The BBC’s ‘News, Politics and Current Affairs’ output isn’t fit for purpose ~ if it is to be trusted, it needs a complete overhaul ~ The Long Read

Today Programme, Wednesday 6th May, 7:45PM. Time for a look at the Papers. Justin Webb and Martha Kearney proceed to take us through the ‘headlines’. As they note, plastered across the front pages of the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun are photographs of the Government’s key scientific advisor and esteemed epidemiologist, Professor Neil Ferguson following the news of his resignation after he broke the lockdown restrictions to meet his married lover.

Then, Kearney proceeds to the Guardian’s headline. So, the Guardian’s actual headline read ‘UK Coronavirus death toll is now the worst in Europe’. Yet, despite reading out the other newspapers headlines in full, including the Sun’s typically grotesque and unnecessary ‘Prof Lockdown broke lockdown to get his trousers down’ with the sub-heading ‘Boris boffin and married blondie’, Kearney claims the Guardian’s headline is about new research by Exeter University on Otters and why they play with pebbles and small rocks.

Yes, I’m being serious. When you listen to it and watch the video handily put up by Novara Media on Twitter but since unfortunately deleted, you have to remind yourself that it’s not a clip from the Day Today or Brass Eye. No that is the Today Programme, BBC Radio’s flagship current affairs show. Now, despite the fact that the Guardian should be preparing some sort of defamation lawsuit, this example is but one small pebble on a long pebbly beach.

Time and time again, we see examples of the BBC’s abandonment of their charter rules on impartiality and the revolving door between BBC journalism and British Conservatism. When these examples pop up, its less casual mistake or ‘human error’, and more the mask briefly slipping.

The Guidelines

In Section 4.3.10 and 4.3.11 of the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality, the rules about ‘News, Current Affairs and Factual output’ are made very clear:

4.3.10 News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument. The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality. 

4.3.11 Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC – they can have a significant impact on perceptions of whether due impartiality has been achieved. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal opinions of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views on such matters publicly, including in any BBC-branded output or on personal blogs and social media. 

The commitment to impartiality is clear and straight forward, and after the BBC were heavily criticised over their 2019 General Election coverage Fran Unsworth, Director of News and Current Affairs wrote a piece in the Guardian defending the commitment to “protect” the BBC’s “precious” impartiality. She puts the accusations of bias in favour of the Conservative Party down to “conspiracy theories” and claimed that “editorial mistakes” are not emblematic of a wider agenda.

Honestly, its not good enough. The ‘mistakes’ happen far too often to be simple human error, and even if that were the whole truth then HR would have to start making some decisions about the supposed professionals they’ve hired. How could simple human error explain what happened with the example above from the Today programme? It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the Ferguson story had been leaked by CCHQ or Downing Street as cover for the devastating news that the UK’s Covid-19 death toll is the worst in Europe and second worst in the world. Politics is a dirty business, and the one thing that can bury a good story is another, more tantalising story. They know that because as we shall see, the revolving door between journalism and the Conservative Party is pretty much open all of the time.

The Road from Oxbridge

Martha Kearney, Adam Fleming, Evan Davis, Nick Robinson, Norman Smith, Jo Coburn, Fiona Bruce and Ben Brown all Oxford. Chris Mason, Emily Maitlis, Mishal Husain and Andrew Marr all Cambridge. This makes up a large majority of the BBC’s news, politics and current affairs team so the road from Oxbridge to the heights of the BBC are clear. What do you think that does to an institution like the BBC? How will that affect the worldview of the people entrusted to deliver impartial news and political interpretation to the nation?

Now, in no am I saying that going to Oxford or Cambridge automatically makes you some sort of raging mouthpiece for Tory ideology and therefore is totally discrediting. Andrew Marr in fact admits to having been a fervent Maoist whilst at Cambridge. Would certainly make the Andrew Marr Show more interesting if he periodically quoted the Little Red Book. All of the people listed above are good at what they do, and many of them I trust to deliver impartial news and information. But be in no doubt, these are Britain’s elite universities. It is not healthy in a free, democratic society with an independent press for the vast majority of the state broadcaster’s newsreaders, journalists and political and economic correspondents to have all gone to the same two, elite universities.

Not to mention the fact that only one of the people listed above is a person of colour. Diversity in journalism matters. How are we to trust that the BBC is representative of all people in the UK, when in 2019 the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality (CBE) found that “at the current rate of increase (0.1% in the most recent year), it would take the production arm BBC Studios more than 40 years to achieve 14% BAME employment to match the current UK population; and by then, the BAME population is expected to be more than 20%.”

The BBC, and especially its news and political staff, cannot be an insular, undiverse group of people who were all chums at university. What does that say about social mobility in this country? Maybe if the BBC were more diverse, it would avoid the unprofessional laziness (or should I say professional laziness!) and casual racism of mislabelling pictures of Black Labour MP’s with the names of completely different Black Labour MP’s. Or maybe things like reporting on the death of Kobe Bryant whilst simultaneously paying tribute to his work by showing footage of LeBron James out on the basketball court, despite the fact that ‘James’ was clearly visible on the back of his Jersey. Or maybe it would stand by BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty when she expressed a personal anecdote about her view of people telling her to ‘go home’ as being racist, in relation to Donald Trump’s comments on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar. It wasn’t a direct-to-camera delivery of her opinion, it was a mere side comment to her co-presenter, Dan Walker about her own personal experiences of racism. Comedian, Nish Kumar had a very good response on this at the time.

Justin Webb of Today made some very interesting comments about the BBC in an interview on The Update Youtube channel, the online student newspaper of the International School of Geneva, La Châtaigneraie. Asked whether he thought the BBC prevented him from asking what he sees as the important questions, he answered thus:

Working for the BBC prevents you from developing yourself as an opinionated mover shaper of the world because the BBC is always ‘on the one hand on the other hand’. On the other hand, in a BBC way, maybe you’re better at doing your job if you’re thinking in those terms. I think the big danger of working for the BBC is that you see two sides of everything, including a thing where actually one side is plainly right and one side plainly wrong in the sense of true and false…I’m free to say what I think is the truth about what (Donald) Trump has done.

Thinking about the Munchetty example, if Webb’s opinion on the BBC were to be true, she wouldn’t have been disciplined in the unnecessary and alarming way that she was. A more inclusive and diverse BBC that was on top of its own standards would be better equipped to avoid issues like this occuring in the future.

The Revolving Door

The thing about the BBC is that it is criticised from both left and right. No matter how it is organized, who it is run by and who works for it, it will always be a scapegoat for those who wish it to be so. Yet one of the most alarming things about the BBC is the revolving door between it, the print media and the Conservative Party. There are countless examples but I shall whiz through some of them.

Robbie Gibb, former editor and executive producer of the BBC’s political programming output, was hired by Theresa May as Director of Communications in July 2017 – a role that James Landale, Old Etonian and former Times writer, now BBC Diplomatic correspondent – was also approached for. Gibb is a former Chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students and Chief-of-staff to former Tory MP and frontbencher, Francis Maude. He advised Michael Portillo during his run for Conservative Leader in 2001 before joining the BBC in 2002 as deputy editor of Newsnight. His remit included all of the BBC’s main political programmes including the Daily and Sunday Politics, the Andrew Marr Show, This Week and Radio 4’s Westminster Hour. Oh, and he’s the brother of Tory MP and Schools Minister, Nick Gibb.

Nick Robinson, former Political Editor of the BBC and now host of the Today programme, has a similar past. He was elected President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1985 and served as National Vice Chair of the Young Conservatives from 1985 to 1987 and Chairman from 1987 to 1988.

Other notable links between the BBC and the Conservatives include Craig Oliver, former controller of the BBC World Service and World News, who became David Cameron’s Director of Communications in 2011 until 2016. Thea Rogers, former senior producer in BBC Politics became a special advisor, spin doctor and then Chief of Staff to George Osborne whilst he was Chancellor. Chris Patten, former Conservative Cabinet Minister and Chairman of the Party, was Chairman of the BBC Trust between 2011 and 2014. And of course Michael Gove and Chris Grayling are ex-BBC.

The web between the Conservative Party and the BBC also includes another string, the print media. Now as we know, the print media in this country is dominated by Conservative-leaning papers owned by a small group of Conservative billionaires. This is the Telegraph, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the Times. All of these papers are aligned in some way or another with the Conservative Party agenda, and some even with UKIP and the further reaches of the Right.

Fran Unsworth’s predecessor James Harding, former Director of BBC News from 2012 to 2018 was Editor of the Times from 2007 to 2012. When former BBC Economics editor Stephanie Flanders left for a £400,000-a-year job at JP Morgan, she was replaced by Robert Peston, then BBC Business Editor who was in turn replaced by Kamal Ahmed, a writer for the Sunday Telegraph. The links between the BBC, the Conservatives, big business and the print media are there for all to see, which takes us on nicely to Andrew Neil.

Neil is someone not unused to controversy surrounding his political opinions which he has no qualms about sharing, despite being the darling and poster-boy for BBC Politics for the last two decades. At university, he was a member of the Glasgow Conservative Club before becoming Chair of the Federation of Conservative Students in 1971. He worked as a researcher for the Conservative Party before leaving politics to join the the Sunday Times as Editor, supposedly handpicked by Murdoch himself over other more experienced journalists.

During his tenure from 1983 to 1994, he made many a questionable decision. Probably the most outrageous being employing notorious Holocaust denier David Irving to translate the diaries of Joseph Goebbels. What a guy. He was a founder member of Sky TV in 1988 and briefly worked for Fox in the USA before becoming Editor-in-chief of the billionaire Barclay brothers ‘Press Holdings’ Group in 1996, the group that owned the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and the right-wing Spectator magazine.

Neil remains Chairman of the Spectator, as well as its U.S. and Australian versions and the Art Magazine, Apollo whilst remaining at the BBC as one of its main political presenters. How I’m not sure but Neil acts as a perfect example of the problems at the BBC. Former editors of the Spectator include Conservative Chancellor under Thatcher, Nigel Lawson as well as Thatcher’s official biographer and Telegraph writer, Charles Moore and of course, none other than Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson our PM. Its current Commissioning Editor is Mary Wakefield, the wife of Johnson’s Chief of Staff and most senior advisor, Dominic Cummings. The web is vast and truly astonishing.

So, is it fair to say that impartiality at the BBC is well and truly dead, considering the countless and exhaustive (yeah sorry!) links between the organisation, the Tory Party, the Billionaire-owned print media and big business? I should think so. Nowhere else was this more notable than in last years general election.

The 2019 Election

It was the first December election since 1923, and the stakes were high. Johnson vs Corbyn. Brexit vs Remain, Liberalism vs Socialism vs Conservatism. As a Labour member, I knew it would be trouble. Lo and behold, on December 12th Boris Johnson and the Conservatives remained in power with an 80-seat majority, decimating Labour in its ‘heartland’ seats in the Midlands and the North – the so-called ‘Red Wall’. It was an astonishing victory.

Not without the help of the BBC.

The BBC made such a litany of poor editorial judgements in its election coverage that for weeks afterwards, it came under a sustained barrage of attacks and criticism. There was the time that Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston falsely reported that a Labour activist had punched a Tory aide outside Leeds General Hospital, repeating the claim verbatim from Tory sources. It was quickly debunked and they were forced to apologize.

Andrew Marr lost control of an interview with Johnson, allowing him to carry on shouting over him and “chuntering” like a school child, without slapping him down. The BBC received over 12,000 complaints. Despite grilling every other party leader, the BBC failed to make Boris Johnson do an interview with Andrew Neil because Unsworth claimed the “logistics were highly complex”. Can’t imagine why.

At the Question Time Leaders Special, Johnson was laughed at by the audience when he claimed that it was important for politicians to tell the truth. Yet, when the BBC covered the story the next morning the laughter was edited out. This happened again when Johnson made a mistake laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, and the BBC decided to replace the footage with archive footage from 2016 of him laying the wreath. Unsworth later claimed that suggestions of some sort of agenda behind these decisions were “fanciful”. Again, can’t imagine why.

On election day, Kussenburg got in serious trouble again. Her and the BBC were issued a warning from the Electoral Commision after revealing on live TV that she had been told that the postal votes already counted “painted a grim picture for Labour”, a potential violation of electoral law.

What do the above examples reveal about the BBC, its staff and its practices? Well to me, there’s only one grim picture being painted here. The rate at which the BBC makes such flagrant violations of its own code of conduct on impartiality, you can see why people begin to lose trust. A loss of trust that is not only dangerous to the BBC, but dangerous in terms of weakening the fabric of the free and democratic society that the UK should strive to be. And with this, as with many other issues, we must turn to Marx.

The Base and the Superstructure

Below is a summary of the data found in the 2019 ‘Who Owns the UK Media?’ report by the Media Reform Coalition:

This report shows that just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach) dominate 83% of the national newspaper market (up from 71% in 2015). When online readers are included, just five companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group, Reach, Guardian and Telegraph) dominate nearly 80% of the market, slightly up from our last report. In the area of local news, just five companies (Gannett, Johnston Press [whose titles were later bought by JPIMedia], Trinity Mirror, Tindle and Archant) account for 80% of titles (back in 2015, six companies had the same share). Two companies have 46% of all commercial local analogue radio stations and two-thirds of all commercial digital stations.

No wonder then that in 2016, LSE professors found that in Jeremy Corbyn’s first two months as Labour Leader, 75% of press coverage misrepresented him, his actions and his beliefs. Bart Cammaerts, Associate Professor and PhD Director at LSE who helped compile the report wrote in the Independent at the time, “the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), newspapers are obliged to ‘make a clear distinction between comment, conjecture and fact’”. What their findings revealed is that with Corbyn, the most left-wing leader of the Labour Party since Michael Foot, those standards always fell by the wayside.

In a country with such a concentrated print, digital and online media industry, it is paramount that the BBC lives and breathes its own standards on delivering impartial, unbiased, objective broadcast and analysis of the news. An Ipsos Mori poll in 2017 found that 57% of respondents would turn to the BBC as their trusted news source, meaning they hold a mighty level of respect and influence. And as our friendly, neighbourhood Spider-man would say, with great power comes great responsibility.

What I have discussed in this piece can be better understand by looking at the Marxist theory of the Base and the Superstructure in society. The theory portains that society consists of two structures which shape and maintain the other. The ‘Base’ comprises the ‘means, forces and relations of production’ in a Capitalist society, including workers conditions, their relation to employers and the division of capital and property rights. These then determine the other aspects of a developed society, including its law, its politics, its culture and of course its media.

So, thinking about everything I have looked at, especially the Media Reform Coalitions research into the grasp that big capital has over the UK media, is this not living proof of the Base-Superstructure in advanced, neo-liberal Capitalist society? Is the network of connections between the Conservative Party, the BBC, the mainstream media and big capital not evidence enough that the whole socio-political, economic and cultural ecosystem must be overhauled for the sake of freedom and democracy?

I think so.

Further reading –

Analysis: The Beeb, the bias and the bashing By Professor Ivor Gaber, Professor of Journalism at the University of Sussex

You’re right to worry about a revolving door between the Tories and the BBC By Dr Tom Mills, Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University and author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-media-bias-labour-mainstream-press-lse-study-misrepresentation-we-cant-ignore-bias-a7144381.html

BBC Breadth of Opinion Review: Content Analysis – Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies

Hard Evidence: How Biased is the BBC? – New Statesman, 2013

In its election coverage, the BBC has let down the people who believe in it – Peter Oborne

Who Owns the UK Media? – Report by Media Reform Coalition

IPSOS MORI poll on trust in the BBC

Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press: From Watchdog to Attackdog – LSE Report

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