The trouble with the BBC

Boris Johnson would be mad to end the BBC, especially as Britain embarks on Brexit, but the BBC needs set free of his government, writes Stephen Baker

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Is the BBC in trouble? And if so, how much trouble?

Culture Secretary Nick Morgan has stated that the TV license fee could be abolished by 2027, while the corporation has just announced 450 job cuts from its news operation in a bid to save £80m. This comes in the wake of a difficult General Election for the broadcaster when it came under fire from left and right for perceived bias. And before that it was getting it in the neck from all sides for its reporting of the EU referendum and its aftermath. Go a little further back and in 2012, it was charged with “parroting government spin as uncontested fact” during the parliamentary passage of the controversial Social Care Bill. Similarly, “official” bias was revealed in a study conducted into both ITV and the BBC coverage of the Scottish independence referendum that concluded neither were fair or balanced and had likely damaged the Yes campaign. That conclusion is confirmed by a BBC ex-employee, Allan Little, who led the broadcaster’s Scottish referendum coverage. Little claims that some of his BBC colleagues had operated on the assumption that the Yes campaign had got it wrong and to vote for it was foolish. The row about how the BBC treats Scotland rumbles on and since the independence referendum the BBC’s approval rating has fallen in Scotland.

The modern precursor to the BBC’s present woes is the Hutton Inquiry that reported in 2004 on the death of the Ministry of Defence weapons expert Dr David Kelly. Kelly was found dead after he was named as the source of a quote used by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. The quote was the basis of a Gilligan’s report that claimed the government had deliberately “sexed up” a report into Iraq’s weapons capability. The implication was that a war against Iraq was being sold on a false prospectus by the Blair administration. Despite public protests the war went ahead, and later Lord Hutton’s report exonerated the government, while at the same time it was damning in its judgment of the BBC. It found that Dr Kelly had not made the remarks attributed to him by Gilligan; that the claims made in the resulting broadcast were “unfounded”; and that by broadcasting Gilligan’s story the BBC had shown its editorial procedures were “defective”. When Hutton criticised the BBC’s governors for their deficiencies, it resulted in the resignation of its chairman, Gavyn Davies and later the sacking of Director General Greg Dyke.

Hutton’s acquittal of the government was seen by many as a whitewash. When it became clear that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, trust in the British political class took a hammering, but the BBC seemed never to recover from Hutton’s admonishments and has been cowed before government ever since. But we shouldn’t take from this that pre-Hutton the BBC was an inquisitor feared by the establishment and the political class.

The truth is the BBC has always been subservient to, as well as intimate with, executive power and the State. In his book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, Tom Mills (2016) refers to the incestuous relationship journalists have enjoyed with Westminster politicians and their spin doctors. And he highlights a revolving door through which personnel move between jobs at the BBC and appointments and positions in Westminster. This is the circulation of a particular subset of a political class with experience, expertise and connections in the intertwined world of media and politics. This, says Mills,

illustrates that the BBC, whatever liberals would like to imagine, does not stand apart from the world of politics and power and the corporate interests that predominate there. Rather it is an important part of those complex networks of power and influence. It further shows that insofar as the BBC can be said to exhibit any political bias, it is not based in political partisanship, but rather in an orientation towards networks of power and their shared interest – interests which, it should be noted, are not necessarily self-evident or immutable, but are worked out in and through these networks, and in and through key political institutions like the BBC.

David Butler offers a powerful metaphor to illustrate the intimacy and connectedness of the BBC to power, and the state especially.

In a figurative sense the state is to broadcasting as the uterus is to the zygote: the growth of the latter is decisively influenced by the conditions of the former. The idea of an umbilical relationship is instructive because it stresses the dependency of the organisations of broadcasting on the apparatus of government.*

It is, of course, an unequal relationship. The BBC’s funding may come from license fee payers, but the corporation exists, ultimately, at the government’s discretion, with the Culture Secretary responsible for the renewal of the Royal Charter that sets out the constitutional basis for the BBC and its public purpose. It is also supposed to guarantee the corporation’s independence. But as Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor points out:

The BBC is always fighting to retain its editorial independence. Though if you were going to design a system for jeopardising that independence, and making it hostage to political whim, the current approach of renewing the Royal Charter every decade or so would be hard to beat.

The BBC’s struggle to maintain its independence from government has been demonstrated recently by Tony Hall stepping down early from his role as Director General. Some commentators see this as an attempt to outmanoeuvre a hostile Tory government that has the power to “recommend” appointments to the BBC’s governing board and the role of chairperson. In turn, it’s that same board and chairperson that appoints the Director General. However, Hall’s premature departure means that David Clementi, the current chair of the BBC board will lead the hunt for a new DG, before the Johnson/Cummings administration has a chance to appoint Clementi’s successor.

While the Conservative Party is usually perceived as the potent political threat to the future of the BBC, it has survived Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May and, I have hunch, it will still be going in some form or other when Johnson has vacated No. 10 and taken to the lecture circuit. There are of course those on the Tory benches who find the very existence of the BBC such an affront to their faith in privatisation and free-market economics that they would cut the corporation’s throat in heartbeat by removing its Royal Charter and abolishing the license fee. But there are wilier Conservatives who see value in the BBC and may stay the hand of their more belligerent party colleagues. On the whole the tensions that exist between the party and the BBC are more like those between quarrelsome siblings. Cain may do for Abel in the end, but not quite yet. What we have witnessed so far is a spat at the dinner table. There’s no immediate fratricidal intent.

So we have had Boris Johnson ducking the scrutiny of the corporation’s chief interrogator, Andrew Neill, during the election campaign, and now his newly minted ministers are boycotting Radio 4’s Today programme. On top of this, and just days after the election, Treasury minister, Rishi Sunak, floated the idea that non-payment of the TV license fee might cease to be a criminal offence, which could cost the BBC £200m in lost revenue. Then the culture secretary, Nick Morgan, warned of disgruntled voters, complaining “on the doorstep” about having to pay a TV licence fee, laying the ground for her latest pronouncement about her “open-mindedness” with regards how the broadcaster is funded. This is Tory sabre-rattling. It’s not policy. Why would Johnson want to destroy the BBC, especially as Brexit Britain ventures out into the world on its own? Wouldn’t a supine media and cultural organisation capable of projecting British soft power around the globe be invaluable at this hour?

No. It won’t be Johnson who does for the BBC. Nor need the corporation be finished off by the new media-age ecology of subscriptions and streaming services. Don’t heed the doomsters and gloomsters (to coin a Johnsonian phrase) who tell you that the BBC is an anachronistic failure in the digital free market. A publicly funded organisation like the BBC could wipe the floor with its rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime, if only it were allowed to. Indeed, the argument against the license fee is in part to do with the competitive advantage it gives the corporation, and the attacks upon the BBC are an attempt to stop its growth. When in 2010, the then Director General Mark Thompson announced an end to the era of BBC expansion, particularly online, it wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was because of pressure from commercial rivals who couldn’t compete, among them the Murdoch dynasty. The BBC’s problem is that as a publicly funded national media provider it has been too successful, and it has the potential to stand in contradistinction to the free market partialities and nostrums of English Tories and their allies in business. That’s what the cuts and the government threats are designed to remedy – the BBC’s embarrassing and inconvenient accomplishments.

Whinging commercial competitors and their political allies might wound the BBC, but what will kill it is the disintegration of Britain; the internal fracturing of the nation it assumes to represent, speak to and make. The corporation is struggling to hold onto working class viewers and the young. It can add to that the growing alienation of Scots, as well as the disillusionment of a constituency that has been among the most consistent and ardent defenders of public service values – the centre-left – smarting from the BBC’s appalling performance during the election campaign, in particular its ‘mistakes’, all of which favoured the Tories. Imagine all those disappointed young Labour campaigners and supporters – reared on digital diet of social media and streaming – who might now decide to leave the BBC to its fate at the hands of the liars and charlatans whose passage to power it helped facilitate.

Tied to the UK’s archaic state apparatus the BBC has struggled to respond to the changing political and cultural landscape around it. In the face of Britain’s break-up, its outmoded democracy, crewed by political leadership that has given up any semblance of honesty and integrity, the BBC is ailing. That’s the problem with umbilical cords. If they aren’t severed, they can choke you, or if the parent becomes malignant, the malady spreads to the dependents and progeny.

The BBC might await its ignominious end as the enervated mouthpiece of a littler Britain; or its license fee might be relinquished and it can become just another commercial media outlet, stripped of its special status and privileged role in national life, selling life insurance and soap powder in-between inane rolling coverage of royals and Red Arrow displays. However, there are more exciting alternatives. Maybe it can become properly and demonstrably independent of government and the State; devolve and democratise; drop the “Corporation” and be reconstituted as a Cooperative with a national membership of millions.

*David Butler, The Trouble with Reporting Northern Ireland: The British State, the Broadcast Media and Nonfictional Representation of the Conflict, 1995

Stephen Baker

8 February 2020