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Like a partner in an abusive relationship, the BBC is desperate to be loved by those who despise it and everything it stands for.
So, even as this tired and disgraced Government, reeling from a series of catastrophic by-election defeats, is limping timidly towards its reckoning with an increasingly hostile electorate, the BBC’s Director-General felt it necessary to abase himself before its baying backbenchers.
The members of Tim Davie’s audience are much more eager to fight ‘culture wars’ than they are to fight an election campaign, which they’re increasingly convinced they will lose badly. But the habit of attempting to appease the unappeasable is deeply ingrained in today’s BBC and Davie felt the need to throw this audience one more slab of raw meat.
Speaking this week to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, he told them that the former Number 10 spin doctor (for Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May) and current BBC Board member Sir Robbie Gibb was conducting a review of the broadcaster’s coverage of what the Conservatives frame as ‘The Migrant Problem’.
The meeting was a closed one but, as with all Conservative Party business in recent times, there was no shortage of leaks to supportive press stooges about what happened.
The Sun’s political editor Harry Cole, for example, couldn’t – and in fact clearly didn’t want to – hide his glee about the “pummelling” that Davie got after he had “lost the room”.
This is said to have started with the issue of the use of the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ in connection with Hamas’ massacre of Israelis on 7 October. Conservative MP Jill Mortimer apparently demanded to know if Davie “believed they are terrorists?”
This is a long-standing issue and one one that I often had to wrestle with during my BBC career. But the fact is that it’s not really helpful – or necessary – for the BBC itself to use the words.
I write as someone who has witnessed and covered more than my share of terrorist incidents across the Middle East and elsewhere.
The BBC can and does say that Hamas is classed as a terrorist organisation by the UK, the US, and the EU. It can and does allow interviewees to describe them as terrorists. And it clips those interviewees and uses their words in packages and stand-alone material. But it’s usually far more informative for BBC journalists themselves to use other words – fighters, militants, killers, gunmen, bombers, and so on.
This all seems perfectly reasonable to me – someone who has heard more explosions and witnessed more bomb scenes that I can count. In fact, it’s a practice followed by many media organisations around the world. Any ‘controversy’ on this manufactured issue is just another ridiculous stick used by enemies to beat the BBC.
And let’s make no mistake: today’s Conservatives are implacable enemies of the BBC. They hate it, they want to destroy it, and until it’s destroyed they want it to be compliant. And Tim Davie, like his predecessor, fell into the trap of desperately trying to appease them.
His meeting with this hostile group then turned to another manufactured issue: migrants.
To quote Harry Cole again, it seems that Dover’s MP Natalie Elphicke “blasted the corporation’s coverage of small boats” and claimed that its journalists showed “sympathy for illegal immigrants”.
There was no pushing back on this from Davie, it seems. Instead, he “hit back” (again, quoting Cole) “that the BBC were reviewing their editorial processes on migration with the help of BBC Board member Sir Robbie Gibb – a former spin doctor for ex-PM Theresa May”.
Cole concluded his account of the exchange by adding: “BBC sources say it will be published ‘in full’ before Christmas.”
All of which is extremely unedifying for anyone who cares about the BBC and the wider notion of independent, public service broadcasting. The revelation that Gibb is conducting any sort of review about any aspect of the BBC’s news coverage is actually just as worrying as the fact that Davie felt the need to justify himself to Tory backbenchers.
Gibb was, of course, famously referenced by former BBC presenter Emily Maitlis, when she said there is “an active agent of the Conservative Party ” shaping the broadcaster’s output “as the arbiter of BBC impartiality”.
I have written in these pages previously about his unsuitability for any involvement with the BBC. Last August, I observed that “people who have worked with him have told me that he was always very obviously a Conservative. He’s also a forceful (I’m being polite) and determined operator, used to getting his way. I didn’t find anyone who objected to Maitlis’ comments about him and there is widespread concern that he is promoting Conservative Party views within the BBC’s output”.
It was always obvious that Gibb would interfere – even though it is not the job of the BBC Board to mess with coverage in this way.
Section 2.2 of the Board’s Code of Practice states that “a conflict of interest may arise when a personal interest or activity could influence, or appear to influence, a director’s ability to act in the best interests of licence fee payers or put at risk the independence of the BBC”. Section 2.3 also mentions that “individuals must not act in a manner likely to bring the BBC into disrepute or affect its reputation for impartiality”.
Migration is a subject very close to the hearts of Conservatives, who see it as a card they can play endlessly to stoke up fear and division. The fact that Tim Davie went cap in hand to Tory backbenchers, and felt the need to tell them personally that Gibb would be brazenly interfering in editorial policy in a matter like this, shows that there’s no longer even any pretence that the BBC’s “reputation for impartiality” matters a damn to the Corporation’s leadership.
And of course, by nailing its colours to the mast of the sinking Government’s ship, the BBC is once again alienating its core support. People who care about truth, impartiality, and public service broadcasting have been badly let down by the BBC’s cowardly capitulation to the worst succession of governments in Britain’s modern political history.
An enormous amount of long-term reputational damage has been done to the BBC since Brexit, and there is no recognition of this from its leaders, and certainly no desire to fix it.
With Davie at the reins, and Gibb wielding the whip, the very opposite is happening. The only audience they appear to care about is: a room full of Tories.