Did the election turn the “BBC bias” conspiracy theory into a reality?

Once a laughable, fringe way of thinking, the election has the mainstream reaching for their tin hats. 

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f in January you had told me that I’d be a “BBC bias” crank by Christmas, I would have said I’d rather be dead in a ditch. Living in Scotland during the 2014 independence referendum, I saw how BBC conspiracy theories spread, and have spent the past three years cringing whenever my Twitter timeline becomes laced with outrage at the broadcaster’s reporting of the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism problem. While I understand the BBC’s impartiality rules and how difficult it is to adhere to them, my opinion has changed over the last few months.

This summer, the BBC ran a video profile of the “party girl” young Conservative, Emily Hewertson. It failed to note that she was an influencer for Turning Point UK, the British branch of the American right-wing pressure group linked by the Southern Poverty Law Center to white supremacists.

Then, weeks later, the BBC profiled alt-right campaigner Martin Sellner, a former neo-Nazi who is the leader of the Austrian group Generation Identity (which is backed by ex-KKK leader David Duke), praising his “sharp haircut”.

In September, in the week that parliament was voting on the withdrawal agreement and Tory MPs were being ousted, the state broadcaster made a BuzzFeed-style video about Boris Johnson’s new puppy.

These moments were omens of election coverage to come. During the five-week campaign, we saw the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, falsely claim on Twitter that a Labour activist had punched a Tory aide at a hospital in Leeds, and equate Johnson lying about the backstop to Jeremy Corbyn lying about watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day. Hers are just two examples of tweets from BBC staff that have been accused of bias towards the Conservatives. While they were not fully checked articles, many who saw them will have considered them to be part of the broadcaster’s package.

Those complaining about the BBC usually have seven followers and an anonymous profile picture. But during this election, even its ardent supporters began to criticise the state broadcaster (as did the swathes of its own staff who sent me despairing private messages). For the first time, BBC bias crankdom wasn’t just for the fringes, but a justifiable, mainstream way of thinking.

While the BBC perhaps doesn’t need new impartiality rules, it needs to better enforce those it has. These were not instances of full-on televised bias from Kuenssberg, but a failure to grasp that millions read her tweets. When we reach for our tin hats, we must remember that life is often more The Thick of It than House of Cards – incompetence, not malice, is usually to blame. Mistakes are more likely to have been due to social media illiteracy than a conspiracy.

But solving this problem will take more than an acknowledgement that journalists like Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg don’t know how to tweet. As the NS’s political editor Stephen Bush wrote on Twitter, “a [state] broadcaster… has the freedom to be slow, considered and therefore right”. While real self-regulation may help, the broadcaster is seemingly in need of something more serious: a regulatory body – one that manages not just the BBC, but the media more broadly. And after an election in which the Tories doctored videos, rebranded an official party Twitter account as a fact-checking service during a debate, and had 88 per cent of their digital ads deemed “misleading”, there’s a case for political parties’ online outputs to be regulated, too. We need an all-encompassing set of laws, not rules, inflicting real consequences on those abusing their social media power.

On 16 December, BBC News anchor Huw Edwards wrote for the i that the BBC is “not ‘biased’ just because you happen not to like it”. And he’s right – such claims of bias have historically been misguided. But it is a farce to pretend that the broadcaster’s political coverage during this election, and the way its prominent journalists have used social media, is the same as it was at any other time. And until BBC journalists learn to tweet with impartiality, it may be better that they don’t tweet at all. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.