The BBC has a legal duty to “do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality”, to “ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence” and to distinguish opinion from fact clearly. On most subjects, the corporation fulfils these admirably, but there is one area where the guidelines are continually breached: the monarchy.
For the past 18 months, our national broadcaster has sought to promote the institution and its incumbent family and to join in the royal celebrations. Rather than act as an impartial commentator, the BBC has become cheerleader-in-chief for an institution that is controversial and contested.
One of the most notable examples of this was Andrew Marr’s recent documentary series looking at the Queen’s 60 years in office. Not one dissenting voice from the UK was included in the three-part programme and Marr’s presentation was that of a schoolboy in awe of his subject.
Some suggest that the BBC should represent the majority view – but that is exactly what it shouldn’t do. It has an obligation to present a variety of views so that it engages intelligently with its audience and provides insightful coverage of what is happening. What it must not do is abandon all pretence of impartiality.
It’s not entirely the BBC’s fault – and I strongly suspect that the problem is one of institutional and cultural bias, rather than deliberate conspiracy to silence dissent. The broadcaster’s other problem is that the royal household works hard to pressure and persuade broadcasters and journalists to give them favourable coverage. The palace has a well-oiled and well-funded PR operation and close links to newspaper editors and BBC executives. Its press officers are well versed in the practice of getting the media’s acquiescence by way of threats of exclusion or offers of exclusives. In the face of this pressure, the BBC must redouble its efforts to ensure balanced coverage of the monarchy and our head of state. Yet it does quite the opposite, going as far as to host and broadcast a celebratory concert for the Queen. The licence-fee-funded broadcaster simply has no business doing this.
If those at the palace want to hold a concert, that is entirely up to them; the BBC can report it and show part of its content. No one is suggesting that the BBC should ignore royal events. What it should not be doing is joining in.
Graham Smith is chief executive of the campaign group Republic