Journalism should not be ‘drowned in vitriol’, says BBC’s head of news

The BBC’s head of news has said journalism should not be “drowned in vitriol” as she condemned online misinformation and attacks on journalists.

Fran Unsworth, director of news and current affairs at the BBC, told the Westminster Media Forum’s policy conference that interest groups are increasingly seeking to influence news reporting.

She highlighted a recent incident in which Newsnight political editor Nicholas Watt was chased near Downing Street, and doctored images circulated online which purport to show BBC news coverage, as she outlined challenges facing journalism.

Cliff Richard court case
Fran Unsworth (Victoria Jones/PA)

Unsworth said both Government and the press being held accountable for their work is “right and proper”.

“But that doesn’t mean our work should be drowned in vitriol,” she added.

She said the internet “is the place where radical ideas stew, where opinions and lies prove a heady mix more potent, often, than objective facts”.

“Today’s online warriors move quickly to coalesce around a position and gain access to the BBC through its complaints procedures or by email to our journalists,” she said.

She told the online conference: “In the online world, people have an absolute certainty, it seems, in their own beliefs and they want us to adopt theirs.

BBC Stock
(Ian West/PA)

“As our regulator put it somewhat politely, social media has shaped increasingly passionate debate around news coverage.

“It’s certainly passionate, but it isn’t always a debate.”

She highlighted the “danger posed by the rise of interest groups that have no truck with views that don’t match their own”.

She added: “Ultimately editors edit, not interest groups, and I find they do so with integrity and honesty, as well as human fallibility.”

Unsworth also told the conference about the experiences of a BBC misinformation reporter who was targeted with online abuse after working on a story about coronavirus.

Recounting the journalist’s words, Unsworth said: “Last weekend, after reporting on online conspiracies, I was bombarded yet again with a torrent of threats and messages rife with misogyny wishing I would die from the vaccine and calling for me to be tried for war crimes.”

Unsworth said after the journalist posted about the experience on social media she was sent a large number of messages from people who had been subjected to similar abuse.