John McAndrew (pictured) starts his new job as Director of News Programmes at the BBC this month. One of the important issues he must deal with is impartiality.

That the BBC has – or had – a ‘problem’ in this area is acknowledged by BBC Director General, Tim Davie, and Chairman, Richard Sharp. The BBC’s Editorial Policy Unit has worked on new guidance and training for staff in this area since Davie became DG. But there has been scepticism from some senior staff, who repeated the mantra that everything is OK because the BBC continues to be criticised from both the political right and left.

Meanwhile some BBC news and current affairs producers feel uncertain about impartiality. The message BBC journalists took away from Tim Davie, when he addressed them last year was rather vague. He urged them to be bolder and take risks. There was no clarification when the Corporation’s new CEO of News and Current Affairs, the experienced Deborah Turness (ex ITN and NBC News), spoke to some of them before Christmas. She said she was “still making her mind up” about impartiality.

Deborah Turness, who started at the BBC in September 2022

My guess is that Turness was waiting for McAndrew to start work at the BBC before saying anything of substance. It is significant that both Turness and McAndrew came to the Corporation from outside, and McAndrew from Channel 4 (where he launched the Andrew Neil Show) and GB News.

Davie and Sharp will no doubt hope Turness and McAndrew can bring a new perspective, to both the BBC’s broadcast and online news and current affairs coverage. It is worth noting that last year Ofcom not only asked the BBC to improve its procedures for handling complaints from viewers and listeners, but finished its investigation into the BBC’s coverage of an antisemitic attack, issuing a formal Opinion that online coverage (and it is interesting that it was online) significantly breached its editorial guidelines to report news with due accuracy and due impartiality.

The coming two years are crucial for the BBC as regards impartiality. The British economy and NHS are in deep trouble, and strikes plague the public sector and transport. A general election must be held by January 2025. Although a Labour Party victory seems likely at the moment, nothing in politics is certain. If Prime Minister Sunak snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, and an incoming Conservative government perceives the BBC’s coverage to have treated the Tories unfairly in the previous two years, the Corporation will have even fewer friends on the political right.

Impartiality at the BBC is a vexed, complicated and continuing issue. It is often in the eye of the beholder. Both Labour and Conservative-supporting people I know have complained to me about occasions when BBC news and current affairs was not duly impartial.

Over the past year or so, I have watched a variety of BBC news output with as much objectivity as possible – wearing my former BBC journalist/Ofcom Standards spectacles – to decide where the BBC now stands on impartiality. All I can offer is a personal view: things have improved. The BBC’s ‘problem’ has been helped partly by the demise of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss in 2022. Much more than Rishi Sunak, both were ‘Marmite’ prime ministers who attracted extreme admiration and disdain in equal measure.

On impartiality the BBC is different to other UK broadcasters. It self-consciously aims, as the Corporation’s Editorial Guidelines state, to exceed the requirement of due impartiality set out in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. This is why some BBC news and current affairs presenters like Emily Maitlis have clashed with BBC management over on air comments, and the tougher internal line on impartiality seems to have contributed to well-known faces like Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Andrew Marr recently leaving the BBC.

BBC defectors to Global: Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel

Some former BBC executives believe this issue should have been gripped earlier by the previous DG, Lord Hall, who was considered a bit too lax. But Davie seems to had some success in tackling this facet of the ‘problem’ (which was never major or widespread). There is still an occasional slip up when a celebrity presenter like Gary Lineker decides to give their personal views on a controversial issue, for example during the World Cup in Qatar when he described the USA (which will host the next tournament) as “an extraordinarily racist country”. This prompted Culture Secretary Michelle Donellan to say only this week that there was “a problem with impartiality and the BBC”. (See my previous blog about Gary Neville, celebrities and impartiality:

Overall in my opinion BBC news and current affairs output is very good and at present – on the whole – duly impartial in covering the main stories it does feature: for example in early 2023, the current wave of strikes or the state of the NHS.

The problem still lies elsewhere: the choice of which stories to cover. (A point interestingly also made by Jon Sopel: see

Some BBC journalists have told me there is a tendency for broadcast news to include, and with greater prominence, stories which will cause them fewer problems internally and externally. The NHS, social care and affairs issues and climate change are good examples. By contrast certain stories, like transgender and ‘culture war’ issues, can be controversial internally at the BBC (and externally because social media ‘activists’ are so quick to take offence and slam journalism which does not uncritically reflect their views), or not deemed worthy of coverage, and so tend to be ignored.

Other areas traditionally regarded as of more interest to people with right wing views, like defence and business, tend to be covered less effectively in BBC news and current affairs. Few people who rely on the BBC journalism as their main source of news would be aware of the current and numerous longer term problems facing the UK’s military for example. Another tendency is for BBC news and current affairs to feature more stories about the need for more public spending in different areas, rather than about how effectively public money is spent (only this week HM Revenue and Customs were criticised by a parliamentary committee for failing to collect a massive £43 billion of unpaid taxes – the annual wages of 75% of NHS staff).

The BBC also seems to have quietly decided to follow the lead of both the Conservative government and Labour opposition and not report adequately on the growing body of evidence that Brexit has caused, and is causing, material damage to the UK economy. Both parties beat the drum for a growth plan. In the next two years one job BBC news needs to do is interrogate both major parties about how they realistically hope to grow the economy without being substantially closer to Europe.

The tendency of BBC news and current affairs to focus more on certain areas (and certain think tanks) to the detriment of others in my view feeds the perception that the Corporation is not impartial. With BBC broadcast and online news bulletins featuring so few stories overall (perhaps ten to 15?), it is crucial to make that selection part of solving the impartiality equation. The only serious slap on the wrist that Ofcom administered to BBC news and current affairs coverage last year was online. It is in the 13 or so BBC news headlines online where I still come across most editorial decisions that leave me puzzled or concerned for the BBC’s reputation for impartiality. Millions of people each week use BBC news online for reliable and impartial coverage of the most important breaking stories of the day. Turness and McAndrew might want to spend a little of their time in the coming weeks checking that BBC news online is consistently choosing, and giving appropriate prominence to, the most significant stories.

Sunak boards his RAF flight to Leeds

To take just one example from 10 January. The Labour Party (understandably) criticised Rishi Sunak for using an RAF jet for a PR visit to a hospital. BBC1’s flagship bulletin News At Ten that night did not mention the story at all. BBC news online however featured this piece of political point-scoring as one of its headline items all day and was still doing so at 10.30pm. Was this really one of the most important thirteen news stories for the whole of that day?