No one’s buying the BBC’s latest claims of impartiality

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Fréa Lockley

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?

Conspiracy?

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.

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 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:

“Disinformation”

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”:

As some noted, Unsworth also failed to answer some crucial questions:

Where’s Johnson?

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:

Fact check?

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:

Despite Unsworth’s defence of impartiality, few people bought it:

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

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  • Show Comments
    1. A week or so ago, the BBC tv news featured the usual anti-semitic Corbyn story, this time quoting the controversy about Ken Livingstone saying that Hitler was in favour of sending jews to Israel, and saying that it was untrue and you could verfiy this by looking at the BBC factcheck site https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36165298

      There’s just one problem; that site doesn’t examine the main claim, and it says that it is false, not because Hitler wasn’t happy to send jews to Israel, but because it wasn’t called Israel, it was called Palestine. That’s right, they said it wasn’t credible because it was called Palestine, not Israel. This is bias writ large and blatant, and they don’t even check the facts beyond the name of the country 80 years ago. It’s a bit like saying Ian Smith didn’t unilaterally declare independence for Rhodesia because it’s called Zimbabwe now.

    2. I really would advise you to avoid statements like: “… and no-one’s buying it,” or “… and everyone’s talking about it.” These in response to denials on the right, or statements from the left.

      I heartily (mostly) endorse your political standpoint. The problem with statements such as those I highlight above is that they are simply not true. Plenty of people believe false statements, however crass, and not everyone supports the truth, however praiseworthy. What you risk creating here is a self-satisfied bubble, which ignores the reality of the larger world, and risks conjuring up a sense of safety which serves no-one.

      The issue here is not to believe that these statements are so self-evidently true or false that they are going to be ridiculed or accepted, but to find ways of getting them out there in a form which actually influences those who will likely otherwise just ignore them. Otherwise all you do is mimic the old SWP stalwarts who talked at each other in the pub, and then thought they’d solved the world.

      Remember, most people probably do not think the way you (and I) think. That is the uncomfortable reality, and we need to feel uncomfortable as a means to do something effective.

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