Lesley Riddoch: BBC is not bold or diverse enough

The self-conscious and self-absorbed BBC is hilariously portrayed in W1A, which, of course, is a BBC sitcom. Picture: BBC
The self-conscious and self-absorbed BBC is hilariously portrayed in W1A, which, of course, is a BBC sitcom. Picture: BBC
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As Beeb falls over itself to be ‘neutral’, its reporters are failing to ask the tough questions viewers expect, writes Lesley Riddoch

The BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson raised eyebrows last week with the inaugural Steve Hewlett lecture, in which he claimed alternative online websites are part of a “guerrilla war” against the BBC and mainstream media organisations.

The Today programme presenter said: “Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe ‘the news’.”

He added: “Attacks on the media … are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.”

Extraordinary.

As yesterday (Sunday) began, Catalans were occupying polling stations to stop them being closed down by Spanish Government troops. But BBC network news was showing anti independence demonstrations attended by “a good few hundred people,” without mentioning that pro independence rallies have topped the million mark.

Meanwhile, the online world was watching short videos of an old woman being slung across a wet plaza like a sack of tatties by armed Spanish police, an elderly couple – the man bowed with age and using a stick to walk – being applauded by the crowd at another polling station as they moved forward to vote, and another video posted by the far from revolutionary Daily Telegraph showing elderly demonstrators being pulled by their cardigans from polling stations doorways, then shoved into the street.

While BBC News headlines were reporting that the Madrid government had urged Catalans to end their “farcical” referendum, the online world could see Scottish cross-party consensus developing as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale tweeted their condemnation of state-backed violence. Even Ruth Davidson was “urging the authorities to exercise restraint.”

By lunchtime, BBC News 24 had caught up a bit, though its main headline was still a study in reality-denying neutrality: “Spanish police have broken into polling stations and removed ballot boxes” because, “the Spanish Government is unhappy with the Catalan Government holding an illegal referendum.”

The presenter’s first question to the BBC’s reporter on the scene was astonishingly partisan: “Was it inevitable Spanish police would use rubber bullets?”

Now of course, a sizeable number of Catalans do oppose independence. But if accuracy matters, it’s hard to see how demonstrations featuring hundreds of people can carry the same televisual clout as events featuring millions, unless absent supporters of the status quo must somehow be mentally added to every small pro-Madrid gathering.

So which version of reality was “the news” for you yesterday – the BBC or your own mix of news feeds online?

School pupils across Scotland are taught how to spot bias and sensible adults understand there is no single monolithic version of reality. But BBC diehards refute that. Their refusal to accept there are judgment calls deciding on the story covered, the interviewee selected, and the angle pursued is the biggest part of the BBC’s problem. No-one has complete objectivity – and while the BBC is falling over itself to be “neutral”, its reporters regularly fail to ask the tough questions viewers expect.

Take the coverage of Hurricane Irma as it rampaged across the Caribbean. Channel Four’s Alex Thomson was on the hurricane-flattened island of British Anguilla, before Boris Johnson arrived. While BBC reporters simply described the carnage and reported some local discontent, Thomson visited the neighbouring French territory of St Martin while President Macron was visiting and pointed out that French islanders enjoy the same rights, access to public services and per capita expenditure as mainland citizens of France. By contrast, inhabitants of British Anguilla perceive themselves to be living in an underfunded shanty democracy. There was hardly a sniff of this highly relevant comparison on BBC news reports.

In the same programme, reporter Paraic O’Brien chased international trade secretary Liam Fox around a trade exhibition of British-made weapons repeatedly asking why Britain sells arms to Saudi Arabia in the full knowledge they are being used to kill people in the Yemen. It was bold, gripping, reportage – but was it unbalanced?

Why isn’t the BBC challenging government might in its main evening news?

The answer is that it can’t. The Beeb’s inability to produce bold, confident and controversial news stems from 2004 when its controversial and feisty director general Greg Dyke walked the plank over BBC coverage of the Iraq War.

After the bureaucratic regime of John Birt, Dyke’s ebullient leadership style involving “cut the crap” and “let’s make it happen” initiatives had been overwhelmingly popular with staff and his departure knocked the stuffing out of them. News in particular never recovered its confidence, looking over its collective shoulder constantly lest it once again over-step the mark.

The resulting self-conscious and self-absorbed BBC is hilariously portrayed in W1A, which, of course, is a BBC sitcom. This ability to poke fun at itself is always cited in defence of the BBC. But it doesn’t make up for lacklustre news and current affairs coverage.

For many Scottish viewers of course, skewed coverage of the independence referendum still rankles. Last week’s Question Time managed to discuss Theresa May’s tuition fees u-turn without mentioning once that Scotland has no tuition fees at all.

But that’s hardly surprising.

The most important political environment for Nick Robinson and network broadcasters is Westminster – so their work has become the ceaseless fluffing up of tired old policies and fairly ordinary people to create “news” and “personalities.”

Thus Ruth Davidson gets attention for pointing out that Britain is more London-centric than the USA or Germany – is it really? This startlingly passé observation commands attention only because Ms Davidson is second in the polls to replace Theresa May as party leader thus perfectly combining old news with a face that’s recognisable to Surrey-man.

Once upon a time BBC network news was the sum of its parts. Nationwide did feature the odd skateboarding duck, but this hour-long prime-time slot made the world beyond London a normal and regular component of news.

What citizens of this rudderless and unequal country desperately need from our public broadcaster is more genuine diversity in BBC network news and current affairs. We need reporters who regard politics as something that happens beyond Westminster, rigorous and robust fact-checking and comparison of British norms with wider European and world practice.

If that’s a bit beyond Brexit-conscious Aunty, I trust its presenters will excuse us for seeking enlightenment elsewhere.