THE BBC’s news chief has defended the corporation’s editorial independence and said the pandemic had highlighted it as a source of news that people relied upon.

Fran Unsworth, director of news and current affairs at the BBC, was speaking at the Westminster Media Forum policy conference which examined news offerings from multiple sources, including those delivered digitally, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Asked about the frequent occasions when the BBC had actually become the story, she said there was an “absolute commitment to the independence of BBC News” and a commitment to its ability to report on itself”.

​READ MORE: Tory-appointed BBC director 'tried to block editorial hire on political grounds'

Unsworth praised the broadcaster’s editors, who took the decisions about which stories to cover and how to cover them, and added: “Editors are paramount in the BBC and making great decisions about what they think is journalistically important and what value that they should provide.

“And this applies, of course to when the BBC covers itself, and it’s completely separate from the corporate interest.”

She said the broadcaster’s reputation stretched back decades and was “embedded in the psyche” of people in the UK and around the world.

“It calls for maintaining the strength of our public service news offer.

“It’s very precious and important in times of crisis especially.

“And I think that’s what this pandemic has shown, and those who would seek to undermine us need to be careful of that when it comes to informing the public with information that they feel they need to rely on, which of course in this pandemic they have had to do ... We have a particular role to play, and maintaining our strength in this area going forward I think is incredibly important.”

Earlier, Unsworth noted that there were rising instances of interest groups who were seeking to influence news reporting, and cited an occasion where a BBC misinformation reporter was targeted with online abuse after working on a story about coronavirus.

Quoting the journalist’s words, she 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.”

In another well-publicised instance, Newsnight’s political editor Nicholas Watt was chased near Downing Street.

READ MORE: BBC under fire as spending per viewer in Scotland behind Wales and NI

Unsworth described the internet as “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.

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

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

The news director added: “It’s certainly passionate, but it isn’t always a debate.”