A Duty to Inform, as well as Entertain: The BBC On the Edge of an Abyss

21 December 2018

First off, a declaration of personal interest. I’ve worked on and off for the BBC, mainly as a dramatist, for 34 years, and the mother of my two children was a senior news executive for most of that time. The observations below aren’t comprehensive, and they only concern BBC News and Current Affairs domestic coverage, not its other output or its well regarded overseas reporting. The criticisms aren’t directed at individual BBC journalists either — I know how this works — but the higher echelons of BBC management and editorial policy.

How the BBC Failed to Investigate the Brexit Scandals

There were promising signs at the beginning of this year that BBC News and Current Affairs were preparing to rescue their reputation after a torrid time during the EU referendum. Their coverage in 2016 was widely panned by senior insiders like John Simpson and Justin Webb for not checking the factual claims made during Brexit debates, and putting too much weight on ‘balancing’ opinions rather than some more objective test of accuracy and truth. 

But behind the scenes something big was stirring. For nearly two months in early 2018 BBC One’s flagship documentary programme, Panoramawas looking at a stunning set of revelations from two whistle-blowers.

There were promising signs at the beginning of this year that the BBC News and Current Affairs were preparing to rescue their reputation. 

The first was the testimony of Chris Wylie, the former head of research at Cambridge Analytica. Founded by Alexander Nix, Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon in 2013, the data-based electioneering company would deploy military-grade propaganda tools and weaponise the hacked information of 170 million Facebook users, both in the 2016 UK EU referendum and the US presidential election of Donald Trump.  

In preparation for the programmes, Wylie was interviewed at length by the BBC, and so was a second whistle-blower, Shahmir Sanni, a co-founder of the campaign group BeLeave. 

Sanni produced evidence that BeLeave wasn’t in reality separate from Vote Leave and proved that the official campaign, fronted by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, had therefore broken its spending limits by £625,000. This second scandal connected back to Cambridge Analytica too, because all that money was funnelled — along with most of Vote Leave’s entire election spending — to a formerly obscure Canadian company called AIQ. 

Originally named SCL Canada, AIQ was an offshoot of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL. 

But then BBC Panorama suddenly withdrew from producing the planned programmes. The reasons for that need further inquiry, but it was clearly not for lack of reliable evidence. When Chris Wylie’s revelations were finally published by Carole Cadwalladr in the ObserverChannel 4 News and the  New York Times in March, Cambridge Analytica became a global story. The company  was raided by ICO officers with warrants and soon shut down. At one point, Facebook lost nearly $150bn on its share price valuation. 

Meanwhile, Shahmir Sanni’s revelations forced the Electoral Commission to reopen its investigations into Vote Leave. They found multiple examples of law-breaking and the matter is now referred to the Metropolitan police. 

How the BBC Did Cover the Scandals when they Broke

It’s sad but not surprising that BBC management wavered at the political risk of breaking these scandals first. It has always been cautious in this regard, and —because it is so trusted — tends to deploy its weight and authority in comprehensive follow-ups.

That did not happen with these two stories. Much more disturbingly, the BBC actively tried to defuse their impact. The coverage was not only minimal by most estimates, but often favoured the subjects of the allegations over the allegations themselves.

For example, on the weekend the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke on the weekend of March 18, Newsnight led the next day with Alexander Nix’s pre-recorded interview denying the allegations. There was a report on the Observer’s findings, but it was secondary to the rebuttal.

https://twitter.com/BBCNewsnight/status/975823528795746305

More egregiously, when the Vote Leave scandal was exposed the following week, Dominic Cummings ‘prebuttal’ was highlighted by the BBC’s chief political editor Laura Kuenssberg before the Observer had even gone to print.  (Cummings had received a request for comment with the standard couple of days in order to reply, but used the interim to shape the information battlefield in advance.)

https://twitter.com/bbclaurak/status/977181164619300865

Things didn’t improve. Two months later, when Sanni’s claims were investigated by the Electoral Commission, the Vote Leave chief executive was interviewed by Keunssberg well before the findings were made public — another ‘prebuttal’ that gave Matthew Elliott a virtually uninterrupted platform to get his retaliation in first: “They haven’t followed due process….”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/embed/p06cs7v9/44704564

When the Electoral Commission’s findings of illegality were leaked Kuenssberg subtly, perhaps unconsciously, echoed the Vote Leave attempt  to minimise the law-breaking aspect: ‘ Watchdog expected to find Vote Leave broke RULES’

This tendentious take was supported by the senior editor of Live Political Programmes, Rob Burley, who seemed to equate official ‘findings’ as one side of a’debate’ with the Vote Leave campaign. 

https://twitter.com/RobBurl/status/1020600810751889409

Burley already had form for ignoring genuine concerns,  dismissing criticisms of Elliott’s a ‘prebuttal’ as ‘another stain-glassed (sic) window in the cathedral of conspiracy.’ 

https://twitter.com/RobBurl/status/1014451096675409920

None of this is as bad as the response of the BBC’s main election night interviewer and host of the Daily Politics, Andrew Neil. Throughout the summer of 2018 he dismissed the two big scandals as ‘conspiracy theories’ and often retweeted articles by Alex Wickham on the Guido Fawkes blog depicting Carole Cadwalladr as a tin-foil-hatted conspiracy theorist 

https://twitter.com/afneil/status/976946303711301633

https://twitter.com/afneil/status/978651090865582086
https://twitter.com/afneil/status/981524594636087296

Though Neil’s twitter feed is not a BBC account, and he is a freelance employee, he remains a powerful and significant figure in the corporation. Despite later deleting a tweet describing Cadwalladr as ‘Karol Kodswallop’ he never apologised or explained.

But Hold On… At Least the BBC Covered It! You can’t Deny That. 

Of course defenders of the BBC coverage of these two scandals can always point to some obscure article buried away in the tech section, or to an interview with Chris Wylie days later. 

But it’s hard to escape the conclusion the BBC’s main news headlines and big audience talk shows belittled  both the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave evidence. This despite the fact Panorama had the material for many months,  and knew the gravity, reality and seriousness of the allegations in advance.

Another measure of their problem is the way the BBC have represented Carole Cadwalladr, the lead journalist on all these scandals. She has only been interviewed once on live TV, on the Marr show on March 23rd. There, while expecting to talk about the whole Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave stories, she was confronted by author and Leave EU supporter Isabel Oakeshott decrying her work as ‘chasing unicorns’. Andrew Marr did nothing to establish the facts in this argument. 

https://twitter.com/PropertySpot/status/1005572598644781057

Oakeshott is closely connected to the third scandal Cadwalladr broke in June (with some help from me) about emails Oakeshott had obtained seven months earlier but withheld. These emails revealed Leave EU founder Arron Banks had lied about the multiple meetings he had with Russian officials during the Brexit campaign.

While Oakeshott remains a regular on Question Time and the Daily Politics, the only other appearance of Carole Cadwalladr on the BBC this year has been a brief defamatory mention by Arron Banks in an interview in November after his election finances were referred to the National Crime Agency for investigation.

https://twitter.com/carolecadwalla/status/1059115608472727552

Banks’ libelled us both about how we obtained his emails. It was predictable: Carole warned Rob Burley of this well in advance. And we were easily identifiable. Despite complaints about  this gross breach of all their guidelines  BBC News and Current Affairs have never given Carole nor me the right of reply, though Sky News did the next day in the same circumstances. 

It’s Not About Impartiality

It’s not all bad news for the nation’s broadcaster. BBC Northern Ireland produced a <Spotlight investigation into the DUP dark money in Brexit first exposed by Open Democracy. Manveen Rana has been relentlessly pursuing Arron Banks’ diamond mine interests in Lesotho. And the unstoppable John Sweeney finally picked up the question of Banks’ Russian connections after I emailed a Newsnight producer about Andy Wigmore’s claim to her that Banks was in Russia in February 2016. Sweeney has been pressing ahead with new revelations.  But g iven the scale of these three momentous scandals about illegal hacking, data misuse, overspending and dark foreign money, this still feels like too little, too late.

The natural and logical corollary to this duty to inform is an obligation to fight misinformation. 

https://twitter.com/RobBurl/status/1074596097115516934

But there are not ‘two sides’ to lawbreaking just as there are not ‘two sides’ to the earth being round or flat. (For the record both Sanni and Wylie were strong Eurosceptics, who supported Leave in 2016.) 

Impartiality doesn’t mean the BBC should surrender their aspiration to be honest and truthful. As the geneticist Professor Steve Jones explained in a 2011 report for the BBC Trust, an ‘over-rigid’ obsession with ‘due impartiality’ could give ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’. And there’s something even more important than impartiality involved when it comes to criminal allegations — a high burden of proof.

The BBC has a duty to ‘inform’ but absolutely no obligation to reflect widespread but evidence-free opinions about  MMR vaccines, global warming, fake moon landings, 911 inside jobs, or Obama’s birth certificate. The natural and logical corollary to this duty to inform is an obligation to fight misinformation. 

And what bigger story could there be this year – where is the duty to inform is most pressing – than the subversion of democracy by overspending, illegal coordination and potential foreign funding of the most important constitutional vote in our lifetimes? 

What Went Wrong?

Quite why the BBC has got into this parlous state should be the focus of a major inquiry. 

The corporation is vulnerable and defensive, still reeling from the Savile scandal, the pressures exerted on it by David Cameron during the 2015 election, and then the appointment of John Whittingdale as Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport during its charter renewal.  

The BBC is still following the bankrupt precept it must reflect all shades of public opinion regardless of merit, accuracy or origin  

This constant political pressure makes the corporation risk-averse, and probably even more so with a subject like Brexit which begs big questions about the future of the country and its national security.  Because of its hierarchical  structure and special funding, there is a constant danger that senior BBC execs see their political masters as their most important customers rather than the license-fee paying public. 

None of this is helped by the official opposition who, because of parliamentary privilege, do have a platform to expose these scandals on the BBC. But Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has mentioned the Vote Leave scandal only ONCE in the last year, and never raised the Russian connections and ‘impermissible’ donations by Britain’s biggest ever political donor, Arron Banks. With the front bench also inexplicably quiet, it has been left to deputy leader Tom Watson, who first spoke out at this year’s Byline Festival in August to demand a public inquiry into Russian influence.

None of these excuses wash. The BBC is still following the bankrupt precept it must reflect all shades of public opinion regardless of merit, accuracy or origin, and has relied recently on right-wing think tanks such as Legatum, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Matthew Elliott’s Tax Payer’s Alliance to produce hard Brexit spokespeople. Spiked Online, despite recent revelations that it received hundreds of thousands of pounds from the US right wing funding, seems also to have a permanent seat at BBC debates. Whether its laziness, venality or something worse, these practices should stop. 

If the BBC remains captured by the vagaries of the two major parties, opaque lobbyists, or indeed the groupthink around the Westminster Lobby, it will be increasingly a hostage to politics, rather than an observer of it. 

The Worst of Both Worlds

Britain has the least trusted press in Europe, but the most trusted broadcaster in the world with the BBC.  After extensive reporting and three books on Murdoch’s phone hacking scandal and the dark arts of the tabloid press, I came to the conclusion that at least we had a public service broadcaster who could mitigate the misinformation. But something has happened in the interim, and now we could face the worst of both worlds – an oligarch-owned feral press and a supine, fearful public broadcaster.

Democracy needs universal accurate news, free at the point of use, in the same way it needs education and healthcare. There cannot be ‘informed consent’ over any vote or election if that information is not forthcoming. 

For over two years the British public has  had little guidance from the BBC about the impossible and contradictory promises of the Leave campaigns, which ranged from staying in the Single Market to varieties of customs unions, and now to the economic and social catastrophe of no deal. 

The BBC is important across the world as a gold standard of accurate and independent news. If that reputation is lost, it is not only bad for us, but good for every tin-pot tyrant and dictator who thrives on misinformation and censorship

For almost a year now they have been kept in the dark by our public broadcaster about historic overspending, illegality and foreign interference in the EU referendum. 

As Britain approaches the cliff edge of Brexit in less than 100 days,  the real danger is British citizens will feel stunned and betrayed if a ‘no deal’ disaster befalls us, just as the German population did in 1918 when their war effort collapsed and the armistice was declared. Because of heavy press censorship in Germany a hundred years ago, Germans were never informed of the shortages of military materiel and men and the battlefield reverses that led to the Versailles treaty. As a result, they could only comprehend the unexpected defeat as the product of a conspiracy; a cabal of traitors in their midst: the infamous ‘stab in the back’ which soon directed itself to German Jews and fed the rise of Hitler. 

The BBC is important across the world as a gold standard of accurate and independent news. If that reputation is lost, it is not only bad for us, but good for every tin-pot tyrant and demagogue who thrives on misinformation and censorship. 

It may well be too late for this generation of senior BBC news executives to recover their lost reputation. But it is not too late for the BBC to perform the service it was created for – to inform their license payers of the realities at a time of national crisis.  If they don’t reform in a hurry, the future – that of this country and beyond – is darker than this midwinter solstice evening.