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28 May 2020

The BBC must strive to be impartial but it should never be timid

The Emily Maitlis row has shown the challenge the BBC faces: to be stimulating and challenging without turning into Fox News. 

By John Simpson

“She is great, and she summed up a lot of people’s thoughts.” “What do you think of the BBC undermining her professionalism, John, when all she presented was a series of facts?” “The BBC issued an outrageous statement admonishing her.”

That was one lot of Twitter messages I received when I tweeted in support of Emily Maitlis’s qualities as a broadcaster last night. There were other messages, too: the usual stuff about how left-wing the BBC is, and some abusive things about Emily and about me. Then there was the woman who said: “She claimed to be speaking for the nation, but she wasn’t speaking for me or for people like me.”

All of them (well, hopefully) are licence-fee payers: that means they’re investors in a huge project which, if you take it as a whole, should sum up the nature and opinions and desires of Britain as a whole. For those of us who work at the BBC, especially in news, there’s always the danger that we’ll play it safe: to be so bland in our reporting that we offend absolutely no one. I’ve always thought timidity was the big danger in broadcasting, not the noisy expression of opinion.

The new, angry, liberal enemies of the BBC, who’ve turned against us since Brexit, and before that the Scottish independence referendum, think we’re afraid of offending the government of the day. And now we’ve become the focus of anger and attention over Emily’s remarks on Dominic Cummings, and the BBC’s finding that Newsnight broke our impartiality guidelines.

The challenge the BBC faces is how to broadcast stimulating, tough, challenging stuff without turning into Fox News – or Good Morning Britain, with Piers Morgan going on about whatever crosses his attention span. That kind of broadcasting is easy: you just sign up a few loudmouths and let them rip. But to be accurate and calm and fair in dealing with the subjects that have convulsed our country for a decade – that’s really hard.

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Yet it’s what the BBC has to do. Excellent though ITV News, Channel 4 News and Sky News are, they aren’t in the same position as the BBC, with almost half a billion viewers, listeners and readers worldwide.  

It’s a horrible experience to be seen to be singled out like this, although the BBC’s finding was about the content of the programme’s introduction, for which Emily isn’t ultimately responsible. Another Emily, Emily Bell (formerly of The Guardian), tweeted that a discussion like this should happen privately between the editor of the programme and the head of news. She clearly feels it’s pretty distasteful to watch the stocks being rolled out, and a respected broadcaster being put in them for the citizenry to throw rotten eggs at. Having been in trouble myself with BBC management on various occasions over half a century, I know how painful that can be.

After writing an article for the New Statesman about the disastrous effects of the invasion of Iraq, I was barred from reporting on the Chilcot inquiry. And I was given a formal rebuke for saying publicly that the BBC had been wrong to balance the arguments of Leavers and Remainers in the Brexit debate without pointing out the falsehoods and lies in them. The BBC says our editorial guidelines allow us to make professional judgments, but not to express opinion; the dividing line can be thin.

Personally, my feeling is that Emily Maitlis would have been on the right side of the line when she said: “Dominic Cummings broke the rules, the country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot,” if only she’d slipped in a phrase such as “a lot of people say”. Timid? I honestly don’t think so. It’s a fact, after all.