There are serious problems with broadcast news in the UK, reflecting trends in public communication across other nations, that merit far more discussion and more systematic research. In many respects, the coverage of ‘partygate’ and new developments around the BBC License Fee highlight these issues, but could also narrow the discussion if focused only on this one episode or only on the BBC. It is not only about ‘partygate’ or only about the BBC. It seems to be a problem across the major TV broadcast news providers in the UK, including Channel 4 as well as BBC News, somewhat less so with Sky News. And it is important to say that it is not at all a problem with BBC World Service.
What are the problems? In announcing a proposed freeze of the BBC’s license fee, the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, cited ‘groupthink’ and impartiality. While these concerns pre-dated ‘partygate’, the BBC’s treatment of this particular topic highlighted both issues. The consistent way in which all BBC journalists tended to prosecute the Prime Minister for his actions with respect to parties at Number 10 in 2020 seemed to fail any test of impartiality. Interviews with individuals across the country focused on how do you feel about what the PM did or said? However, this was true for Channel 4 as well – nearly identical editorial briefs.
With respect to groupthink, I have referred this as ‘pack journalism’ in line with the seminal work by Timothy Crouse (1972), entitled The Boys on the Bus. He captured the groupthink that developed among the journalists literally on the bus following Kennedy’s campaign. As they shared impressions and insights, they were led to identify the story of the day and not cover other stories.
In the digital age, it is not surprising that journalists are increasingly networked in and across newsrooms in ways that lead them to arrive at the same news story rather than a more diverse array of stories. No journalist wants to miss the story, or have the wrong (different) take on the story. I’ve discussed that as digitally networked pack journalism. So my impressions are in line with the rise of a groupthink. However, it is not only within the BBC but also across the channels. It is a bigger and more serious issue. The very fact that a Whitehall veteran, Sue Gray, was asked to investigate ‘Partygate’ speaks volumes about the inadequacy of contemporary news coverage. There was a day when we would have looked to the news media to determine what actually happened.
Similarly, it is not simply a partisan or anti-Boris Johnson issue. While the BBC License Fee might create a view of partygate as simply a partisan controversy, the same type of prosecutorial versus impartial coverage typified news coverage of antisemitism in the Labour Party, with its prosecution of Jeremy Corbin. And ‘partygate’ divided members of the Conservative Party.
Of course, ‘partygate’ is a legitimate, serious story, but it is not necessarily the only story – more important than issues involving Ukraine, Russia, China, inflation, cost of living, and so on. But ‘partygate’ overwhelmed coverage of other issues on televised news for days and continued to marginalise any coverage of international news. Print news was far more diverse as there was very little real new news to report on the ‘partygate’ issue. But on television, there were many testimonials ranging from individuals on the street to members of parliament about such questions as how they felt about people partying while others were isolating. These interviews make for good television viewing, but not good reporting.
In such ways, pack journalism or groupthink is not only about how an issue is covered but what issues are and are not covered. Media researchers have long argued that the most important effect of the media is not focused on what you think about an issue, but what issues you think about. Media have a strong role in agenda-setting. Rather than discussing a cyberattack on Ukraine in the context of Russian provocation, the media are focused on parties in the UK and for days – a tennis player in Australia.
If you can see these patterns of pack journalism or groupthink and biased versus impartial reporting, the key question becomes: Are these patterns occurring more frequently and, if so, why?
The answer seems to be that they frame simple, cheap, and entertaining stories to cover. No investigative journalism required. No research needed. The public understand the issues. Just pose a simple question to many individuals and choose the most engaging and entertaining mix of responses to fill much of the news. This is the journalistic equivalent of throwing red meat to the viewers. It is like moving BBC ‘Question Time’ into the nightly news – without the experts. Audience ratings go up. Costs go down. Information goes down!
It is possible to develop many other examples such as around NHS coverage focusing on interviews with grieving patients, over-reliance on care homes in the pandemic hearing from the families, the Royal Family and more. My only point is that these issues of groupthink and impartiality have not been dealt with adequately either by the researchers, politicians, or news providers. Pointing to any of these problems is immediately dismissed as challenging the work of a national institution.
Well, that is true, and it is time to be more critical about broadcasting in Britain and other nations. Moreover, the problems could be growing more acute. The days of chiding American news coverage seem to taken for granted now and fading as a topic of discussion. But UK news coverage is earning its own place along side Fox and CNN and needs to be more critically questioned. I hope academic colleagues take this as a serious challenge for marshalling more systematic research and analysis, and not just a political or partisan issue.
 For example, I find the ten points of a BBC impartiality plan to be incredibly general: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-59088800