A reader complained about a tweet published by the BBC’s Europe Editor Katya Adler in which she used the word “delusional” in connection with Michael Gove. The complainant argued this was inappropriate, as the word was loaded and that it indicated her bias on matters concerning the EU. The ECU assessed the complaint against the requirements of due impartiality set out in the BBC’s published Editorial Guidelines.
The tweet was prompted by remarks made by Mr Gove to the Commons Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union in which he stated:
I think the Covid crisis, in some respects, should concentrate the minds of EU negotiators, enforcing the vital importance of coming to a conclusion.
In response Ms Adler offered a detailed critique of his argument in a series of tweets, beginning with the following remark:
Am not first to comment on this today but below observation by Michael Gove that #coronavirus will focus EU minds on post #Brexit trade deal is delusional. It distracts EU leaders all the more from something which was not top of in-tray even before COVID-19
The BBC’s Europe Editor is expected to offer audiences informed analysis on long-running stories such as Brexit, and in the ECU’s view Ms Adler did so in these tweets. The detail she marshalled in support of her initial assertion shed light on the complexity of the story in a measured and balanced way; and she acknowledged the economic dimension of the argument, while pointing out the political imperatives driving the EU towards focusing on Covid-19. The ECU therefore did not agree that these tweets, taken as a connected series, raised questions about the overall impartiality of the BBC or Ms Adler.
The ECU did have concerns, however, about the terms of Ms Adler’s judgement on what Mr Gove had said. The ECU noted that she did not quote him entirely accurately, substituting “will” for his “should”, thus changing a statement which might or might not be understood as a prediction to one which could only be understood in that sense, and it was as a prediction that Ms Adler went on to judge it. Understood in that sense, we believe Ms Adler made a strong, evidence-based case for regarding it as most unlikely to be borne out and – subject to the qualification about allowing for other interpretations – was fully entitled to say so in those or similar terms. The word “delusional”, however, was more a term of evaluation than of objective description (outside a psychiatric context) and, when applied to a statement, was necessarily to some extent an adverse reflection on the person making it. To that extent this particular tweet in our view went beyond the Guidelines’ licence for “professional judgements, rooted in evidence”, and we upheld this aspect of the complaint.
The finding was reported to the Board of BBC News and discussed with the relevant editorial management.