Nick Robinson reveals how far the BBC may have strayed

Nick Robinson revealed something significant on Twitter today. He was replying to this accusation from a guy called Frederic Moreau:

For those new to UK politics, the DUP is the party at the centre of one of Brexit’s many dark money scandals, and also the party guaranteeing the current government a majority.

In reply, Nick Robinson wrote this:

Oddly enough, this was a pretty ‘interesting and revealing’ thing for a senior BBC presenter and former political editor to say. It’s especially interesting at a time when the BBC is under huge pressure to explain its continuing failure to act in the public interest by reporting on Brexit in a way that reflects the truth, rather than in a way that gives all sides equal weight.

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Nick Robinson [source]

Is Robinson right? Can there be room for interviews on the BBC that do not challenge? Bear in mind that the BBC is the UK’s public broadcaster, with an enormous audience and huge resources paid for by citizens (sometimes against their will). The BBC drives the news agenda in politics and much else. If governments and opposition parties want to announce something, they will try to get on the BBC to do it.

I would argue that there is no justification for an interview on the nation’s most important news show that does not challenge. I argue from authority: here are two key definitions of the purpose of journalism.

The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

That’s from the American Press Institute [source], though. What if the UK has a different approach? Well, it turns out the Independent Press Standards Organisation (the UK print media ‘regulator’) has defined what ‘the public interest’ means [source] (bolded text is my addition):

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

The three bolded points are relevant to Jeffrey Donaldson’s statements. If this doesn’t apply to the BBC, who does it apply to?

Robinson’s opinion is terrifying in an age of misinformation and disinformation. Getting people to voice ill-founded opinions and false information without immediate challenge is actively inimical to the purpose of journalism outlined above. Worse, we know perfectly well that once a lie pollutes the information ecosystem, it travels faster than the truth. It was always thus. Jonathan Swift in 1710 wrote [source]:

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

Never before has this been more relevant though, in a time when we have propaganda on steroids infecting our politics and our society, and when powerful forces both foreign and domestic are weaponising it for their own purposes.

I want to be charitable. Perhaps Robinson genuinely believes that by simply getting people to put forward falsehoods, other journalists and fact-checkers will come riding to the rescue and ‘challenge’ them, and in so doing, will ensure that citizens are informed. If he does, he’s naive. Politicians use the Today programme and other similar means to spread their lines and opinions. It is not enough to rely on people debunking things later.

The less charitable way to approach it, though, is that Robinson wants to be able to challenge some people and not others. As Chris Smith put it:

If Chris is right, we would see a pattern of left/liberal politicians being challenged in interviews, while right-wing/authoritarian ones were not. That might well undermine trust, as well as damaging the BBC’s claim to be serving the public.

All I know is that it’s becoming harder and harder to think charitably of the BBC.

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