The government has given new powers over the BBC to Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator. Behind the move is the eventual destruction of the Corporation.
Lucy Frazer is the Westminster Secretary of State with ultimate responsibility for the regulation of the BBC. Ms Frazer took up her current post on 7 February 2023. This means that as a Tory minister she has served an almost uniquely long time in one cabinet job. In that year she should have got to grips with her brief. And brief is apposite, as Ms Frazer is not only a barrister but a KC—a King’s Counsel. She’s a member of the crème de la crème of the English Bar.
KCs command the highest fees and it’s from their ranks that judges in England and Wales are chosen. KCs are the big brains. The top bananas of the legal world. They are famed for their ability to take the facts of a case and lay them out to judge and jury with clarity, accuracy and great powers of persuasion.
Oh well, perhaps Lucy Frazer had a day off when those skills were being taught at barrister school. For in accusing the BBC of bias Ms Frazer has come adrift from the rigorous principles and canon that guide the lawyer’s trade.
The case before the people is this: In what looks like a convenient pre-election stitch-up designed to undermine broadcast journalists in general and BBC news and current affairs staffers in particular, the government has extended the powers of regulator Ofcom over the corporation. Some might argue that these new powers—including the legally-binding power to review responses to complaints made to the BBC—amount to little short of state interference with the independence of the BBC, a principle enshrined in its Royal Charter.
Ms Frazer’s contention is that the public believes the BBC is biased and deficient in demonstrating impartiality. These are serious charges. Asked by interviewers on Sky and the BBC what evidence she has of bias Ms Frazer offered none. She said the public “perceive” bias at the BBC. Ms Fraser was pressed. Surely, said her interviewers, you must have based your decision to boost Ofcom’s authority over the BBC on more than perception? Not in Ms Frazer’s world. Perception is enough for her.
Up to now, what distinguished the world of the law from the flaky world of advertising is that in advertising perception is always real and in law perception is interesting but is not fact and cannot be used as evidence. Ms Frazer is now putting the future reputation of the BBC on the line because of what some people think. Who are these people? What were they asked? How many of them? Were they from across the UK? Did the sampling of public opinion reveal that many in Scotland perceive BBC Scotland as a creature of London, a biased pro-union force and the sworn enemy of all things independence? Is that perception enough to trigger action by Ofcom to correct perceived bias and lack of impartiality at the BBC? I suspect not, but will ask the editors to make sure a copy of this column gets to Ms Frazer’s office.
There is though in all this something of a mystery. The BBC has been effectively more deeply a creature of this government than of any in the 100 years since the BBC came into being. Things in recent years have become much more political.
It is no surprise that Ofcom is chaired by TV grandee and Conservative peer, Lord (Michael) Grade.
”The BBC is too aggressive and disrespectful and won’t admit when its wrong,” Grade told The Daily Telegraph in February 2022. He was appointed Ofcom chair the following month.
The government had less luck with Richard Sharp, an investment banker, appointed chair of the BBC board in February 2021. Sharp had donated £400,000 to the Conservative party in the years just prior to his elevation to the BBC ‘s top post.
He was forced out in April 2023 because of his lack of transparency around his involvement in an £800,000 loan made to Boris Johnson by a distant cousin of Johnson’s.
Tim Davie, the director general, is a former chair of Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative Association and once stood for the party in a local authority election. Sir Robbie Gibb headed up political programming at the BBC for many years, including the Daily and Weekly Politics, both hosted by all-round Right-winger, Andrew Neil. Gibb was headhunted into No10 Downing St when Theresa May became PM. When she fell, Gibb got his knighthood and his BBC board post. Emily Maitliss, former BBC Newsnight presenter said Gibb was an “active agent of the Conservative party” at the BBC.
Gibb is rumoured to have been instrumental in the appointment of John McAndrew as Director of News. Formerly head of news at Right-wing station GB News, McAndrew now influences all of the BBC’s recruitment and promotion policies affecting journalists and editors and has command of the news policy agenda. The whole news waterfront is at his, at UK national level, the English regions, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the BBC’s network of offices worldwide.
In place of Richard Sharp, the government has appointed Samir Shah to the £160,000 part-time post. Shah is a broadcaster and has worked on political programming at the BBC and extensively in commercial television. His politics are right of centre, but there’s no record of party membership or donations. For the government, he’s a clean pair of hands. For the public and the thousands who work at the BBC, his agreement to Ofcom’s new powers over the Corporation don’t smack of a man ready to die in a ditch for the independence of the BBC and its journalism. The very opposite, in fact.
We are in the position where a pro-government board and management at the BBC has failed in the eyes of the government to correct bias and partiality at the BBC. Why not just sack the guilty men and put in people who can get the job done? Because there is no job to be done. What we have is smoke in mirrors designed to weaken the BBC’s independence, cow its journalists, and ripen it up for dismemberment and eventual sale to the highest bidder. It’s short-term electoral politics and strategic long-term weakening of a once great British institution.
The Conservatives’ immediate plans for killing off the BBC as we know it will not survive the general election. But the Tory party and its friends on Fleet St and in The City will keep on carping, criticising and attacking the BBC. Among them will be people who recently held senior management and board positions at the BBC.
For the new Right that has embraced the Tory party in the past 20 years the BBC is the enemy within. They see in the BBC’s news and current affairs and in its comedy, drama and Arts programming threats to capitalism, to monarchy, to family life and a decent society. It is the very devil incarnate and that’s why the government, the board of the BBC and the regulator have adopted devilish tactics to disguise from the public the exact nature of the Right’s true ambitions for the BBC. Most of all they fear the BBC because it helped to keep Britain straight. It is no surprise that as the authority and status of the BBC has been diminished, so too has its appetite to scrutinise the powerful, to hold them to account. That has coincided with tumbling standards in public life at Westminster. Keeping things nice and private suits some people admirably. Keeping the BBC’s nose out of their affairs is equally to be desired by those seeking to line their own pockets at the expense of voters.
The BBC is not in existence only to educate, entertain and inform. It exists also to be a vital anchor in trying to keep the UK a society most of us want to live in.
First published by Bylines Scotland