The BBC’s problems are no conspiracy theory…

The BBC’s latest response to their challenges over their election coverage, in a piece in the Guardian by Fran Unsworth, their director of news and current affairs, has a very welcome headline:

“At the BBC, impartiality is precious. We will protect it”

Fran, and the BBC, are right that their impartiality is precious – as well as being required by law – but by dismissing those who are challenging them as conspiracy theorists they are doing the opposite of protecting it. They’re helping to ensure its demise.

Not a conspiracy theory

The first and most important thing to say is that very few people – and no-one serious – is suggesting there is any kind of conspiracy going on here. To suggest that they are is a classic straw man argument. Conspiracy theories are easily dismissed, and often make little sense when analysed. Of course it’s impossible to get a large number of independent minded journalists and individual editors to follow a conspiracy. We know that very well – but it’s absolutely not what the BBC is being accused of, so attacking it and dismissing it bears no relationship to the real problem – or real problems, because there are a number of connected problems involved here.

The problems with the BBC are qualitatively different. Unconscious or subconscious bias. A tendency to groupthink. Subservience to authority. High-handedness to the rest of us. This, coupled with a kind of naïveté and misunderstanding of the new media environment, is what produces the problems that we see with the BBC – and which the BBC either don’t see or don’t want to see or address.

Making mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes – and though many might take issue with Fran Unsworth’s description of ‘a couple of editorial mistakes’ as perhaps something of an underestimate –  and no-one expects all mistakes to be avoided. The big questions, though, are what kind of mistakes are made, how they are corrected and avoided in the future, and what kind of apologies are made for them. That’s where the question of unconscious or subconscious bias comes in. The two mistakes Fran Unsworth is presumably referring to are using the wrong clip for Boris Johnson at the Cenotaph and editing out the laughter that followed his answer about trust in the Question Time debate, but there are a number of others. The most noticeable thing about them, however, is not the individual errors, but that they all lean in the same direction. All tend to favour Boris Johnson. That’s where the question of bias comes in. Not a conspiracy theory that the mistakes are made deliberately, under some kind of orders, but that they tend to follow the subconscious bias.

Subservience to authority

This is closely related to the accusation – made in particular by Peter Oborne – that the BBC is too servile to the Prime Minister’s Office. Again, this isn’t a conspiracy theory, but an observation, and certainly not one restricted to the BBC. Robert Peston fits the profile every bit as much as Laura Kuenssberg, for example. This is nothing new for the BBC, however, as the role of being a state broadcaster has consequences, but it has a particular significance in a time when those in authority – and those in Number 10 in particular – are notably less trustworthy than in the past.

Being willing to make compromises in order to get access is normal journalistic practice, but there are balances to be found and the main accusation is that the balance has been tipped too far. When Number 10 is restricting other media – bans on Channel 4 News and on the Daily Mirror for example – it should ring alarm bells in the minds of any journalists. When the criticisms of Peter Oborne are taken into account, those alarm bells should be listened to even more carefully.  Denying that it’s even possible that the balance may have been missed, rather than critical self-examination, is a recipe for disaster.

Fran Unsworth assures us that the BBC are not ‘cowed or unconfident’. I hope she’s right, but the evidence does not really support her. The other ‘mistake’ – failing to secure a date for an Andrew Neil interview with Boris Johnson whilst telling (or at the very least hinting) to the other leaders that they had – does not look at all good. Acquiescing to Johnson’s subsequent request to get the Sunday morning chat with Andrew Marr rather than the evening grilling by Neil makes it look even worse. A strong, ‘uncowed’ BBC would not have let either of those things happen.

Understanding the new media

Another key aspect of the current political climate – and again, the current occupants of Number 10 are critical here – is that the relationship between the old and the new media is vitally important. It is very easy for the ‘old media’ to get ‘played’ by skilful operators of the new media. Selectively RTing poorly phrased and incomplete tweets by BBC journalists, taking them out of context and not mentioning critiques that had been put in separate tweets is just one example. Using clips from interviews similarly selectively or even editing them to create an effect (making Keir Starmer pause and look as though he didn’t answer a question that he did, or editing out the laughter that followed Boris Johnson’s answer on trust) is pretty standard practice now – and the BBC should be aware of that.

There are things that the BBC journalists could do to slow down this manipulation – including the criticism within the tweet rather than separately. “Mr Johnson again mentioned the 50,000 new nurses” in a tweet leaves it open to magnification without criticism, “Mr Johnson again claimed the debunked number of 50,000 new nurses” does not. Taking care over words more: say that a politician ‘says’ or ‘claims’ rather than ‘reveals’ something if they thing they are claiming is dubious at least. Being cynical in the face of people with a track record of dishonesty isn’t being unfair, it’s being a proper journalist.

High-handedness to critics

The responses to criticism – and Fran Unsworth’s is just the latest of many – have been perhaps the most disappointing of all. Anyone even slightly criticising the BBC is dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, fobbed off with straw man arguments or worse. Huw Edwards suggested Peter Oborne looked ‘crackers’ for suggesting the clipped version of Boris Johnson’s response on trust had been edited – and even when the BBC eventually admitted it had been edited there has been no apology from Edwards.

This is pretty much the definition of gaslighting – and the BBC should know this and should find a much, much better way.

Trusting the BBC

Right now, we need the BBC to be working well. We need to be able to trust the BBC – and the BBC needs us to trust them. Calling its critics conspiracy theorists and miscasting their criticism as ‘crackers’ is pretty much guaranteed to damage that trust. It is already close to breaking point. Unless the BBC starts to understand this – and to openly acknowledge it, because I am quite sure there are a fair number of journalists and others in the BBC who are quite aware of the problems – that trust will be gone. The BBC needs to understand how it appears to others.

The dramatic cartoon in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, showing Boris Johnson raping Britain whilst Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg et al hold her down, has the BBC pushing away the crowd saying the Dutch equivalent of  ‘move along, nothing to see here’. This should really give the BBC pause for thought. What role are they taking? How do they want to be remembered? When the rest of the world can see it but the BBC themselves can’t, things have got very bad. This may be the BBC’s last chance. I hope it takes it.