From the 1926 General Strike, through the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, to the more recent Brexit debate and the COVID-19 pandemic, how the BBC tries to ensure impartiality in its journalism has always generated fierce debates about its independence. Every director-general since its foundation nearly 100 years ago has had to contend with criticism of perceived BBC bias during high-profile political events and issues.
These days, the BBC also has to navigate new “culture wars” over questions of cultural sensitivity, free speech and censorship. No surprise, then, that the current director-general, Tim Davie, believes impartiality is central to the BBC’s long-term survival. To that end he has announced new plans to strengthen the corporation’s political independence by, for example, enhancing its use of fact-checking and appointing new external impartiality investigators to monitor all BBC content.
In a post-truth world rife with political disinformation, how broadcasters challenge false or misleading information while maintaining high standards of impartiality has become increasingly challenging. This has been exacerbated in the social media age, with routine BBC news reporting and journalists subject to forensic surveillance about their editorial decisions.
Having been commissioned to carry out five BBC impartiality reviews, as well as leading a large-scale research study about how journalistic legitimacy can be enhanced by public service broadcasters, I welcome Davie’s new plans. But, given the struggles the BBC has had with implementing previous commitments to beef up its impartiality credentials, it remains to be seen how far new editorial practices such as more prominently fact-checking claims can inform its journalism.
Despite the public service broadcaster’s independence, it is important to acknowledge the political pressure BBC editors operate under. This is not to say BBC journalists dutifully follow the script of the government of the day. Far from it.
But, to some degree, the political environment must inevitably influence BBC editorial decision making. And, in the febrile political climate, the BBC’s impartiality is under intense political attack. This is just one reason why the appointment of a successor to outgoing political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, is attracting so much attention.
Not long after being appointed secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS), Nadine Dorries claimed the BBC had a “lack of impartiality” and questioned whether it would survive another decade. Meanwhile, the chair of the DCMS parliamentary committee, Julian Knight, said he believed the BBC’s new political editor should be pro-Brexit. This served to reinforce recurrent allegations by Conservative MPs that the public service broadcaster had been biased in its coverage of the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
The BBC new impartiality plans have been informed by the recent review of editorial processes governance and culture led by Arts Council chair and BBC board member, Nicholas Serota. It produced a ten-point plan on impartiality, editorial standards and whistleblowing.
A central commitment to safeguarding impartiality in the BBC’s plan is a renewed commitment to fact-checking. This is not an entirely new.
Writing in defence of its impartiality in the middle of a heated general election campaign in 2019, the BBC’s head of news, Fran Unsworth, claimed that the broadcaster had “ramped up” its Reality Check service to ensure campaign claims were being rigorously checked. Meanwhile, after a 2016 report into the BBC use of statistics there was a recommendation to make Reality Check a permanent fixture in BBC news.
Why fact-checking should be enhanced
And yet, the ongoing research in which I’m involved has found that while the BBC’s Reality Check routinely fact-checks claims on its website, this does not regularly inform wider BBC news output, including the flagship BBC bulletin, the News at Ten. Put simply, fact-checking does exist at the BBC, but it could be ramped up much more and inform BBC journalism more widely.
In 2019, I contributed to an Ofcom study on the Range and Depth of BBC News that examined BBC journalism and its audiences. The study concluded that the BBC “should feel able to challenge controversial viewpoints that have little support or are not backed up by facts, making this clear to viewers, listeners and readers”. It went on to say that, since audiences largely respect BBC journalism, “This should give the BBC confidence to be bolder in its approach.”
My research into television news coverage of the COVID pandemic found, with the exception of Channel 4 News, most broadcasters did not routinely challenge claims made by journalists during a critical moment in the health crisis. And yet the Ofcom study of audiences recommended more robust forms of journalistic scrutiny and welcomed more prominent fact-checking and the questioning of dubious or misleading political statements. Contrary to the view of a former senior BBC editor, research suggests enhancing fact-checking in broadcast programming would not undermine trust in journalism.
After all, despite the BBC’s impartiality being under constant attack, it remains one of the most used widely used and trusted information sources in the UK and around the world. While the BBC understandably wants to maintain a trustworthy relationship with its audiences, our research suggests a bolder approach to impartiality would not compromise it.
If the BBC’s new impartiality plans are to work in practice, in my view countering misinformation and using fact-checking must become a more prominent part of its news output.
Stephen Cushion has received funding from the BBC Trust, Ofcom, AHRC, BA and ESRC.