The BBC had a poor election and a poor Brexit, being accused of political bias by both Left and Right, both Leave and Remain. It tends to respond in such circumstances that this shows that it has got the political balance of its coverage about right.

However, it could equally well be argued that the Beeb’s notions of balance and impartiality need to be completely rethought in the present political and media moment.

Accusations of bias from the Right are not exactly difficult to rebut, given that the methodology underlying even allegedly serious studies is hopelessly inadequate and wouldn’t be remotely acceptable in even a first year media studies essay. (Of course, such BBC critics think that media studies is a leftist plot too). Nonetheless, these studies are frequently invoked in the relentless criticisms of the BBC by Tory MPs and by the Tory (and pro-Brexit) press. Ofcom’s recent Review of BBC News and Current Affairs uncovered that views on such programmes are formed not just as a result of people actually watching them, but also from how these programmes are reported in the press and in the short hop to the echo chambers of social media. So it’s hardly surprising that the BBC receives an ever-swelling postbag accusing it of being a hotbed of leftism and Remainery.

Much more sophisticated critiques, such as Glasgow University’s long-running series of Bad News studies, suggest that BBC news and current affairs coverage is, at the least, skewed in favour of the status quo, and indeed sometimes leans distinctly to the Right. But these appear to have had little impact on BBC thinking. Of course, these have not had the distinct advantage of being amplified by Tory newspapers and politicians.

So it’s particularly significant that, during the election campaign, Peter Oborne, one of this country’s leading Conservative journalists, albeit a highly independent-minded one, claimed that the BBC behaved “in a way that favours the Tories”, contributed to the widespread impression that it was “putting its thumb on the scale for the government” and indeed acted as “an unusual ally”.

Oborne is far too well aware of the BBC’s statutory commitment to due impartiality to accuse it of deliberate and conscious bias to the Right or in favour of Brexit. In his view, the BBC does not have a party political bias but, rather, is biased towards the government of the day – as indeed he demonstrated most convincingly in the case of the Blair governments in The Rise of Political Lying (2005). But the BBC’s current behaviour is, I would suggest, specific to the present political and media moment. It’s rooted in current systemic pressures and problems that the BBC needs urgently to address if its claims to be politically impartial are to retain any credibility.

Let truth and falsehood grapple?

Firstly, the Tory press and pro-Brexit politicians have spent the last few years fighting campaigns in which the ruthless spread of mis- and dis-information has played a key strategic role. Like climate change denial, this strategy poses severe problems for how the BBC interprets its commitment to due impartiality. Should truths told by one side simply be ‘balanced’ by untruths from the other? Milton famously wrote: “Let [truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”, but in our media-saturated world there is no guarantee that complex facts and difficult nuances will win out in a battle with simplistic sloganising (“Get Brexit Done”) and downright lies (“The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want” – Michael Gove).

Faced with the embrace of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth politics’ by the government, advisers such as Dominic Cummings and the client press, the BBC has begun to feature fact-checking much more prominently in its news coverage. But whilst its Reality Check service is a thoroughly welcome development, the BBC needs to be much bolder and more adversarial with politicians who lie and distort the truth on air. In particular, interviewers need to be far more robust in challenging such tactics, which also means that they need to be much better informed about the subject of an interview than they frequently appear to be. And here the BBC has an ally in its relatively recently appointed regulator, Ofcom, whose above-mentioned report states that:

Broadcasting rules do not require the BBC or other broadcasters to be absolutely neutral on every issue within news and current affairs, but they must be duly impartial. This means journalists should … feel able to challenge controversial viewpoints that have little support or are not backed up by facts, making this clear to viewers, listeners and readers. Our research shows that audiences have respect for the calibre of the BBC’s journalism and expect its reporters to investigate, analyse and explain events. This should give the BBC confidence to be bolder in its approach.

In these circumstances there is also surely a strong case for political interviews to be pre-recorded, wherever possible, and then fact-checked, with dis- or mis-information being pointed out immediately and prominently after the interview is broadcast.

However, the BBC itself needs to make quite sure that its own journalists are not complicit in the processes whereby politicians and their advisers attempt to propagate untruths, distortion and spin. Oborne has highlighted the particular problem political correspondents uncritically repeating on Twitter, and indeed on air, what ‘Tory sources’ (step forward Dominic Cummings) have told them in private briefings. All too frequently, this turns out to be heavily distorted or simply untrue (like the infamous ‘fake punch’ story disseminated by Laura Kuenssberg). As Jill Rutter of The UK in a Changing Europe, put it: “This way of operating does the public a big disservice. It allows Downing Street to get its message out without having to take responsibility for it”.

This isn’t necessarily a case of deliberate pro-Tory bias, but it’s part of a wider pattern where, as Oborne argues, robust and challenging journalism is traded in for access to ‘exclusive’ information. Such behaviour is, unfortunately, par for the course in the case of a Tory paper reporting Tory sources, but we should expect BBC journalism to adhere to Fourth Estate principles, chief among which are treating all forms of ‘official’ sources with scepticism and circumspection.

The curse of the vox pop

It’s not simply a matter of how the BBC should deal with politicians in a situation which combines a lying government, a propagandist press and a social media filter bubble. There’s also the question of how, if it wishes to be impartial, it should treat highly opinionated members of the public who appear in programmes such as Question Time or in vox pops.

In his journeyings around the UK in the general election period, Adam Ramsay was told by many people how confused they were about politics, but such confusion is hardly likely to be dissipated by being exposed to, for example, the views of an audience member on Question Time who believes the myth (first generated years ago by Boris Johnson, but still a press staple) that the EU has banned bent bananas, or ‘Brenda from Bristol’ complaining in a vox pop that “there’s too much politics going on at the moment”. As the veteran BBC correspondent Nick Jones argues in the case of vox pops, “rarely has a technique become so overused and repetitive, or failed so spectacularly to present an informative or representative snapshot of local views”.

Question Time is also a concern. Aside from the question of audience make-up, it’s noteworthy that UKIP was represented on the panel in 24% of the programme editions between 2010 and 2017 (with 35 appearances to date by Nigel Farage alone), despite never having had more than two MPs. Whilst the Greens, who had one MP consistently in the same period, appeared in only 7% of programmes. Last year the Labour MEP Richard Corbett revealed that, since 2010, not a single pro-EU MEP had appeared on Question Time.

So what’s on the Daily Mail’s front page today?

The final systemic pressure which the BBC faces in attempting to fulfil its commitment to impartiality is the massive power of the Tory press, which daily defines the news agenda. If a story doesn’t appear in the mainstream press, then it’s highly liable not to be considered newsworthy by the BBC either, as Robert Peston has noted. Key examples here would be the lack of coverage of the Cambridge Analytica and the Brexit campaign funding scandals. Conversely, press stories which owe their existence only to the editorial biases of Tory newspapers all too easily bounce their way onto the broadcast news agenda by sheer pressure of numbers. It’s no good the BBC arguing that they treat such stories impartially: they are stories only according to the news values of the Tory press, and, as such, simply should not be on air at all.

When one considers the sheer number of journalists (still) employed by the BBC, its heavy dependence on press stories seems quite unnecessary, particularly as it imperils its statutory commitment to due impartiality. One very simple solution would be to cease all forms of on-air newspaper reviewing. It’s anyway extremely hard to see the point of these, and, given the state of what passes for ‘journalism’ in most of the national press, these simply propagate extremely right-wing views to a far larger audience than they would otherwise reach.

Also questionable is the extent to which journalists from highly partisan and journalistically questionable newspapers should be interviewed on news and current affairs programmes as ‘experts’, particularly as they frequently exploit such appearances as yet another opportunity to editorialise, and are all too often treated with kid gloves, indeed deference (forenames are de rigueur) by those interviewing them.

And then there is the well-attested charge that the BBC has become far too reliant on using right-wing think tanks as ‘accredited experts’, and doing so without explaining exactly who they are.

The way forward

The election may be over, but the BBC still has to find a way of reporting news and current affairs impartially under a Tory government which has thrown away the rulebook governing its relations with the broadcast media and appears to be determined to intimidate them into submission.

And as for Brexit, this has barely begun, even though Johnson has already started to cleanse the word ‘Brexit’ from the government’s operations, and, accordingly, the client press is clearly determined to propagate the myth that the whole thing is now done and dusted. Given the behaviour of most of the British press during the Brexit negotiations, there is every reason to assume that ‘reporting’ of the extremely tough negotiations ahead will consist largely of threatening our erstwhile partners, raging against them for not giving in to our every demand and insisting on sending a gunboat as a means of dealing with the looming fishing row. In such a situation, whatever the pressure from government and however powerful the press agenda, the BBC can have but one option: to report the situation as accurately, fully and impartially as possible.

It cannot be anything other than intimidating to be under daily attack by the combined forces of the Tory government and the client press. However, particularly at this key moment in British history, it would be catastrophic not only for the BBC’s journalistic standards but also for wider political discourse if the Corporation was to develop an institutional paranoia about being seen as ‘anti-right’, even ‘anti-British’ (as in the Falklands War), and tried to compensate accordingly.

If the BBC believes that the right-wing bullies in the government and the press can be placated, the three-year aftermath of the Referendum suggests that they will never be satisfied with anything less than total victory. But if the Corporation should try to mollify them still further than it appears already to have done, then it runs the risk of abandoning any semblance of impartiality and thus of finally losing the support of those long-suffering listeners and viewers who still think of themselves as its natural allies. We desperately need the BBC to speak truth to power (including the power of the press) and not to quail before it.

Julian Petley is Professor of  Journalism in the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, Brunel University London.  He is a member of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review and of the advisory board of  Index on Censorship. His most recent books are the edited collection The Media and Public Shaming (I. B. Tauris, 2013) and the second edition of the co-authored Culture Wars: the Media and the British Left (Routledge, 2019). He is currently co-editing the Routledge Companion to Censorship and Freedom of Expression.

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