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Freedom of Expression? Not for the BBC

Freedom of Expression?
Not for the BBC

In the coming weeks the BBC Director General will give evidence on the corporation’s leadership to the Communications and Digital Committee in Parliament. Will he be asked to justify the addition to its portfolio of the ironically entitled ‘BBC Verify’ and ‘Trusted News Initiative’? Here, Clive Thorne considers its failure to comply with its Charter on impartiality and freedom of expression.

Two recent developments cast into serious doubt whether the BBC continues to champion freedom of expression and instead engages in activity which actively prevents and suppresses freedom of expression.

Yet the BBC has express obligations of impartiality contained in its Charter. Article 6 of the Charter requires the BBC to provide “impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them.” Article 6 also requires that the content should offer “a range of depth and analysis and content … championing freedom of expression , so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens.”

The first development, earlier this year, is the creation of a large department of 60 journalists termed “BBC Verify” with the professed aim of “addressing the growing threat of disinformation and building trust with audiences.” To the contrary the evidence shows that BBC Verify is taking its role to be that of restricting freedom of expression.

An early example relates to the role of Marianna Spring, a former Guardian journalist, appointed BBC’s Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent. She recently broadcast on consecutive days 10 episodes of “Marianna in Conspiracyland” , a lengthy documentary about local people in Totnes who are apparently “at the core of the conspiracy theory movement ”.

As supposed evidence she relies upon criticism of a free newspaper “The Light” distributed in Totnes and elsewhere which she describes as the “conspiracy theory newspaper” which could “pose a threat to society in the UK and beyond”. Without supporting evidence Ms Spring links “The Light” with the US Capitol riots in January 2021 and a recent attempted coup in Germany.

Where is the justification for the BBC, no doubt conscious of its Charter obligations, to proceed with such an exercise? Where is the so-called disinformation or misinformation justifying such a lengthy tirade?

Another instance occurred when a BBC Verify journalist, Marco Silva, was interviewed on Radio 4 Today Programme by Amol Rajan on June 30, 2023 and in which he stated that videos (circulated by TikTok) that “challenge the scientific consensus on climate change” constitute “disinformation” and are part of the “world of misinformation today.”

Both examples indicate that BBC Verify is acting to stifle freedom of expression. Why should questioning climate change constitute “disinformation” and therefore the subject of a prohibition from broadcast on BBC channels? Surely in both instances a decision to listen and reach a conclusion is one for the listener and licence fee payer who funds the BBC. The BBC’s role is to ensure the existence of freedom of expression and that all sides are reported in its broadcasts.

Worse, however, followed. No doubt concerned by the high cost of BBC Verify a member of the public, Mr Ian Glynn, submitted a very reasonable Freedom of Information Act request to the BBC asking for information relating to the cost of BBC Verify and its 60 journalists. The BBC responded, as it always does, denying the request and with the affrontery to state that matters relating to budgets allocated to programming should not be subject to undue public scrutiny.

The second worrying development is the BBC’s founding of the Trusted News Initiative or TNI in 2019 which, it says, is “a unique global partnership bringing together organisations across media and technology to tackle harmful disinformation in real time”.

In a statement referring to Covid vaccination the BBC Director-General, Tim Davie, agreed that the TNI should focus on vaccine information to ensure “that legitimate concerns about future vaccinations are heard whilst harmful disinformation myths are stopped in their tracks ”. Given its obligation of freedom of expression what right has the BBC to challenge one side of the vaccination debate? Its obligation is surely to report both sides and not itself to take a side. To do so as part of TNI inevitably risks the freedoms that we today see being abused in, for example, Hong Kong.

The BBC should pay close attention to the conclusions reached in the 1977 Annan Report on the “Future, of Broadcasting” (Cmnd. 6753) which so aptly stated that “Broadcasters should allow the widest possible range of views and opinions to be expressed. Broadcasters are not doing their job if they allow only one view to monopolise their services.”

A recent investigation by Gordon Rayner for the Daily Telegraph has shown that during the Covid pandemic Jessica Cecil of the TNI participated, no doubt at the request of the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, in meetings of the Governments’ Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum at which discussions took place as to ways in which alleged untruths relating to Covid, lockdown justification could be prevented at the request of the Government.

On top of the Bashir saga, its coverage of Brexit, the Dyson Report and the Jeremy Clarkson fiasco it is now apparent that the BBC is intentionally failing to comply with its fundamental Charter obligation to ensure freedom of expression. Taken with the lack of an independent complaints procedure, the inability of Ofcom to ensure compliance and an indefensible licence fee funding, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the continued existence of the organisation. Its future must be seriously called into question.

Clive Thorne

Clive Thorne is a lawyer specialising in intellectual property including patents, copyright, trademarks, breaches of confidence, privacy and data law, as well as IT Litigation Arbitration and administrative law. He practises in the UK and internationally, with experience particularly in the Far East, and is admitted to practise in Hong Kong and Australia. He has handled disputes in all relevant courts including the High Court, IPEC, Court of Appeal, Privy Council and UK Supreme Court. He writes and lectures on IP law and recently co-authored A User's Guide to Copyright. (Seventh Edition).


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