Photo from Inside the BBC

‘Dividing the line between proper scrutiny and interference’


The director of the BBC World Service Group shared her worries that too many authoritarian governments remain unwilling to change their view of media freedom, and want to bend media to their will. Speaking on the case regarding the arrest of a Thai activist for sharing a BBC news article, the media organization reiterated that they stand by their editorial values and also believe in the people’s right to free expression.

BBC World’s Francesca Unsworth, who is also deputy director of its news and current affairs, spoke at a public lecture on “Media Freedom in an Increasing[ly] Authoritarian World” at the Thammasat University last March 29.

Unsworth likened BBC’s relationship with politicians to a tug of war, in which both sides needed to pull to measure each other’s strengths. She explained that this is part of the democratic process — while the media test those in public office, they are at the same time held accountable for this role. If journalists are too powerful, then they could do damage to the political system. But if the media are too weak, they run the risk of being pulled over or losing independence.

For example, Unsworth cited the BBC’s experience last year of covering the Brexit referendum, in which the United Kingdom decided whether to stay or leave the European Union. She said that BBC had daily jousts with “spin doctors” from the two opposing sides as they try to push their messages across and overturn the reporting to meet their views.

“The referendum reminded me that the dividing line between proper scrutiny and interference is a precious one to guard,” Unsworth said.

“In certain parts of the world, I detect a worrying trend. In some places, the line has been trampled into the dust or simply doesn’t exist,” Unsworth said.

In Thailand, BBC ran into trouble when they published a profile of the new King. The Thai police visited the BBC’s Bangkok office and their content was blocked from access within the country. The country has one of the harshest lèse-majesté laws, which protects the royal family from defamation. (Also see: [Thailand] In mourning: The media’s role during transition)

“In fact, it’s important to note that the article in question was written and published at the BBC head office in London. No BBC Thai staff based in Thailand played any part in writing or publishing the article; nor did our Bangkok-based news-gathering staff,” Unsworth emphasized.

“We want only good relations with Thailand. We do not wish to offend anyone, least of all the royal family. And I fully recognise that freedom of speech is not the same as ‘free and easy’ speech. It is not and never can be an ‘anything goes’ approach. But the BBC stands by the article and is confident that it adhered to the BBC’s editorial principles. And it is inevitable, perhaps even healthy, that in any country, politicians and journalist will not always see eye to eye,” she said.

Asked about Thai student activist Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa — who has been detained for three months for sharing the said BBC article on the profile of the new King — Unsworth said that BBC believes in the “right to share” as a way for people to access information. She further emphasized that BBC is not here to break the laws, but would stand by what we believe in — journalism and commentary.

She said that increasing authoritarianism is reflected in the attacks against and arrests of media practitioners as seen in Turkey, China, Egypt, Iran, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and now, even in the United States — where President Donald Trump condemns the media and in some instances, excludes a number of media outlets, including the BBC, from press briefings.

Unsworth asked both sides, the press and politicians: Who sets the limits on freedom, and how should we be judged? Who is the regulator and what are the rules? She said that the answers depend on where you are in the world — the culture of any given country and its particular sensitivities, and its view or experience of democracy and the media’s place within it. She added that democracy’s checks and balances, as well as understanding of press freedom, does not happen overnight and perhaps not even in a lifetime.

“In a mature democracy, somehow the rules of the game are clear — however imperfectly they may be framed. Because rules are nothing without a culture that acknowledges the importance of the media, the relationship between the press and politicians anywhere in the world has to grow organically, to evolve, and that takes time. Sometimes, it appears that its roots have fallen on stony ground,” Unsworth said.

She said that although it may seem that there are many examples of dramatic political change – from the collapse of Berlin Wall to the so-called Arab Spring – we must not convince ourselves that press freedom has made similar historic steps.

“Today, far too many governments remain unwilling to change their view of media freedom, and want to bend us to their will. They seem unable or unwilling or just too fearful of the consequences to want to change their ways. And it makes me realise why the work of journalists today, around the world, is so vital. Indeed, I think, more vital than it has ever been,” said Unsworth.


Francesca Unsworth [Photo from Inside the BBC]
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