This is my 35th year in the BBC. I have covered every general election since 1987 and have presented countless election results programmes since then. But this December 2019 election provided my first overnight stint in the anchor’s chair, a stint which includes revealing the result of the Exit Poll at 10pm precisely. There are many millions watching our coverage worldwide and it really is one of those moments when you feel a great sense of responsibility. You are supported by the best news team in the world, and you are expected to deliver a results programme which upholds the BBC’s reputation for quality and fairness. But you’re doing so in a world where toxic cynicism and accusations of bias (from all sides) are adding to the pressures on the entire team. And you realise yet again that the real purpose of many of the attacks is to undermine trust in institutions which have been sources of stability over many decades. The apparent purpose, in short, is to cause chaos and confusion.
So my first duty is to thank all my BBC News colleagues for their hard work and dedication, resisting the sometimes appalling levels of pressure from political parties and their puppets in parts of the press and elsewhere. Providing a fair and balanced account of a complex election campaign – with feelings running high on all sides – is difficult enough. Trying to do so while dealing with relentlessly vitriolic attacks is doubly challenging. So I want to pay tribute to my colleagues for doing their best every day on behalf of the licence payer.
I should say a few things about notions of ‘bias’ and the attacks (from both left and right) on journalists who are trying their best to provide a duly impartial service. This clearly does not apply to many of those hacks working in parts of the press and online, where regulation is risibly weak and blatant propaganda can be passed off as ‘news’. And while I have the highest regard for parts of our press – which produce some of the best journalism and analysis anywhere in the world – it is still the case that the broadcast media are obliged by law to work to different editorial standards. This stark difference is sadly lost on many of those very clever (and often nameless) people shouting abuse on social media on an hourly basis.
I work in an organisation where thousands of journalists provide material for countless outlets on television, radio, and online (in all its forms). We are all committed to providing a fair service, but we sometimes make mistakes which we deeply regret. The most curious notion of all (promoted with great energy by the BBC’s critics on both left and right) is that these mistakes are often ‘deliberate’, carefully planned to undermine one party and boost another. These critics imagine a world in which thousands of BBC journalists – of all backgrounds, nationalities, outlooks – work to a specific political agenda ‘dictated’ by ‘a few powerful individuals’ as one commentator insisted recently on social media. In the last week of the campaign, I was simultaneously accused (yeah, by the Sun) of being a Labour supporter, and (on Twitter) of deliberately facilitating a Conservative victory. I have been accused of being a Plaid Cymru voter (this is a difficult notion in London, I have to say) and in one spectacular zinger of a letter a few years ago, a ‘vile Welsh neo-con’. Whatever.
The BBC is not, to put it politely, run like some newspapers, with an all-powerful proprietor and/or editor making his or her mark on the tone and direction of the coverage. BBC News is a rather unsettling mix of awkward, contrary and assertive people who (in my very long experience) delight in either ignoring the suggestions of managers or simply telling them where to get off. That’s how it works. For the record, I have never been asked to change a script (unless there’s a factual error to be sorted) or adopt a slanted line of questioning. Yes, I’ve had some very robust exchanges with editors about the stories we cover and some of the choices we make, but the fact that these conversations take place (in the middle of the newsroom, with dozens of colleagues gleefully earwigging) underlines my case. The BBC can be an infuriating place but it is above all an invigorating and uplifting place in which to work. Any colleague who might try to ‘freelance’ and promote his or her own political views would also be quickly told where to go. There are just too many stakeholders in the production process for such ‘freelancing’ to happen or go unnoticed. Our critics – some of them in academic posts where they are presumed to have some expertise in this area – often betray a wholly laughable cluelessness about the ways and culture of the BBC.
Our specialist editors are in a league of their own: they are employed to analyse and explain. They can be highly critical of what’s going on or they can take a more positive view of the success of a particular strategy or individual performance. That’s what they’re paid to do. They sometimes upset people with their analysis. Hard luck. It’s not ‘biased’ just because you happen not to like it. And here we have the real poison of the social media age: there is a refusal to entertain an alternative point of view; there is a desire to embrace only those sources which confirm your own ‘worldview’ or ‘groupthink’; in short, it’s ‘biased’ if it challenges your own bias. It’s unhealthy and profoundly damaging.
So here’s hoping for a future in which public debate can be conducted with far more courtesy and tolerance; and a future in which people seek trusted sources of news while discarding the kind of dross that’s polluted American political discourse. The BBC is far from perfect, but it can play a very valuable role in promoting the better path.
This article orginially appeared on LinkedIn