The Emily Maitlis row shows the BBC can stray from impartiality, but it acted fast to apologise

The Newsnight host’s criticism of Dominic Cummings was more worthy of a columnist than a BBC presenter.

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On the night news broke of Dominic Cummings’s dash to Durham, the BBC was accused of working flat out to support the government. It was peculiar, very, that the BBC News at Ten, on 22 May, did not give it a headline, but nor did it miss the story. The phrase used by the estimable Laura Kuenssberg, BBC political editor, that night – “sources say his trip was within the guidelines” – led to a Twitter storm. But Kuenssberg could not ignore the terms of engagement she had agreed with her source – irritating though this off-the-record stuff often is. We must simply assume Cummings spoke to her on the Friday night and note that in this regard the revolutionary disrupter behaved like an orthodox Westminster insider. And then he was smoked out.

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The early Covid highlight in the BBC bias stakes came from some on the right who were in high dudgeon about Emily Maitlis’s thumping Newsnight monologue on 8 April: “The disease is not a great leveller… that’s a myth.” It was an unorthodox way to begin a programme but didn’t seem a problem to me. There were facts behind it. Yet on social media, Maitlis’s intervention was greeted by disproportionate adulation from the left and fierce dislike from the right.

But there’s a distinction to be drawn between a punchy intro that uses informed judgement and one that has a sharply polemical tone – “owned” by the presenter. On Tuesday night (26 May) she got it wrong with her introduction to the Cummings piece. Many obviously agree with her verdict – that he was guilty of breaking the rules – but beyond that she threw in a lot of ornament. She talked, for instance, of Cummings’ well-known use of “the lazy label of elite” about those who disagreed with him, and she decided that Boris Johnson knew, among other things, that Cummings’ behaviour had “made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can flout them”. As a columnist this would all be fine. But BBC presenters, even when there is a popular view about an issue, are not supposed to turn into columnists. The BBC's statement on 27 May – with the punchline: “the introduction we broadcast did not meet our standards of due impartiality” – was right, clear and prompt. 

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Channel 4 News puts its cards on the table too. On the day of the government’s U-turn, Jon Snow (a great journalist) described the NHS surcharge as applied to foreign NHS and care workers as an “iniquity”. His audience would largely have agreed with him. My BBC-shaped view of impartiality would have led me to the delete button. The audience can choose its own noun or adjective. The BBC normally has a more ascetic view of impartiality – which probably “allows” Channel 4 News licence to wear its liberal heart on its sleeve. It is also the case that C4’s liberal reflexes led to it getting some very good stories early in the crisis – not least about PPE shortages. 

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The BBC does have an impartiality problem with Twitter. Banning its journalists from the platform will not work. Twitter is now where stories break. Yet the defence – that retweeting a piece does not mean approval of it – is wearing very thin. A survey of what BBC News presenters and correspondents choose to retweet would not always show a fascinating eclecticism. And, worse, sometimes their own tweets deploy language they would not, or should not, use on air. The BBC needs to have a conversation, or even a constructive row, with its top news talent to stop the excesses. I don’t think many of them will choose to walk out.

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Thirty-minute TV news bulletins have tremendous limitations and Covid has reflected them. They have little depth and not much originality – and I am not suggesting it was much better in the days when I edited anything. It’s a highly compressed form of grammar – and other than the not always insignificant matter of pictures (sic), TV news offers much less than a quality newspaper or magazine. But readers of the NS or the Financial Times are not the target audience. Most of them will know the main news stories before they watch the six or ten o’clock bulletins – from social media, the web or radio, or whatever. The TV bulletins still get large, broad audiences and so they matter. I watch them to find out what a fair-minded group of editors think are the key stories – and not as a voyage of discovery.

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They could be more ambitious and surprising, though. The use of facts and figures – limited by space – matters even more when you are broadcasting to millions for whom TV news is their main source. Tim Harford and his team on Radio 4’s More or Less sits as an island of brilliance. The programme’s clarity of thought about, say, testing statistics allows it a clarity of evidence-based judgement. Thus, Matt Hancock did not meet his 100,000 target and the figures are at times still nonsensical. Period. It’s a BBC programme and its skills are still hugely under-exploited.

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A lot of the foreign commissioning is not very stretching either. The correspondents assemble a medley of frustrated restaurateurs, vox pops at markets or in shops, beseeching tourist spokespeople – and we end up at least understanding other countries too are juggling with the economic impact of lockdown. But the internal conflicts in other countries are given short shrift and the correspondents don’t get to display anything subtle, and not much that is interesting, about their patch.

There is no serious attempt at finding out what’s similar and what’s different about the way France or Germany or – name any country – organises social care in general, care homes in particular, or deals with PPE.  This lack of comparison in TV journalism is a deeply rooted characteristic. It might be caused by editors’ fears of being boring and insufficiently sentient, but it means that the audience misses out.

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As I wade through Twitter I stumble across what might be gems. A brilliant thread a few days back about what South Korean track, trace and isolate actually involves. Or from a Manchester hospital doctor about how local hospital teams took decisions early on to discharge old people back to care homes. His story did not quite match received wisdom on the subject, though the author had criticism aplenty. It all needs checking out, and that needs people and time. BBC journalists, along with others, are working hard – but they need to go further. The huffing and puffing about the BBC is often about bias and impartiality. That is only rarely an issue. The debate should instead be about quality, where the BBC has much that is very good – but where more needs to be on offer. 

Mark Damazer is a former head of BBC Radio 4. This is an updated version of his column from the 29 May – 4 June print edition of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 29 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak

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