Ravi Ghosh asks if impartiality and balance are good enough reasons for the BBC’s platforming of extreme views
With unmatched resources across television, radio, and digital, the BBC is the most powerful Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in the UK. Ofcom is clear about the role and legal responsibility of PSBs: ‘Informing our understanding of the world; Stimulating knowledge and learning; Reflecting UK cultural identity; Representing diversity and alternative viewpoints’. Straightforward on the surface, especially with the corresponding clarity of the BBC’s own mission statement: ‘Our aim is simple — to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain by being the most creative organisation in the world’.
In 2018, the BBC’s news output is being tested against these criteria, held to account by an increasingly frustrated public. Fact-checking has become common practice, particularly amongst Twitter’s commentariat with Today, Newsnight, and Politics Live all notable targets and criticism is often anchored in what are seen as violations of the BBC’s own mission statement: that ‘Trust is the foundation of the BBC; we are independent, impartial and honest’, as well as over the issue of balance.
However, the BBC’s recognises the complexity of both its mandate, and its stories. Its editorial guidelines therefore give ample manoeuvrability, using the term ‘due impartiality’, to mean:
‘that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content […] Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue’
But although a BBC Trust report in 2007 recognised the diminishing relevance of two-sided debates and stressed the continued importance of impartiality as digitalisation approached, concerns over BBC reporting have intensified. In a damning journal article published in 2017, Cardiff University’s Karin Wahl-Jorgensen presented evidence illustrating that the BBC had entrenched a ‘paradigm of impartiality-as-balance’ in the five years following the 2007 review, achieved by ‘juxtaposing the positions of the two main political parties […] to the detriment of a broader range of opinion’. Not only does this elevate elite voices within the Westminster bubble, it also acts as a blueprint for simplistic for-and-against ‘balance’ for debates across wider news coverage.
Equally worrying is that, as Aston University’s Tom Mills astutely suggested in August,
declining audience figures for flagship BBC shows such as Radio 4’s Today are being dealt with through the use of a model of oppositional balance to draw interest. The result, Mills argues, is increased presence for Nigel Farage and others, a trend further evidenced on regional stations such as BBC Radio Leeds, which in August invited Katie Hopkins to speak about so called ‘no go’ areas in Bradford, to widespread criticism and an evident effect on public perception. In reality, amplifying those with xenophobic views serves only to destabilise the identities of those pitted against the antagonists. Labour MP Jess Phillips powerfully summarises this phenomenon in response to John Humphrys’ style on Today: ‘If I’m talking about rape charges or #MeToo or sexual harassment in Westminster, I refuse to be challenged along the lines of ‘Has #MeToo gone too far? Are young women making it up?’’. The BBC needs to wake up to the damage caused by its probing.
But this for-and-against blueprint is not the only worry. The devotion of over half of Newsnight’s running time on October 11th to a feature and discussion of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson), his supporters, and UKIP, shows the BBC bringing harmful views into the mainstream on a much wider scale. Both presenter Kirsty Wark and reporter Gabriel Gatehouse are careful to stress that although comparisons with European far-right groups are made (and Geert Wilders mentioned by name), ‘this phenomenon [electoral success for far-right groups] has not yet been seen here in the UK’. So why does the BBC speculate upon its possibility? Wark sets up a debate-style frame from the outset by asking ‘Is he a man raising concerns that others ignore? Or a far-right figure exploiting the victims of sexual abuse for his own ends?’. Surely the BBC knows the latter is true, regardless of their later inquiries into the first question. Guest speaker and Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik then clarifies: ‘There is a disconnect between what Tommy Robinson is saying and what people are concerned about [immigration and cultural identity]’. Her words cut through Newsnight’s inflammatory introduction, providing welcome nuance to the topic.
The day after the programme aired, the BBC News Press Team posted this statement, defending its feature on Yaxley-Lennon and referencing their ‘duty’ to cover uncomfortable topics. In saying that ‘elements of his message could be adopted by mainstream UK political parties’, the BBC ominously preempts a potential alliance between Yaxley-Lennon and UKIP, using speculation only as a basis. Discussing UKIP with the aim of countering two-party dominance is, of course, possible — the BBC did more than its fair share of this in the run-up to the 2015 general election. But UKIP now has no MPs in the House of Commons. It is not a mainstream political party. As Malik wrote in June, it was decimated at the polls in 2017, and ‘its reach for relevance has extended to the darker corners of the right’. Superficially, Newsnight’s bulletin suggests the same thing. But Malik is direct — instead of regressing to rhetorical equivalences to frame her discussion, she calls the group what it is early on: ‘An extremist anti-migrant party’. It feels as though Newsnight has to present Yaxley-Lennon and UKIP as politically credible to defend the decision to platform them in the first place. Actually, what we observe is a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy of relevance, in which the BBC sets political agendas rather than responding to them.
Remarkably, this pathway is highlighted on the programme itself as former EDL member
Ivan Humble admits that it was media coverage of Anjem Choudary which ‘started [him] on [his] journey’ to Islamophobia, particularly in the wake of Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. ‘He seemed to be the go-to Muslim’, Humble says — a chilling assessment of mainstream media’s role in not only the over-exposure, but provocation of reactionary extremism from all sides. When Emily Maitlis interviewed Steve Bannon in May 2018 as he toured the UK media, Newsnight was met with similar criticism surrounding platforming. And although Newsnight conducted a semi-introspective debate in September about whether they were right to offer Bannon a stage, insisting upon the pull quote ‘Martin Luther King would be proud of Trump’ for the interview fuels accusations that the BBC issues controversy in pursuit of relevance.
What then is the way forward for the BBC? It seems that platforming and calling to account is the current position, yet it perpetually underestimates the harm of using binary balance debates over issues which put a marginalised group at risk.
If the BBC is serious about equality and diversity, then it must critique its own practices. For-and-against debates are nearly always reductive, in that they either simplify a complex issue, or create a false equivalence between two positions. But the solution is not to give everyone a seat at the table. The BBC is too powerful to experiment with platforming extremists — no degree of sharp questioning can nullify the exposure and influence given to Nick Griffin in 2009, to Anjem Choudary in 2013, or to Stephen Yaxley-Lennon in 2018. These people do not seek to engage, but to intimidate and poison. And although the BBC Trust’s 2007 report warns against ‘programmes [reflecting] a consensus for “the common good”’, the hate crime, harassment, and xenophobia still rife in Britain illustrate that the BBC must defy this complacent warning to protect its audience. We must demand a base level of accountability from Britain’s most powerful public service broadcaster to protect the victims of structural and lived oppression.
Ravi Ghosh is a freelance writer with an interest in music, politics, and contemporary culture. His work has appeared previously in Dazed and the Quietus.
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