Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 11 March 2023

How the political right has used ‘impartiality’ to first gain political power, and then take over the BBC


The BBC has never been completely independent of the government. But that is no reason to ignore its gradual transformation over the last thirteen years into a media organisation that has become increasingly prone to do the government’s bidding. A process that began out of fear has now become institutionalised through the appointment of a once deputy chairman of a local Conservative party and council candidate as director general, a Conservative party donor deeply involved in party politics as Chairman, and a former Communications Director for Theresa May on the BBC Board.

Political appointments have been made to these senior positions at the BBC before, but we have not had a government like this before. A government that is far more prepared to interfere with established institutions to get its own way will mean that its political appointees in public institutions will be prepared to exert far more party political pressure than their predecessors ever have.

The means which today’s political right have used so effectively to make the BBC an instrument to advance their political ends is to elevate their interpretation of impartiality above all else and then to apply that concept selectively.

As I outlined here, the primacy of impartiality as balance between two political sides is a means by which a populist right can obscure truth and create bias. It allowed the populist right (the party of Johnson and the right wing press) to gain power through the Brexit referendum, when the truth about Brexit was buried because the BBC chose balance over facts and explanation. Since then it has allowed the government, through its press, to selectively squash things said by anyone involved with the BBC that embarrasses the government, but ignore equivalent cases involving opposition politicians.

So BBC presenters like Alan Sugar can freely use social media to attack opposition politicians, but because no right wing newspapers splash headlines about this the BBC does nothing. But if Gary Lineker states facts about the government’s latest illegal immigration bill (yes it is cruel to refugees and yes the language used to promote it incites violence) he is fired. The BBC’s rules on impartiality are applied in a biased way.

So when that same BBC presenter criticised Qatar’s human rights record on the BBC before its coverage of the world cup that was fine, because that was “something which is a matter of fact.” But when the same presenter in a tweet stands up for the human rights of refugees coming by irregular means to the UK (yes the proposed bill does break international law protecting the human rights of refugees), facts suddenly become unimportant and the BBC’s notion of impartiality rules. The BBC’s rules on impartiality are applied in a biased way

So the BBC lost no time in responding to complaints from 10 Downing Street in itself criticising its Newsnight team and presenter Emily Maitlis for an introduction about public anger over the way Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown rules. There was no investigation, just a statement that the introduction had not been impartial. There was no attempt to suggest that anything in the introduction was factually wrong, or expressed an opinion about matters that remained uncertain. Instead simply stating facts that put the government in a bad light was sufficient to have something labelled as not impartial. But when the Chairman of a well established right wing magazine chaired a flagship BBC political programme, and tweeted his views freely, the BBC turned a blind eye. Once again, the BBC’s rules on impartiality are applied in a biased way.

It may seem ironic that rules designed to promote impartiality should lead the BBC to become biased and subject to the government’s bidding, but it is inevitable when the government and its press have more power than other politicians and newspapers, and when those in charge at the BBC are appointed by that government. In the past facts and the truth have been an important defence against political inference at the BBC, but once stating facts that embarrass the government is deemed impermissible for anyone working at the BBC that defence against political interference disappears. It is no accident that the current leaders at the BBC promote their definition of impartiality so strongly. It is no accident that the BBC’s impartiality rules apply not just to what its political journalists say on the BBC, but also to what already famous sports presenters say in a personal capacity on twitter. The latter presents no threat to the reputation of the BBC, but it does represent a threat to the government. [see postscript]

The selective promotion of political balance over facts is doing the BBC a great deal of harm. It has lost some excellent journalists as a result, and it is now in danger of losing its flagship sports programme. It is losing the trust of the public. But today’s political right wins either way. A BBC that does its bidding is just fine because it helps them keep power just as it helped them win power. If the BBC loses its reputation and its audience declines, that suits them too, because it gives more space for our equivalents of Fox News to gain an audience.

This is why it is imperative that any future Labour government creates a truly independent BBC, where once again the BBC’s mission becomes to inform, educate and entertain. A BBC where political operatives can no longer take control, and a BBC where broadcasting facts, knowledge and truth are never subservient to party political balance. Until then those who want to see this kind of public service broadcaster should have no hesitation in criticising what the BBC has become, in pointing out how today’s BBC acts in a manner that is biased towards this government and in supporting those working at the BBC who try to tell the truth but are attacked by the BBC as a result. A media independent of the government is crucial to the survival of democracy.

Postscript 13/03/23

The reasons given for restricting Lineker's freedom of speech are absurd. The fact that the public pay for the BBC and the BBC pays Lineker to present a programme about football should never give either the BBC or the public the right to restrict what Lineker says about politics in a personal capacity on twitter. To say "as a license fee payer I don't pay Lineker's salary to hear his political views" is silly because you don't pay him to write on twitter but to present a football programme. You don't have to follow him on twitter. The reason anyone else is reading about his political views is because the Mail, Telegraph and the BBC chose to publicise them!

To say that Lineker owes some part of his twitter following to his role at the BBC is also irrelevant. Does every celebrity have to have their twitter account controlled by the media organisations that made them famous? No one with any sense thinks that Lineker's tweets represent the official position of the BBC, so any sensible BBC management would ignore what he said about refugees on twitter, just as they have ignored his and countless other tweets by BBC presenters in the past.

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