The last few months have been rocky for the BBC as coverage of COVID-19 brought new challenges, including several brushes with breaches of impartiality, controversial cultural content and an ever more disengaged youth audience.
News and current affairs programming at the BBC has faced a growing number of impartiality accusations in recent weeks, the incarnation of this Newsnight’s policy editor Lewis Goodall.
Whilst his talents as a competent investigate journalist deserve plaudits, he has, on several occasions, crossed that very thin line between objectivity and partisan broadcasting.
Most recently, the reporter was reprimanded after penning a scathing review of the government’s (undeniably incompetent) handling of this year’s exam results fiasco.
Whilst an eloquent and well- researched report, his desperate attempts to drag over the coals the much-maligned government strategist Dominic Cummings, despite unfounded claims of his involvement in the affair, lay bare Goodall’s (a former Labour activist) party-political laziness.
Newsnight’s bias problem extends beyond mere reporters, however
Goodall’s public vendetta against Cummings is not new; during the media- fuelled aftermath of the adviser’s trip to Durham in May, Goodall tweeted – and hastily deleted – false information prior to the police investigation had been finalised.
Newsnight’s bias problem extends beyond mere reporters, however.
Host Emily Maitlis’ opening monologue criticising Cummings, and more widely the government’s handling of COVID-19, contributed to the nearly 24,000 complaints received about the BBC’s coverage.
She was called out for breaching the corporation’s journalistic commitment to make “professional judgements but not to express opinion” and was politely reminded of impartiality guidelines.
Stoking unnecessary controversy seems to be the basis of the Newsnight remit
Again, this shouldn’t wholly detract from Maitlis’ excellent interrogation skills: see her interview with Prince Andrew for an excellent display of tact.
Nevertheless, stoking unnecessary controversy seems to be the basis of the Newsnight remit, which is concerning for a programme afforded a large chunk of the already sparse BBC budget.
The BBC were not as quick to de-escalate when it garnered 18,600 complaints at the use of a racial slur in a regional news broadcast on July 29th , when a white reporter quoted the abuse hurled at an NHS worker.
After a bungled defence, it took an intervention from the Director General, Lord Tony Hall, to quell tensions and apologise for the remarks. This was not before the resignation of Radio 1X DJ Sideman who called the sanctioning of the language “a slap in the face.”
Blunders such as this one are damaging, proof of this the proportion of ethnic minority viewers of BBC current affairs content falling to just 23%
That the authorisation of broadcasting the slur didn’t raise alarm bells in the newsroom, or at a higher level, in the first instance, is all the more concerning and demonstrates yet another example of a lack of sensitivity amongst editorial policy managers.
It also further establishes the worrying precedent of employees from ethnic minority backgrounds leaving the corporation, this number rising to 20% in 2019.
Despite repeated commitments to greater diversity in broadcasting, blunders such as this one are damaging, proof of this the proportion of ethnic minority viewers of BBC current affairs content falling to just 23%.
Contributors were asked how white women could do more to shun the stereotype and contribute more positively to the discourse surrounding racial justice
In July, the BBC was accused of stoking the culture war. It was claimed that an episode of the podcast ‘No Country For Young Women’ made callous generalisations about middle-aged white women by insensitively endorsing the pejorative term ‘Karen’.
Contributors were asked how white women could do more to shun the stereotype and contribute more positively to the discourse surrounding racial justice. In response, one guest blatantly suggested that they should “get out of the way”; hardly conducive to racial reconciliation.
The clip incurred significant backlash, with MP Ben Bradley promising to cancel his TV licence. It is also indicative of a new form of discussion at the BBC, one in which the sensible exchange of nuanced opinions is quashed and dissenting voices dismissed.
The most extreme example of this shift to more reductive programming is another podcast: ‘Scarlett Moffatt Wants To Believe’. Within the podcast, conspiracy theories are discussed, and often legitimised, including an episode on whether the moon landings were faked.
The more disheartening revelation is that one in six Britons give merit to the idea that the moon landings were falsified
BBC personality Dara O’Briain bemoaned the cancellation of astronomy series ‘Stargazing Live’ in favour of this considerably dumbed-down content.
The more disheartening revelation is that one in six Britons give merit to the idea that the moon landings were falsified; broadcasts like Moffatt’s give credibility to these ill-founded beliefs.
Perhaps the shift in scheduling is a feeble effort to fulfil the BBC’s pledge to more fully represent the “lives and passions” of younger audiences. This follows a 2019 Ofcom report which found that brand awareness is low amongst 16-24-year-olds.
Just 23% regularly watch BBC news, a drop of a third since 2014, as social media, a platform on which the BBC has a scant presence, is overtaking conventional news sources as the dominant outlet for the younger generation.
Comedy-dramas ‘I May Destroy You’, ‘Fleabag’ and ‘This Country’ prove that the BBC can still be cutting-edge
The report warns that the BBC risks a “lost generation”, as younger viewers describe the service as “dry and boring.” Endeavours to reinvigorate BBC 3 as a contemporary channel, by moving the service online, proved futile as its audience haemorrhaged to just half the figure before the move.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the corporation’s decision to end free licence fees for over-75’s attracted much critique and sparked a national counter campaign. Disengaging these swathes of the population limits the corporation’s reach and can only spell bad news.
Where the broadcaster does somewhat redeem itself is its stellar entertainment content; recent gripping dramas such as ‘Line of Duty’ and ‘Killing Eve’ attracted large audiences and comedy-dramas ‘I May Destroy You’, ‘Fleabag’ and ‘This Country’ prove that the BBC can still be cutting-edge.
The latter programmes serve two purposes, they offer a last resort to engage that younger audience and provide a platform for more diverse writing.
This begins to fulfil a central recommendation outlined in the Ofcom report: to urgently address the gender employment imbalance, with female employees totalling 43% of the workforce.
The advent of a new Director General at the BBC this winter undoubtedly means a major shake-up of output at the organisation
Incidentally, the fact that ‘Fleabag’ (Phoebe Waller- Bridge) and ‘I May Destroy You’ (Michaela Coel) are written and directed by the very women that they star not only engenders a more cohesive final product but is the beginning of a shift to more positive attitudes about female artists in television. Proportionality of on-screen talent should be replicated behind the camera too.
The advent of a new Director General at the BBC this winter undoubtedly means a major shake-up of output at the organisation. However, it needs to be wary of a derailment from its core objectives of impartiality and high-quality and distinctive content.
In their efforts to court a younger viewership, the head of news and current affairs at the BBC, Fran Unsworth, even suggested that traditional news bulletins could disappear from our screens.
She advocated “transitioning to a different model” in order to better serve the new way in which young people consume news.
But, with the rise of online fake news, the BBC must remain a reliable source of information. For young people, it’s a case of use it or lose it.
Featured image courtesy of K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.
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