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ED WILLIAMS: Be careful what you wish for Beeb bashers

Ed Williams is one of the first to jump to the defence of the BBC's coverage of Brexit. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

After Nick Cohen’s recent stunning essay criticising the BBC’s coverage, the Corporation’s former communications chief ED WILLIAMS leads the case for defence.

Politics in Europe and America is now ferromagnetic. The iron filings of policy are being drawn to extreme poles of left and right. In America and across Europe, strange bedfellows are governing in coalition, like Five Star and the League in Italy. Here, we find Jeremy Corbyn taking similar positions to hard Brexiters on Europe. As often happens in turbulent times, left and right meet behind the back of the body politic.

It is the paradox of polarisation that left and right can find as much in common as in opposition. A distrust of bureaucracies and the professional state, tough stances on immigration and an anti-elitism and cynicism about the ruling class, are born of different perspectives, but are genetically shared.

This is the environment the BBC is in: squeezed between a left that considers it Blairite and biased towards free-market capitalism, and a right who consider it at best wishy-washy liberal, and at worst actively leftist. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, you might say. Or you might say this a strong proof the BBC is doing its job. As an epitome of Britishness, the broadcaster we all fund is designed for impartiality, balance and fairness in its reporting. High principles, I know, are practically debated and implemented on-air every day.

The trouble is that the summer of 2018, eight months before we leave the EU, feels very different from past moments when the BBC became meat in a partisan sandwich. This time, live ammunition is being used by those fighting the Brexit referendum result, and it is shredding the corporation’s reputation.

Last month (TNE #104, ‘What is the point of the BBC if it is frightened of journalism’), Nick Cohen accused the BBC of cowardice in its reporting of the EU referendum, of failing the public at a critical moment in our history. Cohen argued the BBC’s journalists failed to interrogate and cast out the case made by Leavers. Cohen writes Leave arguments were too prominent and shouldn’t have been aired because they were untrue. Worse, in regards to the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave election funding scandals, he says: ‘The BBC’s reporting of the scandals around the Brexit referendum is not biased or unbalanced: it barely exists.’

Cohen is not alone in his thinking that the BBC failed to execute its duties. In a report for the think tank Civitas, David Keighley and Andrew Jubb are similarly critical of the BBC’s Brexit journalism. But in their view, the Corporation has an institutional bias against Leave, giving substantially more airtime to pro-Remain arguments. ‘When opinion in favour of leaving the EU has featured, the editorial approach has tended heavily to discrediting and denigrating opposition to the EU as xenophobic.’

Experience, as someone who used to determine how the BBC responded to such criticism, tells me that it is entirely futile to get into the weeds of these arguments. There are plenty of examples of the BBC challenging false statements or exaggeration from either side. Initiatives like the BBC’s ‘Reality Check’ feature were applied actively during the Brexit campaign and afterwards and promoted across its news portfolio. But that’s just one example and actually it’s not really the point.

The point is that for the first time, certainly in my generation, outliers on the left and right are unified in a desire to do serious damage to the BBC. And that, to me, puts much more at stake than who is right about the BBC’s Brexit coverage.

In the BBC we have the greatest public service broadcaster in the world. Travel the world and turn on the television and you find vastly varying standards of broadcast journalism. Whether it’s hyper-partisan television news in America, front-organisations for political regimes like RT (that’s Russia Today not Radio Times), or just junk journalism, like the news item I watched when I turned my hotel television on in Australia recently, which dedicated five minutes to the story of a couple whose wedding meal was at a fast food restaurant. No broadcaster covers the world in greater depth than the BBC, and with such an even hand. From Fergal Keane’s coverage of Africa, to Katty Kay in Washington and Kirsty Wark on Newsnight.

Yes, of course, there are mistakes, after all, despite what some might think, the BBC is run by human beings – the ridiculously OTT coverage of the Cliff Richard investigation and its futile defence of the reporting being the latest costly misstep, in my opinion.

There have been many such mistakes in the past and there will be many in the future. But considered over time, BBC journalism is impartial, fair and independent. By being so, it exhibits what we like to think are the elements of being British. It also continues to set standards for journalism and is a net contributor to a rich and pluralist democracy.

It goes without saying that for strict disciplines of Friedman the BBC is an irrational institution, a multi-billion-pound intervention in the media sector market and exists only as a gigantic fudge of normal market functions.

But that, as well as being symptomatically British, is also wide of the argument. While you might never invent the BBC if it didn’t exist, to lose it or sow seeds of doubt about its fairness, independence and impartiality damages our culture and our system. I am not arguing that critics like Nick Cohen should hold back. I simply make the point that BBCs don’t grow on trees. Its friends should speak up at a time of maximum jeopardy for Auntie. Media is under universal attack. Trump branding reporters as ‘enemies of the people’ or social media starving news organisations of income, both equally threaten the future of professional journalism.

The BBC has to make huge cuts to its budget (including journalism) at a moment that American competitors for our wallets and eyeballs show up with seemingly unlimited coffers.

The cultural anchor the BBC has been in our lives – for almost 100 years – is weakening. There are enough challenges the BBC faces without it also becoming the theatre in a political proxy war fought over Brexit. Attacking the messenger by accusing it of bias only furthers public distrust of journalism. If we want to take back control of our culture, I would argue that an undamaged BBC is vital for our society to thrive and as a bulwark against the tide of tech-led globalism.

Ed Williams led communications for the BBC between 2008-2011 under Mark Thompson. He is UK chief executive of Edelman, the communications firm and publisher of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer.

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