THE TRUTH OF THE MATTERHow the BBC Can Save Itself
Former BBC reporter and producer Patrick Howse reviews a new book about the forces raging against the public service broadcaster and offers some solutions to the broadcaster’s current predicament
The BBC is going to face mounting challenges in the coming months. The world has changed, even since Boris Johnson’s General Election win in December 2019, and the political landscape confronting the BBC is largely a hostile one.
Despite the departure of Dominic Cummings’ from Downing Street – a public opponent of the BBC – Boris Johnson’s Cabinet and party is still packed with enemies who want to see the broadcaster broken up. And while the BBC deals with more cuts and more calls for the abolition of the license fee, its journalists face unprecedented demands in the form of Brexit, the Coronavirus crisis, and a possible second Scottish independence referendum.
Yet the BBC hasn’t helped itself. Its coverage of Brexit has alienated people who would have been its natural and most vocal supporters. Add to this mix a new Director-General, Tim Davie, as well as the imminent appointment of a new chairman, and the future of the BBC seems deeply uncertain.
So the publication of Patrick Barwise and Peter York’s new book, The War Against the BBC, comes at an opportune moment in the corporation’s history.
It is hard to overstate the BBC’s importance to our culture, politics and society. It has – as Barwise and York point out – helped to cohere British national identity through a century of turbulence. It is one of the largest and most trusted news gathering organisations in the world and has enabled Britain to punch above its political and cultural weight for decades.
To the ire of its right-wing detractors, the BBC is still politically and culturally influential. Barwise and York rather breathlessly tell us that, “from Sherlock to Luther, Bodyguard to Citizen Khan, Fleabag to Strictly Come Dancing, Peaky Blinders to Killing Eve, Gavin and Stacey to The Great British Bake Off, Trust Me, I’m a Doctor to RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and Gareth Malone’s choir series… And CBeebies. And on radio George the Poet, Desert Island Discs, the Today programme – it looks as if the BBC can still pull it off.”
The last example is questionable; indeed the BBC’s editorial shortcomings on Brexit have often been aired on the Today programme. However, the book is a thorough and perceptive analysis of some of the big challenges facing the BBC, and the malevolent and dishonest forces raging against it.
These range from Rupert Murdoch, his offspring and his business empire, to the Daily Mail, the Express, and the Barclay Brothers through their increasingly rabid Daily Telegraph. All these individuals and their titles have a commercial interest in bringing down the BBC, and have the advantage of possessing few morals or scruples to hold them back.
The right-wing ‘think-tanks’ and lobby groups based in and around Tufton Street in Westminster also play a key role. These mysteriously-funded groups – including the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) and the TaxPayers’ Alliance – have devoted hundreds of hours to producing pseudo-academic propaganda for use by the aforementioned newspapers.
“For the avoidance of doubt,” Barwise and York tell us, “yes, this is a sort of conspiracy. It involves multiple players with overlapping aims; most of their funding (and, therefore, the links between their activities and their funders’ vested interests) is hidden; and they appear to co-ordinate their messages.”
The authors rightly lament the damage caused to the BBC by relentless rounds of cuts, imposed by successive unsupportive governments; a trend that has intensified in the past decade. In recent years, the BBC has been forced to sustain itself on a static licence fee, while taking on financial responsibility for the World Service and free licences for the over-75s – all at a time when costs in the broadcast industry are rising significantly faster that general inflation.
What Can Be Done
However, while the book very clearly and accurately describes the BBC’s enemies, it fails to outline a plan or a manifesto to save the institution. Instead, it urges us to appreciate the BBC, value it, and realise what a terrible, irreplaceable loss we would experience if its enemies triumph.
This is not enough. In order for it to be saved, the BBC must change.
Too often in recent years the BBC has been hamstrung by fear and doubt. This began with the departure of Director General Greg Dyke after the row with Tony Blair’s Government about the Iraq War, but it has continued and grown apace as critics have gained volume and confidence.
Instead of fighting back, however, the BBC’s response has been one of appeasement. It lost the ability or the inclination to hold lying politicians and commentators to account. Rather, it gave equal air time to experts – people who base their views on evidence and logic – and those who were deliberately trying to stoke up fear through misinformation.
When it is faced with a major political moment, which focuses attention on the coverage of the broadcaster, the BBC retreats to this false position of ‘balance’.
As I have written before, the truth is not the midpoint between a fact and a lie. And there are some encouraging signs that the BBC has started to realise this fact. This week, for example, BBC Reality Check scrutinised the claim by Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock that Brexit allowed the UK to approve a COVID-19 vaccine more quickly than EU nations.
Hancock’s comments were followed by a flurry of supportive tweets by the usual line-up of Brexiter Conservatives, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, and Michael Fabricant. However, as Reality Check pointed out, the claim was false.
“The idea that Brexit enabled the UK to press ahead and authorise [the vaccine] is not right,” Reality Check’s Chris Morris wrote. “It was actually permitted under EU law, a point made by the head of the UK’s medicines regulator on Wednesday.”
Reality Check has been a beacon of honest, rigorous journalism at the BBC for some time. Yet the problem with the BBC’s coverage has often been that blasts of reality are tucked away in dark recesses of the website, rather than being used to challenge lies in real-time, when millions of people are watching.
Ultimately, in order to survive the culture war, the BBC is going to have to rediscover its principles and its courage – prioritising the truth above all else.
Talking to former colleagues within the BBC, I think there’s a determination to get this right. However, whether it can do that with a new chairman – who is likely to be a conservative, and might even be someone who has been openly hostile to the BBC in the past – is certainly open to doubt.
‘The War Against the BBC: How an Unprecedented Combination of Hostile Forces Is Destroying Britain’s Greatest Cultural Institution… And Why You Should Care’ by Patrick Barwise and Peter York is published by Penguin