The BBC and political journalism

By Bernadette Meaden
August 9, 2018

The late Gavin Stamp wrote about architecture for Private Eye, under the pseudonym Piloti. As his obituary said, ‘he was entirely unafraid to offend the stars of the profession’.

Mr Stamp explained his approach: “I realised early on that it’s a mistake ever to meet architects. They’re always charming, even the worst ones. Once you’ve been out for a drink with them, or to lunch with them, you’ve had it. It’s very important to keep entirely separate from the entire architectural world, so then you can insult them”

There’s no need for political journalists to insult politicians, but Stamp’s independence and distance from the people whose activities he wrote about are, surely, essential for political journalists if they are to effectively hold power to account. More of this would, I think, improve political journalism immensely, particularly at the BBC.

Dissatisfaction with the BBC’s political coverage often arises from the impression that some of the editors, journalists and presenters, particularly the veteran, high-profile ones, are too familiar and friendly with members of the government to view their actions objectively, or to challenge them in a sufficiently robust manner. The impression so often given, of a cosy Westminster village, where politicians and journalists are all pals together, does not inspire trust and is not healthy for democracy.

No doubt some would argue that journalists need to socialise with politicians so they can get ‘inside information’ – but when all is said and done, is that really much more than gossip? It may be fascinating to know about plotting, squabbling, and potential leadership bids, but arguably it is not the kind of journalism we really need. It is no substitute for challenging politicians on the basis of their actual policies, which have a real impact on people’s lives. 

The information to do this vital job is freely available to anyone who does their research. But it’s easy to see how journalists could persuade themselves that gossipy lunches are more valuable than reading a White Paper or a statistical bulletin. And so all too often, when a government minister is interviewed on a hugely important subject like the NHS or Universal Credit, they get away with telling lies, because the person interviewing them does not appear to know enough to know they are lying.

The eye-watering salaries of some of the BBC’s top personnel must also make it difficult for them to relate to, or reflect the concerns of, people on average or low incomes. This may explain why there seems to have been so little interest in the impact of austerity, and why the national broadcaster often seems so out of touch with a country where so many people are really struggling to survive.  

Of course there are numerous outstanding journalists at the BBC. But they seem to work on the World Service, specialist programmes like the excellent File on Four, or local news. Indeed, I’ve seen interviews with politicians on our local BBC news programme where the presenters did a far better job than their national counterparts. I wrote about one, by Annabel Tiffin on foodbank use.  When local journalists get the chance to interview a member of the government, it’s taken as a valuable opportunity to ask some serious questions. Too often, on ‘flagship’ BBC political programmes, one gets the impression it’s a couple of old acquaintances having a chat.

Last year, on our ITV local news programme Granada Reports, Daniel Hewitt did two special reports on shocking in-work poverty and child poverty, from primary schools in Morecambe. He spoke to parents, teachers and a GP. The local Conservative MP was very annoyed, and alleged that the primary schools were "politically motivated" and "linked to Momentum". What happened? Hewitt’s reports were nominated for an Orwell Prize and he now works as a political correspondent at ITN national news. Sadly, I just can’t imagine a similar scenario in a BBC which currently appears deferential to the government.  

And yet, a few simple changes could improve things a great deal. I would suggest:

Don’t always have government Ministers interviewed by people who mix in the same social circles and, consciously or unconsciously, may be disinclined to alienate or disbelieve someone who is a long-standing acquaintance or even a friend. Instead, bring in a variety of journalists from regional programmes on a rota. Let us see, for instance, Annabel Tiffin interview Esther McVey about Universal Credit and foodbank use, on a flagship national programme.

If the government routinely avoids scrutiny by refusing to provide a spokesperson for interview, don’t facilitate or reward this by holding the Opposition to account instead. Don’t then give the government the last word by reading out the bland and meaningless statement it condescends to provide. In those circumstances, give the Opposition free rein to do its job and criticise the government. Perhaps then the government will be more inclined to turn up to defend its position.

Stop mirroring the agenda of the press. It’s simply a fact that press ownership in the UK is politically unbalanced, so anybody who takes it for a guide will inevitably go astray. With the resources the BBC has at its disposal it should not be reliant on the press, but too often it feels like it is following the agenda set by newspapers. For the same reasons, it would probably be a good idea to drop the frequent press reviews, where the press agenda is amplified to the nation, at the nation’s expense.

For guests on programmes like Daily Politics, Question Time, Any Questions, Newsnight etc, cast the net wider. The number of times Nigel Farage has appeared on these programmes is a standing joke, but the frequency of appearances from just a few organisations is also becoming an embarrassment. Choosing people from a wider political or academic spectrum who have real expertise and a fresh way of looking at things would make these programmes far more interesting and informative – now they feel stale, predictable, and uninformative.

I’ve deliberately not addressed the fact that so many of the familiar faces recently or currently involved in BBC political coverage have close links to the Conservative party. It is inevitable that political journalists will have their own views, and that is their right. But a strong and balanced editorial policy would counteract this, and that isn’t happening at the moment. The problem seems to come from the top, as this Twitter thread, by the former Baghdad bureau chief for the BBC suggests. 

As my colleague Jill Segger says, we live in a time when ‘fake news’ and accusations of ‘fake news’ are undermining our trust and confidence to a dangerous extent. “It is easy to feel that things are spiralling into an ethical chaos in which we can find no foothold. This is exactly what the proponents of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘false flags’ want us to believe. It must never be permitted to become the ‘new normal’ of a democratic society.”  

At such a time, the BBC has a vital role to play. We need accurate information, delivered in as responsible and reliable a manner as possible. Now is not the time for infotainment, gossip, or manufactured controversy. At a time when governing politicians often resemble a gang of unruly schoolchildren, we need the BBC to be the adult, not to get down to their level and join in the squabbles. And if that’s considered boring, then so be it. Better boring truth than entertaining lies. If the BBC can’t fulfil this role, then it will become increasingly difficult to justify the license fee.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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