BBC editors asked their journalists to avoid using the word “lockdown” in reporting at the start of the pandemic and to be more critical of Labour after pressure from Downing Street, leaked email and WhatsApp messages show.
Emails and messages were shown to the Guardian amid concern among some BBC insiders that the corporation has been too cowed by the government in recent years.
The messages seen by the Guardian date from 2020 to 2022, and show the BBC coming under pressure from No 10 over the corporation’s political reporting.
One email shows a senior editor informing correspondents that Downing Street was requesting them not to use the word “lockdown” in relation to the shutdown ordered by Boris Johnson on 23 March 2020 – the day the first lockdown was announced.
The email, sent to correspondents at just after 6pm on the day lockdown was announced, was labelled: IMPORTANT ADVISORY – language re broadcast. “Hi all – D st are asking if we can avoid the word ‘lockdown’. I’m told the message will be that they want to keep pushing people to stay at home but they are not talking about enforcement at the moment,” it said.
Reporters argued unsuccessfully against the advice and thus the website and broadcasts on that day spoke about “curbs” and “restrictions” on daily life, while other outlets, such as rival broadcaster Sky, were referring to “lockdown”.
The Daily Mail splashed “Lockdown Britain” across its front page the next morning, while the Metro headline was “Britain on Lockdown”.
In another WhatsApp message from Sunday 24 October 2021, a senior editor asked journalists to make coverage more critical of Labour after a complaint from No 10.
The message reads: “D St complaining that we’re not reflecting Labour’s mess of plan b online. ie Ashworth said it earlier this week, then reversed. Can we turn up the scepticism a bit on this?”
The message was sent on the day Rachel Reeves confirmed Labour was calling for Plan B Covid restrictions, a policy initially announced by shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, which was being resisted by the government.
Downing Street argued Labour kept changing its position on Covid restrictions and a line was added to the BBC online story to that effect.
A third leaked message from 2022 shows a senior editor circulated a message to BBC political journalists from the then No 10 director of communications the day after a speech by Johnson in which he compared Ukraine’s struggle against Russia to the British people’s vote for Brexit.
The message from the No 10 aide included a tweet from the Ukrainian embassy and read: “Hi, worth sharing with any reporter misinterpreting the PM’s speech. I travelled home with the ambassador. He most definitely did NOT think the PM was equating Brexit with Ukraine. He heard him say v clearly nothing like this since the 1940s.”
One insider said circulating the message had a chilling effect on how the BBC covered the story.
Another leaked message showed the BBC shying away from a story that was potentially damaging to the then prime minister, although there is no evidence of any pressure from Downing Street.
In an email, a senior editor congratulated correspondents for staying away from the subject of Jennifer Arcuri after the American tech entrepreneur gave an interview to a newspaper in October 2020 appearing to confirm an affair with Johnson, following allegations that he used his position as London mayor to secure favourable treatment for her.
The message to political correspondents from 17 October 2020 said: “[XXX] did a wonderful job last night keeping us away from this story. I’d like to continue that distance. It’s not a story we should be doing at this stage. Please call me if you’re asked to.”
The email went to the BBC journalists and producers based at the corporation’s Millbank HQ in Westminster – they interpret political news stories for tens of millions of Britons across more than 50 broadcast outlets in the UK, as well as online.
One BBC insider said: “Particularly on the website, our headlines have been determined by calls from Downing Street on a very regular basis.”
They said the messages would have been a small snapshot of what was going on, because most pressure was applied verbally rather than written down.
The source said management appeared to be worried about losing access to politicians and briefings from No 10 if they crossed the Downing Street operation.
The BBC’s ability to withstand criticism from the government has been under scrutiny in recent days following the suspension of football commentator Gary Lineker for a tweet likening No 10’s policy on refugees crossing the channel to the language of Nazi Germany.
The episode has raised questions over the director-general, Tim Davie, who has espoused a policy of strict impartiality. The drive for impartiality has coincided with an exodus of top BBC journalists, with some frustrated with the way the management was interpreting this policy.
Senior journalists such as Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel left last year to join the BBC’s commercial rival LBC, where there is more editorial freedom.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC makes its own independent editorial decisions and none of these messages show otherwise.
“Like all news organisations, we are frequently contacted by representatives from all political parties.
“Selective out of context messages from a colleagues’ WhatsApp group and email do not give an accurate reflection of the BBC’s editorial decision making.”
A BBC source said WhatsApp groups were an informal way of sharing information, and it was “normal for journalists to have discussions and debates about how material is reported and the language used”.
They added that the BBC had a clear responsibility to its audiences to present the official government advice and information as accurately as possible during the pandemic and there had been no ban on the word “lockdown”.
They said the story in relation to Labour calling for Plan B was not overall critical of Labour, and that the message forwarded from the No 10 director of communications was “simply a case of sharing someone’s words with a group of people” and not an editorial instruction.
In relation to the Arcuri story, the BBC source said its guidelines say that reporters “should gather news using first-hand sources, corroborate their evidence, and be reluctant to rely on a single source. In the case of this story, we had not reached this threshold”.