The political landscape in the UK has changed dramatically in recent years and BBC news is now faced increasingly with the issue of how to honour its commitment to impartiality when covering anti-establishment politicians and parties.
Many of the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, Scottish independence, UKIP and others believe that not only is BBC news not reporting in an unbiased way but that it does not put a very high priority on doing so.
If BBC news does not tackle this issue, it is jeopardising its own future. After all, its USP, the justification for its privileged position, is that it is genuinely impartial.
The beating heart of the British establishment is to be found at BBC news. Certain
contentious propositions are considered to be simple common sense. Here is a selection: -
- Politicians on the political spectrum between David Cameron and Tony Blair are generally sensible. Those outside that spectrum like Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn are to be treated with considerable circumspection; they are liable to be mad or dangerous or both.
- The UK should remain united. Scottish independence is not at all desirable.
- The UK should certainly stay in the EU. It’s obvious.
- The lack of social mobility into the UK’s elites is a shame but best to turn a blind eye to the role of private schools.
- The rise of absolute poverty, child poverty and food banks in the UK since 2010 is terrible but best not to dwell on such unpleasantness (and certainly should not give a platform to poor people).
- The monarchy is, obviously, marvellous and sycophancy is best approach.
Such a worldview, explains why BBC news has reacted with lofty dismissiveness to claims of bias made by anti-establishment figures.
Jeremy Corbyn believes that the BBC “are trying to damage the leadership of the Labour Party”. A petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, to be sacked due to bias against Corbyn, recently attracted 35,000 signatures before it was taken down because some of the people using the petition had made sexist comments.
Sir Michael Lyons, a former chairman of the BBC Trust has suggested that the BBC has bowed to political pressure to show bias against Corbyn. He said there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party….I can understand why people are worried about whether the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.”
Today, some Corbyn supporters booed Kuenssberg, when she was called to ask a question. (Reports that she was prevented from asking a question are wrong. Corbyn quieted the booing. She was merely delayed for 5 seconds.)
During the Scottish independence campaign, Alex Salmond and supporters of independence were furious with Kuenssberg’s predecessor, Nick Robinson for what they regarded as his anti-independence bias. Thousands of pro-independence Scots rallied outside the BBC’s Glasgow headquarters to demand Robinson’s resignation. Alex Salmond has said: - “The BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum was a disgrace’” and was a “significant factor” in the referendum result.
Nigel Farage has many times complained that the BBC is biased against him and UKIP.
These politicians may be anti-establishment but they are not fringe. Corbyn is the alternative prime minister and his party is level in the polls with the Tories and polled more votes in last month’s elections than them. No one doubts the significance of the support for independence in Scotland. UKIP won almost four million votes at the General Election.
In each of these cases, the BBC strenuously denied bias. To do otherwise would be to admit a breach of the BBC’s own editorial guidelines:- “Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences…”
The BBC regularly argues that the fact that it receives a similar amount of complaints from the “other side” is good evidence that it is not biased. This is a fallacious argument. It is obvious that some complaints may be valid and others may be groundless. Only a proper investigation can determine the truth.
BBC news ought to be worried by a BBC study published last month which found that viewers in Scotland, questioned after the referendum, were the most critical and least supportive of the BBC of any viewers in the UK. It would be surprising if supporters of Corbyn and UKIP do not feel similarly.
It is essential to BBC news’ long term future that it retain or regain its reputation for impartiality. It should start by demonstrating that it takes the issue very seriously.
BBC news may need to set up an independent monitoring body, rather like the OBR in relation to the Treasury. Like the OBR, such a body won’t be perfect but it would be an important advance and may reassure those who do not share the establishment’s view of the world that the national broadcaster, paid for by us all, will genuinely strive to be fair to them.