‘It’s deadly serious’: The War on the BBC
Over the past three years, the BBC has faced accusations of bias from all sides of the Brexit and political debate. Does this mean the corporation is doing something right? Or is bashing the Beeb simply more politically useful now? Sebastian Whale investigates
In the early afternoon of Sunday 12 May 2019, Nigel Farage, still feeling agitated, went on Twitter. “We are not just fighting the political class, but the BBC too,” he told his more than 1.3 million followers. Earlier, he had called the BBC the “enemy”.
The Brexit party leader had just appeared on The Andrew Marr show, the BBC’s flagship Sunday political programme. Midway through the European election campaign, he had been pressed by Marr on his past views on gun control and foreigners with HIV accessing the NHS. “What is wrong with the BBC?” Farage responded, waving his arms in an exasperated fashion. “This is absolutely ludicrous. I’ve never in my life seen a more ridiculous interview than this.” His subsequent post on social media, which received 10,000 retweets, included a clip of the exchange.
Watching on was Richard Corbett, the leader of the Labour party in the European Parliament, who was incredulous that Farage had recently appeared on both Marr and BBC Question Time. After accusing the BBC of “blatant bias”, he tweeted: “Who in the BBC is deciding to give such favourable treatment and priceless pre-election publicity to him?” Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former head of communications and a member of the People’s Vote campaign, responded, “someone very high up in the Beeb is very very pro Farage [sic]”.
While attacks on Auntie Beeb are nothing new, the corporation is facing broadsides from across the political spectrum. “You sort of expected it from Farage and the right because they’ve always had an ideological interest in destroying the BBC because a lot of them don’t believe in it. That’s fine, it’s fair enough – it’s what they think,” says a BBC source. “But when you have the rest of them on the other side becoming as conspiracy-theory minded and hysterical, it’s alarming. We’re just getting it from everybody and this stuff might be getting some traction with people. It’s deadly serious.”
So, if all sides are taking issue, does that illustrate that the BBC must, therefore, be doing something right in its pursuit of impartiality? Are the attacks – their nature, purpose and cut through – something we haven’t seen before? And how can the corporation defend itself without putting itself at risk of more accusations of bias?
I’ve spoken to senior figures from inside the BBC and the major political parties to try and answer these questions.
Returning from relative obscurity after quitting frontline politics in 2016, Farage’s new party is a more professional beast. Promising the end of “mister nice guy”, it seemed he had acquired a few skills from his new friend, Donald Trump, on how to deal with media outlets you deem to be hostile – denigrate them.
The Farage interview on Marr split opinion. A Brexit party source describes it as “idiotic” and “Class A silliness”. Tory MP John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary, has “quite a lot of sympathy” with the former Ukip man over the “irrelevant” questioning. “He was entitled to complain,” he tells me. Others quickly defended Marr’s right to ask tough questions of a man whose party was leading in the polls. A senior BBC source says: “Some said we shouldn’t platform him – we don’t platform people, we interview them.”
Though Farage has long attacked the BBC, a Brexit party official claims the pivot to a more combative approach is of the corporation’s own making. “We’ve tried to be reasonable and that doesn’t work. So, this time we thought well, alright, let’s try going at them a bit.”
An official close to Farage argues it took for the former Ukip man to call Herman Van Rompuy a “damp rag” back in 2010 before the media paid him any interest. “He makes one speech taking the piss and suddenly he’s a global phenomenon. Now, that is learnt behaviour, and where we learnt from was the media’s response. ‘Don’t be serious, don’t be respectful, we don’t give a shit if you do that’... Well, if that’s what the press is going to report, that’s what we’re going to have to provide.”
The Brexit party won last month’s European elections, securing 29 seats and 31.6% of the vote. Sources in the party argue that the BBC’s approach since then has improved, with Brexit MEPs featuring on BBC political shows. When asked how the party would interact with the BBC going forward, a senior figure said, “depends how they behave”. “We’re no great fans. You’ve got to remember, our problem with the BBC isn’t just news coverage. Its light entertainment is universally Remain... The news is actually the best bit, which given how one-sided the news can be is an astonishing thing.”
A senior BBC source casts doubt on Farage gaining much traction with the public if he pushes to abandon the licence fee (a move he threatened in the week after the Marr interview). “No more Strictly, no more Bodyguard, no more Line of Duty, no more of all these things that most people regard as being pretty fantastic things about their culture and country. I think he’ll run out of road at the end if he tries to do that. The BBC has got to start making that argument, fighting back,” they say.
Criticism of the BBC is by no means the preserve of the Eurosceptic right. According to Today programme presenter Nick Robinson, David Cameron once threatened to “close down” the BBC. The left has also become more vocal following the election of Jeremy Corbyn, as have Remain voters in the wake of the EU referendum.
One figure to continually go after the Beeb is Labour peer Andrew Adonis, whose transformation from straight-laced infrastructure tsar to anti-establishment Remainer caught many unawares. The former minister, who uses the moniker “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”, has accused the organisation of being largely responsible for Brexit and Farage’s political success.
A BBC journalist tells me that prominent campaigners often privately praise the BBC for doing its job while admitting that publicly saying the opposite suits their cause. The BBC has become the repository for many people’s Brexit angst, another source tells me. “The Remain side, they lost, and they’re pissed off. And so, they obviously can attack the winning side, and they do, and that’s fair enough. But they want something else to blame,” they say, adding that Remainers probably “assumed even though we’re supposed to be impartial, we might be on their side”. “Of course, the others think we did and do our bit for Remain.”
Rarely have people paid as much attention to the composition of BBC panels. Studious observers will comment on the number of voices from their side of the political debate. Political blog Guido Fawkes reported that 72 % of guests on Question Time, Politics Live and Any Questions between September and October last year supported Remain. Whittingdale, a Brexiter, notes it is “exceptionally difficult” for the Beeb to navigate this tightrope, but says the corporation might need to adapt going forward.
“I do think the BBC perhaps needs to have further thought about it on the basis that – it’s not their fault – but this argument [Brexit] is going to go on for a very long time. The strength of opinion on both sides – people get very angry. On the one hand, you’ve got a lot of Brexit supporters who think the BBC is clearly biased and very unbalanced, then you’ve got Andrew Adonis on the other side who calls it the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation, on what possible basis I have no idea.”
A senior BBC source says that Remain and Leave voices have an expectation of balance that is based “in a world that’s forever 23 June 2016”. “Actually, you can’t do that because it’s a nuanced thing,” they add, pointing to myriad of different views on how to approach Brexit. “To have stuck to 2016 would have been completely failing the audience and would have meant you just had those extremes.”
Katy Searle has been the head of BBC Westminster and editor of political newsgathering since before the Scottish referendum. She tells me that all editors make “sensible and carefully monitored decisions on how you cast programmes”, based on considerations such as political leanings, Brexit inclinations and gender balance.
Like with Farage, the BBC can often come under flak for its choice of guests, including Ben Shapiro, the American conservative political commentator, who appeared on Politics Live last month. But multiple sources reject the notion of the BBC platforming any guest, which would imply that they had space to deliver their views without being held to account. Shapiro walked out of the interview with Andrew Neil due to his line of questioning.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn brought with it more open censure of the BBC from the left. The veteran left-winger has been critical of the BBC’s coverage of his leadership, and the party has had many run-ins with the corporation. Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, who had to have security protection at last year’s Labour party conference, has been a particular target for many of his supporters.
Speaking to Vice News in 2016, Corbyn claimed the BBC was “obsessed” with damaging his leadership. “There is not one story on any election anywhere in the UK that the BBC will not spin into a problem for me,” he said.
In March last year, the BBC strongly denied accusations that Newsnight had altered an image of Corbyn wearing a hat during a debate on the Salisbury nerve agent attack. The row revealed many of the tensions that had built up between the BBC and the left. Guardian journalist Owen Jones accused Newsnight of seeking to portray Corbyn as a “Soviet stooge”.
Labour, like the Brexit party, is particularly critical of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, which a party source describes as “out of date” and “elitist”. While keen to stress that the BBC is not a “monolith”, but instead comprised of numerous teams and programmes at both a regional and national level, the Labour leadership believe they get a fairer ride from ITV and Sky than the BBC “as a whole” (though there has been an increase in coverage of Labour policy announcements recently, a source says).
One Labour source questions how much broadcasters are led by the direction set by national newspapers. “The transmission network of highly-partisan attacks from billionaire-owned right-wing newspapers into the general broadcast bloodstream, that’s a constant concern for us.”
Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South since 2015, is a former BBC journalist. He also fears that cuts have led to an over-reliance on the narrative established by newspapers. “When you reduce resources in the BBC, it means that the BBC becomes ever increasingly dependent on having the agenda set by what is now a very narrowly owned press media.” BBC journalists point out how often papers carry stories or interviews first reported by the corporation.
Compared to recent party leaders, Corbyn has been more forthright with his views on the BBC. One BBC journalist notes that while Ed Miliband would call out abuse of journalists, his successor has often had more of a “willingness” and perhaps motivation “to go along with it”. Searle, who fields calls from political parties (more often than not with complaints) from 6am sometimes through to 11 at night, says senior political figures have always been outspoken about the BBC.
Branding the corporation “opaque”, Lewis wants licence fee payers to have more of a say over “the editorial decisions the BBC makes”, and for the Beeb to become “more democratically accountable” to its staff and the public. Questioning senior BBC executives’ decision to sign up to George Osborne’s funding cuts, he says: “Sometimes it really felt that it was lions led by donkeys. The journalists were doing the best that they could... It was turkeys voting for Christmas. Management were summoned by government and they actually made the cuts before they went into the office with them.” On Tuesday, the BBC announced it was ending free TV licences for over-75s (only those who claim pension credit will eligible from June 2020), allowing the organisation to avoid £500m in cuts.
Lewis, who is a supporter of a second EU referendum, says people want to have oversight over how editorial decisions are reached. “If the editorial policies are transparent and you know that executives aren’t being summoned into the government and told this is how it’s going to go, if the funding of the BBC is transparent… then people can have more confidence and faith in the editorial decisions that are being made,” he argues. In August, Corbyn called for BBC directors to be elected.
A senior BBC journalist insists, “no one from the BBC would shy away from being accountable” and says the BBC “could make editorial decisions more transparent”. “There is a case for being more responsive,” they add.
Social media, which has become a breeding ground for conspiracy theories about the organisation’s political leanings, has given new life to attacks against the BBC. Recent political appointments have only added to this frenzy.
Prominent BBC journalist Robbie Gibb became Director of Communication at No 10 after the 2017 election. The former head of live political programmes at the BBC joined Sir Craig Oliver, who worked as David Cameron’s top spinner, in moving from Auntie Beeb to working for a Conservative prime minister.
Lewis says there are “concerns” about senior BBC figures and “where they’ve ended up”. “There’s a disproportionate number of them that end up in the Conservative party machine,” he says. Whittingdale disagrees, however, arguing that what people do after leaving the BBC is “entirely up to them”. “I have much more problem with, for instance, BBC employees expressing highly political views. I have made several complaints about that,” he tells me, revealing that he has raised concerns over Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker’s conduct on Twitter. He has also taken issue with Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis’ Twitter feed.
Lewis also harbours concerns about the lack of diversity among the “broad thrust” of people who end up in top jobs in the BBC. “It’s little wonder that you have a limited number and faith in confidence in that top team if they all tend to be relatively affluent, white male backgrounds,” he says. “BBC diversity – and I don’t just mean black and ethnic minority diversity – but diversity in terms of class and background is quite narrow.”
Commenting on members of the lobby – the group of journalists that work in Westminster – joining the Government, a Labour source said: “You turn it around and think we could have a general election soon and we are going to get in, how many people that work in the lobby can you imagine working in our administration? That’s a broader problem with the unspoken both political and almost cultural biases within political journalism as a whole.”
Social media makes it harder for the BBC to defend itself against false accusations, which can reach many users across different platforms. “There is a casualisation of making links that don’t exist,” a senior journalist tells me of theories that do the rounds. This is the new dynamic the BBC is dealing with. “Shooting the messenger is a 1,000-year-old strategy.” These days, the major difference is that the message is “disseminated online”, they add.
Katy Searle explains: “The noise on social media has got louder since the referendum result and then increasingly in the last three years. There has been a huge amount of criticism. That can be quite difficult because it is hard to make a decision about how you engage with that.”
The BBC has taken to rebutting false tweets via accounts such as the BBC News Press Team and BBC Politics. The calculation over whether to get involved is complex, however. A senior BBC source says: “It’s really hard because we are serious about impartiality. We do not want to be dragged into the political debate, but if we start refuting stuff and arguing the toss then quite quickly you end up being pulled into it even more than we are.”
Searle says: “If you engage with it the danger is particularly on social media that it gets more currency… It has a butterfly effect; more and more people see it. As a corporation, what we do is try and, again, think about when it’s right to get involved and we tend to do it through the press office rather than individuals.”
One senior source says that the current rhetoric towards the BBC is the most hostile it has been for more than 15 years. “The only period that was comparable was around the Iraq War. That was incredibly personal and passionate and vicious. But we didn’t have Twitter then.”
Searle argues that the pressure on the BBC has remained constant since the EU referendum, rather than go through any recent spike. That said, with journalists across the pond often being berated as a result of the media approach adopted by the US president, Searle believes political leaders should act to preserve journalists’ rights to ask the tough questions.
“Political parties need to respect the role of the media. Mostly they do,” she says. “I just think it’s important that if that happens, then we talk or we have a conversation in the background and have conversations about lowering that temperature because most if not all politicians expect and respect an independent media in this country.”
When asked if they would like political leaders to call out abuse, a senior BBC source says: “There’s probably a yearning out there for some kind of coming together. That has to be decided upon by the next prime minister. Whether that’ll take hold or whether that will work in the circumstances, it would be hard to know. It would be nice to have some civility back.”