The BBC is the backbone of British news. It has operated for nearly a century in the national interest, free from commercial or proprietorial motives, and it has established itself as one of the world’s most trusted news organisations.
That is under threat as new technology – and new politics in which lying is permissable – brings its essential motives into conflict.
The BBC Charter and the Agreement that accompanies it commits the BBC to “ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality”.
While we will come to impartiality later, accuracy is a critical feature of the BBC news. Unlike many newspapers, news websites, and even broadcasters, the BBC is less able than most to be inaccurate.
Something most news organisations do not admit is that they are quite deliberately inaccurate. This is because accuracy is time-consuming and a scoop is time sensitive.
In the old days that meant a lot of newspapers felt pressure to publish the next day when a story came their way in case another paper got the story too and released it first. That conflicted with the accuracy imperative, which would require double-checking and corroborative sources, which takes valuable time.
Because it is impartial, the BBC is is very dependent on political access that is increasingly under threat.
Nowadays this imperative is even more severe. News doesn’t break the next morning, it goes online the next minute. And getting it out first still boosts the audience.
This is why the BBC rarely breaks a news story. It does great deep dive pieces of great detail on serious subjects deemed to be of public value. But it rarely publishes a scoop.
When it comes to politics, however, it can only generate an accurate picture of what is going on if it can get access to everyone. And that is a growing challenge.
During the European Elections, something unnerving but certainly not unpredictable happened.
Investigative journalism at Channel 4 got it banned from Brexit Party campaign activity. If that wasn’t bad enough, the rest of the press turned a blind eye and kept attending. That demonstrated how big the risk had become for news organisations that fail to toe the party line – even shutting up about secret payments to politicians.
This sort of shutting down of media scrutiny has been coming for a long time. Shrill claims about the “MSM” (Main Stream Media) come from all sides, making a partisan fanbase likely to support such moves by politicians they approve of and against outlets they don’t.
Impartiality is vital to the BBC retaining access. The problem is that impartiality is very unpopular with the public.
There is no more mainstream a media on the planet than the Beeb. That said, the same risk may still seem limited for it. Even when Boris Johnson copied Farage by refusing to take part in a Channel 4 leadership debate, he still felt obliged to take part in the BBC one.
So the BBC is a little protected by its status, but it remains very dependent on political access if it wishes to stay accurate. In fact, by being non-partisan it is almost uniquely at risk. The Telegraph doesn’t need to fear Labour MPs refusing to engage with it, nor does the Guardian need to fear Tory MPs turning down its calls. Their readerships are hapilly served by biassed and partisan news.
The BBC on the other hand has a diverse audience and needs access to all sides to stay impartial.
Impartiality is vital to the BBC retaining access, and to serving the national good with accuracy on political happenings.
The problem is that impartiality is very unpopular.
The old adage at the BBC was that so long as both sides of a debate complained, it must be doing something right. The trouble is that people now have so much choice for news that they can simply go to a channel or website that is biassed to their side.
This is reflected in the growing upset in how the BBC reports brexit. It is criticised as biassed by remainers and leavers alike, which means by the old measure it is managing to be impartial.
A doctor tells you you have a large tumour that needs surgery, but the hospital then introduces you to Les from accounts to say “nah, probably just a bit of wind”
But with the rise of social media echo-chambers, along with the biasses preferred by many people in their other media, the “other side” can to many people appear extreme for being rarely seen or heard. That in turn creates an emotional reaction when the BBC includes the other side in its reporting, compared to the less impactful reporting of the background noise agreement with “my side” that people presume to be truth or mainstream even when it is not.
By offering everyone a platform and offering no opinion of its own, the BBC seeks to adhere to its charter and ethos. But in a country that is highly divided, and that is split along many lines, such lack of bias may make the Beeb appear even more biassed to many viewers.
Worse still, this now puts impartiality and accuracy into conflict.
Impartiality v Accuracy
The BBC Charter Agreement says it should do all it can “to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality” in its news and other output dealing with matters of political or industrial controversy.
The problem is that sometimes the truth is controversial. To understand the BBC’s conflicting motives, one need only look at climate change.
Climate Change is real. Climate Change is also man made. Scientific research over many decades has arrived at this conclusion. But climate change is controversial too, because it requires policy responses that some people or companies don’t like.
To maintain impartiality, and also access to politicians who don’t like climate change but are needed for other stories too, the BBC has thus stuck to its platforming of both sides.
The problem with this is that it pits lies against truth as equals. This is a bit like if you have a colonoscopy and the doctor tells you you have a large tumour that needs surgery, but the hospital then introduces you to Les from accounts to say “nah, probably just a bit of wind or a dodgy curry.”
That matters. Certain newspapers, broadcasters and websites have sponsorship or other incentives to deny climate change, so they lie.
Their readers might genuinely therefore believe climate change is not real, while at the same time, politicians have an obvious incentive to appeal to readers who are also voters.
So the BBC is faced with a motivational quandary. It must choose between being innacurate or being biassed, which in turn puts access at risk and thus endangers future accuracy on other news.
Unless of course, everyone stops lying.
Or the BBC is given power to subpoena MPs.