Artillery Row

Why won’t the BBC debate me?

Trying to bring large, arrogant public institutions to book is exhausting

The only real-life contact I had with the BBC during the two months or so when I was making a film about it was with the man in the Commissionaire’s uniform who came bustling out of New Broadcasting House, clipboard in hand, when my film crew was setting up to shoot a piece to camera. He wanted to know what we were doing there; I knew full well we had every right to be standing on the pavement with the BBC in the background and that I would have been perfectly entitled to tell him to get lost, but as this officious little man was perfectly polite I saw no harm in telling him what I was doing. “I’m making a film about bias in BBC news coverage” I told him “and this is my name – please get the spelling right – and, by the way, please do tell the BBC Press Office what we’re about. I think they should know.”

I had put the filming on hold while the BBC decided if it would put someone up to answer my criticisms

Whether the message got through or not I have no idea but this interaction took place at the end of a frustrating few weeks during which I had put the filming project on hold while the BBC decided whether or not it would put someone up to answer the criticisms I was making. When I had started planning the film I had contacted David Jordan, the BBC’s Director of Editorial Policy, to see if he’d like to take part. Many years ago I had been, for a short while, one of Jordan’s reporters when he edited On The Record the, now-defunct, political programme. Mr Jordan is a likeable man – intelligent, well-informed, fluent and plausible – and because of the job he currently does he was exactly the right person to do the interview.

The job of “EdPol” (in the inevitable Beeb shorthand) is one of the most senior in the Corporation. He is responsible for ensuring that BBC programmes adhere to the Editorial Guidelines — the comprehensive set of dos and don’ts which govern how every BBC programme should be made. This includes, of course, an emphasis on the essential requirement for impartiality; the rules also lay stress on the need for programme-makers to grant “right of reply” to any individual or organisation, which is going to be the subject of criticism in a BBC programme. So I was merely following BBC best practice by asking them for an interview. Mr Jordan has been doing the job since 2007 and has also been given oversight of the BBC’s complaints procedure — so he was exactly the right man to talk to.

To give him his due, Jordan seemed keen to engage with me; in a series of emails I detailed the areas of the BBC’s news coverage I wanted to talk about and those I would agree to steer clear of (these latter included the Martin Bashir scandal, currently the subject of an internal BBC inquiry which, he said, he could not pre-empt). All this was couched in very civil and friendly terms and it really looked as though it might happen. Until, that is, he said he’d “have to clear it with the press office” which is when the shutters came down and all communication ceased.
True to form the BBC had decided that, when confronted with reasoned criticisms about breaches of “impartiality” in its news coverage, its best policy is to stay schtum. I cannot say I was overly surprised at the no-show because years of investigating and writing about the BBC’s consistent failure to adhere to its code of “impartiality” has conditioned me to expect exactly this head-in-the-sand reaction. For more than 20 years now I have been trying to bring to public attention the sheer dishonesty of much of the Corporation’s journalism. I am used by now to jibes that I am obsessive about the issue (these often come, jestingly, from family and friends who have heard, once too often my views on the subject) but these taunts worry me not at all: so often it is the “obsessive” journalism which brings about change. But the effort of trying to bring large, arrogant public institutions to book is exhausting and often frustrating work as I can testify.

I began this long and winding trail when I still worked as a BBC reporter back in the late 1990s. It had become clear to me that the whole of BBC news output is coloured by a distinct set of political beliefs and “values” – though they are in fact just another set of prejudices but ones which happen to be shared by the clerisy of BBC journalists and programme makers. I categorise those prejudices as socially liberal, secular and “progressive”, and my broad contention is that in any debate these kind of views are favoured by the BBC while socially conservative arguments are silenced.

They would, it seems, much prefer that the subject of their own lack of impartiality is one which would just go away

I was working on Today (a job I loved) but I decided I should raise my concerns with my bosses so I sent a series of long memos to various senior people — memos which were received with some bafflement and then usually ignored. Many BBC people do not see their own views as “political” at all, rather they see them as common sense decency, so my views were something of an oddity to them. My final throw of the dice was to write to the BBC’s governors to each of whom I sent a dossier giving details of instances where I thought there was incontrovertible evidence that “impartiality” was a sham, a useful fiction which the BBC repeats, mantra-like, whenever its journalism is criticised. The Governors — a remote group with little discernible understanding of the organisation they supposedly controlled — apparently called in the Head of News to answer my charges. Unsurprisingly he had assured them that I was a maverick and that my concerns were groundless and that all was well. Case closed.

In the mid-noughties I left the BBC after doing my 25 years and since then I have written a number of books and many articles about the very one-sided worldview that the Corporation promotes. And in all that time only once has the BBC engaged publicly with me about its biases — in a public debate at the ICA back in 2007. But ever since then, the BBC’s default position has been to stonewall. They would, it seems, much prefer that the subject of their own lack of impartiality is one which would just go away. And in terms of self-preservation, I can see their point because this phony doctrine is the foundation stone upon which the whole edifice stands. If it was once admitted that the BBC had not been living up to its own rules about fairness and even-handedness, the justification for the licence fee privilege would disappear.

The BBC gets away with this because so much of the rest of the media plays by the same rules: Channel Four, Sky News, ITN and the rest of them, might all theoretically be competitors of the BBC, but they all promote more or less the same progressive worldview. In this regard, the broadcast media as a whole (enthusiastically supported by academia, most of the publishing industry, many influential magazines and newspapers) acts in concert. None of them want the central fiction that our broadcasters are impartial opened up to challenge, because if once it was, maybe things would have to change.

So I wasn’t wholly surprised when the BBC side-stepped my latest challenge. The film I made (which you can find here) contains sober and, I believe, important criticisms from a range of serious people. It is neither hysterical nor conspiracist and I truly believe that the BBC has a duty to engage with the points made. After all the BBC is a public institution, it takes money from us on the basis that it will deliver fair and honest journalism and it is my contention that it does not do this. And my strong suspicion is that the reason it will not have the public debate we need is because it knows, in its heart, it would lose the argument.

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