Every ten years or so the BBC comes in for criticism for being too partial or too impartial.

Most recently The Observer newspaper ran an article titled “Is BBC news broken? And if so, how do we fix it?” (26 May 2019). Recalling earlier politically motivated attacks – Norman Tebbitt under Margaret Thatcher and Alastair Campbell under Tony Blair – the article asked if the BBC has really lost its way, or has it merely become a convenient whipping boy for a frustrated nation mired in political crisis?

Several commentators offered their views. Among them comedian, broadcaster and political pundit Ayesha Hazarika:

“I think the BBC has a responsibility, at a time when our politics are really fraught, to promote all sides of the argument, not just the clickbait. It shouldn’t only be competing for social media likes, it’s also there to educate and inform us and that’s a big responsibility. The BBC should be a bastion of intelligence, objectivity and truth that’s not being cowed by anyone on any side, and they should debate things without fear or favour. I think the BBC has got to stop being so scared of some of its critics. It’s got to be braver.”

And Craig Oliver, a former editor of BBC News who was prime minister David Cameron’s director of politics and communications:

“Like it or not, the sheer scale of the BBC gives it a uniquely powerful role. Senior management at the BBC needs to make it explicitly clear to its news editors and reporters that in a world of populism, misrepresentation, ideologues, tribalists and cranks they are expected to fill the giant shoes they’ve been given. They must stop splitting the difference and combine intellectual agility with the self-confidence to properly referee our national debate – taking their time, being prepared to swim against the tide and make clear when something is just wrong.”

One problem is the definition of public service broadcasting as synonymous with pluralism, programming diversity, editorial independence, accountability and transparency. The principle is absolutely right, but the practice needs revisiting.

Misplaced balance and impartiality can muddy the waters in a context where one person’s democracy is another’s autocracy. Take Brexit as a recent example of bias for which the BBC has come under fire.

Public service media must offer rigorously argued opinion, verified news and information, and bold denunciation of fakery. Otherwise, it serves no useful purpose.

Photo: K. Mitch Hodge/Unsplash