Posted on: May 5, 2020 Posted by: Glyn Sheldon Comments: 2

Apart from a one-off moment of clarity from Newnight’s Emily Maitlis a couple of weeks ago, the coverage provided by the UK’s leading news broadcasters has been sadly lacking in substance throughout this lockdown period. 

The daily briefings given by Government Ministers and leading Scientists are often met by deference from those lucky enough to be asking the questions. The lack of scrutiny afforded to the people who are essentially holding our lives in their hands, is a shocking abdication of duty at such a vital time. Those who are making such important decisions over life-and-death decisions need to be held to account for the choices they are making, need to be forced to explain their line of thinking over such choices and, in instances where they have been unable to achieve their previously stated plans, must tell the public why this is the case.

This clearly hasn’t happened, and it’s likely costing lives. I certainly understand the sentiment of not wanting to be overly critical of the Government in a time of extreme crisis. The Government is clearly in an extremely difficult position right now, and to criticise them for the sake of it would be unnecessary. However, when the decisions that the Government makes in terms of not supplying anything near adequate amounts of PPE, ventilators or testing equipment- they need to have some pressure applied so that lives can be saved. Of course, there is another major reason why broadcasters have been hesitant to challenge the Government- which has to do with the ‘revolving door’ which exists between high-level broadcasting roles and positions within the Government Communications Departments. For more information on this, I would advise reading pieces from Tom Mills, and Louis Mendee which explore this in great detail. 

To be honest though, this is only part of the problem. Mainstream broadcasters have had their standards steadily decline to the point where they are no longer equipped to make even minor criticisms of our Government. 

It has become increasingly evident that the TV news establishment not only defers to Government officials on a regular basis, but also often allows only a narrow range of political views to be accepted on their platforms. Frequently, this is practiced through a prism of ‘impartiality’, which broadcasters technically have to abide by- particularly during election time. Now, one can certainly make the case (with evidence) that the BBC especially failed to live up to even these standards during the recent General Election when covering Corbyn and the Labour Party. I will concede though that it is certainly reasonable to expect that a Party offering such a systemic change regarding public spending, should be scrutinised. What is more concerning however, is the sheer lack of actual journalism practiced by the supposed cream of the crop. 

As a side note here, it is also important to note the declining power of the British Press. Whilst still important in setting the terms of political debate (broadcasters will still provide daily coverage of what is on the front pages), the circulation figures for the major newspapers are in freefall. The right-wing Billionaire-funded tabloids (yes, the Mirror is in decline as well) are all experiencing serious declines in their numbers of readers, and their trust numbers have fallen to pitifully low levels. Once heralded as being election winners for their Party of choice, these hate-rags are no longer the dominant sources of information for the public- leaving Broadcast media as the apparent saving grace for our media landscape.

Back to impartiality though- on issues of the environment, the cost of austerity, and Brexit, was generally interpreted by broadcasters as a “Tories say this, Labour says this”- leaving viewers none the wiser as to the potential costs and benefits of various important policies. The BBC have consistently claimed that, as they are receiving complaints from both sides of the spectrum, they must be getting it right- holding onto the idea that the objective truth is always somewhere in between two opposing views. This is, of course, not even remotely accurate. As is made clear in a very pertinent quote as a journalist: “If someone says it’s raining & another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the fucking window and find out which is true.” 

The BBC has got into trouble with this before. Their coverage of climate change was frequently criticised for falsely equivocating between the views of climate scientists and those who thought it was a hoax (see: Nigel Lawson). Dangerously, this gave the impression that the science on the matter was still up for debate, creating room for the Government of the day to sidestep the issue of tackling it altogether. 

Interestingly though, this false impartiality can cut both ways- notably so on the issue of Brexit. The BBC, terrified of appearing too Remainery, would regularly understate the economic arguments in favour of remaining in the EU, using quotes from James Dyson (a businessman who had actually moved all his manufacturing projects overseas due to the costs involved with leaving the EU- but still argued Brexit would benefit the economy) to provide ‘balance’. Nevertheless, the BBC still justifiably caught the ire of Brexiteers by portraying them as racist, stupid and voting against their self interest failing to see the Brexit vote for what it was, a fightback against the political and economic establishment which had abandoned those outside London for decades. 

Trust is an essential aspect of journalism. If your readers/viewers don’t have confidence in your ability as a journalist to provide accurate information, or crucially, if you’re not open and up-front about your preconceived views, then they won’t be able to make informed decisions with the details presented to them.

“A recent Sky Poll found that trust levels in TV journalists are at -40%, a shocking statistic that really reveals how far these institutions have fallen.”

The BBC’s recent debacles have led to their trust levels falling below that of their competitors, a real blow for the country’s public service broadcaster. And now, in this Coronavirus era, the public has now seemingly reached the end of their tether with those who are meant to be providing us with a clearer picture of what’s going on. A recent Sky Poll found that trust levels in TV journalists are at -40%, a shocking statistic that really reveals how far these institutions have fallen. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that young people seem to have ‘abandoned TV news entirely’, watching only 2 minutes a day on average. 

So where are we getting our news from instead? The obvious answer is social media- but it doesn’t appear that people trust much of what they see on there either. Certainly, Twitter and Facebook are often little more than echo chambers which can be rife with misinformation- so that’s to be expected.

With no major options available to receive useful, informative and interesting news, young people should turn to independent websites which are up-front about the viewpoints they are arguing for. If a journalist is at least open about the biases they hold, then you can be comfortable knowing they are not trying to pull one over on you- and can read the material with the critical eye it deserves.

 I would recommend websites such as Novara Media, The Conversation, OpenDemocracy, RT and Wired– which do a better job than most at being honest with their audience. As well as this, young people should be willing to take the plunge and create the media institutions of the future which will actually provide relevant discussions of important events. 

Not wanting to miss an opportunity for a shameless plug, I would therefore invite everyone who’s made it this far to read my other articles and all the great pieces on this website- it might even inspire you to write something yourself. There’s literally not going to be a better time to get involved and share your opinions. 

Further Reading

If you’re interested in a more detailed look at the issues of impartiality/objectivity within news, as well as more discussion of the decline of the BBC, check out these articles/books:

https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2017-11/Delivering%20Trust%20Impartiality%20and%20Objectivity%20in%20a%20Digital%20Age.pdf

https://titiesel.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/hackett-robert-a-e2809cdecline-of-a-paradigm.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/15/coronavirus-had-made-the-bbcs-balancing-act-even-harder

https://www.versobooks.com/books/2243-the-bbc

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1467-923X.12296 (needs payment/institutional access)

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/aug/05/television-news-bulletins-bias-impartiality-bbc-cnn

By Glyn Sheldon


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Jonny Burke
Jonny Burke
6 months ago

Enjoyed the article Glyn.

How d’you reckon the broadcast media can and should improve to start regaining public trust? Personally, I don’t see it being replaced altogether. Obviously the influence of digital media is only going to grow and good quality journalism, coming from sites that outwardly admit to holding a political position (whether it be either left or right-leaning) can still be quality and integral pieces of journalism. But leaving it up to the public to access the sites they choose and prefer to read will undoubtedly reinforce and grow certain echo chambers and held opinions.

That is where public-service broadcast services like the BBC and Channel 4 need to provide a balance and spark decent debate. The figures relating to trust in the media are shocking but also no doubt increased by ‘Fake News’ rhetoric spun by Trump, Farage and co. Undoubtedly institutions like the BBC are going to make mistakes and it definitely has it’s shortcomings in areas where it tries to please everyone and upset no one (to your point about climate change debate) but ultimately causes unnecessary confusion. But, ultimately, it has to remain an integral part of British journalism, albeit improved, to maintain healthy debate in the UK.

Otherwise, surely the alternative of car crash commercial news – as seen played out in the US – is so much worse and damaging.

Glyn Sheldon
Glyn Sheldon
6 months ago

Thanks for the comment mate.
It’s a tough one definitely. I certainly still see a place for the BBC and other mainstream outlets (not going to be arguing for ending the license fee anytime soon). But as it currently stands I think the license fee concerns are enabling the Tories to hold quite considerable sway over the BBC and, due to a lot of recent mistakes, most on the left won’t be coming to their defence. As such, I’d say the BBC specifically needs to be released from the bonds of government interference from either side (charter renewal process/government appointment procedure) which would allow it to be a more representative public service.
In terms of actual practice I’d like to see them do a lot more actual scrutiny of competing arguments- their reality check section is generally good and should be used a lot more. Not being afraid to actually call out a lie would be nice.
I 100% agree we don’t want to end up like America, their news landscape is quite dramatically worse than ours in many respects, but I don’t necessarily think that the decline of MSM and an increase in new media has to lead to a Fox News/MSNBC-type environment. A free and Independent media landscape is obviously the ideal-type but that requires a lot of effort to set up so people need to be brave.