Why Owen Jones’s attack on Andrew Neil secretly delighted the BBC

The broadcaster enjoys such assaults, which undermine the usual claim that it is controlled by liberal lefties. 

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The meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea qualifies for the adjective “momentous”: an extraordinary episode in one of the world’s most enduring conflicts. As it reached its end, the BBC’s Seoul correspondent, Laura Bicker, tweeted thus: “OK so the leaders of the two Koreas are holding hands while they watch an emotional montage of their day. All part of the farewell ceremony. It’s all getting a bit totes emosh.” Later, to show that dumbing down can be a multiplatform experience, the corporation’s main television news bulletin described the relationship between the nuclear-armed dictator from the North and the elected president of the South as a “burgeoning bromance”. Heaven knows how this style of reporting would have been applied to defining events of the 20th century, such as Hitler and Chamberlain’s meeting in Munich.

Our styles of communication have changed, but it’s the onslaught of social media that is proving a thorny challenge to the traditional broadcasters. The BBC in particular needs to be distinctive and focused on the truth – a place of sanity amid the torrents of digital stuff. But there’s also an understandable wish to get out there on to all the new media platforms – not only to propagate the right values but also to engage and be accessible. Where this can go wrong is in the unmediated tweeting that has been unleashed across the ranks of broadcasting correspondents and editors.

Anthony Zurcher is a BBC reporter based in Washington, DC whose on-air comments seldom raise an eyebrow. But it’s different on Twitter. He recently joked about Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, who was revealed to have 16 phones: “Sure. One for personal calls, one for work calls, and 14 burners for, uh, miscellaneous.” Zurcher often retweets Trump with caustic comments. Here at home, the BBC’s Joe Lynam is a straight-down-the-line TV business correspondent – but on Twitter it’s clear he cares a lot about the EU. He recently tackled the Brexiteer Dominic Lawson for his views on the French-Swiss border, and criticised Jacob Rees-Mogg on Ireland.

It’s not only the middle rank of correspondents who operate with impunity on Twitter. The BBC’s foreign editor, John Simpson, got into bother a few months back when he tweeted: “MP wants details of anti-Brexit univ teachers. Decent folk deported on technicalities. Daily hate in press. Doesn’t feel like my country now.” As the old pro he is, he speedily batted back the criticism by saying, “Don’t assume you know my views on Brexit or politics because you don’t.” But the big beasts of broadcast journalism have become skilled at holding the line on impartiality while still revealing their thinking on social media.

I am a fan of Andrew Neil, who is an adept political interviewer. He is prepared to savage politicians from all parties. But as a follower of his on Twitter it is easy for me to observe that Neil, chairman of the Spectator magazine, is much more relaxed about the prospect of Brexit than, say, Sky’s political editor Faisal Islam. Owen Jones claimed in the Guardian recently that “Neil’s Twitter account – which has hundreds of thousands of followers thanks to his BBC gig – is routinely used to promote right-wing causes”.

The BBC secretly enjoys assaults like that, which undermine the usual claim that it is controlled by liberal lefties. Neil doesn’t tweet personal views that are incompatible with his broadcast role, though he shares and promotes vastly more articles from the Spectator than from the New Statesman or the Guardian. There is a lobby in the BBC that would like to see Neil take an even higher profile in daily output – and it would be a fresh test of the corporation’s guidelines if that happened. The more outspoken James O’Brien found the challenge too difficult. Earlier this year the LBC presenter said he was standing down from his BBC Newsnight shifts, “because my beliefs expressed on other media that Brexit will be bad for Britain and that Donald Trump is a racist sex offender started receiving so much attention that I had to choose between winding my neck in on those two issues or not presenting BBC political programmes.”

The dilemma is sharpest for political editors. The excellent Robert Peston on ITV has been blunt in his assessments of Labour and anti-Semitism in his online posts, and has written, as a Jew himself, about the need for Jeremy Corbyn to “cut out the cancer of anti-Semitism”. Personally, I agree with him. But he is inevitably taking a position on Corbyn’s management of Labour and on the relative amounts of racism in the two main parties, which is a contentious issue among some activists – as demonstrated by some of the unpleasant replies to his posts. The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, is more discreet about her own views. 

All this points to a choice that broadcasters still have: to engage or not. One presenter who shuns social media told me: “I’m genuinely not persuaded that tweeting serves any useful purpose for broadcasters who must be seen as impartial. Maybe it raises the tweeter’s profile – but with whom? The people who matter are the audience and I suspect they reach their judgement on how we perform when we’re doing our jobs.” Some European public service broadcasters take the hard line of simply not allowing their presenters to vent on social media, and they don’t seem the poorer for it.

Amid the digital frenzy, it could be refreshing not to be assailed by a thought a minute from someone who appears on your TV or radio. There may be a virtue in being unsure about a professional’s personal views and focusing instead on what matters: accurate, considered and fair reporting without those totes emosh moments. 

Roger Mosey is master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television News

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article appears in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right

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