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13 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:17pm

How the BBC’s balance issue is alienating its supporters – just when it needs them most

The pursuit of balance breaks down when applied to people who have no interest in telling the truth, and who in fact set out to deliberately mislead.

By Patrick Howse

There’s been a lot of criticism of the BBC in the past week, culminating in a Twitter campaign, #BBCswitchoff, which encouraged people with concerns about its impartiality over a nebulous range of issues to turn off BBC TV and radio programmes. As a former BBC journalist I’d like to say something to those dissatisfied viewers and listeners; but as an “unashamed” Remainer, I’d also like to tell the BBC a few things too.

I left the corporation in 2014, following a 25-year career in which I was bureau chief in Baghdad between 2004 and 2009. The BBC was the only UK news organisation to maintain a presence in Iraq for the entire period of Britain’s involvement. I’m not citing myself as an outstanding exemplar of BBC journalism, but here’s a quick story.

In 2006 when the Askari Shrine in Samara was blown up, and the de facto civil war began in earnest, we were lied to by the authorities about the numbers of people killed in the wave of violence that followed. So we risked our lives to travel through militia checkpoints across a locked-down city and went to the morgue, and there I counted the bodies (many, many more than we were being told).

We did not do a perfect job in Iraq, but in great danger and at a very high personal cost, we told the story as fairly and accurately as was possible. And this is what BBC journalists do – every day, all around the world. In the same week we had a Twitter protest against the BBC, the superb Quentin Sommerville was reporting on Raqaa, something he’s done with distinction over recent months.

But the BBC does have problems that touch all parts of its news coverage, and the pursuit of “balance” is a good place to start looking at them.

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My suspicions about this were first raised on the morning that Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP, changed sides during the referendum campaign. She was outraged by the “£350m to the NHS” lie, and went on radio and television to explain why she was switching her support from Leave to Remain. Then, during the 8am Radio 4 news summary, the audience heard a clip of her saying the £350m claim was a lie – followed immediately afterwards by one of John Redwood saying it wasn’t. This was classic BBC balance in action.

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When you have people of goodwill and good intent discussing an issue from different sides, balance can be a useful tool: you tell both sides, and let the audience decide. It breaks down, though, when applied to people who have no interest in telling the truth, and who in fact set out to deliberately mislead. The result is a confused “he says this, but she says that” narrative that gives false equivalence to the truth and a pack of lies.

And Radio 4’s Today programme is one of the outlets that’s struggling to find its way through this.

The veteran Today presenter, John Humphrys,  is widely perceived by Remainers to be biased, and he doesn’t help himself in this regard when he uses words like “unashamed” to introduce Andrew Adonis, implying he should be ashamed to be a Remainer. But the problem with Today goes wider than Humphrys.

Let’s take climate change as an example. The vast majority of scientists working in the field – 97 per cent – think it is happening, and that it is man-made. Lord Lawson – a former politician, with no scientific background but with strong, crackpot views – thinks otherwise. Today infamously got him on “for balance”, leaving the audience none the wiser, and no better informed, but with the impression that there are two sides to a debate when there aren’t.

The truth is not the mid-point between good and evil, or right and wrong, but the BBC often retreats to a position of balance when it feels under threat, or has a crisis of leadership (these things often coincide). This time, though, it’s about issues that divide the nation down the middle, and the shortcomings of balance are glaringly obvious.

In the past weeks, in the name of balance, we’ve had the far-right extremist Raheem Kassam invited on to talk about Tommy Robinson, when other serious programmes like Channel 4 News opted to interview experts who could actually explain the legal ins-and-outs of the case.

A stream of current BBC journalists have spoken to me of their concerns about Today, which is seen as a particular problem. “People are stunned”, said one, “they’re walking around dazed, like they’ve been hit with frying pans. We’re just not allowed to question anything”.

I’m told that there’s an insistence on trying to find interviewees from organisations, and businesses who have a positive attitude to Brexit, while stories highlighting the difficulties are ignored entirely.

And then we had Today’s treatment of the Boris Johnson article about women wearing “Burqas”. Steve Bannon, the fascist former adviser to Donald Trump was revealed to have been in contact with Boris Johnson earlier this month. Few of my former BBC colleagues believe this is coincidental.

“The story should not have been what he said, and whether he had a right to say it,” one experienced BBC staffer told me. “The real story was why was he saying it now, so soon after his meeting with Bannon. We’re getting stuff like this wrong all the time.”

The editor of Today, Sarah Sands, is regarded as being “out of her depth”, but the most comments I received from former colleagues were aimed at the programme’s best-known presenter. “John Humphrys saying British people may take offence to a woman in a burqa walking into a pub – I mean for fuck’s sake,” one highly respected journalist told me, “it’s like having breakfast with your bigoted old granddad.”

Senior managers are said to be too pre-occupied with the Cliff Richard fiasco to notice there’s a problem. “They just scuttle round Broadcasting House avoiding eye contact”, I was told.

“There clearly is some kind of feeling among managers about being cautious, which down at programme level, means the BBC is not tackling the hard questions,” another former colleague said. ”Just look at our rivals – Sky, the Guardian, Channel 4 News, and Buzzfeed are making all the running on the impact of Brexit, and also the continuing revelations about the dodgy funding and Russian links behind it. The BBC consistently fails to adequately report these, or if it does, it doesn’t give them their due prominence.”

In the wider world the people most concerned by the BBC’s direction since the 2016 referendum are its natural supporters. Now many of them feel let down. They’re the many thousands who marched for a People’s Vote; they’re among the 800,000 who’ve stopped listening to Today in the past year.

If we lose the BBC we will lose an irreplaceable national treasure, and be permanently culturally impoverished. My biggest fear is that process may have started, and when the BBC looks around for supporters, it’ll find they are all be too busy watching Channel 4 News to care. 

Patrick Howse is a poet and former BBC journalist. His collection Shadow Cast by Mountains was published by Hayloft last year.

Update: This article was amended on 14 August to clarify that Bannon and Johnson were revealed to have been contact earlier this month, not to have met, and to remove a reference to there being half a million people at the People’s Vote march.