Artillery Row

Giving straight white men all the best jobs isn’t always good news

Why should we expect BBC lifer Tim Davie to end BBC bias or high pay?

It is good of Tim Davie, the new BBC Director General, to have admitted so soon into the job what executives there so often deny (and which BBC loyalists outside the corporation hysterically denounce as being proto-fascism, when right-wingers or Brexiteers make this accusation). Which is that it has a chronic problem with bias, and, too many staff are paid too much. But his gimmick to tackle the problem of bias, by cracking down on what staff say online, should not be trusted. It’s an obvious, deliberate distraction: don’t fall for this self-serving spin.

Since Davie took the reins there has been a near-constant stream of negative headlines. The BBC’s annual report revealed how they have haemorrhaged a quarter of a million licence fee payers whilst staff wages increased. Davies briefed out a well-timed story insisting he intended to crack down on the number of middle managers (253 “senior leaders” at the BBC were paid £37.5 million last year, or £148,221 on average). But why should we trust him when we have been hearing this for four years, ever since they were forced to begin publishing these numbers, and demonstrably to no effect? Tim Davie would not have to be making all these promises all over again if his predecessors had actually meant them, let alone delivered. At some point we are going to have to judge the BBC on its actual track record, rather than the story it press releases about itself.

The matter of disclosing what the money taxpayers fork over to the BBC is spent on is a case study in everything that’s wrong with the Corporation. They fought it for years; they claimed, implausibly, that it would lead to their top talent being poached; they did not say by whom, nor what would be wrong with this anyway. Not that you would know from the BBC’s self-serving account – which is a polite way of saying: its incorrigible habit of pretending it never told the lies it told – but who ever was going to spend BBC levels of money on the talent the way they incontinently did? No one it turns out. Not even the BBC, the BBC now finally admits. All of this has only happened because the BBC was belatedly subject to the public scrutiny it demands of others but arrogantly, dishonestly rejected for itself.

He can stop his staff from revealing their opinions. But that’s not the problem

Even in his brief period as DG, Davie has already flip-flopped once. Despite pledging to come down firmly on staff campaigning online, the new boss soon revealed some of the BBC’s highest earning campaigners, including Gary Lineker, could keep hectoring away on whatever empty platitude is fashionable this week. Lineker responded by casually mocking the idea of impartiality (and high pay) on Twitter. If the face of BBC sport is exempt, why should more junior staff follow the rules? Or is it one rule for them and another for everyone else?

Familiar but fresh controversies have also continued to arise, with the BBC inexplicably moving to ban phrases like “nitty-gritty” and “whiter than white” because, in their strange identity politics echo chamber, these platitudinous phrases are now deemed bigoted.

Davie used the word impartial eleven times in his first big speech in the job. But when it came to solutions, he had little of substance to say. He mentioned some training and “declaration of external interests” in one sentence. He vaguely called for a “wider spectrum of views” and for staff to spend time outside London, which we also heard, repeatedly, from Davie’s predecessor Tony Hall without anything changing for the better. The only other specific he got into was staff’s use of social media.

Since its rise, Twitter has indeed offered us a window into what the BBC bubble believes. And stopping staff sharing their views there will merely obscure that window, not fix the root problem. BBC bias manifests itself in much deeper and subtler ways than just rants on social media. The insults, condescensions, and virtue singling dished out online by BBC staff are often provocative and increasingly brazen, but they are not the vehicle for the BBC pushing an agenda. From ‘Thought for the Day’ to children’s programming and audience selection, this happens much more subtly.

Let’s look at the most explosive recent example, when the BBC Proms banned the lyrics to eighteenth-century folk songs, reportedly in response to Black Lives Matter (or a Finnish conductor’s hazy notion of what BLM amounted to). The BBC Press Office later tried to blame the coronavirus, not political correctness, and the backlash was subsequently called a “manufactured controversy” in the Guardian. But thanks to Twitter, we know one BBC executive thought the songs are equivalent to Nazi anthems and a number of young producers were so disgusted by the “problematic” music the were happy to discuss it in public. Thanks to Twitter, the tall story did not stand, and the source of the bias was clear.

Why does the BBC have a “gender and identity” correspondent but not an “illegal immigration” one?

That source, of course, is the ideology and agenda of the people making decisions at the BBC. Such people are welcome to their views but we should not be threatened with jail for the pleasure of enjoying them. And their agenda should not be presented as neutral and afforded the extra weight a state broadcaster conveys.

In the vast majority of instances of biased broadcasting there is no smoking social media gun. The subjective degree to nearly all political judgements allows “perceived” bias to be denied by the BBC. But as anyone who leans right and has watched the Victoria Derbyshire Show or Newsnight knows, the story selection leans distinctly one way. Only some guests get interrupted or are labeled “controversial” and “contrarian”. Others are “campaigners for rights” and “charity workers”. The framing is all and endemic. It’s arguably still more professionally discouraging when it happens and BBC staff don’t even know they’re doing it. To appreciate the bubble BBC staff work in is to have been present when off-camera someone has asked, for example, ‘why was I introduced as being from the “Conservative CPS” but she was just from the IPPR?’

The producers and presenters who make these calls probably think they are being fair and that they strive to act in good faith (‘the committees! the management! the paperwork!’ they moan). We all believe in a right and a wrong and think we know where the middle ground is. The problem is that right and wrong is slightly different for different people and we often don’t see the subjectivity in our own choices. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Twitter, a space seemingly devoid of nuance where everyone is self-righteous, crusading, and categorical. Yet if the BBC’s rationale for existing is that it’s genuinely comprehensive of the nation, where are the BBC staff casually revealing their Mail or Sun or Telegraph views? Are we really to believe that they exist in significant quantities but are just all so much more effortlessly prim when it comes to effacing their deeply held views? This is laughable, but it’s not only what the BBC would have you believe, it’s seemingly what it genuinely believes of itself.

Why is it the BBC has a dedicated “gender and identity” correspondent but not an “illegal immigration” one? They’d notice the inflection instantly in the latter job title, but the former is just one of those things – it’s unthinkable that anyone would query it. What are you, some sort of unsavoury right wing nut? I can list example after example of revealed preferences, and you of course can accuse me of ideological cherry-picking. Why did the BBC Media Show clear the schedule for Christiane Amanpour to talk about her career, but give Andrew Neil only a few minutes? Why, ahead of the US election, is the BBC doing a series on the plight of migrants on the US border with Mexico and not one on gun crime in Chicago? On and on I can go. I would, though, be genuinely interested to hear about the equivalent right wing bias you would confront with me. I’m willing to wait. Take your time. Get back to me when you’re ready. There’s probably a lot to compile. Maybe  all the things I cite are in fact objective decisions on what is newsworthy. But maybe they’re not. And a prudent BBC would do well to reflect on the possibility that just like not disclosing staff pay, they may well be once again making chronic mistakes they’re oblivious to, and which in the fullness of time they’re going to spend a lot of time apologising for.

Let’s take another recent example: a single tweet from Markus Rashford, the footballer. There are 500,000,000 Tweets published everyday. But his one was selected by a BBC editor to become the top story on the BBC websites, the most read news website in the country, despite a story about the Tweet being not even close to the most read story there. Some people shrugged their shoulders, others saw it as significant, due to his profile and history of campaigning. But as soon as it became the BBC’s chosen issue of the day it was news for days to come.

This is the power the BBC has and it is a power they hold with very little accountability. Those lucky enough to work there can drive the agenda and influence policy, especially with a government like this one, which is so sensitive to media stories, pundits, and movements in the polls. And critically, the BBC knows their income will keep on flowing, however poorly they represent their core audience, because the licence fee is enforced by the state.

The truth is bias will always exist in the media. Broadcasters will still claim to be impartial after the BBC’s power has waned and viewers will still be unconvinced. Who knows why the type of people who are attracted to apply for creative and media jobs, and are given them by the people who already hold senior jobs there, are likely to lean to the liberal/left? Who can speculate why the print media is so much more diverse? We may never know why the private sector media is so fissiparous while public sector media is so markedly intellectually homogeneous: it’s a mystery for the ages.

New broadcasting challengers are finally arriving in the UK, sensing a business opportunity and promising to bring ideological diversity. They have been quickly labelled “Fox News style” and “toxic” before we even know what they will look like. Nick Robinson, has even appeared to encourage viewers to write to Ofcom, the regulator, to protest. Gauche and insecure as this sort of thing is – where it’s not transparently bullying and self-interested – it’s the BBC that’s building up its own funeral pyre. People are only going to consume the weedy private sector competition if the BBC insists on not giving them what they want. Will it cut off its nose to spite its face? Of course it will. Imagine stooping to serve the needs of obvious, unwashed undesirables who’ve already confirmed their guilt by watching something other than BBC news! They may as well be tattooed.

Tim Davie can stop his – unimportant, non-famous – staff from revealing their opinions. But that’s not the problem. The problem is the BBC’s self-delusion that it takes twitter to let us see what they really think of us.

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