The BBC was first set up in 1922 as a bastion to protect against influential, one-sided broadcasting. In its own words, it aimed to “create a single national conversation.” As it happens, this conversation has often revolved around the BBC itself and its claim to impartiality. Recently, these furtive debates have been reignited by Gary Lineker. Posting on Twitter, the sports presenter deemed the UK Government’s Illegal Migration Bill “immeasurably cruel” and criticising Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s cry to “stop the boats” — likening it to rhetoric used in 1930s Germany.
The proposed law would prevent people who enter the UK illegally from claiming asylum, instead detaining and deporting them — not necessarily to the country they have travelled from. This includes victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. There has been mass concern that the bill is incompatible with human rights laws and Lineker’s comments were met with swathes of support. However, he also received widespread criticism — as well as a temporary suspension from his presenting positions — for voicing his personal views whilst also being an employee of the BBC, which entails adhering to regimented impartiality guidelines.
However, if the BBC sees Lineker as a stain on its foundation of neutrality, one doesn’t have to look hard to see that the broadcaster has a far from immaculate record on these matters — more like a toddler’s T-shirt after eating spaghetti bolognese. There has been heightened focus as of late on the influence of the Conservative Party on the BBC, as leaked messages demonstrated that company executives acquiesced to pressure from Downing Street not to use the word “lockdown” in March 2020 as Britain went into a, well, lockdown. When the current Director General of the BBC, Tim Davie, was appointed in June 2020, he declared that “we urgently need to champion and recommit to impartiality.” Davie was deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative Party in the 1990s. Richard Sharp, the current chairman of the BBC, has donated £400,000 to the Conservatives and was reportedly offered his current position soon after he helped Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan.
“In 2013, the Guardian reported that 27% of people who felt the BBC had a political bias thought it skewed left, whilst only 14% thought this bias leant right.”
In spite of these links to right-wing politics and politicians, the BBC has a history of being publicly perceived as left-leaning, particularly by Tory voters. In 2013, the Guardian reported that 27% of people who felt the BBC had a political bias thought it skewed left, whilst only 14% thought this bias leant right. Of those who voted Conservative, nearly half thought the broadcaster showed left-wing leanings, whereas less than twenty percent of Labour voters thought it had a right-wing bias.
In attempts to maintain or improve its reputation of impartial reporting, the BBC contractually prevents its public-facing employees from commenting on their own political opinions and has a history of reprimanding them when they do. But even if those who work for — and manage — the BBC aren’t tweeting their personal takes, how can we trust that their own biases don’t affect their reporting?
This question obviously concerns the journalism industry as a whole, not just the BBC. It is crucial that the public have reporters that they can depend on to separate their personal views from the events that they are covering. Impartiality in news reporting is not merely laudable, but necessary — yet, it is not always the moral high ground. Like being apolitical in any situation, neutrality is a political stance in and of itself. The BBC’s take on what impartiality means continues to evolve. Hugh Carleton Green, a previous Director General of the company, argued that the BBC should not be impartial when it comes to situations of prejudice or anti-democracy. Determining which stories are instances of these cases, however, can be a cause for disagreement.
“… whilst the political leanings of certain newspapers are made clear, the BBC’s claim to apoliticality gives the bias that does seep through an insidious tinge.”
Impartial reporting is obviously crucial to both political discourse and a functioning society. Nonetheless, whilst the political leanings of certain newspapers are made clear, the BBC’s claim to apoliticality gives the bias that does seep through an insidious tinge. At school, I remember an English class where we were asked to identify the political stance of different newspapers: The Guardian, The Times, and The Daily Mail. My teacher gestured to the BBC as a poster child for the middle ground. Though I had been instructed to read sources critically and carefully, the BBC was presented almost as an exception to the rule. Many who consume sources that claim to be impartial will do so with less routine scrutiny than they might apply to other mediums, taking what they say as pure fact. This makes the potential – and the proof — of occasions when the BBC has had Downing Street whispering in its ear through WhatsApp all the more nefarious.
Ultimately, whether or not the BBC is impartial does not seem as dangerous to me as the current state of limbo in which it finds itself. In our digital age, the dearth of reliable media outlets is a cause for great concern, but there are some who manage to have clear political leanings whilst remaining publicly perceived as trustworthy, such as The Guardian and The Times. The BBC, however, claims neutrality. Its impartiality needs to be repositioned as a standard it is aiming towards, not taken for granted as one it is meeting. Though the Corporation has taken surface-level steps to acknowledging this — such as its ten-point impartiality plan, involving “impartiality training” and a “public register of paid-for engagements” — it is being shown to lack the bedrock of political diversity and honesty that true impartiality requires. Going forward, it needs to radically consider its bias, not pretend there isn’t any. We should all do the same.