It’s the dawn of a new year, yet the current atmosphere cannot be depicted in any substantial way as joyful or exciting. It more aptly resembles a house on fire: Brexit being dragged into another year, surges in homelessness, the climate crisis, and an overall political situation that makes everyone, from the most diehard conservative to the most ardent liberal, want to bury their heads in the sand. And now, to rub salt in the wound, it seems even the BBC – a pillar of British culture and journalistic integrity – has been taking serious hits.
A storm of scrutiny has recently rocked the BBC’s reputation as an accurate and unbiased news broadcaster. The accusations of partiality and imprecision levelled at it have become intense in recent months, in part due to the arguably unprofessional behaviour of various editors and journalists. As a result, Fran Unsworth, who is the director of news and current affairs for BBC News, announced a plan to reinforce social media guidelines, and potentially restrict journalists’ use of Twitter. If approved, the plan will oblige journalists to move away from online platforms, hampering their current freedom to disseminate news information or analysis without previous editing or fact-checking. This could easily be the best news to come out of the election period, a veritable silver lining in a cloud of petty online squabbles and political manipulation. Regardless of any initial gut panic felt at the idea of limiting journalistic freedom, the evidence of inappropriate online behaviour that merits this kind of reform is stacked high.
Perhaps the best current examples of improper journalistic behaviour are that of Laura Kuenssberg’s recent scandals. She has borne the brunt of a heavy amount of criticism after various instances of questionable reporting. For example, when she uncritically repeated a false allegation that a Labour activist had punched a Tory minister’s aide, or perhaps worse when she verged on electoral illegality by reporting claims that postal ballots were painting a “grim” picture for Labour before the polling stations had even closed. Though the latter incident was defended by the BBC and was judged legal, the fact that a reputable journalist came perilously close to breaking a law paints an alarming picture of the current state of journalism.
This isn’t meant as an attack on journalists who have made mistakes; they are human and are inevitably subject to error. Indeed, it is almost understandable that in the current media landscape – when information is demanded and distributed at lightning speed and when almost everyone with an online presence has the power to influence and manipulate information – journalists make factual missteps. Such instances are certainly unprofessional but only focusing on accusing journalists of incompetence or bias would be placing the blame entirely on the symptom rather than the cause. Online platforms like Twitter have become the new mouthpieces for political campaigners and social influencers, and they thrive on quick, competitive, and superficial forms of news expression. Is it any wonder that journalists and editors who take part in such a game then neglect the editing and fact-checking that comes with more in-depth, slower-paced journalism?
Therefore, it seems that the only sensible reaction to Unsworth’s proposal must be approval or even relief. She made clear in an interview with The Guardian that the proposal was in no way meant to completely eliminate social media platforms as a way of disseminating information, but rather meant to tighten regulations in order to safeguard journalistic values like accuracy and factuality.
Particularly now, when people’s faith in public institutions and political figures has hit an alarming low, it’s imperative to try and keep media outlets like the BBC from sharing the same fate. According to various BBC reporters approached by The Guardian, this might be too late, as a series of errors such as Keunssberg’s had led to an increase in distrust felt by the public. The mistakes are being construed as a broader, more insidious problem of bias within the BBC’s reporting system, and whether this is true or not, the problems caused by the overuse of online media outlets have only complicated matters further.
Hopefully, this policy will refocus the BBC’s attention on delivering factual, critically evaluated news to the best of their abilities, and consequently strengthen their undermined standing. Of course, when everyone in the world seems to be on social media, it seems impossible to truly take a step back from the online world. Nevertheless, it is important to try; the consequences of resigning ourselves to the evolution of journalism and technology without actively trying to protect its core values would certainly be very dangerous.