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The Last Days of the BBC?

Streams of reports point out the bias at work in BBC’s politics coverage. As it edges ever closer to Britain’s Conservative Party this election campaign, it’s clear the public broadcaster needs radical reform if it is to be saved.

(Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

As Britain faces a crucial general election, its second in two years, one of its most venerable institutions has been busy demolishing what’s left of its reputation. The BBC has long been admired internationally for its well-resourced drama and documentary programs, and respected for the professionalism of its journalism. But its hollowing out by a series of neoliberal governments looks to have finally caught up with the once august institution. Whatever the merits of the BBC’s educational and cultural output — a large proportion of which anyway come from private companies — its political journalism, which is at the heart of its public service remit, has failed in the most important test it faces.

For those of us familiar with the politics of the BBC, it has all been fairly predictable, even if still a little depressing, and sometimes even shocking, to watch. Let’s start with the prime minister. As a number of critics have noted, the public persona of “Boris” was partly honed on the BBC in a series of appearances on its tired satirical show, Have I Got News for You, and the institution has since proved for the most part either unable or unwilling to puncture the performance and hold the politician to account.

Like his friend Donald Trump, Johnson has displayed remarkable arrogance and dishonesty. But while the US president is a crass bully, Johnson disguises his narcissism and ambition with a practiced self-depreciation and convivial manner that allows him to be both evasive and domineering with journalists. A revealing moment came last year shortly after his resignation as foreign secretary. Upon returning to the backbenches, the Old Etonian quickly secured the highest private income of any MP: among his various side hustles was a return to the Telegraph as a weekly columnist, for which the Conservative-supporting newspaper paid him almost £23,000 a month (which he failed to disclose to the appropriate authorities).

In one of his first articles in that post, Johnson described Muslim women who wear the burka as “look[ing] like letter boxes.” The calculated racism was widely condemned, including by the Muslim Council of Britain and by the then-chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin. At the height of the short-lived controversy, the media gathered outside Johnson’s home. When the future prime minister finally emerged, he approached them with no comment, but armed with plenty of boisterous charm and a tray full of mugs of tea. It was enough to disarm the group of reporters who laughed along with Boris. The BBC later posted a clip of the encounter on its YouTube channel.

Johnson, of course, emerged politically unscathed, as he has from every outrage. When he was elected Conservative leader earlier this year, Mohammed Amin resigned in protest, charging that Johnson was “morally unfit” to be prime minister and “does not care whether what he is saying is true or false.”

Part of the reason these traits have helped rather than hindered Johnson’s rise is that his vices are shared by institutions at the heart of British politics. Not just the Conservative Party itself — which has conducted what is likely the most dishonest campaign in British political history — but also the country’s utterly unscrupulous right-wing press, which has polluted and corrupted British public life for decades, but which BBC’s managers and senior journalists still treat as if they were vital components of democratic life.

Many journalists do find Johnson objectionable, and one reporter who stands out in particular is Peter Oborne, a conservative critic of political “spin” in the Blair era who resigned from the Telegraph over its dropping of an investigation into a major advertiser, HSBC. Early on in the election campaign, Oborne raised concerns that the British media as a whole were not holding Johnson or his ministers to account, and were too often relaying unsubstantiated claims from anonymous government sources. Not only did Oborne point in particular to the role of the BBC’s most senior political reporter, Laura Kuenssberg, he also revealed that senior BBC executives had told him they thought it would be wrong to expose lies told by Johnson, since it might undermine trust in politics. The BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards responded with a statement insisting that its journalists would challenge all “lies, disinformation, or untruths,” but stressing that the BBC would never label a prime minister a liar. This, he said, was a judgment for the public to make.

In fact, one of the first significant challenges to the prime minister’s dishonesty on the BBC was to come from the public rather than its journalists. As part of a series of broadcast events, the BBC hosted a special edition of its weekly TV show Question Time, in which party leaders were in turn questioned by a selected studio audience. It was an unusually engaging program, during which all the leaders faced sustained and challenging questions, suggesting perhaps the potential of a more participatory public media. During the discussion, one member of the audience asked the prime minister: “How important is it for someone in your position of power to always tell the truth?” Sections of the audience burst into laughter and applauded, while Johnson twice replied that he thought it was “absolutely vital.”

When the clip of the exchange later appeared on BBC news bulletins, the audience’s reaction had been cut out, with the footage skipping to Johnson’s second reply made after the laughter had subsided. When this was brought to the attention of the BBC’s editor of live political programs, Rob Burley, on social media, he dismissed the criticism, noting simply that the original program had been broadcast on the BBC. The following day, after facing sustained criticism, the BBC put out a statement acknowledging that the audience laughter had indeed been edited out, and conceding that this had been “a mistake on our part.”

Following that unfortunate error, the BBC had a lot to prove in its next showcase piece of political television: The Andrew Neil Interviews, a series of broadcasts in which each of the major party leaders faces a grueling half-an-hour, one-to-one interrogation with the BBC’s toughest political journalist.

Andrew Neil comes from the hard right of British politics, having made his name as editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times. He has fronted a number of prestigious BBC political programs over the years and, in addition to receiving over £200,000 a year from the corporation, also chairs the company that owns the Spectator, an influential conservative magazine formerly edited by Boris Johnson. Naturally, Neil is particularly hostile to the Left, but he has a reputation as a formidable interviewer for any politician to face.

The first to go head-to-head with Neil was the Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, who faced fierce questioning over her party’s policies on the EU and her record on health policy. Sturgeon is an adept politician, but it was generally agreed that it was a difficult and likely damaging half-hour. Next was Jeremy Corbyn, and ahead of the interview being aired, rumors circulated that it was, as the journalistic cliché has it, a “car crash.” Though there was arguably some hyperbole from the right on this, it was indeed an uncomfortable half an hour for Labour. Neil was typically belligerent, focusing on the issue of antisemitism, which was once again dominating the news agenda following an intervention by Britain’s chief rabbi, as well as fiscal policy, which is said to be core to Neil’s own right-wing politics. “Is there no limit to what can go on the Corbyn credit card?” he asked derisively.

The wider media response focused on Corbyn’s supposed refusal to apologize for antisemitism (which he has done many times) and on Labour’s plans to abolish a £250 tax break for married couples. On the latter, the BBC joined the right-wing press in running a plainly misleading headline: “Corbyn admits lower earners face tax hike under Labour,” which was later amended to read: “Corbyn concedes lower earners could pay more tax.” The BBC’s Rob Burley once again took to Twitter after the interview was aired to note “almost a clean sweep of the front pages in the morning.” Still in a celebratory mood the next day, he reported that three million people had watched the program.

The Neil interview was damaging for Labour, but it was probably unavoidable, and quite proper given that all leaders would face the same level of scrutiny. Or so it seemed. A few days after it was broadcast, the BBC announced the dates of scheduled interviews with the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and the Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. But there was no mention of the prime minister. In a follow-up tweet, the BBC press team stated that discussions with Johnson’s team were “ongoing” and that the BBC hadn’t “yet been able to fix a date.”

Labour supporters were incredulous, and it was subsequently reported that the party had been told by the BBC that interviews with all the other party leaders had been agreed (this is denied by Rob Burley). It soon became clear that the Conservatives had no intention of Johnson being interrogated by Andrew Neil, and instead offered to put the prime minister forward for The Andrew Marr Show, widely perceived to be a softer option. The BBC declined, publicly calling on Johnson to sit down with Neil, as the other leaders had, or had agreed to do. Meanwhile, BBC Politics put out a video of the prime minister eating a scone and commenting in his usual jocular manner about the technicalities of applying jam and cream.

Remarkably, the BBC’s neglect of its public service obligations did not end there. Following a terrorist attack in London — which the Conservatives shamelessly sought to politicize contrary to the explicit wishes of one of the victims’ family — it agreed to have Johnson on The Andrew Marr Show after all. It cited the “public interest” to justify the U-turn while emphasizing that it would “continue to urge Boris Johnson to take part in the prime-time Andrew Neil interview as other leaders have done.” There were then regular reports that negotiations over the Neil interview were ongoing, but Neil himself subsequently confirmed that this was another lie. There were no negotiations.

Facing an unprecedented deluge of criticism, the BBC’s Fran Unsworth wrote a piece for the Guardian affirming the BBC’s commitment to political impartiality. She was, she said, “as disappointed as our audiences that the prime minister, unlike all his fellow leaders, has not yet confirmed a date,” explaining that the “logistics of pinning down party leaders is complex.”

The complacency of the apologia is quite something. The BBC’s failure to secure an interview with the prime minister ahead of broadcasting politically damaging interviews with opposition leaders is a major political scandal, not a slightly unfortunate mishap. But what is more, the whole sorry episode is revealing of a systematic failing at the BBC. Here is a state broadcaster subjecting the opposition to relentless and damaging political interrogation, while seeming unable or unwilling to do the same when it comes to the government.

Conspiracy!

In her Guardian piece, Fran Unsworth argues that the BBC’s critics are seizing “on a couple of editorial mistakes” as evidence of “an editorial agenda that favors the Conservative Party,” while ignoring hundreds of hours of impartial political journalism. She then goes a step further, dismissing all accusations of bias as “conspiracy theory”:

We are a large organization that employs thousands of independently minded journalists. Our editors employ their judgments on their own programs for their own audiences. These aren’t the ideal conditions for a conspiracy.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former political editor who now presents BBC Radio 4’s flagship political program, Today, shared Unsworth’s article on Twitter, remarking that “the conspiracy theories are absurd if you give them more than a moment’s thought.”

Where to start with this? As I recently wrote for the Guardian — which I assume Unsworth will have read — no one serious is suggesting that presenters and reporters take instructions from the government, or that there has been an edict from the BBC hierarchy instructing staff to undermine the Labour Party. But like any organization, the BBC has a working culture based around policies, conventions, and incentives that influences how the people who work there behave, and who is appointed or promoted to key roles. This is how all institutions work. We needn’t detain ourselves explaining basic sociology to Unsworth and Robinson, however, since neither seems to see any issue with the claim that the BBC has generally upheld “due impartiality” across its programming, something which itself could be dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” on these same terms. How could a large organization employing thousands of independently minded journalists possibly ensure conformity to a shared set of editorial values and policies?

We all say silly things to try and win arguments, so let’s put the obtuse remarks about conspiracy to one side and proceed on the assumption that the BBC, for all its complexity (everything involving human beings is complex), possesses a certain structure, culture, and set of policies which — for better or worse — give rise to certain regular patterns of reporting. In this, it is just like any other media organization, every one of which seems mysteriously to exhibit distinct reporting styles and political orientations despite being staffed with independently minded journalists.

Is the BBC Impartial?

The day before Unsworth’s Guardian article was published, the Media Reform Coalition — an organization of which I am vice chair — published an analysis of the BBC’s election reporting undertaken by Justin Schlosberg, of Birkbeck College, University of London. It noted a number of areas where the BBC has failed in its impartiality obligations during this election campaign.

Schlosberg’s report found that, in terms of access to broadcast media, the two main parties are broadly even, but as Unsworth notes, “BBC impartiality does not rely on a stopwatch.” The prominence given to different policy issues and stories tells a different story. Brexit and the economy, the two policy issues pushed by the Tories are the most prevalent in television news, ahead of health and the environment, which are key issues for Labour. This is despite the environment and the economy being of equal concern to voters, and health being considered much more important, according to polling.

Schlosberg also notes the strikingly different responses of television news to very similar stories about the Conservatives and Labour. One very revealing example is the response to the manifestos. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, a respected think tank given enormous prominence in the British media, produced a critical response to both parties’ manifestos, yet its response to Labour’s was covered fifteen times in the two days following its manifesto launch, compared to just once in the two days following the launch of the Tory manifesto. There were similar imbalances in television coverage of allegations of racism in both parties. Schlosberg writes:

During the first two weeks of the campaign, there were almost identical pairs of stories involving two Conservative candidates and two Labour candidates who were suspended or forced to resign over alleged antisemitic comments made on social media. We examined a sample of online coverage that included all national newspapers and broadcasters, as well as all scheduled TV bulletins and news programs on BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky. Surprisingly, there were a virtually equal number of headlines focused on the Labour candidates versus the Conservatives (fourteen and fifteen, respectively). But on television, the Labour candidates were three times more likely to be mentioned. And when the chief rabbi intervened by accusing Labour of harboring rampant antisemitism, it was a lead story across television news, far eclipsing a statement made on the same day by the Muslim Council of Britain, which was a scathing attack on Islamophobia in the Tory Party.

None of these findings are surprising. Previous work by Cardiff University academics noted that the BBC gave greater prominence to policy issues pushed by the Conservative Party than Labour in the 2015 election — which was before the leftward shift of the party under Corbyn — and earlier work led by Schlosberg has identified serious failings in the BBC’s reporting on Labour since then.

During the so-called coup against Corbyn by the Parliamentary Labour Party following the 2016 EU referendum, the BBC gave critics of the Labour leader twice as much airtime as supporters — an imbalance not evident on ITV News (the BBC’s main commercial rival) — and the issues mobilized by Corbyn’s critics were given much greater prominence. That research also noted the pejorative language BBC reporters used to describe Corbyn, his team, and his supporters. Research on the BBC’s reporting of Labour antisemitism, meanwhile, not only revealed an overwhelming source of imbalance, but also found that the number of inaccurate and misleading statements in BBC TV News was as high as in the Sun newspaper, and far exceeded the number on ITV or Sky, the BBC’s two main commercial rival.

All this research should be considered in the context of a broader body of scholarly work on the BBC’s reporting, the findings of which are fairly consistent. Like other large media organizations, its routine news reporting is strongly shaped by governments and corporate interests, while its political output is overwhelmingly shaped by political elites, along with an associated clique of newspaper columnists, consultants, and pundits from think tanks (many with opaque funding). Its economics and business reporting has reflected a narrow range of elite opinion that has favored the Conservative Party and the interests they represent, and there is, moreover, some good evidence that in the years leading up to this election it has drifted further right.

I rather tire of having to review the academic evidence on the BBC’s reporting, because it is always ignored by the BBC’s senior journalists and executives, who seem blithely indifferent to criticism, no matter how reasoned and considered, unless it comes from the right. Rather than offering serious engagement with evidence, they prefer to issue banal and sentimental statements about the BBC’s values and public purpose.

There are a number of reasons the BBC feels so secure in ignoring academic evidence. One is that ultimately it is much more concerned about criticisms that come from powerful people and institutions than from academics and left-wing activists. Another reason though is that it can point to surveys that suggest continued public trust in its reporting.

It would be complacent, however, to imagine that such data adequately captures people’s experiences or perspectives on an organization like the BBC. I was reminded of this when an interviewer from Ipsos MORI knocked on my door one afternoon in May. As a sociologist I was rather pleased to be on the receiving end of some research, and so happily agreed to answer some questions. I was then somewhat taken aback when it gradually became clear that this was a survey to assess public attitudes to the BBC. My responses to the set questions in the survey — cited in the BBC’s latest annual report — made me appear highly supportive and trusting of the BBC. Suffice to say, this doesn’t fully reflect my views on the organization.

I think it is likely there has been a shift that has been underway in public attitudes to the BBC, even before this election. Britain’s communications regulator Ofcom recently published a review of the BBC’s news and current affairs programming, which included a report detailing workshops and in-depth interviews conducted by the accountancy firm PwC. Participants raised concerns over the impartiality of BBC’s reporting on several areas including Brexit, Corbyn, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Black British and British Muslim groups both expressed concerns about the lack of diversity at the BBC and its representation of ethnic minorities, while the latter group said they thought BBC journalism was risk averse because of its dependence on the government for funding. According to PwC, others also said they thought the BBC was less critical compared with other outlets for the same reason. One working-class respondent remarked: “I trust them to give the facts, but I’m less trusting that they are not biased toward the government.”

A Quasi-Independence

What’s interesting is the extent to which these views — in contrast to much of our public debates around the BBC — tally with the scholarly research. Tom Burns, the sociologist who conducted the first major study of the BBC, described it as a quasi-governmental organization that “has had to speak in ways acceptable, ultimately, to the political establishment.” This is still the case today. The license fee — which is the BBC’s major source of funding — is often said to offer a unique form of political independence, the argument being that the BBC’s revenue comes not from general taxation, as with other state broadcasters, but directly from its audience, whom it seeks to represent. The license fee system does have the advantage that all the BBC’s domestic audience is in economic terms equally important, in contrast to market-based funding systems where there are systemic pressures to target particular demographics. But it certainly does not afford the political independence that the BBC’s uncritical supporters like to imagine.

What matters is not who pays, but who controls the money; and it is governments — not audiences — who have set the rate of the license fee. This has meant that the BBC’s funding has always been highly politicized. Most recently, the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne — who, almost in a parody of the incestuousness of Britain’s elite, was subsequently appointed editor of London’s only daily newspaper — negotiated a secret deal with the BBC’s director general, Lord Hall, severely cutting the corporation’s funding. This prompted a former chair, Christopher Bland, to warn that the BBC was drawing “closer to becoming an arm of government.” Sir Christopher was right to be concerned. But in reality, the BBC has always been close to being an arm of government, perpetually kept in a grey area somewhere between genuine independence and direct political control.

In recent decades, even the highly circumscribed independence that the BBC enjoyed in its Golden Age has been steadily eroded. The changes the BBC underwent in the wake of Thatcherism are a major focus of my book, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, and so I won’t recount them in much detail here, but the net effect was, in essence, a form of elite capture. Over the course of several decades, the BBC was radically restructured along neoliberal lines, with its news journalism brought much more under centralized editorial control and its program-making integrated into the market and its reporting restructured around the new economic orthodoxies.

The effect was a serious undermining of the organization’s public service ethos, and the creation of a highly affluent and politicized strata of executives and senior editors, who today define the tone and content of the BBC’s output.

The last charter renewal process, which took the broadcaster into its ninetieth year, only worsened matters. It introduced a change to the BBC’s governance whereby government appointees are now involved in day-to-day management.

More significant though, and largely ignored in liberal commentary, was the return to the radical neoliberal managerialism of the 1990s. The BBC’s current director general, Tony Hall, a key player in that early period of reform, promised the Conservatives a “competition revolution” at the BBC, opening up all BBC program-making to private sector competition, with a few exceptions, notably news.

The vision shared by the Conservative government and the BBC’s managerial elite is of a BBC that acts as a quasi-official news service, a source of revenue and resources for private profit, as well as a prestigious British brand and distribution system that can give UK-based media companies a competitive edge in the international market. The result has been a broadcaster that remains publicly owned, and which on paper remains committed to a distinct set of public service values, but which, as we have seen in this election, is plainly not fit for purpose.

Is Another BBC Possible?

Given the BBC’s record, many on the Left now hope for the abolition of the BBC. I find this to be completely understandable under the circumstances, though I consider it to be a disastrously shortsighted ambition. The problems with the BBC are severe and they are deep-seated, but they could be addressed in a way that preserves some of the positive elements of the public service tradition, allowing a modern public digital media to be built around the existing public infrastructure and resources.

Last year, a working group of the Media Reform Coalition I chaired developed a set of proposals for the radical reform of the BBC, arguing that it should become a modern, democratized public platform and network, fully representative of its audiences and completely independent of government and the market. A radically reformed BBC would have to be barely recognizable compared with its current incarnation, and we should be in no doubt that any such change would be strongly resisted by the BBC executive class.

My sense is that ultimately they much prefer the current situation where the BBC’s public reputation can be managed — or rather mismanaged — through private negotiations in the corridors of power, where the threats to its independence are at least manageable and familiar, than the prospect of radical change and democratic accountability. Perhaps the greater barrier to effective reform, though, is that so many people on the Left will now regard the BBC’s journalism as having been so obsequious in its treatment of an unscrupulous ruling party, and so negligent of its public service duties, that they see little much of worth to defend or to salvage.