John Simpson: ‘We’re not biased – the BBC hasn’t changed’

It’s our job to give people arguments they hate, argues the BBC's world affairs editor

John Simpson (Getty)

I’m really getting fed up with the complaints and criticisms being directed at BBC News at the moment. Not so much from our usual critics, the hardliners on the left and right, who habitually claim we’re biased because we’re not actually biased in their favour. No – it’s the middle-of-the-roaders who are doing the complaining now.

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The great majority of moderate-minded British people have always been the BBC’s strongest supporters. They back us because we try to give them a balanced, unexcitable, honest view of what’s going on.

But now I find myself reading article after article in the newspapers by people who start off, “I’ve always been a supporter of the BBC, but…” The basic idea is that the BBC has changed. Once it was even-handed, and now look at it.

Well, I promise you, with the perspective that 52 years of working for it gives me, it’s not the BBC that’s changed, it’s them. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to social media, and hearing only the kind of views they like, that they’re enraged by having to listen to arguments they hate.

At present it’s Brexit. Before that it was Scottish independence. People have allowed themselves to be persuaded that there’s something wrong with being given open and unbiased information from BBC journalists. Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t think any subject is too important to keep our minds closed about it.

Not that it’s exactly the first time complaints like these have been made. Right back in 1926, when the BBC was still in its infancy, Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, threatened to take it over and run it during the General Strike because its head, John Reith, wanted to cover both sides of the dispute even-handedly. The BBC didn’t fight hard enough, and ended up pleasing nobody, but it had learnt a lesson about backing its principles in the face of government pressure.

During the Second World War, ignoring the protests of Churchill (again) and thousands of ordinary people, the BBC broadcast news of British defeats and reverses, as they happened. The result? Directly we started winning, our audiences around the world knew they could believe what we said.

I do understand some of the criticisms that are made now. After the Brexit referendum, I got a formal ticking-off by the then head of BBC News because I’d said publicly that we were too willing to allow both sides to lie their heads off during the campaign.

I still think that about the campaign. But now the BBC has developed fact-checking systems, particularly on BBC Online, to examine phoney claims. If it were up to me, I’d attach a fact-checking team to every single news programme, to counter each false statement that’s made.

Those of us who work for BBC News are still basically followers of John Reith. We think it’s our job to tell people honestly, to the best of our ability, what’s happening. George Orwell’s words, “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”, are cut into the wall beside his statue at Broadcasting House, and I’m proud of that.

This has been the nastiest period in our national life since 1945. It’s the broadcasters’ job to give people the range of opinions they won’t necessarily get in their newspapers. And it’s also our job to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, whether they like it or not.

So the next time you’re tempted to yell at your radio or TV because you think that some presenter or reporter is biased, when actually they’re just telling you something you don’t want to hear, pause a moment. You may be listening to the sound of genuine, honest balance.


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John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor