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Remainers attacking the BBC should be wary of ending up with a British Fox News

The United States is now a democracy in which there are no shared facts and are only disputed opinions. 

“Do not adjust your set. Normal service from the BBC means you will hear people you disagree with saying things you don’t like. That’s our job.” A year ago that was my response to a warning (or was it a threat?) from the former culture secretary John Whittingdale. The BBC would face sanctions and fines from Ofcom unless we ended our alleged anti-Brexit bias, he said. My message was re-tweeted and liked by thousands.

So, it is with some sadness that I feel the need to reissue this reminder to those who I suspect were cheering me on then – ardent Remainers. Now it is Andrew Adonis who is trying to soften up the Corporation by claiming that the BBC is in breach of its charter, as we have – he claims, without presenting a shred of evidence – decided to back Brexit for fear of losing the licence fee.

 He will, no doubt, have been encouraged by the column in the last issue of the New Statesman by James O’Brien, who chose not to condemn the BBC by name but to launch an assault on impartiality – the legal foundation of all broadcast news in this country – including at his own station, LBC. O’Brien claims that impartiality is all too often, in reality, bias, since it requires broadcasters to give “false equivalence” to those he claims are speaking objective truth and those making baseless assertions.

The former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson, he implies, has no more right to be interviewed about climate change than someone who believes the Earth is flat. The last time Lawson appeared on the Today programme he got some of his facts wrong and we failed to correct him; it was a mistake we later corrected and apologised for. But if getting your facts wrong meant you could never again appear on radio or TV there’d be precious few politicians on air. Lawson has, by the way, appeared on Today to discuss climate change just twice in four years.

BBC programmes are not required to give equal airtime or weight to pros and antis in any debate. Our rules make clear that we have to deliver “due impartiality”. That word “due” makes clear that programme teams can and do make judgements on the validity of stories, challenge facts and figures and acknowledge that different people speak with different levels of authority.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about Brexit? O’Brien argues that presenters should act as tribunes of the people: any interviewee claiming that leaving the EU will allow Britain to “control our borders” should be “hit over the head repeatedly” with the “fact” that we already do control them, “until they surrender and withdraw”.

Let’s put aside the entertaining hyperbole and ask whether that would be the basis for a fair interview rather than the theatrical and entertaining confrontations that make his LBC talk show so enjoyable. You may regard the free movement of EU citizens as a good thing or a bad thing, but the claim that Britain controls its borders even when people can freely come here from 27 countries is just that – a claim or a debating point. It is certainly not a fact. Nor is it a fact, as O’Brien argues, that Britain’s sovereignty is unaffected by our membership of the EU. Indeed, the argument has focused on just that debate ever since Enoch Powell teamed up with Michael Foot to oppose our membership of the European club on the grounds that – you guessed it – it compromised our sovereignty.

O’Brien’s impassioned rhetoric cheers Remainers up. And Leavers can always listen to Nigel Farage on the same network. But we know where this sort of journalism would lead us if it spread beyond radio talk shows and phone-ins. You would end up with Fox News or a British equivalent.

Rupert Murdoch dreams of tearing up the law on broadcast impartiality here, just as it was torn up in America in the Reagan era. What was known as the Fairness Doctrine allowed opinionated presenters – as our law allows for James O’Brien – but ensured that a single network could not broadcast from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views. The doctrine was scrapped on the grounds that it “restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters” and “inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public”.

So, the United States is now a democracy in which there are no shared facts and are only disputed opinions. Two-thirds of right-wingers watch Fox for their “facts” while liberals watch CNN, MSNBC or the old terrestrial networks to get theirs.

The problem this posed for public life in America was obvious long before the election of Donald Trump. When Barack Obama tried to open a debate on healthcare reform, Fox News said he would introduce “socialist death panels” in which government bureaucrats would decide who lived and died. On the other side liberals filled MSNBC with claims that Republicans wanted to kill the poor.

Impartiality is difficult. Perhaps never more so than in recent years when deep divides have opened up over Brexit, Scottish independence and inside both our major parties. We don’t always get it right. However, there is still a powerful case for impartial broadcast journalism that seeks to inform rather than influence, or sway, or respond to commercial imperatives, staffed by people who – regardless of their personal background or private views – are committed to delivering what Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth” and offering their audience a free, open and broad debate. The alternative is news that largely broadcasts people you like saying things you agree with.

I say as gently as I can to people on both sides of the Brexit argument – be careful what you wish for. 

Nick Robinson is presenter of Today on Radio 4 and a former BBC political editor.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.