Shot by both sides

Michael Taylor asks whether opposition from both left and right proves the BBC is doing its job impartially or getting it wrong on all scores

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The BBC is under attack like never before. Each senior appointment, each major programming decision and sensitive margin call feel like tactical moves in the never-ending culture war.

Mistakes are amplified and the lessons itís told to learn depend very much on who is providing the commentary

At surface level the assault on the BBC looks incessant and relentless. Those committed to the values of its founding principles are dug in for a series of standoffs and sieges. But are the senior leaders in the corporation making all the wrong calls? Is its endgame to sue for peace with elements of a right-wing government that is leading a long march through the major cultural institutions, or do the board and director-general Tim Davie just want to get to next year’s next mid-term review when the licence fee is set?

The BBC’s annual budget is £4.9 billion, of which £3.52 billion is attributed to the licence fees paid by UK households – currently £147 a year. Its present charter was agreed in 2016 by then culture secretary Karen Bradley and runs until 2027. But many Conservatives bristle at her decision, seeing it as a missed opportunity to dismantle or diminish the BBC that only the distraction of Brexit prevented.

Right-wing bloggers and mysteriously funded thinktanks continue with a drip-feed of stories questioning the BBC and its unique status in British life. A 2020 social media call to “defund the BBC” was presented as a grassroots campaign against metropolitan liberal bias, led by plucky student James Yucel. But as Peter York and Patrick Barwise meticulously argued in their 2020 book The War Against The BBC, the campaign was a classic astroturf move by a researcher for recently elected Tory MP Tom Hunt, and right out of the Dominic Cummings and Vote Leave playbook. It even mobilised a strange mix of Tommy Robinson supporters and sock puppet Twitter accounts to get it trending, as well as high-profile support from journalists at the Sun and Daily Express.

Left-wing bloggers and activists, sore from Labour’s crushing defeat in the 2019 election, also pile on criticism of the BBC, blaming biased reporting by political editor Laura Kuenssberg and hostile interviewing of Jeremy Corbyn by Andrew Neil as examples of the BBC trying to curry favour with the Conservatives.

Yet enshrined in its very purpose, in the BBC Charter, is a central role in the culture of the United Kingdom. “Offer a range and depth of analysis and content … so that all audiences can engage fully with major, local, regional and national United Kingdom and global issues, and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens.”

The universal licence fee means the BBC has a duty to cater for all parts of the country, and also to reflect Britain and its values back out at the world through the World Service and BBC News 24. At times of national importance, it’s meant to provide trusted information, entertainment and measured commentary for a sometimes troubled people – even if at times that means a collective experience like seeing Ted Hastings chasing bent coppers on Line of Duty. In a speech this year, the BBC’s head of nations and regions Rhodri Talfan Davies made a spirited defence of the BBC’s role in providing up to date information about Covid and the local lockdown arrangements, citing phone-ins to BBC local radio shows. “Millions of people each day turn to our local output for information they can trust about the communities they love,” he said.

Meanwhile, facing technological challenges from on-demand video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the BBC has fared well. Innovations like BBC Sounds, iPlayer and collaborations like BritBox (with ITV) have kept the BBC technologically relevant to audiences it doesn’t just access through broadcast television and radio.

The BBC has to defend itself from its enemies against a backdrop of headlines in the hostile press getting ever more aggressive. Particularly when a charter renewal is coming up, that eats up enormous executive bandwidth. Inevitably, any mistakes are amplified and the lessons it’s told to learn depend very much on who is providing the commentary. Take the reaction to the inquiry into how Martin Bashir got away with faking a letter to secure an interview with Princess Diana.

“The BBC needs to improve its culture to ensure this never happens again and that means a new emphasis on accuracy, impartiality and diversity of opinion,” said culture secretary Oliver Dowden. Using phrases like “as others have observed” – sounding a lot like Donald Trump’s “a lot of people are saying” – he added: “The BBC can occasionally succumb to a ‘we know best’ attitude that is detached both from the criticism and the values of all parts of the nation it serves. Groupthink in any organisation results in a lack of challenge and poor decision making. That’s why cultural change must be a focus…”

The BBC made poor editorial decisions over Bashir and failed to support the whistleblower who alerted senior management to them. But Dowden’s suggestion that it needed to change its commitment to impartiality and diversity of opinion – code for another salvo in the culture war – felt opportunistic. Already, Richard Sharp, the new BBC chairman, was a Conservative Party donor and former director of the Centre for Policy Studies, the centre-right thinktank, while Boris Johnson seemed determined to install former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as chairman of media regulator Ofcom.

It’s only with this defensive and weakened BBC can you understand what happened to Emily Maitlis, award-winning journalist and presenter of flagship news programme Newsnight. After government adviser Dominic Cummings made his trip to Barnard Castle in the first few months of a nationwide lockdown, she introduced an edition of Newsnight on 26 May last year with the pointed “Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot.”

After the BBC’s mistakes over Martin Bashir’s Princess Diana interview were revealed, its opponents weighed in heavily. Photo: Shutterstock

Within 24 hours, and following a complaint from 10 Downing St, the BBC apologised and claimed her introduction “did not meet our standards of due impartiality”. Maitlis regrets nothing, telling the Press Gazette: “It hasn’t ever been explained to me what was journalistically inaccurate about that.”
It was bizarre that much later the BBC then gave her colleague Laura Kuenssberg so much time to allow Cummings to effectively admit Maitlis’s interpretation of events was correct, as were the tenor of her questions.

Next up was the potential appointment of Jess Brammar, HuffPost UK’s editor, to a senior executive position at BBC News, which triggered texts from Robbie Gibb, former adviser to Theresa May and a BBC board member. According to the FT he’d said her appointment would damage relations with the government. “Fragile trust in the BBC will be shattered,” he is reported to have said – a claim he denies.

Inevitably, the response from other senior Conservatives was to turn the screw. “When did the BBC last hire somebody from Conservative Home to come and be their senior figure, or from the Daily Telegraph?” Jacob Rees-Mogg asked on his Conservative Home podcast. “When it’s from the left it’s all right, but when it’s from the right that’s beyond the pale. I think the BBC does itself a lot of damage in this regard.”

Rees-Mogg forced Brammer’s appointment on to a hill for BBC executives to die defending. Yet other critics point to its soft-pedalling over ministers – including Johnson – who have lied, almost habitually, over the Covid response and the mess of Brexit and Northern Ireland. Government-led news agendas seem to be slavishly picked up by BBC News in all its outlets, with even BBC 6 Radio Music’s news leading on the “migrant crisis” in the week that particular dead cat was thrown on the table to distract from the chaos that Freedom Day, empty shelves and backsliding over self-isolation was causing the government.

In the BBC’s defence is its quality journalism. Only the BBC could have the impact of a Panorama investigation into the Grenfell fire, the dealings of Irish boxing promoter and alleged gang boss Daniel Kinahan, and the award of Covid contracts to private companies. It seems mean-spirited to question the courage and scope of the BBC’s international output. Last week, reporters courageously flew into Kabul as diplomats planned evacuations from the Taliban advance. Globally, the BBC remains the most trusted news brand.

But other international news channels – Al Jazeera, France 24 and Germany’s DW – provide a more distinctive, better resourced cosmopolitan world view than the BBC, both for domestic and overseas viewers. At a time when it’s not clear what British values are and what so-called soft power represents, Mary Dejevsky, former Moscow correspondent for The Times, said BBC World News came up short when she assessed how well equipped it was to transmit soft power. “Having regularly viewed both the BBC and its competition during frequent travels in recent months, I would sadly submit: not very.”

She added: “A striking proportion of the BBC’s output also seemed too focused on aid projects of various kinds, with a fairly obvious, but unspoken, didactic streak. Even more striking, compared with France24 and DW, was the paucity of features about life in Britain. Both European stations gave substantial glimpses of how life is lived in their countries and looked – sometimes critically – in the mirror.”

And in sports coverage there can be no other explanation for the BBC’s Olympics coverage than a mortal fear of being attacked for being unpatriotic. Although restricted to a feed from Tokyo the coverage of the Olympic Games at times felt like a major overseas fixture for Team GB versus the Rest of the World, where the rest are just an enabler of the micro stories of plucky British endeavour.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew, writing in the New Statesman, said: “The BBC, which no longer owns the exclusive broadcast rights and is restricted to just two live streams, now devotes itself almost entirely to covering Team GB’s exploits. … This is more than a mere editorial line, and besides, the BBC is in many respects reflecting rather than setting the priorities of its audience. Rather, it’s a world view, bordering on collective disorder: a selective blindness, a logical extension of the empty, mechanical nationalism that seems to have gripped this country over the past decade.”

The BBC employs nearly 23,000 people and sits at the heart of regional economies like that surrounding Salford’s MediaCity. Its future is a cause for concern for every citizen of this country. Next year it will celebrate a centenary of broadcasting since the foundation by John Reith in 1922. It is facing extraordinary challenges as it navigates its second century.

Michael Taylor is a writer and broadcaster, but not for the BBC

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