Why the BBC’s Charter Should not be Renewed
Civitas, 27 October 2004
‘Accurate, impartial and independent journalism is the principal way we support informed citizenship. Our journalism and editorial values are the cornerstone of the BBC’s remit and constitute a core rationale for public funding.’
So runs a statement on the opening page of the introduction to a submission by the BBC on behalf of the renewal of its Charter entitled,the BBC’s Contribution to Informed Citizenship .
The statement carries a clear corollary the corporation seems willing to accept. This is that the BBC would not merit public funding were its news and current affairs coverage substantially inaccurate, partial, or unduly influenced by outside pressure or interference.
So long as news agencies remain staffed by mere mortals, all news and current affairs coverage will, on occasion, be less than fully accurate. In the present context, therefore, all the BBC’s claim to accuracy in its news coverage can amount to is that, at best, it never knowingly misinforms the public by broadcasting falsehood or withholds what it knows to be true and germane to any issue. At a minimum, this would require it to seek to verify its sources before broadcasting any contentious or controversial claim, as well as broadcast all information in its possession relevant to any issue.
Likewise, for its news coverage and current affairs broadcasting to be ‘impartial’, the BBC would need, in reporting contentious issues about which there were substantial differences of informed and educated opinion, to go out of its way to avoid taking sides. This would require it to be willing to report and provide coverage of all contending viewpoints, neither deliberately suppressing nor expressly or tacitly privileging any.
Finally, for the BBC’s news and current affairs coverage to be truly ‘independent’, its editors and journalists would need to be unyielding to any direct or indirect pressure from government or other outside bodies to tailor the issues it reports on and how it report on them.
In tendering for Charter renewal, the BBC clearly believes, or wants everyone else to believe, its news and current affairs coverage possesses all these attributes. That its coverage does is a claim it constantly reiterates throughout its submission. Mere repetition of it, however, does not establish its truth.
To establish the accuracy, impartiality and independence of its news and current affairs coverage, what the BBC needs to do is address and rebut the claims of those who deny its coverage is accurate, impartial, and independent. Nowhere in its submission does the BBC mention, let alone attempt to answer, the numerous and well-documented charges levelled in recent years against the accuracy and impartiality of its coverage and comment on such issues as the country’s relations with Europe, immigration and asylum-seeking, the Middle East conflict, and the War in Iraq.
These charges have all been in the public domain for so long that the BBC has little room to plead ignorance of them. To do so would simply be for the BBC to reveal a degree of professional negligence so profound as to warrant the forfeiture by the public of all confidence in its news-gathering abilities.
The BBC seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge there is a serious case for it to answer concerning the accuracy and impartiality of its news and current affairs coverage. Alternatively, if, having seen there is such a case, the BBC chooses to leave it unanswered, simply proclaiming the contrary instead, it equally forfeits its entitlement to enjoy the nation’s trust. Why should the BBC be entrusted, let alone the nation forced to pay, for its providing news and coverage of current affairs, when the corporation is unwilling to address serious charges against its impartiality and accuracy?
As such, the document constitutes a damming piece of evidence of the BBC’s unfitness for having its Charter renewed. Rather than, as intended, spelling out the positive contribution it makes to informed citizenship, its submission only reveals how far short the BBC falls from achieving this aspiration. Its submission, thus, inadvertently supplies those called upon to decide whether to renew its Charter with evidence of its unworthiness of Charter renewal. Let it stand as a permanent testament of how manifestly unfit the BBC is in its present form for renewal of its Charter.