Our national broadcaster has been defeated by Brexit; confounded either by the explosion of a rightwing populist politics it doesn’t know how to cover, or by growing millennial intolerance of views they abhor being given a platform, or possibly by both. An explosion of fake news, the BBC’s own neurosis about whether it’s too middle-class for its own good, and the vocal indignation of Labour activists who feel the media is institutionally biased against Jeremy Corbyn have all combined to create a perfectly bewildering storm for a once-loved institution.
Or so the theory goes. But has the BBC really lost its way so very profoundly, or has it merely become a convenient whipping boy for a frustrated nation mired in political crisis? It is striking that, but for the mention of Channel 4, Adonis’s words could easily have been those of an incensed hard Brexiter.
There is nothing new about the Beeb coming under fire from all sides. It has arguably had worse, whether locking horns with Norman Tebbit during the Thatcher years or when Alastair Campbell collided head-on with BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan over his claims of “sexing up” the Iraq war dossier. Even the anguished debate about the usefulness of the traditional “balanced” package, pitching two representatives from different sides of an argument against each other and letting the viewer decide who’s right, which has resurfaced with Brexit, is not new.
The newer and more worrying development, however, is that the BBC is increasingly being attacked from the inside, rather than just caught in the wider political crossfire. The former Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer recently published a long essay for Prospect magazine criticising his old employer’s reliance on meaningless Brexit vox pops in northern towns that barely scratch the surface of what “real people” think, and arguing that its concept of impartiality risks leaving viewers confused about who to believe.
Roger Mosey, the former head of BBC Television News, meanwhile, warned in the Sunday Times of a looming crisis as younger viewers begin to question why they should pay the licence fee when they’ve mostly decamped to Netflix. Both position themselves as champions of public service broadcasting, criticising only because they care, and some of their public concerns certainly echo private howls of despair from journalists suspicious of the direction in which senior management are taking them.
But are things really as bad as the BBC’s critics say, or are they unwittingly playing into the hands of its enemies at a time when cool, impartial, public service journalism needs our support? Here, the Observer asks five well-placed commentators whether something really is rotten inside the Beeb – and if so, how to put it right again.
Gina Miller: ‘Experts are being devalued. It’s hampering the debate’
Investment manager; founder of endthechaos.co.uk
It seems to have got much worse since the EU referendum, this idea at the BBC that you have to give equal weight to both sides, even if one side is telling a lie. If you go back to the statements made during the campaign – the promise of £350m for the NHS, or the claim that the EU was undemocratic, or that immigration poster – it was all taken as read, and then someone on the Remain side had to take the opposing view, as if both claims were of equal weight. It was a very skewed way of reporting and I don’t think we’ve necessarily moved forward from there.
The BBC have a responsibility to interrogate lies and half-truths; otherwise the quality of their output becomes less robust. Looking at the BBC’s reporting of Nigel Farage’s speech last month when he talked about putting the fear of god into MPs, it was a former BBC war reporter, Patrick Howse, who said the coverage made him feel ashamed for the corporation [https://bylinetimes.com/2019/04/15/brexit-breaking-point-how-one-veteran-believes-bbc-coverage-of-farages-new-party-facilitates-fascism/]. The whole speech was covered, and the bit about putting the fear of god into MPs who didn’t comply with your wishes wasn’t cut. The BBC has a responsibility to call out things like that, which stir up real abusive behaviour, but they didn’t.Brexit is such a complex issue and I think more training for journalists would be useful, so that they can have greater understanding of the facts. At my campaign End the Chaos, we take long reports and condense them down to six or seven pages highlighting the key points. That could help journalists a lot, so that if someone comes on and says something contentious about the WTO (World Trade Organisation) or the Irish border, interviewers would be better equipped to challenge them.
It’s also about being more responsible in the way interviews are conducted. I do think it’s irresponsible for John Humphrys on the Today programme to attack certain people with certain points of view and then let others reel off their speeches uninterrupted, or for the BBC not to come down on Andrew Neil for calling Carole Cadwalladr a “mad cat woman”. In general, I think people in government and positions of political power get challenged less, while experts are being devalued. That’s really hampering the debate and the quality of what’s being produced by the corporation.
On a practical note, I wonder how often they get their viewers in and have feedback panels. I often see people on social media saying, “I’m not watching Newsnight any more because of X, Y or Z”, or complaining about the Brexit coverage on BBC news. So feedback panels could be really useful. If you’re in step with your consumers, then you tend to produce better output.
I do really believe that we need a service like the BBC, especially in the age of social media, when people only go to the news sources that confirm their point of view. Having a service that’s properly balanced becomes of heightened importance. What you need to do is reform, refresh and improve: throwing the baby out with the bathwater is never the right solution. Interview by Killian Fox
Ayesha Hazarika: ‘Its worldview is quite metropolitan, quite white’
Comedian, broadcaster and political commentator. Her book Punch and Judy Politics is published by Biteback
I’m very affectionate about the BBC, and probably a bit misty-eyed at times, but it’s far from perfect. First of all, though it caters brilliantly for the audiences it currently has, which tend to be white, older and middle-class, I think the BBC must do more to reach out to different communities, and to young people. There’s so much talent out there, so many great writers and creators, and the BBC could do more to reach into different communities and different parts of the country to get those stories.
The same goes for the people it employs. The black and brown faces I see when I go into the BBC are mainly the ladies at the reception desk or the security guards, and that’s not a good look. From researchers to producers to executives, there’s much more to be done to promote real diversity and plurality of thought across the corporation.
That bleeds into the bigger question of the day: the BBC is getting a really hard time right now about Brexit and bias. They’re getting it from all sides – you’ve got Remainers such as Andrew Adonis and arch-Brexiters such as Tim Montgomerie and Nigel Farage saying the BBC should be abolished. In a way, they probably think they’re doing the right thing by getting up everyone’s noses, but I think one of the reasons the BBC gets itself into difficulties is because its worldview is quite metropolitan, quite white. It’s all done unconsciously, but that unconscious bias runs deep.
Now that we’re in the heat of Brexit, all of a sudden they have to do this box-ticking balance, which leads to false equivalence. On their flagship news shows, the debate is sometimes so polarised and dumbed down. It’s almost like the BBC has decided to bypass quite a lot of the sensible people in the middle because they’re not exciting enough, and what you get instead is a cartoon punch-up between the most extreme views. Where’s the debate we’re really thirsting for right now, that’s rich in detail, expertise and nuance, and not just the screaming slogans from either end?
I think the BBC has a responsibility, at a time when our politics are really fraught, to promote all sides of the argument, not just the clickbait. It shouldn’t only be competing for social media likes, it’s also there to educate and inform us and that’s a big responsibility. The BBC should be a bastion of intelligence, objectivity and truth that’s not being cowed by anyone on any side, and they should debate things without fear or favour. I think the BBC has got to stop being so scared of some of its critics. It’s got to be braver. KF
Ash Sarkar: ‘It needs to recognise that it has been outplayed’
Senior editor at leftwing website Novara Media
Novara Media might have a bit of a reputation as a new media attack dog snarling at establishment outlets, but I swear: everything I’m about to say comes from a place of love. The BBC is a bit like parliament. I might find its procedures arcane, its composition unrepresentative, some of its decision-making frankly baffling, but ultimately I want the institution to survive for centuries into the future.
That means acknowledging that there are lots of very good reasons why people don’t trust the BBC. How can the BBC hold power to account when Robbie Gibb – former head of BBC Westminster, in charge of Daily and Sunday Politics, The Andrew Marr Show, This Week and Radio 4’s Westminster Hour – waltzes out of the job and into No 10 as Theresa May’s director of communications? Or when Rona Fairhead left her post as chair of the BBC Trust to become an unpaid minister of state at the Department for International Trade?
If you can still get a cushy job with the same government that your broadcaster has hounded for years, then at best it’s a failure of your political programming. At worst it’s evidence that seemingly antagonistic forces, the press and politicians, actually have their overall interests as part of the establishment in alignment. There are rules that apply to people who have served in ministerial roles, limiting what jobs they can take for two years after being in government: the same should be the case for those in a position of seniority in the BBC.
Another chronic malady for the BBC is impartiality and platforming. For the most part, the organisation takes a Millwall approach to accusations of bias: “Nobody likes us, we don’t care.” The reasoning here is that if both the left and the right, or Leavers and Remainers, are equally angry then that’s proof of a balanced approach. But the BBC does have its biases. It had the most pro-war agenda out of all the British broadcasters during the invasion of Iraq. A study by the Media Reform Coalition has shown a pattern of hostile coverage of Jeremy Corbyn and those who support him. And strangely enough, it’s not the left who have been best able to capitalise on this breakdown of public trust in the BBC. It’s the far right.
People say that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, and that’s why the BBC should allow the far right on its flagship political shows. I don’t think that “no platform” is a moral imperative; I think that it’s right that even figures I find loathsome receive fair coverage on a state broadcaster. But the BBC needs to recognise that it has been outplayed at the very game it set the rules for. Nigel Farage wasn’t interested in winning a head-to-head with Andrew Marr: he used the platform to whip up his base, and delegitimise the BBC itself. What’s more, it looks as if he’s succeeding.
The BBC has got to recognise, and deal with, the limitations of some of its formats. Short, combative interviews are the bread-and-butter of far-right media. They create fantastic, viral content, and play on social media users’ frustration with establishment media outlets. If the BBC wants to cover the far right, while preserving its own values and future viability, it needs to make more room for long-form content.
Polarisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are values-driven conflicts in politics, and what it means to occupy the centre ground changes over time. But that’s why it’s so important to protect institutions that are capable of handling pluralism. There needs to be shared space in public discourse in which we, the people, can see our viewpoints represented, and the rigorous questioning of those who represent us.
Craig Oliver: ‘The problem is that the BBC seems to have lost its confidence’
Former editor of BBC News who was David Cameron’s director of politics and communications
As one of our most important institutions the BBC needs protecting. Sadly, too often that protection needs to be from itself. There’s plenty of great journalism, but the corporation has a knack of shooting itself in the foot.
Anyone who knows it, as I do, would have instantly understood the late decision not to broadcast an already recorded episode of Have I Got News for You because it featured the Change UK leader was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. The impartiality rules are clear – and someone was asleep at the wheel.
Unfortunately, that gave politicians and Remainers (angry at coverage of Nigel Farage) a chance to claim that the BBC is involved in a Brexit conspiracy.
The problem is that the BBC appears to have lost its confidence, and, as a result, too often substitutes balance for due impartiality. The key word here is due. It means people should get the coverage they deserve. If they are factually wrong or have a wild view that flies in the face of the informed consensus, they need to be ignored or properly contextualised. After too many stumbles, it’s finally working for climate change, but not elsewhere.
The approach was lost almost entirely during the EU referendum, in the perfect symmetry in coverage of Leave and Remain. No matter what, each story was balanced. Examples included backbench MPs asserting that [warnings about the economy] from 90% of economists, including Nobel prize winners, were simply wrong.
The nadir was when a government minister went on the The Andrew Marr Show claiming Turkey was joining the EU imminently, millions would head our way and the UK had no veto. All of this was straightforwardly wrong – and yet all day the BBC treated the story as if there were a massive debate. I was left wondering what hope audiences had if coverage wasn’t based in fact.
This “split the difference” approach is toxic – leading to both sides claiming that the BBC is biased. It’s helping polarise the argument and is alienating almost everyone. It encourages ever more extreme positioning, and discounts those prepared to be more nuanced. Those in the centre are left confused, alienated and in danger of being disenfranchised.
Like it or not, the sheer scale of the BBC gives it a uniquely powerful role. Senior management at the BBC needs to make it explicitly clear to its news editors and reporters that in a world of populism, misrepresentation, ideologues, tribalists and cranks they are expected to fill the giant shoes they’ve been given. They must stop splitting the difference and combine intellectual agility with the self-confidence to properly referee our national debate – taking their time, being prepared to swim against the tide and make clear when something is just wrong.
The stakes are just too high for it not to.
Nick Lowles: ‘We have to be critical friends and say there are some things they are doing well, and some they are not’
Chief executive of anti-racism and anti-extremism movement HOPE not hate
The BBC is vitally important, but it’s being politically attacked and it needs defending. That’s why we have to be critical friends and say that, while there are some things they are doing well, there are some things they’re not doing well.
There’s been a concerted effort recently to have alternative views on programmes such as Today or PM, and rightly so, but that requires interviewers to act responsibly, and I don’t think they always do.
Straight after the Christchurch shootings, there was an interview on Newsnight with the UK leader of the far-right Generation Identity group. Many people felt it was an uncritical interview, especially given that the suspect had drawn inspiration from GI’s “great replacement” narrative and the later revelations that he had donated to the group’s Austrian chapter.
Also in March, Newsnight ran a piece on Tommy Robinson (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) where the imagery surrounding the package was a picture of Robinson with tape across his face. This played into his narrative that he’s a freedom‑of‑speech warrior.
Quite often, the interviewer isn’t well equipped to take on these people. There’s a complacency with extremist figures such as Robinson or Anjem Choudary, where it’s assumed it’ll be easy to interview them, but these people are political street fighters and often they run rings around the interviewer, simply because they don’t conform to the normal ways that politicians act in interviews. They just make things up, deny things. Rather than acting as a platform for these cranks, the BBC should be better equipped to challenge them, and interviewers should be more prepared to say: “This is nonsense.”
In 2009, the BBC had Nick Griffin on Question Time. The argument was made that because he was an elected MEP, he had a right to be heard. But I am sure that he was picked precisely because he was controversial and it would be good for ratings. That’s when you have problems.
Nigel Farage has been on Question Time 33 times, which is phenomenal, particularly given that in the past two or three years he’s not even been in a political party. That’s not to say that the pro-Brexit views he represents shouldn’t be on there, but why him?
In the run-up to these European elections, Farage’s whole campaign has been anti-establishment, and he’s tried to frame the BBC as the enemy. When he’s finally taken to task, as he was on the Andrew Marr Show this month, he’s furious, and that becomes the story. He intimidates people and too often he’s given an easy ride, either because interviewers aren’t armed with the facts or are nervous about how he’s framing them and whipping up anti-BBC hatred.
Interviews need to be longer and more robust. The BBC also needs to do a lot more fact-checking. They should call people out, even after the event, and give them some sort of warning or threat of being blacklisted. They need to be able to expose their lies. Listeners will like that, but also it’ll put more pressure on the politicians, who know they’re going to be held accountable for what they say. KF