Disputes over the BBC’s relationship with the Union Flag risk upsetting a delicate equilibrium between ‘truth’ and ‘power’

Too close an association between the BBC and the Union flag will damage the former’s claims to objectivity, writes Ruairidh Brown. It comes at a time when the impartiality of the service is increasingly challenged – at home and abroad

The impartiality of the BBC

Impartiality, objectivity and detachment from vested interests have always been cornerstones of BBC broadcasting. The British Broadcasting Corporation claims to favour nether side of an issue but rather give a true and accurate account. Such impartiality has been foundational to the trust the broadcaster has enjoyed in the UK and internationally.

People tend to regard the BBC World Service, in particular, as impartial and trustworthy. This is largely thanks to its perceived independence from the British Foreign Office and the British Government.

The BBC is often regarded as ‘truthful’ because its coverage is seen to be independent of the British state's political power.

Truth and power

The BBC’s traditional approach to impartiality reveals a key relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘power’. People are more likely to regard information as ‘truthful’ the greater the separation between it and power – especially political power.

For people to regard information as impartial and truthful, they must perceive it as independent from any power which may have a vested interest in it being believed.

When people see information as being close to, or under the sway of, political power, they will likely question its ‘truth’.

When people see information as being close to, or under the sway of, political power, they will likely question its ‘truth’

It is increasingly common for people to believe that broadcasting, academic knowledge, and science, are beholden to vested power interests. This is key to the ‘post-truth’ age we inhabit.

The flag debate

Recent controversies concerning the BBC and the Union flag (or Union Jack), the symbol of British political power, threaten to upset this delicate equilibrium.

The UK Conservative Party, for example, recently criticised the BBC for distancing itself from the Union flag.

A Conservative politician chastised the BBC for the lack of Union Jacks on its annual report. Rightwing commentators have accused BBC presenters of ‘sneering’ at British patriots proud of their flag.

BBC director-general Tim Davie rejected the Conservatives’ accusations. Nonetheless, he has not distanced the BBC from the Union Jack.

On the contrary, Davie stressed the British patriotism of BBC staff and the institution’s proud display of the flag:

One of the things I saw when I entered the building… was the Union Jack proudly flying over Broadcasting House

Tim Davie, BBC Director-General

The BBC reprimanded its presenter Naga Munchetty for liking tweets mocking Conservative politicians' Union Jack backdrops. Fellow presenter Huw Edwards tweeted an image of himself in front of a Welsh flag. The BBC quickly ordered him to delete it.

We might regard such moves as the BBC's attempt to address the leftwing bias of which it has been accused in recent years.

The BBC appears to be trying to resolve a problem through greater association with the Union flag. By doing so, however, it risks causing greater damage to its claims to impartiality.

Domestic impartiality

The flag debate comes at a time when the impartiality of the BBC is increasingly under question.

In the UK, scepticism of BBC impartiality is strongest in Scotland, where licence-payers often accuse the BBC of anti-independence bias.

Campaign groups have accused the BBC of deliberately presenting a negative, pessimistic portrayal of Scotland. They claim it is trying to demoralise national self-confidence and undermine the view that the Scots could be self-governing.

Perception of BBC bias came to the fore during the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. Hundreds protested outside the BBC’s Scottish headquarters, accusing it of biased reporting against independence. Such criticism has continued on and off ever since.

A 2017 poll found one in three Scots believed the BBC had an anti-independence bias.

The hashtag #BBCScotlandSwitchOff went viral in 2020. Many Scots pledged to boycott their TV licence payments in protest against BBC ‘propaganda’.

BBC association with the Union Jack blurs the distinction between the BBC and the British state

The flag debate coincides with the UK government promoting the Union Jack in Scotland, to head off Scottish nationalism.

If the BBC shows greater association with the Union flag, and stresses ‘British patriotism’, it will doubtless look in step with Westminster's unionist agenda. Such association would blur the distinction between the BBC and the British state. It would upset the balance between ’truth’ and ‘power’, and critically undermine any claims to disinterested impartiality.

International impartiality

Disputes over BBC impartiality are not limited to its domestic service. The objectivity of its venerated World Service, too, has also been called into question.

Notably, the BBC was drawn into a broadcasting dispute between the British and Chinese states. The dispute followed Britain’s ban of Chinese state-owned broadcaster CGTN. Predictably, the Chinese government responded by banning the BBC.

Defending the move, Chinese government and state media claimed the BBC has an ideological bias and an anti-China agenda. They labelled it the ‘Biased Broadcasting Corporation’. The Chinese have also accused the BBC of broadcasting ‘fake news’ about Xinjiang and Hong Kong. They go so far as to claim the British state shares, even drives, the BBC’s ideological anti-Chinese bias.

Chinese government and state media claim the BBC has an anti-China agenda, labelling it the ‘Biased Broadcasting Corporation’

Chinese state media, such as CGTN and China Daily, published articles alleging the British state holds tight control of the BBC. They accuse it of acting in coordination with British military intelligence.

News agency Xinhua doubled down on this accusation. It asserted the BBC and the British government are collaborating to spread misinformation about China.

The Chinese strategy evidently aims to conflate the BBC with British state power, casting suspicion on the ‘truths’ it claims to report.

By stressing its ‘British patriotism’ and attaching itself more explicitly to the Union Jack, the BBC will only give credence to such accusations.

And its claims to impartiality will doubtless suffer as a result.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
International Studies Tutor, Centre for English Language Education, University of Nottingham in Ningbo

Ruairidh gained his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017. Since then, he has taught at the University of Nottingham's campus in mainland China.

Ruairidh teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students on subjects concerning Political and International Relations Theory. His chief responsibility, however, lies in teaching and coordinating the Year One modules in International Studies, where he assists predominantly Chinese students in laying the academic foundations for their 'British degree style' education in the discipline.

In 2019, the University of Nottingham honoured him with the Lord Dearing Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the learning environment at their China campus.

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