Today
Wed 2 December 2020

Peter Jukes argues that the public broadcaster is easily gamed by bad actors and vested interests who can break the rules with impunity – just like so many other key British institutions.


Last night, I made the mistake of watching the BBC‘s flagship political debate programme Question Time the whole way through. This is the first time for a long time, and it was only because I wanted to see if there was any transparency about the presence of two major figures behind the Brexit Party.

With businessman John Mills sittting on the left for Labour Leave, and Nigel Farage on the right, last night’s Question Time panel was the horseshoe principle embodied. As Otto English has revealed in Byline Times, both ends bend the same way: John Mills is part of a nexus of well-funded Leave groups that now dominate Farage’s new Party.

The Reithian vision that the BBC should “educate and inform” seems to have been replaced by the chant of Millwall football fans: “nobody likes us and we don’t care”.

But, more shocking than the lack of background checks into the participants was the open chaos and raucous demagoguery on display.

Nigel Farage dominated in his thirty-third appearance – that’s more than all the other British MEPs combined and only exceeded by longstanding government ministers and party leaders such as Ken Clarke and Charles Kennedy. He grandstanded and ran the show, interrupting and mocking the other panellists, particularly Change UK MP Anna Soubry and Conservative Minister Amber Rudd. As he jeered, a core part of the audience cheered. Fiona Bruce lost all control, and the show became a Trump rally in miniature – a party political broadcast for the new Brexit Party.


Accuracy Not Bias: Facts Not Opinion

This failure isn’t a matter of bias.

In one sense, last night’s panel was ‘balanced’ between left and right, between leave and remain, and with only one panellist not accepting the 2016 referendum result and advocating a second referendum. But, Bruce failed to challenge any of the false statements, and helped Farage by dismissing complaints about his notorious ‘Turning Point’ poster as “ancient history”.

Worse still, Bruce seemed completely misinformed about the various findings of data misuse, overspending and co-ordination against Farage’s Leave.EU campaign and the official Vote Leave campaign. She described them as “undecided”. No. This is clearly in the public domain – any cursory search would reveal multiple fines have been levied, and findings against them up to a criminal level of proof.

Vote Leave recently dropped its appeal against the Electoral Commission which determined it had broken the law with overspending and coordination with its offshoot youth group BeLeave. What’s happened to the BBC‘s basic research?

Ineptitude and ignorance cannot be the only explanation – the incompetence seems to be highly organised.

Tom Harwood, a Guido Fawkes blogger who helped to run the BeLeave campaign is a regular on the BBC‘s live political programmes, while the whistle-blower who exposed the electoral law-breaking, Shahmir Sanni, is never invited on. Today, the overall editor of the strand, Rob Burley, proudly announced that Ben Shapiro, a notorious US commentator whose Islamophobic writing apparently inspired violent extremists, was appearing on Daily Politics.

When challenged about this far-right drift in the past, Burley seems to take the complaints as proof of balance. The Reithian vision that the BBC should “educate and inform” seems to have been replaced by the chant of Millwall football fans: “nobody likes us and we don’t care”.

The BBC could retort they it is merely reflecting the reality of British public life post-Brexit. But, who decides what is the reality? Where is the proof that the BBC is covering the Brexit Party because it’s popular rather than the reverse – that its coverage and Farage’s semi-permanent seat on Question Time is making the Brexit Party popular? With no mooring in fact, it has to rely on this wilderness of mirrors, and that makes it uniquely susceptible to pressure by bad actors, funded by opaque interests who will happily play the public broadcaster for all it’s worth.

Ineptitude and ignorance cannot be the only explanation – the incompetence seems to be highly organised.

These bad actors don’t care if the public lose trust in the BBC. They will co-opt it to destroy it. And, when charter renewal comes around in a few years, the BBC will be abandoned by the libertarian right who don’t believe in public service broadcasting, having also lost the trust of its key supporters.

I certainly will have problems defending it. This is an unprecedented moment.


The Precedent of Lawlessness

On these pages a month ago, former BBC producer Patrick Howse explained why he felt that the corporation’s coverage of the launch of Farage’s party was exorbitant. He said that, by allowing Farage to make threats against sitting MPs without challenge, the BBC “facilitates fascism”.

Notice the language: facilitates. Nobody in the world would imagine that senior editorial figures within domestic news coverage have far-right sympathies. They’re being gamed and they have no defences. For all the well-paid editorial policy hierarchies with compliance tick-boxes, the BBC has no profound principles to fall back on. It has become a mirror rather than a lamp, a magnifying mirror at that, which reflects the worse elements of political life and disfigures and distorts our public debate.

As one of the most important institutions in the country, the BBC is a microcosm of what is going on throughout Parliament, Whitehall and a raft of other institutions.

As one of the most important institutions in the country, the BBC is a microcosm of what is going on throughout Parliament, Whitehall and a raft of other institutions.

The British constitution is built on precedent, and an underlying assumption that good people will be in power and bad behaviour will be anathema. Campaigns that break electoral law will be punished at the ballot box. Ministers who lie or lose billions through incompetence will have to resign. Governments that hold Parliament in contempt will fall from power. This is a system that assumes that ‘decent chaps’ will be in charge and that discretion and tacit social norms will hold the country together.

But, if the last three years have taught us anything, these norms can be ignored without consequence. Bad actors can cut through those conventions like a hot knife through butter, with shameless exuberance. Rather than be castigated, they’re likely to be rewarded by power networks that have traditionally co-opted the anarchic energies of the outsiders, but now look on with fascination and dread.

No one knows where this drift into right-wing populism and demagoguery will end, but end it will one day. Then Britain will have to look to reform many of the institutions that failed us. And the BBC will be top of that list.

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