Just as light from a defunct star carries on, so the BBC’s stellar reputation survives despite its evident contemporary frailty (and constant accusations of political bias).
Yet this one-time jewel of the British cultural crown, bullied relentlessly by each and every government, always required to compete, to show value for money and still be creative at the same time, is finally beginning to show the strain. Having to cope with the digital revolution has brought added stress. The Corporation is now falling short of the intellectual, editorial and creative standards for which it once set the benchmark.
The decline in intelligent, independent editing has been seen at its most damaging during the Brexit debate. The BBC consistently smothered the most important points in the debate with bland coverage dictated purely by balance.
So zealous was the Beeb in balancing quantity that any acknowledgement of the quality of an argument went out of the window. With one eye on the stopwatch, and the other on John Whittingdale (then culture secretary), producers ensured that any worthwhile insight into Brexit be promptly followed by as many minutes again from the opposition, no matter whether the content was worthwhile or merely unsubstantiated bluster.
Weighing the contributions, rather than weighing them up, combined with often inexpert questioning from correspondents to create what John Birt used to call a ‘bias against understanding’.
This may be because the former Director-General’s much-vaunted ‘mission to explain’ did not extend to the Single Market, or to any of the other challenging politico-economic concepts created by the EU.
The BBC was slow to insist on its domestic journalists knowing how Brussels works, although they did give an undertaking in 2005 to give more training to its domestic newsrooms. And contributions from staff posted in Brussels – whether broadcast on air, or submitted as policy planning – have never informed mainstream thinking.
Yet treating EU stories as an extension of home – and not foreign – news would have been a significant editorial move, making BBC audiences gradually aware of the European dimension to so many daily aspects of British life. Judicious coverage of how other member states handle their healthcare, education or voting would surely have given the UK electorate clearer insights into the issues raised by the referendum.
Interesting then, to set this record of editorial inertia on Europe against the Corporation’s outrageous enthusiasm for giving airtime to UKIP politicians, particularly on Question Time and Any Questions. How many of these shows have featured both Tory and UKIP panel members at the expense of Lib Dem, Green and SNP contributors? No wonder there’s a joke doing the rounds that the only permanent British seat UKIP’s got is on a BBC panel.
It’s early days for a detailed and objective study of the BBC’s coverage of the Brexit referendum, but research from Cardiff University, examining 2007 coverage of European issues, shows all the symptoms of an insufficiently rigorous take on coverage of European politics were present a decade ago.
Westminster debate then centred on three points key to Conservative Eurosceptics: that Britain was not defending her “redlines” on sovereignty; that the Lisbon treaty was just a reworked version of the EU constitution; and that a referendum was necessary to ratify it. Labour opposed those arguments.
The study made two principal points. First, that Europe was covered almost exclusively through the lens of political infighting between Labour and the Conservatives. Any wider perspective showing the full scope of the relationship between the EU and the UK was absent. Second, while UKIP was not then receiving the prominent airing it does now, strong Eurosceptic views were constantly transmitted via the Conservatives’ future Brexiteers. The research concluded the BBC had narrowed the range of views and information given to the audience.
Questions concerning the Beeb’s declining objectivity go beyond news and current affairs. Traditional perspective deserted last year’s Olympic coverage, when, in a break with 2012’s more objective treatment of the London games, the Corporation favoured triumphalist chauvinism over sober commentary and analysis. As Simon Jenkins observed, the broadcaster was acting as ‘a state cheerleader’. Even back in 2012, BBC coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee provoked an unprecedented level of complaints, especially about the showpiece Thames-borne pageant. Viewers complained of a ‘frothy’ superficial approach and of trivial and insufficient background information from the presenting team.
Innovative programming, especially in drama and comedy production, where the BBC has been a byword for originality, has been scarce on the past five years, with bold management replaced by cautious decision-making which second-guesses politicians and audiences alike. Remember the attempt to revive Are You Being Served?
Is the decline is down to resources spread too thinly in too many services and platforms? Or is excessive outsourcing a growing factor, introducing an over-dependence on producers who are insufficiently unaware of traditional BBC values? Perhaps decades of political and media intimidation have permanently damaged the Corporations management confidence.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to ask that old public service values be upheld in the context of today’s commercial and technological competition. Because, in terms of hard audience, the success of some of the corporation’s most important output is hard to question. Radio Four’s flagship Today programme put on another four per cent of listeners last month, while the Beeb dominated last year’s TV ratings with 31 programmes of the top 40 shown during the year.
A clear sign that the Corporation is holding its own in a tough market place. But positive ratings alone will not be enough to defend intelligent audiences from the suppliers of fake news, peddlers of propaganda and from chauvinist, tabloid shlock. Democracy needs the BBC to live up to that stellar reputation.
Main image by Jessica C via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0