There are many pantomime villains in modern politics. In the warped parody of Westminster, Theresa May is seen as a slowly malfunctioning robot soon destined for the scrapheap, Jeremy Corbyn a poorly disguised Soviet agent, and Nigel Farage (in the words of Russel Brand) a Poundshop Enoch Powell.
The traditional political establishment, both in the United States and in Europe (including Britain), has been pilloried for creating an economic crisis at home and turmoil abroad, while the new establishment has been condemned for its degenerative solutions to these problems.
This anti-establishment mentality has pervaded throughout Britain’s political system and, in recent months, has threatened the status of one of our most popular institutions – the BBC.
Both sides of our polarised political spectrum now regard the BBC with deep suspicion, often evolving into aggressive animosity. Arron Banks and his bullyboys believe that the BBC is attempting to sabotage Brexit. Remorseful remainers, on the other hand, believe that John Humphrys and Andrew Neil are single-handedly thwarting their efforts to galvanise support for a second referendum. And, adding to the angry mob, Corbyn fans are convinced of a deep plot within the BBC to delegitimise their movement.
All of these complaints are nonsensical, bordering on silly.
Firstly, the BBC is not a homogenous organisation, so it is pretty much impossible for the organisation to have a single, definitive political stance on anything. BBC staff do not sit down every morning with Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Neil to receive the daily line on Brexit. There are hundreds of editors and producers at the BBC (working for dozens of programmes), the vast majority of whom have creative independence to cover political issues within the organisation’s impartiality guidelines.
Indeed critics of the BBC usually employ stupefying selectivity to make their arguments. They highlight particular segments, presenters or programmes in an attempt to prove a broader political point about bias. This selectivity backfired for one person on Twitter yesterday, who (in the usual accusatory tone) asked the BBC why it had failed to cover a school shooting, by posting a link to a BBC article reporting on exactly that topic. The fact is that the BBC reports on most things, either online, on TV or on radio. If you’re wondering why something hasn’t been covered, you’re probably just not looking hard enough.
On top of actively ignoring the BBC’s internal diversity, naysayers also fundamentally misunderstand the principles of impartiality and balance. The BBC must not favour one political group over another, and both sides must be given opportunity in some way to put their case forward. But the BBC is not just a mediator – its journalists are not and should not be blank canvasses. Journalists must scrutinise facts and challenge arguments in order to reach a better understanding of the truth. They must give a fair hearing to most political perspectives, but to accept them without inspection would be a monumental dereliction of duty.
Incidentally, during the two years that I worked for the BBC, I occasionally felt hampered by editorial caution (in the name of impartiality), but I never ever thought that a member of staff had acted with blatant bias.
It is completely legitimate to criticise Britain’s establishment. Due to the actions of politicians, often aided and abetted by those in the media, we have experienced a decade of economic stagnation and rapidly deteriorating global security. It is our duty as active citizens to hold those responsible to account. But the supposed bias of the BBC is a straw man, fabricated by political groups to distract from their own failings. I find it particularly galling that prominent remainers, whose complacency contributed heavily to an EU referendum disaster, now harangue the BBC over Brexit.
Ultimately, the only thing this criticism achieves is to delegitimise a great British institution. The BBC is an international beacon of independent, facts-based journalism in a world plagued by fake news and outright state censorship. The BBC (and particularly the World Service) provides reliable news to far-flung parts of the world that would otherwise be in darkness – aiming to reach half a billion people globally by 2022.
Of course, the BBC is not the perfect organisation. It is too large, too bureaucratic and too London-centric. But I’m proud of it, and it doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud by professional outrage merchants.
Sam Bright is director of Backbench. He worked for the BBC as a digital editor, a reporter and a researcher.