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Can the BBC be saved from itself

The BBC is still mired in liberal groupthink

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I belong to that small band of obsessives who think that one of the most important issues facing the country is reform of the BBC. For more than 20 years now — since the time I was a reporter on the Today programme — I have been agitating to get the BBC to live up to its promise to be impartial. It has been a long and frustrating road and, in moments of self-doubt, an awkward question nags away: is the BBC reformable?

From its inception, a century ago, the idea of a national broadcaster provoked the ire of the powerful newspaper barons who saw it as a threat to their dominance. Throughout its existence Tory MPs have been getting to their feet in the House of Commons to denounce the BBC as unpatriotic and subversive. Yet, life has gone on much as before.

But in recent years there has been a growing awareness among people on the right of politics that the tone of the BBC’s programming, across all genres from news to drama, is skewed in a progressive liberal direction. 

Dominic Cummings saw it clearly when he wrote in 2004 that the BBC was the “mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party. Leaving aside the party label, if conservatism is about treasuring and preserving those good things handed down to us then can it be said that the BBC treasures and helps preserve what is best in the national culture? 

The paradox is that one of the good things that has been handed down to us is the BBC itself. Thoughtful conservatives do not lightly seek to destroy institutions which represent continuity and tradition. Institutional memory is valuable. The BBC  has sometimes bound the nation together and, through its World Service, has often effectively projected British values abroad. 

Yet, that proud record of achievement doesn’t disguise the fact that the BBC is currently failing in its most important function — to provide a fair and balanced news service.

The Brexit psychodrama focused many minds

The Brexit psychodrama focused many minds because the BBC left no one in any doubt about what side it was on. Meticulous work done by the media monitoring outfit News-Watch is conclusive: over many years before and after the 2016 referendum, the BBC’s coverage has demonstrated massive bias towards interviewees and storylines favouring EU membership. 

This partisanship was a strategic error. The BBC backed the losing side and, mired in the Jimmy Savile and Martin Bashir scandals, found itself confronting a hostile government. Boris Johnson’s culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, made outspoken public criticisms of the BBC, froze its licence fee and spoke of ending that privilege altogether. 

When Dominic Cummings was still in Downing Street, root and branch reform seemed possible, but the opportunity was squandered. When Cummings made his lockdown sortie to Barnard Castle, the BBC pounced; the news department inflated the story into a national scandal. Eventually Johnson sacked his consigliere. Although Dorries still seemed determined to take on the BBC, the opportunity passed with Johnson’s defenestration.

Does the current government have the stomach, and enough political capital, for a fight with the Corporation? The opportunity is still there: the BBC Charter mid-term review is due later this year. The Charter is renewed every ten years (next in 2027) but imposing a half-term report was seen by the Tories as a way of keeping the BBC in check. How might the Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, use the opportunity to force the Corporation to reform itself? 

Ending the licence fee and forcing the BBC to move to a subscription-based model is often touted as one possibility. If the BBC was no longer guaranteed its income via what amounts to a poll tax, would it be more responsive to audience demands? The threat of cancelled subscriptions would put pressure on the Corporation to clean up its act. 

But would this work? Untethered from the licence fee, might the BBC drift off into a commercial world free not only from all government control but from even the pretence of impartiality? The BBC’s allies argue that ending the licence fee would not only severely weaken the BBC but also undercut its claims of “universality”.

Ending the licence fee is the nuclear option, but there are other reforms that could help. One is the complaints mechanism, which seems more concerned with preventing reputational damage to the BBC than engaging with complaints. 

I have bitter experience of this. In March 2020, I lodged a complaint alleging Remainer bias in BBC news output during the 2019 election campaign; this complaint has been shunted to and fro between the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit and Ofcom and to date — three whole years later — I have had no resolution. That suggests a wilful refusal to engage with the substance of a complaint that goes to the heart of impartiality.

Whenever criticisms are made about it, the BBC goes into defence mode. Last December, the History Reclaimed group issued a report looking at BBC history programming. The report highlighted six programmes which demonstrated what it argued were inaccuracies, tendentious opinions and serious omissions. 

For example, coverage about the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes claimed they were “looted”. In fact, they were reparation for a brutal massacre of British officials. History Reclaimed said that this new item “sums up all that is wrong with the BBC’s treatment of British history: tendentious language, distorted interpretation and deliberate omission of facts … listeners are not given objective facts to enable them to form a view. On the contrary they are made the objects of one-sided propaganda.”

History Reclaimed numbers among its members some of the most distinguished historians in the country so they might have been expecting, at the very least, a courteous hearing from the BBC. Instead, a “BBC spokesperson” could hardly have been more dismissive: “Cherry-picking a handful of examples or highlighting genuine mistakes in thousands of hours of output on TV and radio does not constitute analysis and is not a true representation of BBC content.”

Tim Davie, the BBC’s Director General, came into the job in the autumn of 2020 pledging to restore the BBC’s reputation for impartiality. Since then, there have been various initiatives and reviews which have delved into the internal culture at the BBC and made recommendations about how trust and impartiality could be restored. 

Output in specific topic areas was to be subjected to periodic review (the first was published in January on the BBC’s treatment of economics, and found that many BBC reporters had a poor grasp of the basics). In future, individual programmes will also be scrutinised. But what, so far, has been the result?

Someone close to the process and very senior in the BBC tells me that, to date, they can see almost no change; the internal culture, the groupthink that predominates remains wholly undisturbed. This person has detected a new confidence among BBC executives that they can ride out the antagonism of the Tory party who, they hope and expect, will be turfed out of office some time next year. They think all they have to do is stall for time and wait for a new Labour administration and all will be well again.

This seems all too plausible. I have always believed the BBC could be reformed because it is in the Corporation’s own self-interest. Making permanent enemies of conservatives seems an unwise strategy for an institution which, ultimately, relies on cross-party political support. But now my faith in reform is waning. Does the BBC even understand the conservative case and its arguments? Is it sincere about the need for reform? 

So far, there has been very little evidence of real change. The new Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, has an opportunity to shape the BBC’s future and the forthcoming mid-term review is probably the last chance the Tories will have, perhaps for many years, to effect real change at the BBC. 

One thing she should do is press the Corporation to open up to diversity of opinion. History Reclaimed’s idea of an expert panel to oversee history programmes is a good one which could be used as a model for other programme areas. The key to reforming the BBC is to disrupt the groupthink which dominates its internal culture. 

Likewise, the BBC’s complaints procedure needs a complete overhaul. At the moment the Corporation, in the shape of the Executive Complaints Unit, marks its own homework. Unsurprisingly only a tiny fraction of the complaints it considers are upheld. It is too much to expect the Corporation to honestly appraise its own faults; there needs to be more scrutiny by outsiders armed with tough sanctions.

Scrapping the licence fee would at a stroke remove the government’s most potent weapon — the ability to control the BBC’s revenue. It would also change, irrevocably, the nature of the BBC, turning it from a public service broadcaster into just another broadcast platform. As such it might well prosper given the BBC’s deep reservoir of creative talent. But something which proper conservatives should value would have been lost. 

My own preference would be to take a leaf out of Dominic Cummings’s playbook. In early 2020, in the wake of Johnson’s stunning general election triumph, Cummings decreed that no government ministers would be offered for interview on any BBC programme. This proved salutary; it was a mark of the government’s grave displeasure at the Corporation’s Remainer bias and it stymied the BBC’s current affairs programming which is obliged to balance its political output (impossible in the absence of the government). This is a tactic which could be used again to drive home the point that reform is essential and non-negotiable. Will any of this happen? For the BBC’s sake — as well as the good health of our politics — we must hope so.

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