The Decline (and Fall?) of the BBC
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I am a big fan of the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation, if you’re new to the world).
This may come as a surprise to regular readers of my blogs and newsletters, because I do often say that the BBC is killing its own nation’s media industry. I don’t, personally, find this view incompatible with also appreciating its output and identity. In point of fact, criticising the BBC is at the core of what makes the BBC great. What other broadcaster, in the world, would have run, for 43 years, a radio show called Feedback where listeners can call or write in to lambast the organisation for the shows it’s been putting out? Self-flagellation is something that the BBC does with aplomb.
But the times, they are a-changin’. Earlier this year, it was announced that the license fee — the current funding model for the BBC, wherein households pay a semi-mandatory subscription for access to programming — would end in 2027. This was announced by Boris Johnson’s Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, who is unlikely to be in the job next month — but there is little (or no) suggestion that Johnson’s likely successor, Liz Truss, will feel differently. The initiation of these changes, perhaps not coincidentally, come after the end of Tony Hall’s 7-year tenure as Director-General. New DG Tim Davie has already proven himself to be pragmatic and sensitive to the ‘culture wars’ environment in British journalism. Pretty much his first act in the role was a new set of guidelines for staff, asking them to avoid “virtue signalling”. Yes, there were bigger fish to fry, but this was a clear sop to a government that was fed up with the corporation. Sometimes you’ve got to kiss some asses to save some jobs.
It might come as a surprise then, to read the comments made this week by Emily Maitlis, the former anchor of flagship show Newsnight, who recently left the corporation to join its private-sector competition, Global. Having been rebuked (what does it mean to be rebuked?) for breaching impartiality standards over the government’s lockdown rules, she told the Edinburgh TV Festival to: “Put this in the context of the BBC board, where another active agent of the Conservative party — former Downing Street spin doctor and former adviser to BBC rival GB News — now sits, acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality.”
She is referring to Robbie Gibb (though it should possibly be noted that Davie, also, is a former dep-chair of a local Conservative party) who recently joined the BBC Board. Gibb, the brother of Tory MP Nick Gibb, was Director of Communications for Tory PM Theresa May, having previously worked for Tory big beasts Francis Maude and Michael Portillo. But whatever, everyone has a CV.
Maitlis’ intervention has sparked another round of soul searching about the BBC’s impartiality. As right-wing blog Guido Fawkes notes, this is hardly the first time the BBC Board has featured figures with a political history — and there have been plenty of ex-Labour members and staff on it. But Gibb’s membership of the Board is controversial, and I’m sure the BBC knows that. Moving between broadcasting and politics (and the reverse; transitions he’s made several times in his career) does call into question the extent to which his expertise in one is informing his hireability in the other. It is a career path that every journalist in Westminster knows well: when the work gets boring or you need a bigger mortgage, you slip quietly out of the lobby (or lobby-adjacent roles) and into PR or comms. There’s no public affairs firm in London that doesn’t hire ex-hacks, and I’m sure the same is true of every political capital in the world. These are, after all, symbiotic industries.
The distraction of Gibb’s resumé, and Maitlis drawing attention to it, is really all just an illustration of the BBC’s failed quest for impartiality. My personal belief (and I’m not a deranged conspiracy theorist) is that the BBC has no top-down political agenda, but skews centre-left due to the fact that it is overwhelmingly based in two major urban centres (London and Manchester) which are broadly dominated by the Labour party. The current breakdown of parliamentary seats in London is: Labour 49, Conservatives 21, Lib Dems 3. In Manchester it is: Labour 18, Conservatives 9 (and bear in mind this is a parliament won by the Tories in 2019 with an 80-seat majority). Add to that the fact that BBC employees are overwhelmingly educated to degree level (to quote YouGov: “Labour did much better than the Conservatives amongst those who have a degree or higher, by 43% to 29%”) and a relatively young workforce (39-years-old was the crossover point in 2019, after which you are more likely to have voted Tory) and you see what I mean. I strongly suspect that if the BBC’s workforce were it treated as a parliamentary constituency, would return a Labour MP.
Which is a meaningless idea, because everyone at the BBC is very committed to this notion of ‘impartiality’. How this manifests itself, however, is increasingly a disaster. You have two basic options in presenting political impartiality:
Represent a plurality of views, and hold each to the same scrutiny. This is what the BBC tends to do, and people absolutely hate it. It means recognising the different sides of each debate, even when they seem fringe or even conspiratorial. Brexit was a good example of this, where people on the centre and left raged about the amount of coverage given to Brexiteers (coverage that, the BBC would argue, was justified by the result), and covid and climate change are other flare points. The biggest issue with this version of impartiality is that it tends to involve representing the extremes of any debate — the least impartial margins of an argument — and hoping that a counteracting force is at play. It is also the logical extension of the corporation’s pursuit of diversity, an agenda now hard-coded into its ethos. Different ethnicities, religions, communities, identities etc should, and must, be represented by the national broadcaster. Because that has become, to most people, incontrovertible fact, the pursuit of view diversity in political and news broadcasting has been almost grandfathered in. The intentions are not bad, but the execution has been.
The other way of doing it is to seek true impartiality. This is something that the BBC does do with quite a lot of its programming — avoid expressing any real political views, shoot for the milquetoast middle-ground. It is why the BBC is often accused of having real centrist energy. Its broadcasts often come down to people arguing about the root issues (things that everyone agrees on like “everyone should be able to afford their energy bills!” or “we want really good healthcare outcomes for all!”) rather than the, much more controversial and much more important, solutions (like “we want a massive windfall tax on energy companies!” or “we need to dismantle the NHS and sell it off to private companies!”). A further issue is that centrism has, since New Labour, become an increasingly ideological position. For plenty of people on the left and on the right, self-identifying as ‘centrist’ would be seen as no different to calling yourself a socialist or conservative. The reality is that there is no apolitical political position — and by trying to maintain this air of impartiality, you create a broadcaster that gets criticised for playing politics while also not creating a political discourse that serves anyone’s needs.
It is an intractable problem. There’s always an argument that a charter similar to that of Channel4 (also state owned) would work better. But the die is cast here. Maitlis has jumped ship (along with *clears throat* Jon Sopel, Simon McCoy, Andrew Marr, John Pienaar, Lewis Goodall, Andrew Neil, and Dan Walker) in order to free herself from the constraints of that position (and possibly a nice pay packet too, who knows…). In an interview with Deadline to launch Maitlis/Sopel/Goodall’s new podcast, The News Agents, producer Dino Sofos (also a refugee from BBC impartiality hell) said that: “When it’s clear that politicians are lying, we will say ‘Frankly that’s a lie.’… Journalism is about saying what you see so we feel empowered to do that.”
There will be some people who argue that the increase in political lying, noted by some commentators in the last decade, has added greater urgency to the need to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. Perhaps. I don’t doubt that there are real, true journalists involved in this current exodus who are motivated by that. For me, as a producer outside of the Beeb, this comes down to a question of best serving the marketplace. A marketplace for news, a marketplace for analysis, a marketplace for ideas. And the BBC is a huge contributor to that marketplace: don’t forget that, just last week, Press Gazette analysis had the BBC as the WORLD’S top online news resource, the only site with over a billion visitors in July (even though it was down 17% year-on-year). Perhaps, with that in mind, the BBC doesn’t even need to provide commentary: maybe it should just be an aggregator of world news, and creator of Line of Duty and Strictly Come Dancing. Maybe the pursuit of lots of different hats has left it with sub-par headgear. (While that has me thinking, how good would a Bake-Off style hat-making competition called Who Wants to be a Milliner? be).
At the end of the MacTaggart lecture that Emily Maitlis delivered, she said the following: “Many broadcasters fear discussing the obvious economic cause of major change in this country in case they get labelled pessimistic, anti-populist, or worse still, as above: unpatriotic. And yet every day that we sidestep these issues with glaring omissions feels like a conspiracy against the British people; we are pushing the public further away.”
The problem is that this needs to be said. Maitlis opened the lecture by saying it is “not a post-BBC ex-employee rant”. But that’s exactly what it is. And while that’s fair enough on a personal level — I can’t imagine many things more frustrating as a commentator that not being allowed to express your true opinions for fear of this mysterious ‘rebuke’ — it’s also unfair on the BBC. Because the BBC cannot discuss the “obvious” economic cause of “major change”, because such things are not actually “obvious” and if they seem “obvious” that is a stridency that comes from opinion. Similarly omissions cannot be objectively “glaring”. What Emily Maitlis wanted, seemingly, was for the BBC to be Global — and when the BBC could not be Global, she went to Global.
And here is the closest I can get to a solution (and yes, it’s one that professionally advantages me). First, I want to trot out the phrase I’ve written perhaps more than any other: the BBC should be a finishing school and not a retirement home. It’s no wonder that established presenters in their 50s and older are fleeing the corporation. They’ve done their time. They’ve seen good governments and bad governments and can tell the difference. Why they would be content to continue existing in this limbo of impartiality is beyond me. But that same ethos can, and should, extend to the BBC. The purpose of the BBC should be to nurture the private market, so that the private market can take the risks on calling things “obvious” and “glaring” that they cannot. There is no need for the BBC to fill in every crack with its beige filler — those cracks are, in the words of Leonard Cohen, how the light gets in.
As a big fan of the BBC, I want it to continue doing well the things that it can do well. And I want it to stop trying to do the things that it cannot do. To reach a point where senior employees are exiting the company in their droves and then delivering headline speeches where they decry the fact that the BBC does not do things it cannot do, suggests that, somewhere along the line, there’s been a communication failure (perhaps someone should call Robbie Gibb…). A fit-for-purpose, modern BBC is probably a smaller BBC. But a better BBC. The corporation’s dominance of the airwaves, of major interviews and broadcast rounds, of breaking news alerts and panel shows and election nights might fit the agenda of an holistic broadcaster — but it smothers the rest of the marketplace.
And a depressed, cauterised private marketplace leaves big gaps in demand — gaps that the BBC cannot possibly fill. And that’s why people ask things of the BBC that, by charter and the instinct for self preservation, it cannot provide. If the BBC ends up in terminal decline, it will be the victim of its own over-expansion, trying to grow crops on the earth that it has salted for others.
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