What exactly is the sort of journalism that the BBC “can’t and shouldn’t do”? Of all the questions prompted by the announcement that the BBC’s head of news is to leave by the end of the year, this is the one that matters.
James Harding, in announcing his decision to leave the corporation last week, was effusive in his praise for the organisation he joined after falling out with Rupert Murdoch as editor of the Times. Yet explaining how hard that decision had been, Harding said: “There is some journalism that the BBC, for all its brilliance, can’t, and probably shouldn’t, do.” He plans to set up a new media company with “a distinct approach to the news and a clear point of view”. There followed much debate about why he is leaving and what exactly he will be doing next, of which more later.
The timing of Harding’s announcement, coming so soon after the comments made by the Today presenter Nick Robinson about the “guerrilla war” being waged on the BBC by alternative news sites, suggests that the corporation is going through one of its periodic bouts of self-analysis and maybe even a crisis of confidence.
There have always been issues and events that the BBC is less likely to cover than its commercial news rivals. It is easy to spot reticence over sex scandals, especially if involving members of the royal family; less so support for non-prevailing ideologies.
Yet in a world in which every reporter’s tweet or misused word can be spread around the internet and branded as evidence of bias, it’s hard to argue that truly unbiased news reporting exists, even at the BBC – which demands that its employees leave their political affiliations at the door, as though they were trolley bags. Issues of bias and impartiality are more, not less, important at a time when the media needs to hear more voices, yet so many of those voices seem to be shouting, amplified by social media.
Newly enshrined in the BBC charter agreement, which came into force this year, BBC impartiality is its shibboleth against fears that public service television will become “Foxified” in a world in which opinion, not facts, sell.
But what does impartiality mean? “Not taking sides,” says the BBC academy. In its wordier charter agreement, it means that the BBC must “ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output”. The BBC adds that it applies “due impartiality to all subjects”.
Can this desire to “go further” be seen in the BBC’s decision to present climate-change denier Nigel Lawson as a valid alternative to the entire scientific community on the issue of global warming? Environmentalists think this is akin to putting a creationist on every time Darwin’s theory of evolution is cited; Today programme editors believe it’s either good journalism or, at worst, a minor mistake in an attempt at good journalism.
It may be easy to criticise the choice of individual guests on flagship shows – on one of these, two men were chosen to talk about Harvey Weinstein this week. But on other issues it requires more thought. Did the BBC, and all media outlets, do enough to explain and analyse whether immigration or austerity were good for the economy and society at large? Probably not, but then established wisdom is too often the journalistic equivalent of a comfort blanket.
After successfully completing its bitter charter negotiation with the government, the BBC should not need a comforter. The settlement may have resulted in cuts and internal turmoil, but 10 years of funding is more than any other news organisation has – not least the Canaries of this world that seem to be so irritating Robinson.
None of this seems to have filled the heart of Harding, a brilliant and buccaneering journalist, with joy – and he had had enough of what by all accounts is a job full of bureaucracy and, in the words of his counterpart on TV sitcom W1A, “bollocks”. Friends suggest that four years managing 8,000-plus staff, and an output that stretches from Radio 4’s Today programme to the World Service and bbc.co.uk, was probably enough – especially given cuts and the scandal of the gender pay gap this year.
In his time, Harding had done many laudable things, including launching a reality check to counter fake news, and appointing the BBC’s first female political editor. He was furious over a regulatory decision to criticise Laura Kuenssberg over a report on Jeremy Corbyn after the Paris terrorist attacks: not necessarily because Harding was against the Labour leader but because he thought she had acted in good faith as a journalist.
Tipped to be editor of the Financial Times before he was 30, and more at home in Davos than in Dagenham, Harding’s new site is expected to offer analysis and opinion. One of the best connected men in the media, a highly competitive field, he is a natural recipient of the large amount of funding belonging to wealthy plutocrats who see their world crumbling and would like to do something about it.
However, rumours of a pro-remain campaign site seem wide of the mark. Harding is a journalist, not a politician; and at the BBC, you need to be both.
Press regulation – Jarndyce v Jarndyce?
Meanwhile, the bitter battle over press regulation, launched after criminal wrongdoing and mired in political and business complexity since, edges ever closer to Jarndyce v Jarndyce levels of excess.
After several rounds of consultation, an approval body set up by the government-recognised Impress – the press regulator that large publishers have refused to join – has fought off a high court challenge over its status. News Media Association, which represents many of the UK’s biggest newspaper publishers, decided to lodge a legal complaint partly on the basis that Impress’s funding by former Formula One boss Max Mosley made this recognition invalid.
On Thursday, judges threw the case out. The stakes are high in this game as NMA members fear that Impress is the Trojan horse to new onerous libel fees. Yet vexatious legal challenges are never the way to win arguments, let alone hearts and minds. If any industry should understand this, it is the newspaper industry.
Time for the media to stop running from ‘the bear’
Another week, another appalling sex scandal cycle. It goes like this: there are allegations that a hugely powerful and wealthy man, after decades in the public eye, seems to be a molesting abusive fiend; the world’s media cringe at not only missing the story but at having written so many glowing puff pieces; the world’s media cheers up by remembering that it was a newspaper that exposed the scandal after all.
In Trump’s America, Harvey Weinstein’s Democratic funding was taken as evidence that the media is dominated by a liberal elite. But Weinstein’s power, and that of so many men in his position, goes beyond politics.
Sexual abuse is too rarely visible – the bully in the bathrobe inside his hotel room – and too often relies on the bravery of the often powerless victim. Self-interest and maybe even wilful blindness means that journalists stop digging, or don’t even start; while a woman who worked with Weinstein admitted this week that she suspected he masturbated during a screening of a nude scene but, she said, as nobody was hurt, what could she do about it? This means that even those who now admit to “hunches” that Weinstein, or indeed Britain’s Jimmy Savile, was up to no good, can go and find other itches to scratch.
Asked about the complicity of the film industry, one British producer who worked with him said she had been told: “If you don’t run with the bear, you get chased by the bear.”
Surely this Weinstein scandal shows that it’s time for the media and the rest of the industry to stop running.