“In the world of responsible television there are the BBC and some others” - J K Galbraith, preface to The Age Of Uncertainty
The British Broadcasting Corporation has for decades set the gold standard for television journalism; this has been extended to its online presence. The processes and discipline of the BBC are such that the broadcasts and websites get it right on the vast majority of occasions. For this, most are prepared to trust the BBC. I’ll go further: in an uncertain media world, we more than ever need and perhaps want to trust its output.
Then came the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This duly dragged in the Vote Leave campaign, and more importantly for the social media world, Facebook. Broadcasters such as Channel 4 soon unearthed the deeply unprincipled underbelly of CA; closures and resignations followed. But from this story the BBC remained curiously detached, acknowledging its presence but never majoring in its coverage.
More worryingly, BBC presenters and guests openly voiced scepticism, or even outright derision, at the substance of the CA scandal. The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, so long a voice in the wilderness as she sought relentlessly to unearth the reality of what happened to influence, or perhaps even pervert our democracy, was shouted down live on the BBC by Isabel Oakeshott, a mercenary hack with an interest in keeping the story quiet.
Elsewhere, BBC presenter Andrew Neil was openly dismissive of the Observer’s coverage. Production staff, though, were swift to defend the Corporation from accusations of bias, with editor of live political programmes Rob Burley very much to the fore.
Disquiet over the Corporation’s coverage, though, continued, not least after its political editor Laura Kuenssberg allowed Vote Leave, though its principal Matthew Elliott - who was recently reduced to blustering and lying by Channel 4 News’ Michael Crick - to spin its own interpretation of the Electoral Commission’s impending judgment - twice.
The BBC told its audience that Vote Leave had “broken the rules”. The campaign had in fact broken the law. Vote Leave then pre-empted the EC ruling, once more using Ms Kuenssberg as their conduit. That she had been briefed by Elliott, and that what was being told was not the official version, but that of one interested party, was not made clear.
Then came the latest revelations: Facebook was to be fined £500,000, the maximum allowable under the legislation in force at the time. Worse for those deriding Ms Cadwalladr and her research, Vote Leave’s data firm Aggregate IQ was banned from handling UK-based data. There were significant implications for both the 2016 Trump campaign, and that of Vote Leave. Yet the BBC was coy on the whole story.
It was this apparent unwillingness to engage fully with events that the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland touched upon yesterday, telling “Why is the BBC downplaying the Facebook Brexit scandal?” and noting “The broadcaster fears accusations of bias. But it must not overlook allegations of dishonesty linked to the leave campaign”. There had been constant claims that “Remain did it too”, although these, sadly, were not supported by any evidence.
Freedland’s observations were most timely: after the Facebook and AIQ revelations yesterday, the Corporation appears to have made a grievous error of judgment, the kind that will raise questions as to why this story is being subject to such deflection, dismissal, and, whisper it quietly, creative reinterpretation.
Almost as a footnote in the Facebook, AIQ and Vote Leave story, the Guardian noted that “As part of its investigation, the ICO also issued a notice of intent to take regulatory action against Lifecycle Marketing (Mother & Baby) Limited, a data broker that provides information to new mothers and the trading name of the website Emma’s Diary, which was used by the Labour party”. Then a familiar player came into view.
The perpetually thirsty Paul Staines and his rabble at the Guido Fawkes blog told their readers “Labour Party’s Data Broker Fined £140,000 By Information Commissioner”, ending their highly selective analysis with the sneering comment “Labour MPs have been tweeting about the ICO report on Facebook data breaches all day. Oddly none have mentioned the above finding. Sure Carole Cadwalladr will be splashing on this for the Observer this weekend”. And there it might have stayed.
Except for the BBC. By yesterday afternoon, the sole mention of the Facebook and AIQ story on their website was an item titled “New mums’ data illegally sold to Labour”. The framing of the story by the Guido Fawkes blog was accepted as fact by the BBC.
This was despite the supporting article, “Emma's Diary faces fine for selling new mums' data to Labour”, conceding “The Information Commissioner's Office revealed its planned punishment in a footnote to a report about the misuse of personal data during the Brexit referendum”. It was a footnote. And there was one more small detail.
The BBC article also includes - prominently displayed - a photo of Jeremy Corbyn with the caption “Labour gained 32 seats in the 2017 General Election”. Nudge nudge, wink wink, Jezza and his pals doing something dodgy, know what I mean?
That is an inexcusable misreporting of the story. It is blatant reshaping of the narrative to force readers to “look over there”, away from the Vote Leave involvement. It is bias of the most blatant kind. It can no longer be shrugged off or waved away.
It is time for someone - anyone - at the Corporation to come clean and own up. The great pity is that we may be waiting a long time for that to happen.