According to Fran Unsworth, the BBC director of news and current affairs: ‘At the BBC, impartiality is precious. We will protect it.’
Writing in the Guardian, she insists that challenging the broadcaster’s impartiality amounts to conspiracy. Apparently “a couple of editorial mistakes” mean nothing. Really?
Unsworth is utterly dismissive. In fact, she says many people who challenge the BBC don’t even watch it. Apparently most criticism comes from “those simply consuming others’ impressions of it”.
On 25 November, the BBC admitted it made “a mistake” after editing out audience members laughing at Boris Johnson during the leaders’ debate. This came two weeks after so-called ‘wreathgate‘ when it used footage of Johnson from 2016 and failed to show him laying a wreath upside down on Remembrance Day.
But according to Unsworth, too many people have:
focused instead on a couple of editorial mistakes that they suggest are either emblematic of all our election coverage, or damning evidence of an editorial agenda that favours the Conservative party.
Conspiracy theories are much in vogue these days.
However, what Unsworth and presenter Nick Robinson seem to miss is the distinction between ‘conspiracy’ and charges of bias.
It’s not a ‘conspiracy theory’, it’s an accusation of bias. As pointed out by many people, the structure of the BBC means that an active conspiracy is not needed for the bias to operate
— Alex Dower (@alexdower) December 4, 2019
Meanwhile, the BBC‘s political editor Laura Kuenssberg hasn’t stopped defending Johnson, while criticising Jeremy Corbyn on critical issues that affect the whole country. Bias, as Andrew Adonis pointed out, hangs on giving all party leaders equal scrutiny:
The BBC is having a terrible election. Everything I warned about the #BrexitBroadcastingCorporation a year ago has got worse, especially the biased coverage of Johnson & the failure to subject him to the same scrutiny as the other party leaders
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) December 4, 2019
The BBC isn’t alone. Corbyn’s been described as the most “smeared politician in history”. One 2016 study found that 75% of all press coverage factually “misrepresents” the Labour leader. And, perhaps coincidentally, most BBC ‘mistakes’ seem to favour Johnson, never Corbyn:
BBC: Sorry about the Moscow image of Corbyn. It was a mistake.
BBC: Sorry about the wreath laying clip. It was a mistake.
BBC: Sorry about editing laughter out of Johnson's question. It was a mistake.
BBC: Sorry we forgot to book Boris Johnson for an interview. It was a mistake.
— Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) November 27, 2019
Significantly, this isn’t any ‘ordinary’ election. The Conservatives and Lib Dems have pushed “disinformation tactics” into new realms. From the Conservative Campaign Headquarters press office tweeting as a fake fact check site during the leaders’ debate, to Jo Swinson defending “misleading” graphs, we’re in new territory. Unsworth does acknowledge that:
This campaign has been unlike any before it. Information is routinely weaponised.
But, as Media Reform Coalition academic Justin Schlosberg said, this should be “THE story of the election”:
The extent of disinformation tactics used by both Tories and Lib Dems in this election has far surpassed anything in the EU referendum.
If we had a more responsible and democratic media this would be THE story of the electionhttps://t.co/Y1TirCpaEy
— Justin Schlosberg (@jrschlosberg) December 4, 2019
As some noted, Unsworth also failed to answer some crucial questions:
In which Fran Unsworth answers the questions not being asked, and doesn’t answer the questions that have been asked. https://t.co/DgEySmt4gk
— Paul Bernal (@PaulbernalUK) December 4, 2019
Unsworth fails properly to acknowledge viewers’ concern that while Corbyn faced Andrew Neil’s harsh interview, Johnson has yet to agree to it. The BBC briefly stood its ground by refusing to let him go on the Andrew Marr show if he wouldn’t face Neil. But then it backed down, a decision that many branded “wrong” and “shameful”.
As former BBC journalist Paul Mason noted, Unsworth’s ‘explanation’ is “classic management brush-off”. And the Neil interview is crucial if the BBC wants to claim impartiality:
If @BBCPolitics does not empty chair Johnson for this it will demonstrate nothing less than utter capitulation and gross unfairness at such a crucial moment in British political history. For me, and I suspect many others, it will be the final straw 1/ https://t.co/PxquITW8jT
— Justin Schlosberg (@jrschlosberg) December 4, 2019
Unsworth claims that “we’ve ramped up our Reality Check service, fact-checking campaign claims”. But as The Canary‘s Steve Topple demonstrated, she forgot to mention that even BBC fact checks seem to be selective:
Fran Unsworth claims in her Grauniad piece that the BBC has "ramped up" its @BBCRealityCheck service.
— Steve Topple (@MrTopple) December 4, 2019
Despite Unsworth’s defence of impartiality, few people bought it:
Oh patronize us do! Frans Unsworth defends BBC news lack of impartiality by implying in this condescending piece that us little people who pay her salary btw just don't see the big picture! #UpYoursBBC https://t.co/JW71uyMbW0
— Dicky Cummerband 🌹 (@DickyCummerband) December 4, 2019
It doesn't appear so.
— Pterodactyl (@Pteroda06253774) December 4, 2019
Unsworth may claim the BBC gives “fair and proportionate coverage” to all parties and leaders. But many watching disagree. And while her plea may pacify some centrist Guardian readers who oppose Corbyn’s leadership, it certainly isn’t fooling many viewers and voters.
Featured image via Wikimedia – BBC News
Since you're here ...
We know you don't need a lecture. You wouldn't be here if you didn't care.
Now, more than ever, we need your help to challenge the rightwing press and hold power to account. Please help us survive and thrive.