‘It’s Coming from the Top’Concerns Inside BBC of Fear of Casting Boris Johnson in a Bad Light
Former BBC reporter Patrick Howse speaks to those inside the corporation after Byline Times asked the BBC about its lack of coverage of Jennifer Arcuri’s new revelations of a four-year sexual affair with the now Prime Minister
Jenifer Arcuri’s new revelations about her affair with Boris Johnson have gone largely unreported by the BBC.
The story appears to have everything – sex, betrayal, abuse of power, lies told in high places – so, on the face of, it is somewhat surprising to find it covered only grudgingly, and at the margins of the BBC’s huge range of output.
It is, however, completely consistent with the corporation’s desperation to avoid a fight with the Government, and has roots going back far further.
Part of the reason for this is that the BBC has always been desperate not to be thought of as prurient. This has always been the case, but I first came across it when I was working for the Six O’Clock News in 1994. Stephen Milligan, a Government minister, was found hanged in his flat. He had apparently strangled himself during an act of autoerotic asphyxiation, and was wearing suspenders, had a plastic bag over his head and an orange in his mouth at the time of his death.
The editorial gymnastics this news provoked in the TV newsroom was a wonder to behold. Could sex be mentioned? What about the suspenders? This panicky, fearful process involved desperate phone calls between the top editorial figures in Television Centre and BBC Westminster, and culminated with a senior manager sprinting through the newsroom shortly before we went on air shouting “don’t mention the orange!” at the top of his voice.
“The BBC’s never really done sex,” one seasoned older colleague told me, shaking his head as contradictory and ludicrous editorial instructions flowed unstoppably.
And so I can see why the BBC might be hesitant to wade through the weeds of the Prime Minister’s complicated sex life. But that misses the whole point of the Arcuri story entirely – which is only really tangentially about sex. More important, by far, is what it reveals about the Prime Minister’s character and his ability to tell clear and blatant lies and get away with them. It is also about concerns over the misuse of public money and what it tells us about standards in the UK’s public life.
I think even the dullest of the BBC’s senior managers knows this. So, what’s really going on?
Living In Fear
Former colleagues tell me there is a deep-seated reluctance to cover this and other stories that cast Boris Johnson in a bad light, with one saying it’s coming “from the top”.
Some point the finger at Millbank, the offices of BBC Politics, while others believe that it comes from higher than that and that the Director-General himself is playing a role here.
Whoever is behind it, it translates into a narrative which starts off with dismissal – ‘oh, that’s not a story’. It then moves onto ‘well, that might be a story, but it’s not for us to break it’. And then onto (a few days or weeks later) ‘oh, that’s an old story – we all know that already’.
I’m told that some senior programme editors are extremely frustrated with this approach and have done what they can to challenge and get round it. Some have covered the story (Newsnight ran a segment on the general issue of how to regulate standards in public life last night, for instance). But the BBC’s big political hitters haven’t wanted to touch this and other stories with a bargepole – presumably being too busy retweeting what Downing Street tells them about how marvellous everything is.
There are of course some Conservative appointees in the BBC’s upper echelons – including the Director-General himself and the Chairman. So it is possible that this is some sort of attempt to suppress anything damaging to the Government, at least to some extent.
However, I think it is more likely that this all comes from fear. Top BBC managers are absolutely terrified of the Government and are bending over backwards to appease it.
It is worth repeating that there are BBC journalists all over the world who do amazing and courageous things every day. As I write this, I see that John Sudworth – a very brave and insightful correspondent who has done so much to expose the wrongdoings of the Chinese Government – is having to relocate from Beijing to Taiwan because of pressure put on him by the Chinese authorities. These are the standards for which the BBC is celebrated and admired internationally.
But the BBC’s domestic political coverage is cut from a different cloth – and courage isn’t a commodity in huge supply in Millbank. The people who have made it up the career ladder didn’t get where they are today by being brave. They got there by going to meetings and doing as they’re told. And I’m afraid that has translated into a craven policy of appeasement. Far from feeling that their job is to hold power to account, they see themselves as a mere conduit through which the (Government-driven) political discourse of Britain should flow.
This approach has two main flaws.
The first is that the people they are trying to appease will not hate the very idea of the BBC as a public service broadcaster any less. These people are unappeasable and want the BBC dead. Until it’s dead, they want it docile.
The second problem is that the BBC is risking a disastrous loss in public trust by covering-up for, and boosting, a Government which has raised questions around corruption and incompetence unprecedented in modern times.
The BBC may soon find that, when it needs its friends the most, it doesn’t have any left.