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Paul Vallely: BBC News is being cowed by populism

02 September 2022

Emily Maitlis has alerted us to a dangerous trend, says Paul Vallely

BBC Studios/James Parris

Emily Maitlis, a former presenter of Newsnight, raised concerns about BBC impartiality last week

Emily Maitlis, a former presenter of Newsnight, raised concerns about BBC impartiality last week

ON HOLIDAY, we met, separately, five couples, all of whom had independently come to the same decision. They had all stopped watching BBC News. Two had gone over to ITN, several to Sky, and one, more radically, to Al Jazeera. Why had their confidence in the BBC finally evaporated so completely?

The former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis last week delivered the 2022 McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival. She called it “Boiling the Frog”. My friends, it seems, have all jumped out of the warming pot.

The lecture made headlines, but almost everyone missed its real point.

Right-wing newspapers focused on the BBC’s riposte that Maitlis had gone too far when she criticised Dominic Cummings’s rule-breaking jaunt to Barnard Castle. BBC etiquette, apparently, requires her to ask whether it was rule-breaking rather than assert the fact.

Left-wing newspapers highlighted her criticism that the supposedly independent BBC was, in fact, currently headed by a former Conservative councillor, chaired by a Conservative Party donor, and had what she called “another active agent of the Conservative party” — a former Downing Street spin doctor — sitting on the BBC Board as the supposed arbiter of BBC impartiality.

All of this, revealingly, is evidence of newspapers’ seeking out only those facts that appeal to the prejudices of their readers. Maitlis had a more important point to make. With the advent of a new populism all around the globe, politics has changed, and yet broadcasting has not.

The populists — Trump, Modi, Orbán, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, boosterist Boris Johnson, et al. — paint themselves as the true voice of “the people” and portray the media as part of an elite who are the “enemies of the people”. Repeatedly, they test the limits of the democratic constitutions within which they have been elected — telling lies, violating ministerial codes, unlawfully attempting to sideline parliaments, breaking international law, enriching cronies, etc. It was all “deeply and clearly deleterious to basic democratic government”, Maitlis said. It made “things that would once have shocked us now seem commonplace”.

One of the populists’ shared techniques is to use social media to brand any criticism of them from the established media as “fake news”. As Donald Trump privately told one CBS correspondent: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”

The response of the “mainstream media” to this manipulation has been to advocate greater commitment to traditional journalistic values. Yet populists adroitly turn that into further proof that the liberal elite is biased against them, dismissing them as “lefty lawyers” or “lefty media” who don’t understand “normal folk”.

Research by a Cambridge academic, Dr Ayala Panievsky, suggests that some mainstream journalists respond by unconsciously leaning rightwards. This “anticipatory avoidance” she calls a form of self-censorship or journalistic surrender. But other news organisations intentionally adopt a “strategic bias” to their choice of stories and framing of the news agenda, leaning rightwards in an attempt to refute the accusations of leftward bias.

What exactly is going on inside our cowed BBC only an insider can reveal. But, whatever the cause, some viewers are voting with their feet.

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