NICK COHEN: What is the point of the BBC if it is frightened of journalism?

A protester at the People's Vote March. Photograph: Jono Read/Archant

A protester at the People's Vote March. Photograph: Jono Read/Archant - Credit: Archant

The BBC is failing the people it is meant to serve in the nation's hour of need, Nick Cohen writes.

Read the BBC's response to Nick Cohen's stunning essay... and his blistering response here.

Late last year, BBC executives had the nerve to erect a bronze statue of George Orwell outside its headquarters in central London. The sculptor caught Orwell's spikiness. He stands one hand on hip, the other pointing forward with a cigarette between his fingers, as if caught in mid-argument. Carved into the wall behind him is the journalistic motto that Orwell and the BBC wanted us to learn: 'If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.'

The BBC lifted the line from Orwell's proposed preface to Animal Farm. Despite its being one of the greatest satires in the English language, four publishers turned the manuscript down in 1944. Orwell was attacking Stalin's Soviet Union, then Britain and America's wartime ally, at the most politically inconvenient time imaginable. T.S. Eliot, by then the head of Faber & Faber for almost 20 years, wrote like a minor functionary in a propaganda ministry when he rejected the manuscript. Faber & Faber was not staffed by cowards, Eliot insisted. In theory, he was prepared to publish books that 'go against the current moment'. But when presented with a real work the authorities hated, he raced to find reasons to reject it. 'We have no conviction,' Eliot opined, 'that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at this present time.'

If the BBC had a human personality, it would be more Eliot than Orwell, such has been the extent of its journalistic cowardice in covering the 2016 referendum that decided to take Britain out of the European Union, and its aftermath.

Here is an incomplete list of uncomfortable truths that the British government, its supposedly left-wing opposition in the Labour party, and the 17.4 million people who voted for Britain to leave the EU do not want to hear. There is no plan, and there never was a plan. The Leave campaign never had the integrity to present the public with a program for withdrawal. If it had, voters might have realised that Brexit would either bring a huge dislocation as Britain tore itself out of an integrated European economy, or would turn Britain into an EU satellite state, obeying its rules but without a voice in their formulation.

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The head of Vote Leave, one of the two umbrella groups leading the 2016 campaign, explained in June 2015 that constructing workable proposals for Britain's future was 'an almost insuperable task… There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue'. Instead of honestly confronting Britain's place in the world, the campaign offered brazen lies: Brexit would deliver £350 million a week to the health service; Turkey was about to join the EU and flood Britain with millions of Muslim migrants.

The chaos that has rendered Britain all but powerless as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump tear up the international order stems from the original sin of not levelling with the public. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are being torn apart by a pressure to do the impossible: to square the promises of charlatans with the realities of Britain's economic and strategic position. Both left and right, or at least their leaders, talk as if the EU will allow us to retain the benefits of membership when we have left.

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The naive might expect journalists to expose the delusions of the powerful. After the misleading buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, the BBC confronted the then Labour government of Tony Blair with the false predictions it had made about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The BBC falsely claimed that Blair's manipulative staff had 'sexed up' its dossier on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and the dispute ended with public inquiries and the resignation of its director general. Nevertheless, the BBC asked the right questions. To this day, its presenters boast of their ferocity. Asked in what circumstances he would resign, John Humphrys, veteran host of BBC Radio 4's Today, Britain's most influential news program, played the tough guy: 'If they told me to go easy on a politician.'

His brave words have vanished like dust on the wind. Neither Humphrys nor any one of the scores of celebrity presenters the BBC hires has asked hard questions about the 'false prospectus' – to use a favourite BBC phrase after the Iraq War – the Leave campaigns presented to the British people.

'The referendum is over,' declared another Today presenter, Nick Robinson. 'The day we broadcasters have to 'broadly balance' the views of the two sides is at an end. Why? Because there are no longer two sides.' Real journalists should be able to see that everything is wrong with his statement. If Brexit were over, Britain would not be in a rolling crisis with no end in sight. As pertinently, journalists should never assume a subject has become off-limits, because that is what the enemies of free expression demand.

Much of contemporary politics resembles the brainwashing techniques of religious sects, which discredit sources of information that might contradict the cult's teachings. Political leaders cannot order their followers to cut off communications with their families and leave their partners if they are not fellow members of the sect, but they have found other ways to imitate L. Ron Hubbard. Their most effective technique is to take a half-truth – that all journalistic choices are ideological to some extent – and use it as a weapon to suppress the full truth.

It ought to be obvious that a left wing reporter will have an urge to expose corporate misconduct, just as a right wing reporter will be on the watch for the hypocrisies of the left. But since deeds, not motives, make the world go round, the intention of the reporter ought to be irrelevant. What matters is whether what they have found is true or important. Trump and Putin are masters of the tactic of saying that, regardless of the truth of the research or the importance of the story, the very fact of the story's existence proves its illegitimacy. The term 'whataboutism' does not begin to cover the new official campaigns to discredit journalism.

The political cult leader does not merely claim his opponents are as bad as he is or that reporters are motivated by their opposition to him (which is true more often than not). He tells his followers that no honest person would have covered the story in the first place. Its truth and relevance are immaterial; it has no right to exist.

A reporter who accepts that argument has given up on journalism. The BBC has accepted it because of its unique position in British and, indeed, world journalism. The corporation is funded by a tax that requires every household to pay it about £150 a year. Unlike news organisations whose business models have been wrecked by the internet, this arrangement has guaranteed the BBC an income that allows it to dominate the British media. I am only exaggerating slightly when I say that news isn't news here until it is covered by the BBC.

Trump's victory in the US has emboldened the worst people in Britain, and the BBC faces constant attacks from his imitators. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have formed a suitably Marxist cult of personality around their leader. Their propagandists have convinced them that bad news about Labour is fake news concocted by corrupt journalists. So aggressive did their anger become that the BBC had to hire bodyguards to protect its political editor Laura Kuenssberg at last year's Labour's conference.

For decades, the right wing press has attacked the BBC with a ferocity and contempt for truth that would make even American conservatives blush. The easy thing to say after Brexit is that the BBC has capitulated to right wing pressure. But a deeper pressure is operating on the corporation that carries with it a warning, not only to journalists, but to all who think of themselves as men and women of political integrity.

To the bemusement of Americans brought up with the separation of church and state, here in England, we have a state church: the Anglican Church of England. On the one hand, the church is a religious institution that spreads Christ's gospel. On the other, it is a national institution that has diluted its religious teachings as it tries to hold the state together. The church could never adopt Christian pacifism, for example, because it is duty-bound to provide chaplains for the armed forces. If you want a church wedding, your local parish must marry you whatever your religious beliefs. You may worship the Jedi knights and your beloved may be a Satanist. No matter: as long as you are heterosexual English citizens, the national church must marry you.

The BBC is an Anglican broadcaster, which faces the same conflict of purpose. It follows the highest journalistic standards, yet it feels it must also reflect the national mood. Britain voted to leave the EU. The nation spoke, and in respecting 'the people's verdict', the BBC has done what every enemy of free inquiry wants reporters to do. Like Eliot, it frets about whether 'this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at this present time'.

The BBC's reporting of the scandals around the Brexit referendum is not biased or unbalanced: it barely exists. It is as though the US networks had decided the Mueller investigation was no concern of theirs. There have been three huge stories the BBC has covered with only the most perfunctory reports: the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data leak, the Brexit campaign funding scandal, and the exposure of Russian interference in British politics.

That 2018 has been the year that Western publics realised how much Facebook knew about them, and how that information could be used by hostile foreign powers and malicious plutocrats, is thanks in large part to the efforts of Carole Cadwalladr, my Guardian and Observer colleague. In 2016, she was a jobbing feature writer tackling any subject the desk pushed at her – a fact that has caused established journalists, who ought to know better, to sneer at and diminish her work with mutters that she is a conspiracy theorist. Two years on, Cadwalladr has inspired investigations of global interest in the Brexit referendum. She did it the old-fashioned way, by banging away at the story week in, week out. The more often she appeared in the paper, the more potential whistleblowers realised they could trust and talk to her.

Cadwalladr makes no claim to neutrality (and no one would believe her if she did). A few weeks ago, I urged her to take time off from exposing the corruptions of the Brexit campaign to write a book about her investigation. It would be a bestseller at home and abroad, I assured her. Think of the translation rights. Think of Cadwalladr: The Movie, with Reese Witherspoon learning to speak in a Welsh accent as she prepared to play the lead. Far from being grateful for my unsolicited career advice, Cadwalladr looked appalled: 'But I can't stop the journalism, Nick. I can't let them get away with it.' No one has done more to expose how the axis of technology, demagoguery, and oligarchy operates in Britain. She is everything BBC journalists are not.

When the whistleblower Christopher Wylie brought the Observer and the New York Times allegations about the activities of Cambridge Analytica, a British company partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer (who funds numerous conservative causes), Cadwalladr and Wylie offered the BBC a share of the story. The firm was at the centre of the Anglo-American alt-right. Steve Bannon was on its board. It worked for Donald Trump and, at the very least, had dealings with Leave.EU, the pro-Brexit campaign group fronted by Nigel Farage and funded with what is thought to be the largest campaign donation in British political history. When news broke that Cambridge Analytica had collected identifying personal information for some 87 million Facebook users, Facebook stock fell by $134 billion.

The BBC was given the opportunity to interview the whistleblower and have a documentary ready to go once the news was out. But like Eliot rejecting Orwell, the BBC's Panorama backed away. There was no 'smoking gun', it said. Within days, the smoke from Facebook's burning reputation was billowing from its Palo Alto headquarters.

The pattern repeated itself with Shahmir Sanni from the Vote Leave campaign. He turned whistleblower and raised allegations that the group could have bypassed electoral law and breached the official spending limit of £7 million during the run-up to the referendum. Once again, the BBC did not want the scoop. 'We don't have enough evidence to turn this around in three weeks,' a Panorama bureaucrat wrote to Cadwalladr.

And then, inevitably, there was Russia. Along with others, I had speculated that it was scarcely conceivable that Russia had not tried to influence the Brexit referendum given its strategy is to break up the institutions of Western unity: NATO and the EU. Brexit was as great a triumph for Russian foreign policy as the Trump victory. We knew Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, and that post-fascist and post-communist parties across Europe looked to Putin for support. Speculation is one thing; evidence is another. Cadwalladr received copies of Arron Banks's emails indicating that he had had multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador during the referendum campaign and was offered a business deal involving six Russian goldmines.

All the Today program would do was try to set up a staged confrontation between Cadwalladr and a propagandist for Brexit. It would not report on the emails as news; nor did it use its vast resources, hundreds of times larger than those of the Observer, to investigate. Until that point, I had been defending the BBC against its enemies, including critics who were my political allies. I gave up. What is the point of the BBC if it cannot tackle issues of national importance? What is the point of a news organisation that is frightened of journalism?

In the preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell provided a line that today would be apt for the walls of the BBC headquarters: 'Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.' No doubt, if the shift of public opinion against Brexit continues, the BBC's silence will end and, like a weather vane, it will swing with the prevailing wind.

It will receive no plaudits from me. No one should praise journalists who speak out when, and only when, they are certain that public opinion is with them. Not just journalists, but anyone engaged in political life should learn from the BBC's abject performance. Whether you are on the left or the right, there will be times when you will be frightened of saying what you believe for fear of offending your friends, breaking a taboo or going against the ephemeral consensus of the day. Allow that fear to dominate you and you will end up like the BBC: platitudinous, frightened, and irrelevant.

Nick Cohen is a writer for the Observer, Time and the Spectator; this article has also been published in the New York Review of Books

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