We will carry on doing our job and asking tough questions
Director of News and Current Affairs
Apparently the “Tories are at war with the BBC”. Rows between the BBC and the Government of the day are nothing new. They go back decades to the very birth of the BBC. And few would argue that a cozy relationship between the BBC and government – or indeed any news organisation - would be a good thing. Scrutiny and accountability can sometimes be a bumpy ride.
And more than ever, there is a need for that accountability. Tweets from ministers are new forms of press releases. Facebook feeds are run from PR departments. It is only when people in power are asked directly to account for what they have done that the public can judge the choices they have made.
The economy is one of the key issues at the heart of the election. The BBC has played a leading role in covering the financial crisis and the return to economic growth. We have made huge efforts to give balanced coverage and reflect all sides of the argument from the fall in unemployment and the rise in private sector jobs, to the challenges caused by persistently downward pressure on wages and the resulting lower-than-expected tax receipts. And, this week, BBC News would have been failing in our duty to the public, not to mention the story of the big spending cuts necessary to eradicate the deficit in the course of the next Parliament.
The austerity still to come has been the focus of attention by the Confederation of British Industry and the Financial Times. In fact, it is not the BBC that pointed out that reductions in public spending proposed by the Chancellor on Wednesday amounted to a return to state spending on citizens last seen in the 1930s. That was the point made by the Office of Budget Responsibility, the institution created by George Osborne precisely so that the public could peer through the politics to judge for themselves the consequences of decision taken by the Chancellor.
Through the course of the past week, we reported the run up to the Autumn statement as the Government made a series of announcements: a £2bn commitment to the NHS on Sunday, a package of infrastructure investments on Monday, a flood defences plan on Tuesday and the Autumn Statement on Wednesday. On Thursday, it was the BBC’s responsibility to report and analyse those announcements in full – and hold the Chancellor to account. That’s what we would do with any Chancellor, regardless of their party, or their policies.
Just after 6am on Thursday morning, Norman Smith, the BBC’s Assistant Political Editor, was pointing out that while many headlines were around the changes to Stamp Duty – the big new news of the Autumn Statement – the issue that would dominate in the months ahead was the OBR’s prediction that Britain could face a return to 1930s public spending per capita. And if some people thought his reference to George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier was a tad strong, his editorial judgment was exactly right: spending cuts to reduce the deficit will be a central argument of the election. It’s clear it will be an issue irrespective of whichever party wins.
And the BBC’s role in this? To keep asking the questions. Particularly the difficult ones. John Humphrys did what John Humphrys is there to do. He asked the Chancellor to explain why the deficit had not fallen as far as he had originally promised. He asked how he was going to make the spending cuts needed to see the country into a surplus by 2019. And when Mr Osborne complained that he was being attacked, Mr Humphrys pointed out: “Questions are not an attack.”
The BBC, like any news organisation, makes mistakes. No doubt, in the hurly burly of the election campaign in the coming months, we will make some. When we do, we will try to get to the bottom of them quickly and correct them. Politicians can and do complain – often very publicly - about how challenging interviews are conducted. This particularly happens around elections when the stakes are high. In the coming months, there’s likely to be a lot more of it from politicians of all parties. And the closeness and unpredictability of this election is likely to amplify that like never before. So, it’s more important than ever that the BBC is undeterred by such complaints and defends its independence from political pressure from wherever it comes.
The BBC’s job is to keep reporting and analysing the news, questioning politicians, investigating the issues, and pressing for the real story. The election campaign has begun. The BBC will, undeterred, do its job. A meek BBC wouldn’t be fulfilling its role for the public.
James Harding is Director, News and Current Affairs