It can’t be easy for the BBC’s news division, required by law to produce strictly non-partisan coverage while being assailed by both left and right for failing to sing their respective praises loudly enough. And while much of this criticism may be deserved, the fact remains that most BBC journalists perform a difficult and valuable job to a good standard, much of the time.
But the BBC would make life much easier for itself by taking a more consistent approach to its handling of editorial, investigative and disciplinary matters. At present there is no consistency at all, leading to the strong (and correct) perception that there is one rule for some people (and political parties), and another rule for others less favoured.
Take the case of John Darvall, a local radio presenter for BBC Bristol who was removed from his regular presenting slot because he happens to be engaged to a Conservative MP:
John Darvall, of BBC Radio Bristol’s Mid-morning programme, is being moved before the general election but says that he has had no guarantee he will be able to return.
Darvall, 48, and Charlotte Leslie, the MP for Bristol North West, met four years ago on his programme. They began dating in October and the twice-married father of four proposed on Christmas Day.
He is being moved to an afternoon show with less emphasis on news due to “heightened sensitivities” and to avoid accusations of a conflict of interest. BBC bosses said that he will be back after May. During a phone-in on the sacking of Jeremy Clarkson, Darvall suggested that he might not be back even after the election. A caller suggested that he should apply for a job on Top Gear, to which the host replied: “Trust me, I have a lot of reasons myself to be angry with the BBC at the moment. I am coming off this programme tomorrow, so I might consider something of a career departure.”
Questioned by another caller, he added: “It’s to do with the election and protecting BBC impartiality. It’s not my decision. I’m honouring what the BBC have asked me to do and I sincerely hope to be back after the general election, and the BBC have sort of said that I might possibly be, barring any unforeseen circumstances.”
In short, John Darvall was removed from his position not for something he did, something he said or even something that he thought, but rather because of who his future spouse happens to be. This harsh and career-damaging reaction by the BBC – as taking a journalist off the political beat at election time surely is – was meted out not even for thought-crime, but in Darvall’s case for existence-crime.
If the BBC removes local radio presenters from their scheduled programmes out of a desperate concern to prevent editorial bias, one could be forgiven for assuming that they were even more twitchy-fingered and heavy-handed when it comes to the behaviour of their more senior employees, those with a national role. But this is not the case.
Last year Jasmine Lawrence, the editor of the BBC’s main 24-hour news channel, tweeted disparaging remarks about the United Kingdom Independence Party and UKIP supporters prior to the 2014 European elections and the corporation’s only reaction (and even this only following public outcry) was to temporarily re-assign her for the remainder of the campaign. After the results came in Lawrence was allowed to resume her old position – at which point she and her strident political views were let loose to influence the output of BBC television news once again.
So when senior BBC figures such as Jasmine Lawrence display overt bias against one political party they are given a mild slap on the wrist and then allowed to carry on, while over at backwoods BBC Bristol, a respected and talented local radio presenter finds himself peremptorily removed from his position with no guarantee of return, not because of anything that he did or said, but purely because of who his spouse happens to be.
The editor of the BBC news channel can unashamedly parade her political bias explicitly on social media for all the world to see and keep her job, but a local BBC radio presenter is not trusted to resist the temptation to skew his reporting in favour of his soon-to-be wife.
One might be glad that the BBC has suddenly woken up to the importance of journalistic integrity and impartiality, but one must suspect the timing, as well as the first victim of the impartiality regime’s purge – the spouse of a Conservative MP.
According to the BBC themselves, they were motivated more by worries over how they are perceived as an organisation rather than any specific concern over the output of John Darvall. From the Times of London print edition:
A BBC spokesman said: “We have every confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of all our presenters and staff, but given the heightened sensitivities of an election period John Darvall will move from the Mid-morning show to present The Afternoon Show.
How nice that the BBC is so concerned for the sensitivities of Labour, LibDem or Green Party supporting listeners that they have taken pre-emptive action to protect these sensitive souls from a bias that they insist does not exist, given the “professionalism and impartiality” of their staff. But why does it take outraged headlines in the Daily Mail and an angry social media campaign for the beeb to take similar action against employees who have actually displayed real antipathy toward the parties of the right?
Unlike some others, this blog has not been obsessively concerned about left-wing bias at the BBC – where bias does exist, it tends to be mild and unthinking rather than deliberate and corrosive. Far more serious than any bias one way or the other is the remorseless dumbing down of the BBC’s political output, and the treating of our politics as something between a game and a bad joke.
But the fact that real and visceral anti-UKIP bias is tolerated by the BBC while nonexistent, potential future bias in favour of the Conservative Party is ruthlessly purged does not speak well of the BBC’s culture, or internal controls.