“Right wing Tories all agree
It’s time to sell the BBC
But seeing what the Beeb will do,
There’s no occasion to!”
The Beeb is a perpetual Aunt Sally. One person’s considered opinion is another’s blatant bias, and for almost a century, its broadcasting has consistently upset someone. Traditionally, the Corporation has claimed a position of neutrality in a critical crossfire, attempting to balance, but not to quantify and contextualise.
A more objective measure is Ofcom‘s finding that more and more British viewers are losing their faith in the BBC as a source of impartial, public service broadcasting.
The regulator noted in 2018 that just 61% of those polled felt BBC News to be impartial, with greater approval for ITV News (68%) and for Sky News (64%).
Until Brexit, many still looked to the BBC as a benchmark of reliability – a lingering reputation based on nostalgia, but the venerable broadcasting monolith is today confronted with reduced, fragmented audiences, corrosive sniping from a plethora of rivals, accelerating technological change and hostile governments.
The most serious challenge comes from the unrelenting, unsubtle political pressure that’s successfully muted the BBC’s scrutiny of political news. It’s not new – Thatcher resented the BBC’s reporting of the Falklands war and Blair turned up the editorial heat over coverage of the Iraq invasion’s “Dodgy Dossier”. Senior Corporation executives were sacked to appease government ire.
So when Brexit – radical, risky, and aggressively driven by powerful sponsors – came to dominate the news agenda, the Beeb was already too nervous to provide the width and depth of questioning such a vital issue required.
Editors anxious to avoid conflict have passively followed a news agenda set by others, obsessively balancing any expression of opinion that may occur. This culture of caution obliges journalists to keep their heads down, rather than break stories. As a result audiences are not seeing the wood for the trees. And it’s a mindset which won’t help cure a serious infection from social media – fake news and its threat to the accuracy of information in the public domain.
The modesty of current Corporation news coverage may be designed to avoid provoking the Prime Minister of the day. Recent governments have been particularly well attuned to the Beeb’s editorial processes, reinforced as they have been by the defection of so many BBC executives and correspondents. In 2011, top BBC newsman Craig Oliver was recruited by Prime Minister David Cameron as communications chief. Oliver had been in charge of the 2010 election coverage and had been editor of the Ten O’Clock News.
Robbie Gibb made the same career choice, joining Theresa May as her Director of Comms after editing the BBC’s 2017 General Election show. His brother is a Conservative MP.
The link will continue: PM Johnson’s new spokesperson Allegra Stratton was political editor of Newsnight (incidentally, she’s married to James Forsyth, who’s also a political editor – of the Tory Spectator.)
When he became London Mayor, Johnson also headhunted at the BBC, making the BBC’s chief political correspondent, Guto Harri, his press chief.
There’s a revolving door between the corporation and the Tories – although veteran Scot Andrew Neil has never had to use it. He’s long maintained his position as a man of the right while continuing to work for the BBC, while top presenter and former BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
Even the new Director General Tim Davie was once a candidate to become a Tory Councillor.
It’s hard to see how this cross-pollination cannot influence editorial perspectives: the spectrum of newsworthiness narrows and becomes bland; many crucial issues are either played down, or avoid the attention of news bulletins altogether.
The validity of the 2016 referendum, the conduct of the campaign which preceded it, complacency about Russian influence in UK public affairs, the lack of proper procurement procedure for Johnson government contracts are all stories which have not received the coverage a healthy democracy requires. When such issues are ignored, history shows the conditions are ripe for rightwing zealots to hi-jack an entire country!
Most disturbing of all is an uncertainty about what’s fair and right, best illustrated by the pussy footing about Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules. Emily Maitlis called this out on Newsnight after his illicit trip became a matter of record. The presenter said Johnson had shown “blind loyalty” to Cummings, asking what this said about the workings of Number 10. But her piece was criticised as “being unduly biased and unsuitable for an impartial broadcaster” with the BBC stating Maitlis hadn’t met standards of due impartiality.
The corporation’s moral compass had shown earlier signs of wavering when BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty reacted on air to racist remarks by Donald Trump in 2019. She was reprimanded by the Corporation for breaching its charter. After many protests, she was cleared by Director-General Tony Hall, who said that racism was racism – the BBC was not impartial on that topic.
Yet in Scotland, popular suspicions of the BBC have concerned its take on nationalism rather than any pro-Tory partiality. Any doubt that the Caledonian Beeb didn’t side resolutely with metropolitan London was dispelled way back in the Seventies, when ex-Guardian editor Alistair Hetherington became Controller, Scotland, only to be sidelined by management for persistently seeking greater devolution for Scotland’s public broadcasting. The country was then formally considered as just another region by a centralised corporation whose colonial management ensured that their top BBC executives in Glasgow feared the disapproval of London much more than that of its Scottish audience.
And any trace of Tory bias became hard to detect when the Conservative brand became so toxic in Scotland under the Thatcher regime that, at the 1997 General Election, the party lost all its MPs from north of the border.
The incoming Labour government recognised that the UK, then as now, was not a country in touch with itself and, in 1999, Tony Blair devolved political power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Eight years on, Cardiff University’s School of Journalism tried to assess the quantity and quality of BBC coverage accorded the new Scottish parliament, together with that given the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland.
More than 4000 news items were examined across a range of BBC television, radio and online outlets; analysis concluded the Beeb was failing to reflect the devolved political landscape. Audiences were routinely being misinformed about key devolved policies like health and education. And researchers found ‘England’ was often used instead of ‘UK’, with London and the South East receiving disproportionate coverage compared to Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland).
When the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign made headlines every day, accusations were frequently levelled that the BBC was not impartial. Thousands of protesters demonstrated outside BBC Scotland’s Glasgow HQ alleging bias against the Yes campaign and demanding that the BBC’s Political Editor Nick Robinson be dismissed. The demonstration itself was not covered.
Unsurprisingly, Scotland’s then First Minister, SNP leader Alec Salmond, agreed that the BBC was biased in favour of keeping the UK, but insisted the prejudice came from the BBC’s London-based staff rather than BBC Scotland personnel.
This indigenous faction has now had 18 months to endow a new Scotland channel with a distinctive perspective. The channel launched amid much pessimism as a compromise answer to decades of demand for a dedicated evening Scottish news bulletin – rejected by London executives convinced they were defending a shared British identity. The initial bad press has given way to muted optimism.
The acid test will be whether the next generation of Marrs, Kuensbergs and Warks no longer head south, when life at the pinnacle of the BBC no longer confers its former unique status and income.
Certainly, those who believe in principled and questioning journalism will have noted the corporation’s growing disinclination to take a stand or ask awkward questions and how it will lead to audiences switching away from the BBC when they want fair reporting. Such a perception may well may have been reinforced by the US elections.
CNN and other US networks challenged Trump and his team, going so far as to take contentious material off air when falsehoods were being broadcast. When even Fox News was flagging up fake news and lies, the BBC ran the rogue President’s speech in full without question, allowing Trump to peddle his false claim that the election was rigged, and gave Trump supporters airtime without challenge.
It’s that chimerical pursuit of balance again and it can’t be found.
The BBC also has developed a predilection for vox pops: brief interviews with people fondly considered to be ordinary, and who, in some sense, give the feel of public opinion. Certainly, since the EU Referendum, vox pops have become a mainstay of the BBC’s political reporting. But do those chosen offer any real insights or expertise, or are they just venting their prejudices? Whichever. The Beeb has given the impression of having reflected its audience’s considered views.
Break-up of the Beeb
The fragmentation and fractious turbulence of the current media scene may indicate the BBC’s traditional mission is no longer possible under one roof. Perhaps the funding currently invested in this single institution could be redistributed to a range of media organisations, each representing a different place on the political spectrum.
The Dutch have such an approach to public service broadcasting, financing productions by companies representing a range of political and religious interests, so maybe the concept of a single national broadcaster is no longer appropriate. The problem is how to counter the risk that these avowedly partisan organisations are broadcasting only to the already converted.
Increasing the number of broadcasters doesn’t seem so far to have led to greater understanding of complex issues. For the BBC to carry out its mission to explain, its journalists need first to understand the story, and for a generation now, the profession of journalism has been crippled by ruthlessly reduced resources, for practitioner and story coverage alike.
The advent of the 24-hour news cycle means BBC journalists are too busy producing news stories to think through issues, or properly to research them. If the BBC were to reduce news and current affairs outlets in favour of better quality coverage, the issues behind the news might become clearer.
The BBC could usefully begin to measure whether its broadcasts improve the understanding of crucial issues, or rigorously holding those in power to account.
Depending on audience figures alone is no longer enough, because the pursuit of ratings has surely diminished the quality of output, as evidenced by the way in which Question Time has come to prize controversy over clarity. We wouldn’t assess the value of the NHS by how many people use it, but by the quality and integrity of its care for patients. By the same token, the BBC’s licence payers would be better persuaded their outlay was worthwhile, by quality and integrity than by viewing figures alone.
The principal news resource of a democratic society – the BBC or a successor – should foster the widest possible understanding of political questions, standing squarely in the tradition of Reith and Birt, offering explanation and education, demonstrating the indispensability of the Fourth Estate when operating with truth and integrity.
If the BBC’s Charter truly required this, it would restore conviction and confidence to the staff and offer the audience access to a wider, more mature worldview. And it would require significant and sophisticated tweaking. For one thing, it should tighten its overview of outsourced productions. The current series of the Crown contains far too many examples of what, in other contexts, would be considered fake news. The BBC must remember its hallowed duty to the facts
But even fundamentally conservative organisations must constantly adjust. For, to quote Giuseppe di Lampedusa: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Further reading: Future of News, Tristan Stewart-Robertson; What future for public service broadcasting in Scotland? Philip Schlesinger, openDemocracy, and Centre on Constitutional Change; BBC fights for its future, Alex Barker and Mark Di Stefano, FT; Media Nation 2020 Scotland, Ofcom; Economists urge BBC to rethink reporting of UK economy, IPPR
Images via flickr by chiefmoambo and Kasia Raj CC BY SA-NC-ND 2.0