Public polarisation puts ‘enormous pressure’ on BBC, Tim Davie tells MPs

The director general of the BBC, Tim Davie, has defended the broadcaster’s record on impartiality in the face of demanding “storms of social media” and profound “polarisation”.

Appearing before MPs, Davie said the BBC came under “huge” pressure to offer impartial coverage.

Questioned about the broadcaster’s coverage of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Davie said that overall its reporting had been balanced and fair.

He also defended the BBC’s decision to remove the “far right” label from a report describing the political party Reform UK.

Asked by the culture, media and sport committee if the BBC was biased, after the culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, said it was “on occasion”, Davie responded: “I am proud of our output under huge pressure, and I think that [if] we look at the data as well … overall we’re doing a good job in terms of delivering impartial coverage amidst enormous pressure.”

He added that the “polarisation in society is profound” and the corporation was among those that “steer the course amongst the noise” despite “the storms of social media” being “very demanding”.

Davie said he “worries” about public institutions losing trust in the current social climate. He added: “I believe we are impartial and we’re doing a good job, but I do not want for a minute … to be defensive or complacent about that. I think there’s lots of work to do.”

Asked about the reporting of South Africa’s international court of justice (ICJ) submission alleging that Israel had breached the genocide convention in Gaza, Davies said he had received “significant feedback from either side”.

“Overall I think we have been pretty robust in covering the ICJ rulings,” he said. “We’ve been in a reasonable position.”

The director of editorial policy and standards, David Jordan, added that South Africa and Israel received different levels of coverage over the submission only “on our UK output”, owing to the need to cover a hearing about the Post Office scandal.

“When news looked at it in retrospect, they did think that perhaps they did make a mistake by not making the two live coverages similar or the same, but all the other coverage was similar or the same,” he added.

Davie was also asked about BBC Arabic staff retweeting remarks that are “essentially pro-Hamas”. He replied: “Some of those tweets that we’ve seen are unacceptable, and we have taken action and we’ll continue to take action; whether I can convince you that it will never happen again … of course not.

“We are robust and I think we’re doing the fair thing, we’re acting fairly and judiciously and it’s not easy. I mean, you’re seeing it around the world, every news organisation, every cultural institution as you know is under enormous pressure … this is enormously fraught.”

Asked about a recent decision to remove a line in a report describing Reform UK as “far right”, Davie said: “I don’t think far right is the right label, full stop.” He said: “My personal view is you’ve got to be a bit careful with far left, far right, with parties that carry quite a lot of support.”

He went on: “They are clearly a party on the right of politics. I just think, if you get into far-left or far-right descriptors … you end up in the wrong territory.”

On Tuesday, Richard Tice, the Reform UK leader, said it was defamatory to call his party far right and he suggested he might take legal action to stop other news organisations using the description.

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