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The mainstream media and the death of impartiality

 The problem with press impartiality is that it’s just so old-fashioned.


We have the President of the United States gleefully deriding the mainstream media as pedlars of lies and propaganda. Print journalism in the United Kingdom has stretched so far to the left and right, that the centre ground is now a news wasteland where people like me wander blinking and weary, searching for any kind of indisputable truth, wondering where it all went so wrong.


In times like these, one need look no further than the BBC for an exercise in the futility of trying to defend impartiality against the caterwaul of indignant noise from all quarters. Press neutrality is now just a cosy fireside memory of serious fellows with starch collars, Brylcreamed hair and public school vowels calmly describing the invasion of Poland in between the county cricket scores and the shipping forecast. 


For me, everything came into sharp focus last week when the Prime Minister was involved in an embarrassing altercation at Whipps Cross hospital - where an exasperated man accused the government of bleeding the NHS dry and leaving his seriously-ill daughter in an understaffed ward.  


The BBC’s estimable political editor, Laura Kuenssberg pulled out her phone and started tweeting: The PM’s in trouble here, she said. He’s like a “rabbit in the headlights”. Too right he is. Over the last several days I remember having watched her following Johnson around like some sort of sceptical Eye of Sauron: Always there with the difficult questions. Eyebrow permanently arched, that familiar lip curl set firmly to “Yeah right, mate...” 


OK, she is no particular fan of Jeremy Corbyn, either. And I have to say that makes me admire her all the more. She’s fair. She’s balanced. She’s an equal opportunities news rottweiler. If anyone can sniff out some sense in all this, it is good old Laura K.


But then she made the fatal error of trying to add a little colour to the story, and inadvertently fell head first into a snarling frenzy of public indignation. She outed the angry father as a Labour activist - and pointed her million followers in his direction.


“Outrage!” yelled the left. “Leave the poor man alone!” “What have his politics got to do with it?!” “Typical BBC Tory bias!” “PM’s poodle!” “LAURA OUT! LAURA OUT!”


Having watched Kuenssberg’s output earlier in the week, I was astonished. You can’t tell me that you genuinely believe the BBC are cosying up to the government at the moment? She is out there DESTROYING Boris every night! She has him in her back pocket. It’s like Stuart Broad and David Warner all over again: The PM groping around for the right words, as she rips into him from round the wicket. A forlorn, floppy-haired mess. He must be sick of the sight of her. 


Of course, this is the same BBC who are regularly accused by the right of trying to hijack Brexit by stuffing the Question Time audience full of staunch, cardigan-wearing “remoaners” and strategically placing Huw Edwards in front of frenzied, EU-flag-waving protestors on College Green every night.

Even John Humphreys, after laying down the microphone in the Today studio for the last time, ripped into poor old Auntie for a “Kremlin-style” liberal bias.


It perfectly illustrates the current quandary for the BBC and other media organisations with a serious remit for balanced reporting and defending the public interest: Basically, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.


If the BBC do not challenge the two main political parties, they are accused of being toothless. But if they have the temerity to bash Boris on prorogation or make St. Jeremy’s lip wobble by whispering “anti-semitism”, they are instantly pillioried by the other side - accused of institutional bias and hatchet jobs. Or, more likely, dismissed as puppets for sinister overlords like Momentum/ERG/The Brexit Party/Jean Claude Juncker (delete as applicable, depending on the flavour of your fury).


Because the public interest no longer exists. It is, like Brexit itself, a problematic, multi-stranded, divisive concept - and one that is open to sneering criticism from those camped firmly at the margins.


I was interviewed for a podcast a couple of weeks ago, and asked about this issue of trust in the press. Clearly it is at an all time low. All I could say was that I still believe there are journalists out there defending the truth. 


That organisations like the BBC (and the Press Association, AP and other news agencies of traditional renown) are battling the trolls and the haters with quiet professionalism. A kind of naive nobility, even.


But we also have a responsibility to challenge our own opinions. To step out of our social media echo chambers and blink in the light. Brexiteers: Slide a copy of the Guardian inside your Daily Mail at the newsagents every morning. Corbynistas: Don’t instinctively vilify a member of Her Majesty’s government purely because he once warmed toilet seats for the head prefect at Eton. Listen to the other side. Try to understand their motivations. 


And if anyone is in any doubt, pull up the BBC website and read away. I reckon it’s as close to the “truth” as you are going to get.


"The public interest no longer exists. It is, like Brexit itself, a problematic, multi-stranded, divisive concept"