‘The BBC has a reputation as a truth-teller – but in Covid it did what the Government wanted’


The BBC is so proud of the fact that it once employed George Orwell that a statue of him stands outside its Broadcasting House headquarters to inspire its staff on their way into work.

Carved on the wall behind him is his observation that: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Some of those staff have come to ponder what the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four would have made of the BBC’s reporting of the Covid pandemic, and its participation in the Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum, a body set up by the Government to kill off what it deemed to be fake news.

Its very name could have fallen from the pages of Orwell’s greatest novel, and the irony is not lost on BBC journalists who were effectively accused of thoughtcrime if they dared to suggest open debates on the Government’s lockdown strategy.

There is growing evidence that during the pandemic the BBC morphed from a national broadcaster founded on impartiality into a state broadcaster that stifled voices challenging the authoritarian response to Covid.

The Telegraph has spoken to current and former BBC journalists who described a “climate of fear” existing in the corporation during the pandemic, with experienced reporters “openly mocked” if they questioned the wisdom of lockdowns, or called “dissenters”.

Some complained to senior managers about the BBC’s blinkered stance, but were ignored. Others communicated via secretive WhatsApp groups to share their frustrations, like members of a resistance movement.

Current and former BBC journalists described a 'climate of fear' existing in the corporation during the pandemic - Getty
Current and former BBC journalists described a 'climate of fear' existing in the corporation during the pandemic - Getty

While other news organisations made their own assessments of conflicting scientific evidence on coronavirus and the best ways to weigh them up, the BBC was alone among news gatherers in attending the Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum, which was chaired by ministers or civil servants.

The BBC has claimed it only attended the meetings as an “observer”, and has played down its significance, but it inevitably leaves the corporation open to accusations that it was taking dictation from the Government, rather than allowing its journalists to scrutinise all of the evidence independently and impartially.

“There was open censorship,” says one journalist. “There was no debate about who should and who should not be given airtime, that was very clear.

“People were saying to me ‘it’s dangerous to ask questions’, which is extraordinary. If you suggested to editors that anything other than the one-way narrative about Covid was even possible, you would be met with a look of abject horror.

“We are now talking about the long-term harms caused by lockdowns and they have contributed to that damage by not being critical and not having a debate.”

The person sent by the BBC to attend meetings of the Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum was Jessica Cecil, founder of the Trusted News Initiative, which was set up under the then director-general Tony Hall in 2019 – before Covid – to smoke out fake news and warn media partners of untruths circling the globe.

Instead of allowing the TNI to do its job by spotting rogue reports, however, the BBC sent Cecil along to the Forum’s Zoom meetings, which began in December 2020.

Jessica Cecil
Jessica Cecil

They were chaired on some occasions by Dame Caroline Dinenage, the then minister of state for digital and culture, and otherwise by Sarah Connolly, director of security and online harms at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Attendees included other officials from the DCMS; an official from the Department of Health and Social Care; representatives of social media firms; academics from six universities and someone from the broadcast regulator Ofcom.

It was initially set up to prevent untruths about the Covid vaccines being disseminated online, but at a meeting in January 2021 the group discussed “whether the scope of harms should be confined just to Covid-19/the vaccine”, suggesting it was possible the clampdown on so-called disinformation would go beyond Covid.

Its very existence – along with that of the separate Counter-Disinformation Unit within the Government, exposed by The Telegraph last week – was kept under the radar at the time, and it is not difficult to guess why.

Robin Aitken, a former BBC journalist and author of the book The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda, said it was “alarming” to discover that the BBC took part in the Forum, which he suggested was “a conspiracy against public debate”.

He said: “Who knew about it? There is no transparency. The BBC has a worldwide reputation as a truth-teller but something like this unit gives the lie to that, because it shows that when it chooses to, it toes the line and does the job the Government wants it to do.

“This whole idea of disinformation is a method of enforcing an orthodoxy on the public debate.”

Robin Aitken - Claire Lim
Robin Aitken - Claire Lim

The BBC is desperate to play down the significance of the meetings, saying Ms Cecil attended them in an “observer only capacity”, though it failed to explain what that meant. Ms Cecil herself, who has left the BBC and set herself up as a consultant global disinformation specialist, said it was a “BBC matter” and referred The Telegraph to the BBC press office.

According to one source who attended the meetings, they quickly became “a round-robin of public affairs people from internet companies telling the minister what a great job they were doing”. Dinenage scrapped the Forum after six months.

Nevertheless, the BBC’s decision to attend the Forum was consistent with its decision to back the Establishment line on pandemic response, enforced with grim reports from Covid wards to which it was given extensive access.

Regardless of whether it came as a direct result of the secretive Forum (which refuses to publish unredacted minutes of its meetings), there is no doubt that many who questioned the efficacy of lockdowns, masks or school closures was given short shrift.

“It was the matter of the greatest importance in our lifetime but there was no debate about it,” said one ex-BBC journalist. “We have to put our integrity and impartiality first and foremost and that did not happen.

“People were suggesting eminently qualified experts as alternative voices, but in my experience not one of them was put on air.”

The journalist was one of three people who gave evidence in private to Parliament’s all-party group on pandemic response and recovery last November. Their evidence was never made public, but they have agreed to share their experiences with The Telegraph. All of them are too fearful of the repercussions of speaking out to be identified by name.

A second witness told the APPG at the time: “Downing Street pursued its lockdown strategy with a reckless disregard for the mental health of the public, lacing its messaging with fear and guilt to ensure broad compliance.

“This approach should have sounded alarm bells for every freedom-loving journalist in the BBC; instead, many of my colleagues were cowed. The apocalyptic atmosphere in the newsroom was fuelled by new in-house health and safety rules designed to ‘stop the spread’, many of which were absurd and the sort of box-ticking theatre the BBC is more than adept at.”

The source raised their concerns with senior managers including programme editors, but was “openly mocked” by them.

BBC reporters were told not to use the word “lockdown” in a memo from a senior editor on the day the first lockdown was announced, but instead to talk about curbs and restrictions, in line with Downing Street policy.

The third journalist who spoke to the APPG talked of a “climate of fear” in the BBC of stepping out of line, and shared an email with the committee they had sent to a senior editor pointing out that eminent scientists who had been regarded as trusted sources in the past had been silenced because they challenged the Government line.

The Telegraph has seen the email, and the response from the manager, but is not reproducing it because it would risk identifying the source.

The journalist told The Telegraph: “The response I got was patronising and humiliating. The gist of it was ‘get back in your box, you can’t have an opinion’.”

The same source was astonished at his editor’s reluctance to allow him to report on anti-lockdown marches happening in London, some of which attracted tens of thousands of protesters. They said: “In editorial meetings if you raised the fact that there were lockdown marches going on, you were told, ‘no, that’s not on the agenda’.”

Anti-lockdown protesters at Parliament Square in July 2021 - Shutterstock
Anti-lockdown protesters at Parliament Square in July 2021 - Shutterstock

Anna Brees, a former BBC news presenter who left the corporation before Covid, was contacted by a like-minded BBC senior editor when Brees tweeted about her lockdown scepticism.

An email from the editor, sent in May 2021, said: “I need to know who shares our concerns. It’s impossible to be up front in top level meetings without knowing who’s in with us, and it’s not like you can just come out and ask – try that and people look at you like you have two heads.

“So it would be helpful if you let me know if you have the ear of anyone in News … get people to email me or just let me know who they are if I have any allies in the room. I don’t name names.”

The editor promised that: “I’ve got a seat at the top table and can organise the pushback.”

Brees, author of the book Shame: When Journalists Stopped Listening, says that the attempt to organise the pushback failed because BBC journalists were so worried that it might be a trap to identify dissenters that they were too frightened to contact the editor.

The pandemic, and lockdowns, proved to be a ratings hit for the BBC. In 2020 the average audience for the News at Six between mid-March and June leapt from 4.1 million in 2019 to 6.3 million in 2020. This year the figure was down to 3.4 million.

As a Left-leaning organisation, it follows that the BBC would be in favour of state intervention, and as a publicly-funded body it may also have been over-eager to show the Government it was doing something to counter fake news.

Yet the BBC is not usually slow to pick fights with the Government. Its journalists believe another factor, which mimics the newspeak vocabulary of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is at play: groupthink.

“I wasn’t party to any conspiracy but I do believe there was a combination of groupthink with noble cause censorship,” says a current BBC journalist. “The BBC is populated by people who come from a certain background and share certain views. There was a sense that lockdowns were an annoyance, but that they were necessary. About 80 per cent of BBC staff were working from home so they were also initially saving money.

“If there had been more people from working class backgrounds, or people who were cooped up in seventh-floor flats with children, there would have been a degree of scepticism about whether lockdowns were worth the cost.”

Among the scientists who became unwelcome at the BBC, despite having been accepted as eminent experts in their field before the pandemic hit, was Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University.

In the early days of the pandemic he was a familiar voice on BBC radio and television, discussing how he thought the pandemic would evolve and what could be done to counter it, but when he began to question government policy he was dismissed by BBC editors as “an outlier”, according to one whistleblower.

Prof Carl Heneghan - Talk TV
Prof Carl Heneghan - Talk TV

Prof Heneghan says: “For the whole of 2021 I was virtually ghosted by the BBC. I was sometimes booked to go on programmes but then it would be cancelled or I would be told I wasn’t needed.

“I was told by some of the people at the BBC that it was supporting lockdowns and editorially it was not deviating from that line.

“It got to the point where the BBC was at times just the broadcast arm of the Government, for example the way they reported death figures without giving any context to them.”

Meanwhile others with no medical qualifications were being put on the approved list simply because they were on-message.

The APPG examined the case of Devi Sridhar, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh. In June 2021, when the Pfizer vaccine was approved for use in children aged 12 to 15, Prof Sridhar told the children’s current affairs programme Newsround that the Pfizer vaccine was 100 per cent safe for children.

The APPG heard that journalists – aware that no medical expert would ever claim that a vaccine is 100 per cent safe – raised the alarm with managers, pointing out that Sridhar is not a virologist, immunologist or expert on vaccination.

Devi Sridhar, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh - Simon Townsley for The Telegraph
Devi Sridhar, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh - Simon Townsley for The Telegraph

Esther McVey MP, co-chairman of the APPG and a former TV presenter, says: “I started at the BBC and the whole thing is to get all sides of the argument and get new insights into the situation and be open-minded, not have the story written for you and fit the facts into that. Given the number of hours of coverage that Covid got, the lack of curiosity was outstanding.” The BBC denies that it did not include “a range of voices and views” in its Covid coverage.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom might have been expected to hold the BBC to account by reminding it of its duty of impartiality, but instead BBC journalists believe Ofcom was part of the problem, if not the cause of the BBC’s blinkered approach to Covid.

On March 23 2020, the day Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown, Ofcom issued guidance on “broadcast standards during the coronavirus pandemic” which had a profound and immediate effect on editors, according to multiple sources.

It warned of the “significant potential harm” that could be caused by material that was broadcast, including “accuracy or material misleadingness in programmes in relation to the virus or public policy regarding it”. It said any breach arising from “harmful coronavirus-related programming” would be considered “potentially serious” and could result in a statutory sanction.

Boris Johnson addressing the nation as he placed the UK on lockdown - PA
Boris Johnson addressing the nation as he placed the UK on lockdown - PA

According to the third witness who gave evidence to the APPG, “many previously questioning journalists became scared to present any thought, idea or opinion other than the official government line”.

Ofcom, let’s not forget, also sat on the Counter-Disinformation Policy Forum along with the BBC.

Graham Stringer MP, co-chairman, with McVey, of the APPG on pandemic response and recovery, said: “Ofcom seems to have fallen short of its remit and we have seen how its coronavirus guidelines acted as a barrier to critical analysis of the Government’s approach to Covid-19 …

“Lockdowns, mask mandates and other restrictions were a leap into the unknown. It is shocking that we didn’t have a robust debate about them on national broadcast channels.”

A BBC spokeman said: “We totally reject this characterisation of our Covid coverage; we featured a range of voices during the pandemic, including those sceptical of lockdowns, in line with our duty of due impartiality. “We do not recognise this description of our working environment. Like other news organisations the stories we cover are the subject of robust editorial discussion and debate. The BBC attended the Counter Disinformation Policy Forum in an observer-only capacity. The person who attended was not a BBC News executive and played absolutely no role in editorial decision making.”

An Ofcom spokesman added: “Our rules do not prohibit the broadcast of content that challenges public health policy and advice concerning Covid-19. Our guidance reminded broadcasters to be mindful of the potential harm that could be caused by misleading claims about the virus. We’ve also been consistently clear that, given the unprecedented restrictions on public freedoms imposed during the pandemic, the right to freedom of expression, including questioning and challenging government advice and policy, was made all the more vital.”

As we now know, the first Spring lockdown is estimated to have saved 1,700 lives, according to a landmark study published earlier this week, set against an as-yet unknown number of people who have died of cancer, heart attacks and other illnesses because care was interrupted or unavailable. Not to mention blighted educations, a rise in childhood mental health problems and the enormous cost to the economy.

Aitken said: “The Government was panicked into a lockdown and the BBC instantly shut down the debate about whether lockdown was the right approach. There were rational, very well-qualified people who felt lockdown was wrong, and they weren’t given airtime. That is a betrayal of the BBC’s primary purpose, as the gatekeeper of the national debate.”