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17 February 2021

The BBC and the battle for truth

Can the corporation save itself and the nation from fake news and culture wars? 

By Harry Lambert

When the pandemic struck and the UK entered lockdown for the first time, the BBC’s nightly news audiences surged to 15 million. Traffic to the BBC’s website in March 2020 almost doubled year on year. Boris Johnson’s No 10, which had briefed consistently against the corporation and refused to allow government ministers to appear on some of its flagship news programmes, suddenly understood how valuable it was to have a trusted, impartial national news source during an emergency. Leading on-air editors at the BBC watched with satisfaction as the government’s aggression evaporated.

Yet the BBC is an institution in perpetual peril, never more so than in this age of polarisation. The need for a detached, fact-led, impartial national broadcaster may be greater than ever, but the appetite for so neutral a service is quite possibly getting weaker by the year. In a crisis, the British turned to the BBC. Over time, however, we have been tuning it out. While its reach is almost universal in the UK, people are spending less time with the broadcaster. In an increasingly emotional news world, the BBC can never be anyone’s echo chamber.

If the BBC cannot hold the nation’s attention – or if its top journalists fail to distinguish fact from fiction, or become propagandists – it is not only the broadcaster who may suffer. As the recent Capitol riots in Washington, DC made plain, once a society stops believing in a common set of facts, democracy itself is at risk. The BBC, arguably an anti-competitive and over-powerful broadcaster, is also one of Britain’s unique defences against the rampant spread of lies online. It has many critics. But few agree with the hard-line elements of Johnson’s Tory party who want it defunded. Most political observers want it saved and strengthened. Geoff Mulgan, who ran Tony Blair’s No 10 policy unit in the early 2000s, explains the BBC’s role to me: “We are in a war for truth. The battle between truth and lies is so fundamental that it has to precede any other priority.”

[Hear more from Harry Lambert on the New Statesman podcast]

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***

One recent morning I spoke to Tim Davie, who became the BBC’s 17th director-general last September. In his first print interview as director-general, Davie – fit and energetic at 53, a former PepsiCo marketing man originally drafted into the BBC in 2005 to disrupt its staid ranks – struck a bullish but thoughtful tone. “You cannot disentangle real-life events from what is happening in the media,” he told me as we discussed the Capitol Hill riots. “The idea that you can isolate events online or in the media from behaviour on the ground has been fully dispelled by recent events.”

The society one lives in, Davie said, follows directly from the media environment one lives under. In a media world as polarised as in the US, “by definition you have a more fractured society”. In America conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats entirely distrust each other’s most valued source of news: Fox and CNN. In Britain, by contrast, the licence fee that funds the BBC (it raised £3.5bn in 2019-20) ensures almost everyone engages with it. But Davie knows Britain could fracture too. “More and more people in our research think that every [news] source is biased. This is a threat to all of us.”

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Mark Thompson, a predecessor of Davie’s as BBC director-general, hired Davie in 2005 and later worked in the US’s polarised news media. Having been CEO of the New York Times Company from 2012 to 2020, Thompson now sees the BBC’s role all the more clearly. “The BBC is more or less unique in constantly confronting its audiences with ideas, cultures and lived experiences which are radically different from their own,” he told me. At a time when media companies are targeting ever more specific audiences, the BBC alone offers universality. “Like an NHS waiting room, you find yourself sitting next to all sorts. It’s one of the most valuable contributions the BBC makes to life in the UK.” That would, Thompson has emphasised, be an enormous thing to lose.

[see also: Why the Foxification of the British media must be resisted]

Davie is alive to the threat facing both the BBC and Britain. In the short term, he says, a media world more like the US’s can “clearly prove attractive”. The past 20 years have shown how successfully news organisations – such as Fox in the US, which Davie is reluctant to discuss – can profit by arousing their viewers’ most easily felt emotions: dislike, hate, fear. (Davie is equally uninterested in discussing two forthcoming UK news providers, GB News and News UK TV, telling me, “It’s not for us to rail against polarised sources.”) In the long run, however, Davie believes polarised media poses “fundamental questions about what kind of society we’re building”.

That is a perennial concern in British broadcasting. The BBC has long appealed by offering an alternative to so fractured a news environment, and Davie’s belief in the BBC’s mission is unshaken. “I have faith in the ability of people when they come together to thrash through issues. And I think when you don’t get that, the whole concept of reaching consensus becomes much more difficult.” But he knows the world is shifting. He sums up the problem: “I think there are many people who question the realism and validity of an impartial brief in and of itself.”


At the helm: Tim Davie became the BBC’s 17th director-general in September 2020. Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On the night of the 2019 general election, as Davie absorbed what Johnson’s victory might mean for the BBC, he was at a party with friends, and told some of those there that the broadcaster’s reach mattered above all else. At the time, as now, the BBC’s services were used by more than 90 per cent of the UK population each week. So long as that figure remained so high, said Davie, the BBC’s future was secure. But reach may not be enough. As Thompson has noted, media outlets now need to build a deep relationship with those they reach. If your engagement with the BBC is little more than occasional, will you be happy to be forced to pay for it in order to watch live television?

At first glance, Davie faces a hostile political climate. Johnson is poised to appoint Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail editor and BBC scourge, as the chair of Ofcom, the broadcast regulator. Julian Knight, the chair of the select committee that oversees the corporation, is a noted BBC sceptic who has called the licence fee an “anachronism in a world of choice”. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, has said the “old model [of a licence fee] simply cannot sustain [itself]”.

For many Tories, the BBC appears to be nothing more than an all-but-mandated consumer luxury: an idea that buckles under its own contradictions.

[see also: After 26 years editing the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre will be bored to tears by Ofcom red tape]

But this narrow view, which sees the BBC as merely a Netflix competitor, rather than a provider of invaluable public goods, from news to education, is far from dominant in the Tory party. I am told it holds little weight on the committee that Knight chairs. Damian Green, a Conservative MP who serves on it, believes that there is “absolutely no public demand” for impairing the corporation. “Chucking away the BBC because you can get Twitter,” he said, “would be an act of national idiocy.”

Whatever bluster Dacre might bring to the role of Ofcom chair, the public does not share his antipathy towards the public service broadcaster, which he hopes to defang. When Britons were asked last March who they would choose as a trusted news source, 62 per cent of those surveyed chose the BBC, eight times as many as chose the next outlet, Sky. One per cent of those surveyed chose Dacre’s old paper, the Daily Mail. The BBC is, as Green pointed out to me, far more popular than the Tory party. When I spoke to Greg Dyke, Thompson’s immediate predecessor as BBC director-general, he said that the BBC is “in quite a safe position”. The corporation is most popular, Dyke noted, in “Tory parts of the south of England”. That is, he said, why Margaret Thatcher never seriously threatened the licence fee, despite her dislike of the corporation.

Even John Whittingdale, Johnson’s minister for media, has conceded that the BBC cannot, for purely technical reasons, be moved on to a subscription model for some time, making it likely that the licence fee will be renewed when the BBC’s ten-year charter comes up in 2027. Johnson’s backing of Dacre as Ofcom chair is far less consequential than his recent appointment of Richard Sharp, an urbane and non- combative fixture of establishment boards, as chair of the BBC itself. The immediate threats to the BBC are less harsh than they at first appear.

***

The BBC may be secure in the short run. But the dangers that imperil it over time are not only political. The larger problem the corporation faces, one that Tim Davie is less concerned by, is the quality of its journalistic scrutiny and the nature of its news coverage. Many journalists both inside and outside the corporation believe that the BBC is, despite its many qualities, falling short of its mandate to report news that is both trusted and enlivening.

“Does the BBC,” says Sarah Sands, who was editor of Radio 4’s Today programme from 2017 to 2020, “always have to be the dull husband? I had to get used to the lack of appetite for mischief.” A prominent on-air BBC editor describes the attitude of BBC News chiefs towards controversial news as: “Don’t get us into trouble, and maybe hold power to account, if there’s space left over,” a view that senior BBC executives reject when I put it to them. “You don’t get any points for trouble,” says a former programme editor. “Trouble gets a director-general fired.”

To understand the state of BBC journalism today, I spoke to 20 leading journalists and media executives, many of them current or former employees: senior programme editors, on-air presenters and reporters, and past heads of BBC news, radio and online. Many requested anonymity to speak openly, including those who have left the corporation but remain in the industry.

As a group they describe a broadcaster facing a unique set of constraints that limit the editorial freedom of its journalists. They also think the BBC is hindering itself. The criticisms, offered not by BBC sceptics but by concerned supporters, are myriad: politicians are not pressed hard enough on the implications of facts that BBC journalists uncover; the broadcaster’s political team has an overbearing influence on its coverage; and the most forthright BBC reporters lack institutional support.

Ofcom itself, the BBC’s regulator, has called on the BBC to “have the confidence to be bolder in its approach to due impartiality”. Its research has shown that “audiences had respect for the calibre of the BBC’s journalism and expected its reporters to investigate, analyse and explain events”.

[see also: Leader: The future of the BBC]

Yet many observers say that the corporation’s news coverage, in its bulletins and on its website, is too often insipid, unchallenging and unsurprising. At the same time, the BBC’s more incisive news programmes, such as Today on Radio 4 and Newsnight on BBC Two, are at risk of being under-funded in the coming years due to budget cuts.

Power inside the corporation is, amid the pressure of cuts, draining away from individual programmes and being centralised under Newsgathering, the BBC unit that produces the broadcast bulletins, such as the BBC News at Six and Ten. Newsgathering also oversees the corporation’s political operation, based in Millbank. Despite criticism, the leading news and political coverage being offered at present is only likely to become more prominent.

BBC news chiefs, whose predecessors thrived by empowering editors to bring character to their programmes, now talk of the BBC operating more like CNN. Reporters have been centrally coordinated. Coverage may become increasingly monolithic. Roger Mosey, a former head of Today and BBC Television News, fears that programmes are being left to survive on a “dollop of Newsgathering gruel”.

Mark Thompson points out that ambitious journalists “always complain” about centralisation, but several of those I spoke to fear the new structure has only served to put decision-making in the hands of a few individuals. If democracy continues to fracture, the BBC’s unifying role is likely to grow. The few journalists who determine the shape of the BBC’s news stories will hold an awesome responsibility.

***

Is the BBC living up to its outsized role? A rival news executive is underwhelmed by the corporation given its scale, budgets and power. It is, they say, a “hugely well-funded news organisation”, despite the recent cuts, with a television news budget in 2019-20 of £348m. Radio and online services likely pushed its overall news funding budget towards £500m – a small portion of the £4bn that the BBC spent on broadcasting that year, most of it funded by the licence fee. But the executive thinks the BBC did very little “real revelatory investigative journalism” during the first wave of coronavirus last year. “They have an enormous network all over the country. Why was it the Daily Mail that was telling us more about what was happening?”

The BBC’s coverage was extensive. But it was rarely critical. Craig Oliver, a former BBC News editor and David Cameron’s director of communications in No 10, told me that the corporation itself “lives in fear of a page lead in the Mail, when actually it should realise it is the biggest news institution in the country”.

A former BBC executive who has run various parts of its news coverage thinks the BBC should be more willing to accept the risk inherent in spelling out its stories. “Obviously there’s jeopardy, but surely that’s what you’ve gone into journalism to do: to find stuff out and reveal things.”

In the run-up to the first wave of the pandemic, Fergus Walsh, the BBC’s medical editor, was quick to warn – on 24 February, a month before the UK locked down – that data from “South Korea, Iran and Italy point to the early stages of a pandemic. This means a global outbreak.” But Walsh’s observation was not followed by a rigorous examination by the BBC’s political team. A fortnight later, on 9 March, the lead story on the BBC News website offered little more than this analysis: “A significant outbreak is on its way but the government and its advisers believe they can limit its impact by taking the right steps at the right time.” There was no judgement as to whether this belief was plausible, or of how little the government initially planned to limit the spread of the virus.

The BBC website’s Covid coverage was typical of its online newsroom journalism: it offered an excellent level of extremely basic analysis. The online coverage supplied by the BBC’s broad-based team of journalists – who know much more than they file for the website – tends to be restricted to the stating of precise facts. But these facts are seldom analysed or put together. The irony is that the BBC employs some of the best journalists in Britain, but many of them offer much more analysis on their Twitter accounts than on the BBC’s website. The BBC’s formal approach online and in its news bulletins rarely capitalises on its journalists’ ability to make finely balanced judgements, or to develop the stories they break.

There is disappointment among many industry journalists that the BBC does not provide more forceful coverage of political inaction and failure. But there are good reasons why the BBC’s coverage is limited. For one, political campaigners have spent years policing the broadcaster. One such campaigner, Dominic Cummings, called in 2004 for “a very intense and well-funded campaign” against the BBC, whose “very existence” should be challenged. “It is crucial,” Cummings wrote, “that BBC programmes are monitored and complaints made.”

Cummings is now irrelevant, but the effects of his campaign live on. One on-air BBC editor recalls interviewing a Tory MP in recent months and being wary of correcting them. The MP was plainly wrong, but time was short and the MP was part of a panel. Skewering them in isolation may have sparked complaint. The editor thinks that a pernicious idea has taken told, “that the basic accountability of demanding factual responses is somehow heavily biased”.

This is not the way scrutiny is supposed to work. But pressure from campaigners has encouraged the BBC to adopt a view of impartiality that some think is defensive and passive. In theory, smart rules apply. Jonathan Munro, recently made deputy director of BBC News after six years as head of Newsgathering, described them in a recent interview. The BBC, he said, is bound by “due impartiality”, which means that “if reasonable people can hold an alternative view [on a subject] then it is contested, in which case impartiality kicks in full throttle”. He went on to compare flat Earth theory (unreasonable for debate) with Brexit (reasonable).

Yet this formulation may be all but meaningless in practice. Who is a reasonable person and what constitutes an alternative view? Most of the issues debated on the BBC are much more like Brexit than flat Earth theory. The way the BBC navigates these issues in reality would be best described as “camp impartiality”. For the BBC, impartiality begins not when reasonable people can disagree but when reasonably well armed political camps might do so. Tim Davie alluded to this when we spoke. Impartiality becomes more difficult to achieve, he said, when you move on to issues “less delineated by traditional political factions, or traditional political lines”.

On most issues, the BBC is under pressure to split the difference between the UK’s most vocal political groups, typically the two major parties. Some decry this as creating a false equivalence, as in the 2016 EU referendum debate, when untruths pushed by the Leave campaign – such as mass Turkish migration to the UK if Britain remained in the EU – were not countered by the BBC. A leading on-air BBC presenter is frank: “We still don’t know how to deal with politicians who’ve discovered that they profit from lying.”

The problem for the BBC is that while splitting the difference between political camps can be misleading, it is also a rational approach for its journalists to take. “We used to make programmes and have no real idea what the audience thought,” says a former BBC documentary maker. “We would get a few mad letters in green ink.”

But in an era of social media, reaction is instant and overwhelming. The possible furore over any misstep in one’s coverage outweighs the benefits of boldly holding power to account. The campaign to self-censor presenters has worked.

When I raise this with Davie, he pushes back. “I would hope that we are able to absolutely use facts to call out those people who are simply misrepresenting the truth.” BBC editors, he said, “do have a role to play in saying where the facts sit, and to interpret those facts in terms of their implications”. Due impartiality, he stressed, “is not simply about giving equal weight to two sides. It is about strong editorial authorship, and an active pursuit of the truth. And that requires editorial intervention.” What he does not want, and what he is most focused on avoiding at the BBC, is reporting with “a campaigning, opinionated lens”.

That campaigning lens is not always party political. BBC executives are keen to highlight the shift in balance since Davie’s arrival on the corporation’s website. In recent years “we were potentially drifting into quite a difficult place”, says a key figure in the newsroom. The corporation was being accused of “taking agendas on certain social issues” that, news editors believe, spoke only to a sliver of the British population. Executives want “someone sitting in a house in Liverpool” to feel as represented by the BBC as a younger London-centric audience motivated by identity politics. That, rather than the possible flaws of its approach to impartiality, is the focus.

[see also: Can the BBC survive in an age of fracture?]

***

A reporter adopting a campaigning lens may not, however, be the major threat to the BBC’s coverage. While the corporation needs to avoid giving a pulpit to avowed political activists, many observers say that the BBC’s hierarchy fails to recognise the shortcomings of some of its most empowered reporters. For BBC executives, what matters is a reporter’s intent. But it is possible to pursue impartiality in earnest and still err in doing so. “So often the BBC is just the mouthpiece of the government,” says a leading industry news executive. “When people say the BBC is left wing or right wing, it’s much more that they don’t dare to stand up to the government of the day.”

Another industry rival thinks that the BBC’s political team has a fear of “biting the hand that feeds”. The editor thinks this misguided: the BBC is far more politically powerful than it realises. It will always be the first outlet picked to ask a question at every government press conference. Craig Oliver, in describing his time as Downing Street director of communications, tells me “the BBC by a factor of ten was the important media institution in the country. If it wasn’t reporting things the way you wanted, you were in trouble.”

When I raised the role of Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor since 2015, with a fellow on-air BBC editor, they complimented her “straight down the middle” approach to reporting. Kuenssberg is unquestionably free of a “campaigning lens”. But other observers think her tendency to report news from Downing Street without sufficient context risks giving political activists – such as Cummings, during his time in No 10 – a platform for spreading disinformation.

During the December 2019 election, Kuenssberg was one of several journalists who shared a story briefed to them in bad faith – likely by the No 10 press team, run at the time by Cummings and Lee Cain, Johnson’s then press chief. When the story, which claimed that a Labour activist had punched a Tory adviser, proved to be false, Kuenssberg responded on Twitter: “Happy to apologiSe [sic] for earlier confusion about the punch that wasn’t a punch.”

The incident did not alter Kuenssberg’s tendency to carry the views of isolated sources on her Twitter account. When news of Cummings’s lockdown trip to Durham broke last May, Kuenssberg rapidly responded to the story on Twitter with the view of a single government source, who may have been Cummings. (When Cummings was later forced out of No 10 he released the news via Kuenssberg’s Twitter account; she did not challenge his unproven claim that he had departed willingly.)


Leading lady: the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg with Boris Johnson. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The “source” reassured Kuenssberg that the Durham trip was “within guidelines” – “they insist no breach of lockdown”, the BBC’s political editor informed her then 1.2 million followers without comment of her own. By not offering any pushback or analysis of her sourcing, Kuenssberg arguably risks legitimising wilfully inaccurate briefings, a danger she does not appear to consider significant.

In many ways, Twitter has become the front line of the news industry. A reporter’s tweets can define the BBC’s coverage, especially those from Kuenssberg, who has 25 times as many followers as her deputy. Too many BBC journalists, says Richard Sambrook, head of BBC News in the early 2000s, continue to think social media is “a slightly fun, informal thing”. In reality, he says, it is “a long way from that now. It’s a very serious and often toxic communication channel.”

The risks of a passive approach to impartiality are amplified on Twitter, but carrying quotes without comment has its pitfalls whatever the medium. The rival news executive who fears the BBC too often enables the government is scathing about the practice. “An exclusive,” they say, “is a story you got yourself, not something a politician gave you. You get it through something called journalistic endeavour, not a text sent to you at 10pm.”

Kuenssberg fulfils a big, important role, one that rival staff can find difficult. While she is personally liked by many at the BBC, there is a feeling among multiple on-air editors that Millbank – the political team she fronts – can at times under-promote the reporting of others, with one reporter describing Millbank’s hold on news coverage as “vice-like”.

Davie and other news executives have spoken of empowering their most senior journalists, but other leading reporters are unsure how much leeway they have to judge the facts. In the past they have found out only in retrospect. In May last year, Emily Maitlis, the corporation’s leading current affairs presenter, reported on Cummings’s lockdown trip and described him as having broken the government’s rules. After a flood of reaction, the BBC disowned her Newsnight judgement in a statement the next day. Maitlis’s bold phrasing was arguably justified: that week, one poll found that 80 per cent of Britons agreed that Cummings had broken lockdown rules, compared to 9 per cent who did not.

But the incident is not relevant for its details; it is relevant for what it revealed. When I spoke to a senior BBC News executive, they agreed that experienced BBC journalists should feel empowered “to call out a story. Not to give a personal view, but to say this is just not right. That’s not a breach of impartiality, that’s calling a story.” But by publicly refereeing Maitlis’s case BBC chiefs have, I am told, discouraged reporters from being forthright.

***

In 1985 Robin Day was interviewed by the BBC. For three decades Day had pressed politicians with a charming and insistent style, one that reshaped the BBC’s approach to impartiality. Impartiality, Day explained, had been a “passive concept” in 1955, shortly before he joined the BBC. “You didn’t offend either party,” he said, “you just did it very straight down the middle.” Day believed in a different model, in which he likened his role to that of a judge. It was not enough to say, “This man says this, this man says that,” he said, recognising the flaws of false equivalence. “You have to say, ‘But what is the truth of this matter?’” That was the price of a journalist’s privileged access to information.

“No politician can afford to say the whole truth,” John Cole, the BBC’s political editor from 1982 to 1991, noted in an interview of his own with the BBC in 1996. “So your job… is to dig beneath the surface and find out what’s going on.”

When I put these approaches to Tim Davie, the new director-general, he saw no gulf between them and that of his political team. The criticisms made by some of his own staff, others in the industry and the BBC’s own regulator have not yet resonated at the top of the corporation. Davie agreed that “it would be damaging for us if impartiality does become passive”. He wants “impartiality with strong editorial figures”, and thinks he has it in Laura Kuenssberg, who has the BBC’s support.

Those who wish for a more authoritative BBC are unlikely to get it. Clive James, speaking in 1977, offered a formula for the BBC that many wish to see again now: “You tell the government where it gets off, [and] you tell your broadcasters what they can and can’t do.” James’s demand then – “I’d like to see the BBC get the courage back of its convictions” – has its echoes today.

But as Ofcom noted last year, viewers are “increasingly avoiding spaces and programmes where their ideas are challenged”. Any fearless reporting by the BBC risks alienating different political camps. After Panorama, the long-running investigative programme, scrutinised anti-Semitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, support for the BBC among left-wing voters had fallen significantly a year later.

This is the bind the BBC is in. The corporation is fortunate to be led now by a skilled operator in Tim Davie; he knows it from the inside and has so far appeased the political camps the BBC must charm. The greater threat for the BBC, however, is that a detached pursuit of impartiality may be out of place in a world that wants stronger narrative and bolder opinion.

The BBC is operating under an unnerving reality in a hostile, polarised news environment. If its journalists strive to be bolder, what one person considers courageous will be to another nothing more than bias. And if its reporters eschew controversy altogether, the public may, as we move on from the pandemic, simply turn to news outlets offering more vivid representations of the world. That is a threat not only to the BBC, but to Britain itself.

[see also: “Avoiding debate is not good for democracy”: David Dimbleby on Boris Johnson and the BBC’s future]

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This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth