What Next for The BBC?
The concept is sound: a media network guaranteed to give you accurate and impartial information about the world around you. Of course, nothing could ever be truly impartial — we all bring our own histories and biases to the table when recollecting any series of events. But the BBC, so the story goes, always strives to do its best to come close to that ideal. Who wouldn’t want that? Personally, I’ve long agreed that we need a publicly accountable infrastructure to ensure we don’t end up like the US — dominated by the likes of Murdoch’s Fox News.
The British Broadcasting Company is a world-renowned organisation, more trusted and with a longer history than most on the planet. The BBC, or Beeb, or Auntie even, has been a staple of life in the UK for very nearly a century. It is often claimed to be the ‘envy of the world’, and the reason for its popularity is its perceived trustworthiness. Its stated aims are taken for granted.
But it isn’t free. If you want to watch any live television at all in the UK, you have to pay a little over £150 per year, and avoidance is punishable by a fine of £1000 and even a prison sentence. But in return you receive multiple TV and radio channels, as well as websites that each promise to show you the world exactly as it is, no bias. Totally impartial.
A Slow Realisation
When I got my first full-time job, having to get myself up early enough to take care of myself in the mornings, I turned to the TV for company. I never liked the format of the other breakfast shows, with their focus on celebrities, gossip and other trivialities, so I gave the BBC a go. I found it stuffy, to the point it was often boring, but they seemed to focus on the important, interesting and newsworthy topics. Most importantly, they were delivered in a manner that suggested they were true to their reputation of impartiality. Juxtaposed with the obvious biases of the tabloids, the BBC quickly became the only news source I’d trust.
Fast forward to after I left university (a period during which I dutifully lived up to the student stereotype and never woke early enough for breakfast TV), I found myself questioning the reliability of certain things the BBC were telling me. For a start, I’d read books that offered compelling counter arguments to many of their narratives. I became aware of their ability to frame stories in such a way that made them feel impartial, but the bias was revealed before the first word was written.
The most obvious example has always been its coverage of the royal family, and as I developed stronger views on the institution the issue became more noticeable. Yes, occasionally they may interview a republican, but their opinions are only ever given tiny amounts of airtime and presented as fringe views. Polls suggest such opinions are a minority, but how can we expect people to think differently when our public broadcaster presents royalty as a natural, reassuringly consistent part of our lives? That the BBC never questions the legitimacy of something as ridiculous as a monarchy ought to be enough to show it has very clear biases.
It was like an epiphany of sorts, as I felt I’d grown perceptive enough to see through their façade.
Except that wasn’t it. My finely-tuned analysing skills had not, in fact, grown superior in any way at all. The BBC has just given up trying to hide their politics.
Are They Even Trying?
In their breakdown of the recent Harry and Meghan interview, their ability to remain ‘balanced’ over the suggestion that someone in the royal family might be racist was something to behold. It could not admit the likelihood that someone in an institution built on racism, and reliant on the belief that some bloodlines are inherently superior to others, might contain racists!
But the fact the story, primarily one of a Royal giving up his title, was given any prominence at all shows where their priorities are. And would the hospitalisation of anyone else in their 90s besides Prince Philip warrant so much air time? But it is more than possible this infatuation is less innocent than it seems. Whenever we hear about a Royal, there is always something we are not hearing about.
When it was revealed that the health secretary Matt Hancock had broken the law when handing out PPE contracts, the BBC led with a story about Harry and Meghan, followed by one about Prince Philip. I honestly don’t know how to view the Hancock story as anything other than theft from the public purse on an industrial scale, and consider it to be of paramount importance for people to be informed, yet we were literally taken to Mars before the story was mentioned.
On the evening that the home secretary Priti Patel’s shocking new bill — threatening to severely restrict our right to peaceful protest — passed its second reading, the story did not feature. The bill intends to give extra powers to police, in the aftermath of police manhandling women attending a peaceful vigil to remember Sarah Everard, a young woman allegedly murdered by a police officer. Did the BBC not considered this to be newsworthy, or do they simply support the bill?
It’s Easily Explained
While they don’t have billionaire owners who they need to please by pushing certain agendas, the makeup of personnel at the BBC still offers an explanation. It is understandable, given the time, that when the BBC was formed its whole ethos was developed by a class who were better off than the majority. Today, those in the top jobs earn a fortune compared to the average citizen — their top news readers and other stars are undeniably rich.
From a class perspective, they have always been looking down on the rest of the UK. In fact, the inability not to come across as patronising gave it the nickname ‘Auntie’. But the real issue lies with how, no matter how well intentioned, everything gets framed from their own perspective. The idea, for example, that the BBC might question the value of The Royal Family to the average working-class person living in a peripheral part of the UK is unthinkable. As Jarvis Cocker sang, “smoke some fags and plays some pool, pretend you never went to school, but still you’ll never get it right” — they simply have no idea what the world is like for the rest of us.
When everyone thinks the same way, it ceases to feel like an opinion or bias, and becomes simply common sense. And when the Overton Window of an organisation like the BBC is positioned facing firmly to the right, then national discourse inevitably follows. Reasonable measures to help anyone less fortunate acquire the label left wing, opening them up to attacks from the more sensible ‘centrists’. Any significant change becomes far-left and radical, while the genuinely radical is completely unthinkable. So when humanitarian disasters like a global coronavirus pandemic strike, it seems natural for them to centre the story around its effects on the economy. And this is when the bias is accidental.
Some see the Conservatives and the BBC as having a revolving door when it comes to employment. Robbie Gibb left the BBC to become Theresa May’s Director of Communications, while as Mayor of London Johnson appointed Guto Hari of the BBC to head his media team. Political Editor Nick Robinson was famously head of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
The BBC’s new chairman, former Goldman Sachs banker Richard Sharp, has donated over £400,000 to the Conservative party since 2001. The job was originally offered to Lord Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, while Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail was offered the chance to run Ofcom. The Tories are stacking the BBC with people who do not even approve of its existence, and with Johnson making threats to Channel 4 for defying him, it cannot be seen as a surprise if the BBC set out to please them.
The result is the news cycle being deliberately doctored. It’s worth listing to this excellent episode of the Desolation Radio podcast dissecting the performance of the BBC during the 2019 General Election, featuring the author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, Tom Mills. It recalls when Laura Kuenssberg broke the ‘story’ of a Labour activist punching a Conservative staffer. It was an obvious and proven fabrication but would have been believed if the ‘incident’ had not been filmed. However, the truth didn’t matter, only that the news agenda for the day had been set. This was around the same time she broke the law by Tweeting about postal votes.
The podcast reminds us of the time they replaced footage of a dishevelled Boris Johnson laying a wreath upside down at the cenotaph with more respectful footage from a previous year. Do we remember when they edited out the sound of laughter at the suggestion he was capable of telling the truth, allowing him to seem statesman-like in his response?
Of course, just as when footage of police attacking the miners during the 1984 strike was reversed to appear as if the miners started the violence, these are all innocent mistakes. So no one is reprimanded — as long as the transgressions skew rightward.
For example, Andrew Neil, a war monger and climate science denier, was allowed to repeatedly attack Carole Cadwalladr on Twitter when she posed questions about Arron Banks and his right wing Brexit campaign, without repercussions. (Incidentally, the BBC were not interested in Cadwalladr’s opinions when she revealed Isabel Oakeshott withheld emails relating to the funding of Banks’ campaign, yet Oakeshott was rewarded with multiple invites to Question Time — the completely unbiased political show that has been an almost permanent home for Nigel Farage, allowed the likes of Laurence Fox to use it as a springboard to reinvent himself as a vitriolic troll and has a reputation for ensuring its audiences agree with the right wing arguments).
Yet when BBC Breakfast’s Naga Muchetty ‘liked’ a Tweet last week mocking the growing and frankly ridiculous obsession with the Union Jack, she was forced to apologise for this terrible behaviour. Huw Edwards referenced the incident by posing in front of a Welsh flag on Twitter, which had to come down too.
This isn’t the first time Naga has had to apologise either. Remember when she nodded along to suggestions that Donald Trump, an overtly racist man, might possibly be racist? With regard to Munchetty there seems to be more than a touch of racism and misogyny involved, but the incidents also have in common the fact that they dare to even gently threaten the right wing consensus.
Emily Maitlis went further. She gave a blunt but entirely accurate monologue as an introduction to Newsnight, criticising the Prime minister’s handling of Dominic Cummings when he flouted his own rules on Covid restrictions and lied about it. The BBC quickly apologised, while Maitlis was reprimanded and missing from the next programme (despite telling viewers she would feature). Maitlis, it seems, is further left than the BBC are willing to go (which, considering she has mocked the idea there is any sort of bias within the BBC, isn’t far at all).
The double standards don’t just exist for their employees, of course. The Tory cabinet are guilty of fresh and undeniable lies almost every week, yet calls for any of them to quit are few are far between, and are usually instances where ‘no’ is happily taken for an answer. Contrast this with former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who they consistently held to higher standards than other politicians. They practically camped on his doorstep, and any whiff of a failing or wrong doing by anyone even remotely connected with the Labour party was an issue over which he really must resign. The characterisation of ‘far-left’ of a man who would be seen as barely left of centre across much of Europe was to be expected of an organisation in which neoliberalism is so deeply embedded.
The same tactics are in play when it comes to Nicola Sturgeon as the British establishment cling to the remains of the empire. She must resign, we were repeatedly told, for breaches of the ministerial code that had not been proven (and later proven not to have occurred). When compared to the often far more serious Tory transgressions they regularly overlook, it becomes clear these are editorial decisions. It’s little wonder the people of Scotland are increasingly unlikely to buy into the fairy tale of BBC impartiality.
It comes as no surprise, then, that their reporting of this week’s riots are characteristically biased towards state interests. In their headline piece, those present are labelled ‘shameful’, ‘extremists’ and ‘animals’, while the bill that instigated the initial protest appears incidental. Officer injuries and vehicle damage are emphasised amid calls for prosecution, with no analysis of what has brought the UK to this point, or any reference to online suggestions that, once again, the police began the escalation.
Where Does This Leave Us?
I cannot bring myself to watch the BBC anymore, yet still I pay for it. My children occasionally like to watch Hey Duggee, and if I didn’t pay we’d be breaking the law. Beyond that, it is necessary to pay to watch any live TV, not just the BBC’s own output. I enjoy rugby, and before having children I consumed hours each week. But the last few years I have watched little more than the Six Nations Championship, on S4C where possible. I’m paying £150 for a handful of rugby games on alternative channels and maybe an hour’s worth of drawings about a dog and his squirrels.
The only way to boycott their channels is to boycott live television altogether or to break the law. This situation is clearly unsustainable, so what can be done? Tom Mills, on the Desolation Radio podcast, had this to say:
The principle is that everybody has to have access to these particular programmings, services, information, technology … so we don’t price people out of things that allow you to participate as a citizen… If you have a digital economy, the most efficient way of funding it is you fund it publicly at the point of production, and you make it universally available… A capitalist market, in order to monetise stuff, you have to exclude people from consuming it. Well, we don’t have to do that with public digital technology, we can make it available in perpetuity, available to everybody, and we don’t have to have algorithms which encourage us to consume things, on the basis of … clickbait.
Tom Mills, Desolation Radio Episode 67
The BBC is supposed to be ours. It should serve each of us, and exclude no one — and we should aim for nothing less. But as Mills points out, rather than burn it down and start again we need to rebuild based on a realistic account of the BBC’s failings, because it would surely prove too difficult to create something so vast from scratch. So how, then, do we go about the mammoth task of making the required changes?
The solution, for me, is the same as the solution to the problems of the UK as a whole: we break it up. Wales and Scotland surely won’t inherit the upper-class Tory boardrooms of London. The devolved nations own versions of the BBC are far from without fault — BBC Wales is evidently representative of the state, cannot seem to report anything without putting it in the context of their neoliberal London masters, and there is still the notion that the more English an accent, the more authoritative it sounds. But it will surely be far easier to reform smaller, independent chunks once they are cut loose from the interests of the ruling class. The same should apply to England’s regional services, using the existing structures to create something that actually does what it says on the tin.
The rump that remains will be left with the hardest task, but if the others are successful it will be easier to oust the old guard, or at least shame them into providing something that can truly be considered a public service. But their problems are currently so deeply embedded that nothing less than a cataclysmic breakup will likely succeed in producing any real, positive change.
The BBC is a wonderful concept. It’s about time we got the incarnation we deserve.