A war of words had broken out between the government and sections of the media over coverage of the Covid-19 crisis.
The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has written to the BBC to complain of alleged bias in a Panorama programme investigating PPE provision in the NHS. And in a separate incident, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has complained about a Sunday Times report into calls for the elderly not to face a total lockdown due to the virus.
In his letter to Lord Hall the Director General of the BBC, Oliver Dowden has written to urge Lord Hall to ‘uphold the highest standards in relation to integrity and impartiality’ in the wake of a Panorama programme critical of the Government’s handling of Covid-19.
It was revealed after the broadcast that some of the medical professionals interviewed on the programme were political activists.
In his letter, Mr Dowden says that, while respecting the editorial independence of the BBC, he is sure Lord Hall ‘will agree that at a time of heightened risk of misinformation and disinformation, it is more important than ever that the BBC upholds the values and standards we all expect.
‘The public should be able to turn to the BBC for transparent, unimpeachable, reliable news’.
‘I am sure you will agree that it is vital that public confidence is maintained in the BBC’s long-standing reputation for fair and balanced reporting, and that any damage to that would be deeply concerning.’
The Guardian today reported that a spokesperson for the BBC had confirmed that it had received the Secretary of State’s letter, adding it would respond in due course. It referred to a statement issued last week that said sources for its PPE revelations were not the doctors who appeared on the show. The BBC’s journalists had spoken to dozens of healthcare workers in the course of making the programme, some of whom were members of a political party and some not, it said.
In a separate spat, Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted in relation to a Sunday Times front page lead article: ‘Sad to see another factually wrong & misleading article on p1 of the Sunday Times. The clinically vulnerable, who are advised to stay in lockdown for 12 weeks, emphatically DO NOT include all over 70s. I’ve asked for an urgent correction.’
The article reported that senior doctors were calling for the lockdown to be eased for the healthy over-70s because keeping them inside is damaging their mental health.
‘The British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of GPs intervened to say that age alone should not determine people’s ability to go about their daily lives when the government begins easing the lockdown restrictions.
‘All those aged 70 and over, regardless of health conditions, have been classified as “clinically vulnerable”,’ the article stated.
Today (May 4) the Times, sister title to the Sunday Times, Matt Chorley writing in the Red Box added to the debate:
‘Matt Hancock, the health secretary, tied himself in knots yesterday after criticising a Sunday Times story about a warning from the British Medical Association against continuing a “blanket ban” on the over-70s leaving the house.
“The clinically vulnerable, who are advised to stay in lockdown for 12 weeks, emphatically DO NOT include all over 70s,” Hancock tweeted, though the over-70s are counted as “clinically vulnerable” by his own department’s website, but not among the “clinically extremely vulnerable” told to shield themselves from all human contact for 12 weeks.’