Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka

I love the BBC. Since its invention, I think it has provided the United Kingdom with some of the best television, radio and news coverage in the world and is more than worthy of the licence fee. That being said, I was not at all surprised when, in her recent lecture, former BBC journalist Emily Maitlis outlined the troubling techniques the institution practices. Techniques that were designed to uphold a veneer of impartiality- a quality associated with the corporation- actually strengthened dubious political interests.  

One technique to which Maitlis refers is a ‘myopic style of journalism’ known as “both-sidesism”. This is where an argument is treated as if the evidence for each opposing viewpoint is balanced, when in reality this is not the case. A simplistic example would be balancing views over vaccines, acting as if there is as much medical evidence showing that vaccines don’t work, as there is proving that they do. This is not impartiality, yet the BBC has noticeably adhered to this stance over the last decade or so. In this article, I’m going to try and work out why.

It is no secret that the BBC always has a difficult relationship with the sitting government. The BBC is funded by money the public pay for their TV licences, which any government could scrap at any time, meaning BBC bosses must worry about being overly critical of them. 

However, in the past, the BBC has repeatedly reported on issues that arguably put their position at risk. Most notably, this includes the events surrounding the Hutton Inquiry in 2003, when journalist Andrew Gilligan claimed he had an anonymous source who believed Tony Blair’s current government had knowingly “sexed up” a dossier about Iraq with false information about weapons of mass destruction. While the inquiry eventually found the BBC to be at fault, clearing the government of any wrongdoing, it is noteworthy that the BBC  initially stood their ground, before being forced into an apology. Indeed, it was reported at the time that much of the public felt unconvinced by the findings of the inquiry, defending the BBC and arguing against Greg Dyke’s resignation as head of the corporation. 

Today, such a battle between the government and the BBC would never occur. This was made abundantly clear in 2020, following a complaint from Downing Street about an introductory segment on Newsnight in which Maitlis, the presenter at the time, stated that Dominic Cummings, then chief advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had broken lockdown rules. In her lecture, Maitlis points out that ‘it’s normal for government spin doctors to vocalise their displeasure to journalists’, but what was surprising was ‘the speed with which the BBC sought to pacify the complainant’. They quickly issued a public apology and declared the rules of impartiality to have been breached. There was no attempt at rebuttal or self-defence, simply a capitulation to the government’s demands.

So, what exactly has caused this change in the BBC’s attitude? I would say that the corporation is scared of the current Conservative government, given their repeated assertions that they are going to put an end to the licence fee, starting as early as 2019. By twisting impartiality to present the current government in a better light, those in charge may be hoping to appease them and thereby cling on to their funding. The problems have been apparent since long before this, probably becoming most notable around the time of the EU Referendum in 2016. Despite the vast majority of economists being opposed to leaving the European Union, the entire referendum was treated as if both sides had equal levels of economic validity. The BBC failed to refute or fact-check the numerous misinformation packages produced by the leave campaign — a campaign coincidentally run by Dominic Cummings.

This was, of course, the same year Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States, the man who made the term ‘fake news’ famous. Trump started a trend of pointing at news reports which painted him in a negative light and calling them lies, even when they were based upon fact. The BBC was one of the organisations to bear the brunt of this technique, resulting in one employee being attacked by a Trump supporter. Other politicians on the far-right have started to copy this. A recent example came from the Tory leadership race this year, in which Liz Truss slammed the BBC for supposed factual misinformation and  claimed that the media phrases questions in a “left-wing way”. She was then captured on microphone apologising to the interviewer for attacking the media. This proves that she knows this is a cheap trick to win over right-wing voters, purposely using it despite it having no basis in truth.

It seems to me that many media outlets, especially the BBC, don’t understand how to cope with this sort of rhetoric. Perhaps this is why they have eased off stories which question the current right-wing government, disguising it under the banner of impartiality. One might think an impartial news source simply struggles to cope with extreme views, but this has not historically been the case, as I hope the following example demonstrates.

Recently, I watched David Dimbelby’s programme Days That Shook The BBC, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in this discussion. Yes, it aired on BBC2, but Dimbleby has no qualms criticising the corporation within its three sixty-minute episodes. It marks a refreshing return to what impartiality should look like. One of the topics Dimbleby covers was the appearance of the then leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, on Question Time in 2009. The BBC received extreme backlash for this decision, with protests being carried out during filming. Many feared the BBC was merely platforming Griffin’s overtly racist, holocaust-denying views. 

However, upon the actual transmission of the episode, Ofcom received more complaints from BNP supporters than those opposing the appearance. The reason for this is simple. True impartiality was shown. Every time Griffin attempted to lie about what he had said or done in the past, Dimbleby, the host, challenged and corrected him. This led to a situation in which a barrage of questions from the audience left Griffin ridiculously claiming he could ‘not explain why’ he used to deny the holocaust in the past, prompting audible groans of disgust from audience members. Essentially, the programme destroyed any shred of credibility he could claim to have as a politician, fully exposing him as a white supremacist simply by reporting the facts.

Fast-forward to 2019, when the BBC reprimanded Naga Munchetty for calling out Donald Trump’s racism. Though the decision was later reversed, the fact that she was reprimanded at all is damning evidence for how the BBC has changed for the worse. Calling out racism is not and should never be a breach of impartiality. It’s putting a stop to hate speech. I genuinely fear that if a Nick Griffin style figure were invited onto the BBC today, all the fears held by protestors in 2009 would come true. He would be given a platform on which to lie without facing any challenge.

When the BBC is too scared of any form of controversy to maintain real impartiality, what is it good for? If it truly held the current government to account, then any attempt to remove the licence fee would probably be met with a spree of protests. In reality, I doubt there are many people who actually care either way. If the BBC wants people to fight for it, then it needs to give them a reason to fight. Bowing down to pressure from the government is certainly not going to do so.