Debates about the BBC’s impartiality have been a constant feature in the broadcaster’s long history.
And so, the BBC impartiality row grumbles on. It was bound to, for the philosophy behind journalistic impartiality is as admirable as it is fraught with difficulties. The ability to cut through public opinion is something the BBC has always advocated for; in David Hendy’s The BBC: A People’s History, he details how the BBC has long struggled to contain those who contribute to its programming. Producers at the BBC during the nineteen-thirties warned artists not to use words like ‘Damn’ or ‘My God’ and were told not to make jokes about ‘Scotsmen, Welshmen, clergymen, drink, or medical matters’. The apex of this brand of censorship was captured in Norman Long’s 1932 song ‘We Can’t Let You Broadcast That’; with little sense of irony, the song was summarily banned.
But the current crisis facing the BBC is not about who should be telling what jokes and when. It is about matters of governmental policy. Hendy’s example shows us that these questions of impartiality and dare we say ‘censorship’, have long been swirling through the halls of the BBC. More closely related to contemporary issues, Hendy talks about the role of the corporation during the general strike of 1926. He says that, when Winston Churchill phoned Savoy Hill to demand that it broadcast the sound of the British Gazette being printed – a short-lived British state newspaper published by the government during the strike – John Reith refused. However, this was a rare instance of defiance. According to Hendy, the only speakers allowed on air during the strike were those who shared an anti-strike sentiment. Winston Churchill himself, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was broadcast live to the nation during the crisis from Reith’s own home. The Labour party, and union heads, were made furious by this. The BBC did nothing to quell their distaste.
One phrase picked up by Hendy interests me in particular. ‘Our news was “doped” only by suppressions, not fabrications’, one confidential memo at the BBC in 1926 put it. This choice use of terminology – ‘doped’ – implies that the BBC were sleepwalking into the pockets of Stanley Baldwin’s cabinet. It refuses all professional and creative responsibility for the broadcasting decisions made by producers during the saga. This distinction between ‘suppressions’ and ‘fabrications’ pulls on the thread that runs through all contemporary discussions of bias within the BBC. Namely, what exactly is meant by impartiality? Is this thing we call impartiality, this gold standard of journalistic integrity, the refusal to engage with public discourse, or the refusal to fabricate it? There are many who would argue that the BBC have had a tendency towards suppression in their coverage of global and national events in recent years, even if one does not go so far as to accuse the BBC of barefaced lying.
For instance, the Independent reported recently that No. 10 pressured the BBC into avoidance of the term ‘lockdown’ during early spring in 2020. The Independent claims BBC editors asked reporters to ‘turn up scepticism’ on Labour’s call for a Covid-19 plan B. If this alleged leak is verified, then it does not amount to a ‘fabrication’. However, it is a suppression of the full situation, and it does show a close relationship between the BBC and officials within the Conservative government. This might be construed as political ‘doping’. Is presenting a version of the truth enough, or should one commit to presenting the whole truth? What happens when the truth you present just so happens to be the official party line of the current government?
These questions first piqued my interest when Emily Maitlis was dropped from Newsnight after an opening monologue on the show in which she said of Dominic Cummings: ‘The country can see that Cummings broke the rules, it is shocked the government cannot’. Within a matter of hours, the BBC ruled that her statement violated due impartiality guidelines. Responding to her impromptu dismissal in her MacTaggart lecture, Maitlis clarifies that what she took issue with was not the eventual editorial decision made, but rather the rapidity of the managerial response. She argued that it violated due process. We can see echoes of this in Gary Lineker’s expulsion. There was no investigation into whether his tweet violated impartiality rules; instead, he was removed from Match of the Day with immediate effect, and then the investigation took place.
In a society where truths are mushrooming like a nuclear cloud that threatens to wipe out all common sense and journalistic integrity, it can be difficult to determine where the BBC should position itself. That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why impartiality has become such a buzzword over the last decade. Trying to answer the question as to what impartiality entails is increasingly difficult in a world where individual voices are not only getting louder, but stronger too. As Hendy shows, the rise of political and social extremism, both on the left and the right, doesn’t present a new challenge for the BBC. However, it does present an intensified one, and one for which there is no easy answer. I sympathise with the BBC in this respect. One does not want to lean too strongly to either the left or the right, for neither side presents us with the unadulterated truth.
During her MacTaggart lecture, Maitlis accused the BBC of ‘both-sides-ism’; of giving equal weight to both sides, even when all empirical evidence suggests otherwise. She is critical of this rule because she believes that there are many circumstances, such as our departure from the EU and Cumming’s conduct during the pandemic, for which she feels both sides do not have an equal standing. Whilst her criticism is valid, especially in relation to the BBC’s coverage of the climate crisis, one cannot help but understand why the BBC would like to present us with both sides of an argument. One cannot help but sympathise with the idea that it is nobody’s job at the BBC to determine what an ‘equal standing’ entails. After all, audiences’ need to make up their own minds. We are all blinkered by biases that are sometimes imperceptible even to the brightest and most discerning of us, such as those blessed enough to produce programmes at the BBC. Maybe what’s best is a policy of ‘No-sides-ism’? But then, the difference between ‘no-sides-ism’ and ‘both-sides-ism’ is merely a semantic one. In practice, it is unlikely that any of us could tell the difference.
Maitlis also said that the BBC ‘sought to pacify’ the Conservative government by issuing a swift apology for her Newsnight monologue about Dominic Cummings. Again, the language of appeasement rears its ugly head. Just like the ‘doped’ newsroom editors of the General Strike, Maitlis implies that the BBC’s attitude towards politics is one of placation, not provocation. Not that provocation is what we should expect from the BBC; rather, what we should expect from the BBC is a level of editorial ascendency. That is, the ability to rise above internal squabbling and provide its audience with a sense of objectivity. Wading through individual and collective definitions of impartiality can seem daunting. However, I think we are more easily able to identify what impartiality isn’t; it isn’t the suppression of information at the discretion of Downing Street, and it isn’t the stifling of journalistic and personal viewpoints that do not suit cabinet ministers.
Curiously, it would feel less underhand if the issue confronting BBC impartiality was one of clashing ideologies, and balancing political commentaries in an age where social media supplies every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a platform and a dubious sense of their own self-importance. After all, impartiality is an admirable principle in all forms of journalism, whether you’re left-leaning or right-leaning. It is one that we should strive for even when we invariably fall short of its lofty heights. As far as I can see, the row with Gary Lineker is not a question of striking balances, and ensuring all voices across the political spectrum are heard. Rather, Gary Lineker’s hasty dismissal and even hastier reinstatement, is about petty party politics. And that is, in essence, the problem.
The problem with the impartiality rules as they stand is that they parade around as though they are some bipartisan, philosophical doctrine, all whilst being used to put a stop to party political dissent – even when that isn’t occurring within the government itself. The BBC is not a party whip; it should not be concerning itself with the individual views of its chairman, or the current cabinet. Rather, it should be working to form a cohesive whole, one that works to democratise knowledge. It currently appears to be failing in the Reithian task it has set itself.
Rebecca Clayton is a higher education professional and freelance writer. Graduating with a masters degree in English Literature: Issues in Modern Culture from UCL in 2020, her thesis on George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published in the Orwell Studies academic journal, the leading publication globally for scholarly studies of Orwell.