How the political right has used ‘impartiality’ to first gain political power, and then take over the BBC


The BBC has never
been completely independent of the government. But that is no reason
to ignore its gradual transformation over the last thirteen years
into a media organisation that has become increasingly prone to do
the government’s bidding. A process that began out of fear has now
become institutionalised through the appointment of a once deputy
chairman of a local Conservative party and council candidate as
director general, a Conservative party donor deeply involved in party
politics as Chairman, and a former Communications Director for
Theresa May on the BBC Board.

appointments have been made to these senior positions at the BBC
before, but we have not had a government like this before. A
government that is far more prepared to interfere with established
institutions to get its own way will mean that its political
appointees in public institutions will be prepared to exert far more
party political pressure than their predecessors ever have.

The means which
today’s political right have used so effectively to make the BBC an
instrument to advance their political ends is to elevate their
interpretation of impartiality above all else and then to apply that
concept selectively.

As I outlined
, the primacy of impartiality as balance between
two political sides is a means by which a populist right can obscure
truth and create bias. It allowed the populist right (the party of
Johnson and the right wing press) to gain power through the Brexit
referendum, when the truth about Brexit was buried because the BBC
chose balance over facts and explanation. Since then it has allowed
the government, through its press, to selectively squash things said
by anyone involved with the BBC that embarrasses the government, but
ignore equivalent cases involving opposition politicians.

So BBC presenters
like Alan Sugar can freely use social media to
attack opposition politicians
, but because no right
wing newspapers splash headlines about this the BBC does nothing. But
if Gary Lineker states facts about the government’s latest illegal
immigration bill (yes it is cruel to refugees and yes the language
used to promote it incites violence) he is fired. The BBC’s rules
on impartiality are applied in a biased way.

So when that same
BBC presenter criticised Qatar’s human rights record on the BBC
before its coverage of the world cup that was fine, because that
“something which is a matter of fact.” But
when the same presenter in a tweet stands up for the human rights of
refugees coming by irregular means to the UK (yes the proposed bill
does break international law protecting the human rights of
refugees), facts suddenly become unimportant and the BBC’s notion
of impartiality rules. The BBC’s rules on impartiality are applied
in a biased way

So the BBC lost no
time in responding to complaints from 10 Downing Street in itself
its Newsnight team and presenter Emily
Maitlis for an introduction about public anger over the way Dominic
Cummings had broken lockdown rules. There was no investigation, just
a statement that the introduction had not been impartial. There was
no attempt to suggest that anything in the introduction was factually
wrong, or expressed an opinion about matters that remained uncertain.
Instead simply stating facts that put the government in a bad light
was sufficient to have something labelled as not impartial. But when the Chairman
of a well established right wing magazine chaired a flagship BBC
political programme, and tweeted his views freely, the BBC turned a
blind eye. Once again, the BBC’s rules on impartiality are applied
in a biased way.

It may seem ironic
that rules designed to promote impartiality should lead the BBC to
become biased and subject to the government’s bidding, but it is
inevitable when the government and its press have more power than
other politicians and newspapers, and when those in charge at the BBC
are appointed by that government. In the past facts and the truth
have been an important defence against political inference at the
BBC, but once stating facts that embarrass the government is deemed
impermissible for anyone working at the BBC that defence against
political interference disappears. It is no accident that the current
leaders at the BBC promote their definition of impartiality so
strongly. It is no accident that the BBC’s impartiality rules apply
not just to what its political journalists say on the BBC, but also
to what already famous sports presenters say in a personal capacity
on twitter. The latter presents no threat to the reputation of the
BBC, but it does represent a threat to the government.

The selective
promotion of political balance over facts is doing the BBC a great
deal of harm. It has lost some excellent journalists as a result, and
it is now in danger of losing its flagship sports programme. It is
losing the trust of the public. But today’s political right wins
either way. A BBC that does its bidding is just fine because it helps
them keep power just as it helped them win power. If the BBC loses
its reputation and its audience declines, that suits them too,
because it gives more space for our equivalents of Fox News to gain
an audience.

This is why it is
imperative that any future Labour government creates a truly
independent BBC, where once again the BBC’s mission becomes to
inform, educate and entertain. A BBC where political operatives can
no longer take control, and a BBC where broadcasting facts, knowledge
and truth are never subservient to party political balance. Until
then those who want to see this kind of public service broadcaster
should have no hesitation in criticising what the BBC has become, in
pointing out how today’s BBC acts in a manner that is biased
towards this government and in supporting those working at the BBC
who try to tell the truth but are attacked by the BBC as a result. A
media independent of the government is crucial to the survival of

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