The BBC must not allow the press to dictate its agenda

Perceived pressure from the press and politicians is impacting on the BBC’s news coverage. Those working inside the corporation must fight for its core values.

Monday, 15 June 2015 published by openDemocracy

The BBC promises to be independent, impartial and honest. These are glittering, noble ideas. They hover above the BBC like guiding lights, stars to reach for but never quite touch. They inspire the public’s trust. As a journalist working in BBC News and Current Affairs for four years those values were my master, the true bosses I strove to serve. Yet how those values are interpreted internally and externally is controversial and integral to the BBC’s battle for longterm survival.

Working for the BBC doesn’t mean that you undergo a lobotomy of your political views, as Andrew Marr memorably joked. My professional duty was to put personal opinions aside whilst reporting for the public. My role was to test all claims equally, submitting them to the same rigorous scrutiny. We all have a cognitive bias where we are quicker to accept facts and ideas that confirm our beliefs and prejudices and reject those that don’t. Working for the BBC means questioning yourself as much as your interviewees, checking that you are being fair to all sides, and listening closely to all.

Impartiality doesn’t mean neutrality. The investigative journalist Nick Davies provides a helpful example to illustrate this when he teaches. He says (and I paraphrase): If person A says it is raining and person B says it is sunny, many journalists will report just that. But a good journalist goes outside and checks, then reports which one is lying. Impartiality means treating all claims fairly, then verifying where possible.

Those two ideas formed the compass which I used to navigate every story. Treat all fairly and look unabashedly for the truth. Then one day I was debating an issue of representation in a documentary with an executive producer and assuring them that I was being impartial, when they said, “It’s not just about being impartial, it’s about being perceived to be impartial.” Those words cut me adrift. Such a nebulous job description drew us into uncertain territory. It implied second-guessing audience expectations. It conjured up a hall of mirrors liable to reflect back power and confirm pre-existing prejudices.

That observation – “It’s about being perceived to be impartial” – crystallised the complexity and vulnerability of the BBC’s task. The notion of impartiality is inherently social, political and cultural in its construction and interpretation. It demands an attentiveness to the forces that shape the public’s ‘perception’ of BBC coverage.

Newspapers are incredibly powerful and influential. I spent six months working for Newsnight around the 2010 election and was regularly frustrated by the degree to which newspapers framed daily debate and set the parameters of discussion. The morning meeting at Newsnight routinely involved discussing the day’s papers. When briefing Newsnight presenters for interviews, one would discuss a range of questions but normally the ones asked would follow the same lines that had been pursued all day. This kept discussions maddeningly narrow. Justin Lewis has highlighted1 how the BBC was press-ganged during the 2015 election by a print media overwhelmingly in favour of the Conservatives and against Labour. The BBC too often allows a partisan press to set the agenda, serving to amplify their power, rather than provide a check on it. This is especially concerning when you consider who owns our major titles and the power of advertising contracts. Veiled private interests distort public debate.

The BBC also tends to be prejudiced towards official sources. Journalists appeared more willing to report official lines verbatim and with less scrutiny, granting them superior status. Claims from members of the public or pressure groups were more likely to be treated with scepticism and tested. This propensity allows the BBC to be used as a foghorn by politicians to trumpet their own messages, which happened most egregiously in the build-up to the Iraq war.

The Daily Mail haunts the corridors of the BBC. I worked on a number of films examining England’s 2011 riots, investigating the motivations of people who took part in the disorder in an attempt to understand how and why they occurred. My BBC bosses were aware that we were doing this in the context of a condemnatory press environment that appeared to be biased against understanding. Editorial decisions were taken whilst imagining how they would be interpreted by the Daily Mail. Fortunately (and to its credit) the BBC still made these films, despite the anticipated criticisms, but the Mail’s spectre was ever-present. The irony is that by pandering to such fears, the BBC further constricts the public’s ability to understand events out of their comfort-zone and makes the world appear more mysterious, divided and terrifying – fuelling the very atmosphere the Mail thrives on. And so it goes on.

The BBC must not allow the press or political parties to dictate the agenda. It should be a bastion of independence, impartiality and honesty. To borrow a satirical job title from the spoof W1A, if I was ‘Director of Better’2 I would make a few recommendations for how the BBC could better champion its values.

A fun start would be to commission a television series examining ‘Impartiality at the BBC’ over the ages. Watch a documentary from the Sixties and you’re likely to find presenters using far more moralistic language than they would today. I remember coming across a programme where the presenter made comments to the camera such as ‘How do they sleep at night? It’s just not fair.’ We had a different prevailing orthodoxy and the BBC’s reporting of the time reflected that. There is a great opportunity for a deep public thinker to examine BBC reporting styles across the decades, shedding light on the embedded norms of each age that go unquestioned. That lens could bring our current reportage into sharper focus.

BBC journalists need to be stronger in thinking independently and leading, rather than following, the pack. They must also be willing to argue their case internally, fighting for stories that matter. Climate change ought to be one of the biggest stories now that we’re approaching serious atmospheric tipping points, with politicians consistently challenged over whether their plans are commensurate to future threats. The BBC should extend the realms of debate and heighten public dialogue, not collude in its diminishment.

The BBC should routinely disclose the financial interests of its interviewees when relevant to the matters that they’re discussing on air, as the journalist George Monbiot has argued3. For example, Alan Milburn should not be allowed to praise the Health and Social Care Act without the BBC disclosing to the audience his direct interests in the private healthcare industry4. This information shouldn’t preclude him from speaking or invalidate his opinion, but it’s certainly pertinent information which should be passed on to viewers. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC must take its duty to inform its audience more seriously, highlighting potential conflicts of interest.

I was always incredibly proud to say that I worked for the BBC. I love what it stands for. When an organisation aspires to uphold great values, it will inevitably fall short. Yet the ideal of an honest, independent and impartial broadcaster, unbeholden to commercial interests, is more valuable than ever. The BBC’s leaders need the vision and conviction to push against a skewed media field. This is no time to play safe; the BBC must distinguish itself through its public service remit and be bolder about shooting for those stars.