James Stephenson, News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs responds to Nick Cohen’s NYR Daily article

Date: 16.07.2018     Last updated: 16.07.2018 at 18.17
Category: News
Letter from James Stephenson, News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs to NYR Daily in response to Nick Cohen’s article ‘How the BBC lost the plot on Brexit’.

To the Editor,

Nick Cohen acknowledges the BBC "follows the highest journalistic standards". Were he to apply those standards to his own essay, he would find he has ignored a number of inconvenient facts. (How the BBC lost the plot on Brexit, 12 July).

Nick says our reporting of scandals surrounding the Brexit referendum "barely exists" and our coverage is "perfunctory". That will come as a surprise to our audience, as we have reported on every aspect of the story over the past two years.

Take his main example, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica whistleblower story. When it broke, we covered it on our major news bulletins for eleven days in a row. Our Business, Economics, Media and North America Editors and Technology Correspondent all reported on aspects of the story.

We also interviewed the whistleblowers themselves. Shahmir Sanni’s interview with Radio 4’s The World This Weekend was the lead story on the day his revelations were published and Chris Wylie was interviewed on two of our flagship programmes, The Andrew Marr Show and Newsnight.

The most inconvenient facts concern our award-winning investigative programme, Panorama - which, as Nick knows, does not shy away from hard-hitting journalism. Here his account is misleading.

Carole Cadwalladr has been widely recognised for her tenacious journalism and we were keen to work with her. She had been working with another broadcaster, coming to Panorama only at a much later stage.

For Panorama to make a programme, it needed to be confident of the underlying evidence behind the whistleblowers’ claims. Panorama asked for access to all the evidence, but that was not forthcoming. Limitations were placed on the BBC’s own investigation of the allegations and constraints on who we could approach. In short, we did not have the scope to make a programme which met our standards of robust independent investigation in the time available.

Nick also claims the BBC is behaving as if the debate about Brexit is over, quoting presenter Nick Robinson to make his point. The article cited actually points out that the conclusion of the referendum campaign ended the legal obligation for balance between two rival campaigns, thus reducing the pressure on broadcasters for ‘false balance’.

The BBC does indeed occupy a unique position in world journalism - as the most trusted international broadcaster. That is why hundreds of millions of people worldwide turn to BBC News each week.

We do not expect our journalists to "say what they believe", as Nick advocates. We ask them to report accurately, offer informed professional judgements and go wherever the evidence takes them.

This means our audience will sometimes hear views they don’t agree with, read facts that don’t support their own views and see news stories which are outside their comfort zone.

There can be few times in the BBC’s history when its journalism has mattered more. This is not an organisation frightened of journalism, but committed to it.

James Stephenson
News Editor, BBC News and Current Affairs