Leaked Whatsapps Destroy the BBC’s Impartiality Myth
Messages sent between BBC editors and reporters appear to confirm longstanding suspicions of a pro-Government bias inside the corporation, writes Adam Bienkov
Sign up for our weekly Behind the Headlines email and get a free copy of Byline Times posted to you
There have long been suspicions about the extent to which the BBC’s coverage is affected by Government pressure.
In some ways, such pressure is not surprising. As Britain’s biggest news organisation, politicians of all parties are inevitably keen to influence its coverage.
However, what has not been confirmed until today, is the extent to which BBC executives and editors have been willing to bend to what is described as this “chilling” pressure from Government.
Leaked WhatsApp and testimony from BBC whistleblowers to the Guardian suggest that the corporation has been regularly pushed into altering the nature of its coverage by Downing Street.
According to one insider at the corporation, “particularly on the website, our headlines have been determined by calls from Downing Street on a very regular basis”.
A source told the newspaper that “management appeared to be worried about losing access to politicians and briefings from No. 10 if they crossed the Downing Street operation”.
The Guardian also reveals how reporters at the BBC were told to be more critical of the Labour Party, following intervention from Downing Street.
One leaked WhatsApp from a senior editor read: “[Downing Street] complaining that we’re not reflecting Labour’s mess of plan b online. ie Ashworth said it earlier this week, then reversed. Can we turn up the scepticism a bit on this?”
Reporters were also congratulated for ignoring a critical story about then Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
One message to BBC political correspondents from 17 October 2020 read: “[XXX] did a wonderful job last night keeping us away from this story. I’d like to continue that distance. It’s not a story we should be doing at this stage. Please call me if you’re asked to.”
The BBC previously denied succumbing to such pressure when pushed by Byline Times.
Asked in 2021 about its obviously limited coverage of the Jennifer Arcuri story, a spokesperson told this newspaper that this was due to there being a shortage of “newsworthy updates” about it.
The Guardian also reveals how the BBC’s coverage of the pandemic was directly influenced by Downing Street, with reporters encouraged not to refer to the first lockdown as a “lockdown”, despite being widely referred to as such by other news organisations.
This tallies with research reported by Byline Times this week, revealing how the BBC and other broadcasters repeated Government messaging about herd immunity, prior to the first lockdown.
Observers have long commented on the BBC’s apparent reluctance to touch certain stories critical of the Government.
Two months ago, the corporation came under heavy criticism for failing to cover a story about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax arrangements, until three days after it was widely covered elsewhere.
The BBC also failed to lead on coverage of the ‘Partygate’ scandal, with its reporters mostly only belatedly confirming details broken by other news organisations, including ITV.
The BBC’s recent decision to force Gary Lineker off air following a tweet he sent criticising the Government’s asylum policy, also led to widespread criticism of the corporation’s apparent double standards when dealing with its presenters’ social media use.
Former political host Andrew Neil was given apparent leeway to express his political views on Twitter, as was the Apprentice host Lord Alan Sugar, in contrast to Lineker.
The leaking of Whatsapps from senior editors at the BBC reflects growing concern within the organisation about the political pressure being exerted on its news coverage from both inside and outside the organisation.
Insiders have long complained about an apparent pro-Government bias in the BBC’s Westminster coverage.
The appointment of former Conservative candidate and party official Tim Davie to the position of Director-General led to widespread criticism, as did the appointment of the Conservative donor Richard Sharp as Chairman.
Reports last month revealed how Sharp was given the position by Boris Johnson after he helped arrange an £800,000 loan for the former Prime Minister.
Former BBC journalist Lewis Goodall also spoke recently of how his life was made “very difficult” while at the corporation due to pressure on his coverage from BBC Board member Sir Robbie Gibb, who previously worked for former Prime Minister Theresa May.
However, such allegations have long been denied at the corporation, which insists that it is entirely impartial in its treatment of the Conservative Government and other political parties.
Today’s leaked communications from inside the BBC will make such denials much harder to maintain.
OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU
Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.
New to Byline Times? Find out more about us
SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION
A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.
Don’t miss a story! Sign up to our newsletter (and get a free edition posted to you)
Our leading investigations include: empire & the culture war, Brexit, crony contracts, Russian interference, the Coronavirus pandemic, democracy in danger, and the crisis in British journalism. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.