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March 9, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:01am

Robert Peston says declining trust in BBC is bad for all impartial news providers

By Freddy Mayhew

ITV political editor Robert Peston has said declining trust in any news provider, especially the BBC, “is bad for our collective mission”.

“Those who supply it – ITV, the BBC, Channels 4 and 5, Sky – thrive or fail together. Even when competing, the taint of one can infect the others, the triumph of one can lift up all boats,” he said.

“Each of us needs competition from the others, to keep us honest, on our toes, striving for the truth, fastidious.”

He was responding to an Ofcom survey for 2019 that showed ITV was considered by viewers to be more trustworthy than the BBC (see chart below), with the latter also trailing behind Sky News and CNN.

Peston said impartial news cannot depend on a “small number of champions for its survival” and it “matters that all of us resolve there is a commercial interest in remaining as public service broadcasters”.

He made the comments in a speech about impartial news journalism for the annual Hugh Cudlipp Lecture, held at City University on Friday.

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“If each or any of us decided to remodel ourselves as Netflix-style streaming services, freed from the obligation to provide impartial news, the providers of fake and toxic news would be the only winners,” said Peston.

“My clear understanding is that ITV wants to and will remain a public service broadcaster for years to come, even though providing national and regional news, and my show, isn’t cheap…

“Due prominence is what we all want and I think merit, an ecosystem in which virtue in broadcasting counts for something against the bottomless purses of Netflix, Apple and Amazon.”

Peston, 59, said that if financial and cultural reform at the BBC were to weaken the broadcaster and lead to it abandoning impartial journalism, “that would be bad”.

The Government is currently consulting on whether to decriminalise the licence fee, while BBC News is making 450 redundancies as it undergoes a restructure that will reduce its size and output.

Peston said he “gulped slightly” when new Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden “put the BBC on warning” when he said last week that it was too narrow and urban in its outlook and the Government would be ‘taking a proper look at our public service broadcasting system and the BBC’s central role’.

“If this or any government is the arbiter of impartiality, we are in deep trouble,” said the 59-year-old.

But he said the BBC is “not the sole guarantor of a healthy news media capable of holding power to account”, adding that it contributes to an ecosystem of accountability, but is only part of it.

Brexit referendum coverage

The former BBC News business editor said he “watched with disappointment” at the broadcaster’s coverage of the Brexit referendum, saying it “was confusing balance with due impartiality”.

He said hearing a range of competing views was important, but “the duty of the reporting journalist” is to weigh them up and discern which is more likely to be correct based on the evidence.

“It was no service to the BBC’s viewers and listeners to hear one business leader or economist say Brexit would make us poorer, and another say it would make us richer, and then not be given help by presenter or journalist in assessing which was more credible,” said Peston.

“When ministers attack the BBC, as they often do, for failing to appreciate the strength of pro-Brexit feeling in the UK, that is absolutely not evidence the BBC is failing in its duty of impartiality,” Peston went on.

“Brexit might absolutely be the best path for this country, but neither the BBC or ITV should argue that simply because a majority of the people see it that way.”

Read Peston’s speech in full.

Picture: ITV’s Peston on Sunday

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