like the BBC took on Gary Lineker this week, but what it has actually been engaged in is a brawl with itself over a twisted version of what it likes to call ‘impartiality’.

To look at this, we need to start not with the Match of the Day (MOTD) presenter, but with Fiona Bruce, who chairs the corporation’s flagship discussion programme Question Time (QT).

In the QT edition broadcast on 9 March, one of the topics the panel considered was former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to get his father, Stanley Johnson, a knighthood.

During the course of this, journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown referred to Stanley Johnson as “a wife-beater” and talked about an incident in which he had punched his wife in the face, breaking her nose and necessitating hospital treatment. Bruce interrupted her with a clearly scripted and rehearsed form of words that concluded “it did happen, it was a one-off”.

Leaving aside the point that we cannot know whether it was a one-off or not (or if that matters), the fact that the BBC felt the need to take an ‘impartial’ stance between a man who broke his wife’s nose and the woman whose nose was broken, tells you everything you need to know about how warped and ludicrous this notion is.

The BBC’s fundamentally dishonest and logically absurd version of impartiality has been laid bare. If you give equal weight to lies and the truth, you take the side of the lie.

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I have written extensively in these pages about how the BBC has pursued an illusion of ‘balance’ and ‘impartiality’ in recent years. The reason for this has been fear – fear of the Government and of the right-wing press and its oligarch owners. In other words, ‘impartiality’ has been seized on as a mechanism to help the BBC appease its enemies.

These are implacable and unappeasable enemies. They want it dead, broken up, dismembered. Until it’s dead, they want it compliant and docile. And the BBC has played right into their hands.

Firstly, it’s the nature of such people that they are never satisfied with concessions — they just gobble up the offering thrown at them and demand the next one; their hatred never lessens.  

I have said before that the truth is not the midpoint between a fact and a lie. But the BBC has found it necessary to construct ‘he says this, but she says that’ narratives that leave its audiences under the impression that there are legitimate debates to be had on subjects where one side deals with facts, knowledge, and peer-reviewed science, and the other side invokes fact-free opinions.

This was all very painfully evident during the Brexit campaign and its aftermath; and of course during the pandemic, when guests of the calibre of Darren Grimes and Toby Young were invited onto programmes so that their opinions could ‘balance’ the evidence-based science of doctors and researchers.

But possibly the most notorious instance (in a very competitive field) was the decision taken by Radio 4’s Today programme in 2017 to balance the combined evidence-based and peer-reviewed factual knowledge of the world’s climate scientists with the opinion of former Conservative Chancellor, Lord Nigel Lawson.

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And climate change has come up as a theme once again. Even as the row about Lineker was unfolding, the Guardian reported that an episode of Sir David Attenborough’s new (and last) series, Wild Isles, would only be available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Quoting “an insider”, the report said that the BBC had “bowed to pressure from lobbying groups with ‘dinosaurian ways’”, fearing that the programme’s message was too “political”. Reading between the lines, it feared a backlash from the right-wing press and Conservative MPs.

The BBC denied the story, pointing to a press release from last August which made it clear that Wild Isles was always going to be a five-part series and that the sixth episode “is a separate film inspired by the series that was commissioned by the RSPB and WWF. We’ve acquired it for iPlayer”.

It is clear that there are some “insiders” who do not like that decision, though I haven’t any direct knowledge of that. Whatever happened, it looked like the BBC had decided to have a go at Sir David Attenborough, a man held in higher regard than just about anyone else I can think of, on the same day that it had decided to have a go at another national treasure, Gary Lineker.

The MOTD presenter had outraged the right-wing press and some of the usual suspects among the Conservative Party by criticising the language used by Home Secretary Suella Braverman while talking about her Illegal Immigration Bill in a tweet. The Mail, Express, Telegraph and Sun, cheered on by commentators like Julia Hartley-Brewer and Carole Malone, ran the story on their front pages for days and, in the end, the BBC caved, saying Lineker had “stepped back” from presenting MOTD (sources close to Lineker said he hadn’t stepped back but was taken off air as he was unwilling to apologise for his tweet).

Lineker was immediately supported by MOTD pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, and by other freelancers. In the end, the BBC ended up showing a humiliating 20-minute comment-free compilation of match highlights instead of the usual Saturday night programme.

All of this was because, in the words of Director-General Tim Davie (a former Conservative Party politician), the BBC was “delivering on impartiality”.

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The fact is, though, that Lineker’s tweets had not broken any rules. As Rory Bremner has pointed out, referencing the BBC’s ‘presenter guidelines’, “the risk is lower where an individual is expressing views publicly on an unrelated area, for example, a sports or science presenter expressing views on politics or the arts’”.

Even more embarrassingly, other freelance BBC presenters – for example Andrew Neil and Lord Alan Sugar – have previously expressed right-wing opinions with no resulting action from the corporation’s management.

Lord Sugar, host of the long-running Apprentice, made frequent high-profile criticisms of then Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and said he would “leave the country” if Corbyn won a general election. In 2018, Sugar even posted a mocked-up image on Twitter showing Corbyn travelling in a car with Hitler.

Meanwhile, Neil – at a time when he was one of the BBC’s main political interviewers – actually published a right-wing magazine, the Spectator, which frequently attacks centre-left politicians and policies. Neil only left the BBC’s airwaves when he quit to help found GB News – he was never taken off air by BBC management. The BBC routinely responded to complaints about Neil’s off-screen opinions with a formula that made clear Neil was a freelancer and that the BBC was not responsible for views he expressed on his personal Twitter account.

But what’s sauce for the conservative Neil’s goose is apparently not sauce for the liberal Lineker’s gander. If it means anything at all, impartiality should mean fairness. But that is not how the BBC has implemented it in recent years, even as it has been trumpeting how important it is.  

It is worth re-stating that the BBC got itself into this mess because it is terrified of the right-wing press and the Conservative Government, and has stooped to unprecedented depths of cowardice to appease them. It has not earned the corporation any credit from its critics on the right.

All that has been achieved by this appeasement is the alienation and disappointment of the BBC’s natural support base – the people who actually believe in and value public service broadcasting; the people who like being treated like an intelligent audience.

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And then, of course, there’s the continuing problem of the BBC’s Chairman, Richard Sharp.

‘Impartial’ is not a word that can be applied to Sharp, who has donated £400,000 to the Conservatives; helped to facilitate an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, a personal friend, who was just about to appoint him as Chairman, and – as Byline Times has revealed, personally given tens of thousands of pounds to groups funding criticism of the BBC.

Sharp may be BBC Chairman, but he’s no friend of the corporation.

In other times, with other prime ministers making the choice, the fact that Sharp had donated money to organisations hostile to the BBC’s very existence would have barred him from the job. But Boris Johnson, who as we know now was unhealthily close to Sharp, chose him knowing his hostility to the BBC – and he chose him not in spite of those views, but because of them.

Sharp has meddled in editorial affairs, even accusing the BBC of “liberal bias” in an interview with The Sunday Times in December. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Sharp was brought in to help bring the corporation down.

He clearly has to go, as does Tim Davie. The BBC’s leadership (if it can be called that) has brought the organisation into disrepute with its handling of a crisis it made itself. Ironically, in doing so, it has put itself in breach of its own guidelines. There has to be a clear out now and that means the departure of the Chairman, the Director-General and other figures who were chosen for their right-wing credentials, including Sir Robbie Gibb (then Prime Minister Theresa May’s director of communications).

They will have to be replaced by truly independent people whose only agenda is recreating a vigorous and genuinely independent public service broadcaster. This is vital for the restoration of Britain’s democratic institutions.

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The BBC has also got to get back to fair, honest reporting of facts and striving for the truth – rather than bending over backwards to air the views of charlatans in search of ‘impartiality’. It has to remember once again that the fair reporting of liars and lies involves calling them liars and lies.

In the long-term, the damage done to the BBC’s reputation by its failure (there’s no other word) to hold the most dishonest and incompetent series of British governments in modern history to account will be huge.

The BBC has been very badly hit by round after round of spending cuts over many years. The licence fee is inadequate to ensure a thriving and truly independent public broadcaster (by comparison, the German licence fee is around €220 annually and is topped up with advertising revenue), and a BBC that has lost the trust of what were its most enthusiastic supporters will find it harder to argue for more secure funding.

And it’s all been done for the benefit of enemies who want it dead. And who now think they have moved a little closer to killing it.

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