Omnishambles at the BBC

March 11th 2023 was Omnishambles Friday at the BBC, a day of multiple trouble. The redoubtable David Attenborough has a new series on British wildlife and there was consternation that the final episode, apparently dealing with its dramatic decline and what has caused it, is not being transmitted but will be seen only on iPlayer. Another of their top stars, Gary Lineker, was suspended from presenting Match of the Day for a tweet criticising the government’s new asylum policy, and his co-hosts promptly withdraw from the programme in solidarity. As a side show, following complaints from listeners, the BBC issues an apology for allowing former culture secretary Nadine Dorries to make false claims about Sue Gray and Keir Starmer on a radio show, and Question Time presenter Fiona Bruce was accused of trivialising domestic abuse in an exchange with Stanley Johnson. All these incidents revolve around household names, as so much of the news does. A few days earlier, the broadcaster was under attack from another direction, after announcing a review of its classical music provision, including 20% job cuts in its three English orchestras, and disbanding the BBC Singers, whose origins go back even further than the orchestras, to 1924, a twenty-strong choir of top flight voices capable of singing anything, and a jewel in the BBC’s musical crown.

All this makes the BBC look less like a public service broadcaster than the mirror image of the disarray of a government of squabbling opportunists under siege. Caroline Lucas got it right when she said that ‘For the BBC to censor of one of the nation’s most informed and trusted voices on nature and climate emergencies is nothing short of an unforgivable dereliction of its duty to public service broadcasting.’ This is quite ironic, since Attenborough used to be lauded by Tories for his brilliant television and criticised by environmentalists for failing to draw attention to ecological crisis. The government, says Lucas, has taken a wrecking ball to the environment – putting environmental legislation at risk, neglecting the scandal of our sewage-filled waterways – and the BBC bosses must not be cowed by ‘antagonistic, culture war-stoking government ministers’. The film must be broadcast.

Sources say that the powers-that-be at the BBC fear that the film’s themes of the destruction of nature would risk a backlash from Tory politicians and the rightwing press, the same way as Lineker’s tweet. The reaction to both is clearly political, but they won’t admit it. Instead they put up a weak excuse that the offending episode was never meant for transmission, and that Lineker broke impartiality rules. I’ll come back to those powers-that-be, but it confuses the issue when the programme’s producer, Laura Howard, tells The Guardian: ‘I think the facts speak for themselves.’ Their script was fact-checked, they worked with the RSPB who provided detailed scientific data and information about the loss of wildlife, ‘and it is undeniable, we are incredibly nature-depleted. And I don’t think that that is political, I think it’s just facts.’ Here’s the rub. This is the language of objectivity and impartiality inscribed in the principles of public service broadcasting, but what the kerfuffle she’s talking about demonstrates is that it isn’t true, if it ever has been. Simply put, to confuse facts and politics is a mistake, but to separate facts and politics is another mistake. And the problem is that the BBC bosses want to have it both ways.

Perhaps they’ll resolve the issue with another fudge, but Lineker’s suspension rapidly backfired and forced the BBC to pull his weekly programme from the schedules and rejig its football coverage when everyone else involved withdrew in solidarity with him. This is the consequence of a different dilemma, the celebrity’s right to freedom of speech in the age of social media, which comes up against the BBC from another direction to that of the politicians and the right-wing press. 

These represent the not-BBC above, but Lineker has more than 10 million social media followers, and these are the not-BBC below. The Daily Telegraph attacked the unseen Attenborough film for being partly funded by wildlife groups with a ‘campaigning agenda’, but the BBC bosses are better at anticipating attacks from the right than the reaction of the public. So much for the marketing skills of the BBC’s Director General Tim Davie, an erstwhile marketing executive for Pepsi before he joined the BBC’s marketing arm and worked his way up, a career which betokens the organisation’s shift of priorities away from its chartered public service mission towards a more populist approach. Nothing new, you might say, but in this case, according to a PR expert, ‘The BBC are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on this one,’ predicting it would be seen as an own goal, by one side or other, no matter what they do.

One of Davie’s first moves on assuming the post in 2020 was to declare a ‘reset on impartiality’ a top priority, and say he expected ‘anyone joining our organisation…to leave your politics at the door.’ But the BBC is not being impartial when it bans Lineker but tolerates the likes of Alan Sugar. It is being obsequious. Strictly speaking, Lineker’s status as a freelancer (the highest paid on the BBC’s roster) means he’s not governed by the same social media rules as the news staff. The BBC has found him troubling before, but it seems that this time he overstepped the mark. Not with some kind of rant but a succinct criticism of the government’s newly unveiled immigration policy, and Suella Braverman’s suggestion that Britain was being swamped when most other European states took in many more refugees, which he called ‘an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’. One or two commentators criticised this as an exaggeration, but it’s certainly reminiscent of racist language directed in the 30s by the Daily Mail against Jewish refugees from the Nazis. In a word, blatantly xenophobic. It’s no more than BBC newscasters and reporters ought to be saying, but most of the time they’re too timid to challenge the politicians’ intemperance. This is why a character like Dorries, with a record of false claims, is able to go unchallenged, shady figures like Johnson père get off lightly, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, because he’s treated as a cartoon toff, is able to smirk while making outrageous pronouncements that he knows will not be disputed.

The cuts to classical music provision tell another story, which is hidden behind the others, and is even more dangerous, because it denotes the political grip in which the BBC is held by the government that controls the purse strings. At the same time as the arrival of Dorries as Culture Secretary, accusing the BBC of being ‘a biased left-wing organisation’ and declaring that a state-owned broadcaster funded by a mandatory licence fee is ‘outdated’, the BBC was forced to make £950m of savings thanks to a squeeze on licence fee income, which can only be done by cutting a slice here, a slice there, or merging operations. Why hit the classical musicians? Because they’re elitist? The same anti-elitism characterises the response of Arts Council England (ACE), faced with a government instruction to divert money away from the capital as part of its levelling up programme. Perhaps intended by the government to demonstrate joined-up thinking, the effect was the opposite. Several London organisations had their grant slashed to zero, including the 

English National Opera, which was summarily told, without prior consultation, to move out of London. Critics justifiably spoke of cultural vandalism. 

Dorries is gone, from power if not the celebrity stakes, but the future of the licence fee is now in the open. To compound the problem, the BBC bosses are political appointments. The governors who appoint the DG are drawn from the great and good, while the DG is a senior television professional, someone who can be trusted to keep a political balance between rival interests. For the BBC Chairman to be a supporter of the party in government at the time of the appointment is not a new trend. Tony Blair appointed a Goldman Sachs banker and Labour supporter, and David Cameron installed a former Conservative cabinet minister. The current DG once stood as a councillor for the Conservative Party, but the current Chairman, Richard Sharp, has donated £400,000 to the Conservative Party. Installed by Boris Johnson, he is another former Goldman Sachs banker who was once Rishi Sunak’s boss and worked as an unpaid adviser to the Chancellor on the economic response to the pandemic. Sharp has come under fire in recent weeks, after it emerged that he’d introduced Johnson to his own (the PM’s) distant cousin who became a guarantor for a substantial loan. A journalist commented ‘Lucky there are no producer guidelines on whether you need to declare facilitating an £800k loan to a prime minister while applying for a job as chairman of a broadcasting organisation.’

For the mainstream media, all this is part of the culture wars, but this is an evasion, because these things are not just culturally contentious. The BBC bosses have always belonged to the patrician elite, but they are now a clique, committed to the incompatible aims of bringing the BBC in line with a right-wing war of positions while maintaining the BBC as a fiefdom; like those whom Marx called the Jesuits of civil society, they behave as if they own what is entrusted to their care. The Green Paper in advance of the last BBC Charter renewal applied full-frontal market principles to the issue, conveniently summed up by The Times: ‘The corporation is a broadcaster, not a publisher. It cannot expect a renewed charter to endorse a status quo that lets it trample on private sector rivals with public funds.’ The pretexts for the assault on the BBC are various, and grounded in the fears that authoritarianism always thrives upon and which lead it to invent its own enemies, although most people can see that the BBC is not a bogeyman. The real threat is the neoliberal dogma of the market, which holds, in the terminology of the 2015 Green Paper, that ‘Given the vast choice that audiences now have there is an argument that the BBC might become more focused on a narrower, core set of services that can continue to meet its mission and objectives. A smaller BBC could see the public pay less for their TV licence and would also be likely to have a reduced market impact.’ Symptomatically, it re-classifies public service broadcasting as ‘a “merit good” which would be under-provided in a free market’, and says that the BBC’s vast output, most of it the same kind of fare as the commercial channels, could be seen as ‘unfair competition’ and therefore considered ‘overly extended’. Other variants of the argument are that the licence fee is a ‘regressive tax’, or it’s unfair to expect one group of consumers to subsidise another, or it’s simply obsolete. All of them conceive the viewer as consumer and no longer as citizen. 

Whatever the argument, the conclusion is the same: the only option is to change the way the BBC is funded. A favoured solution is to follow the example of the streaming platforms and replace the licence with a subscription, but this is problematic on several counts. Firstly, it ignores the difference between the debt-fuelled operations of corporations like Netflix or Disney or Sky, wholly driven by commercial values, and a public corporation for which profit is not a primary motive. Secondly, it’s anti-democratic. How many struggling households cannot afford to subscribe to platforms like Netflix and depend on open public access? And another thing: the effect on quality and level of output, and hence on levels of employment. In fact, to sustain the service would need a subscription level higher than the licence fee, because not everyone paying the licence would voluntarily pay a subscription. The result would either be a further rise in the subscription, or a contraction. In short, as a professor of media puts it, ‘Arguments for a subscription model are just a way of stripping away the BBC’s proclaimed universalism and turning it into yet another pay-TV service in hock to demographics more than diversity.’

  It’s too glib to conclude that a licence fee is still the worst form of funding except for all the others. It can be reformed, redesigned, for example, as a public media charge independent of any specific platform in the form of a household levy, as in Germany. In that way it could be adjusted for income in accordance with council taxes. But perhaps the first step is to make the BBC truly, instead of only nominally independent. This could be achieved by removing the obstacle of the decennial renewal of the charter, and guaranteeing the increase in the licence fee in line with inflation. Beyond that lie other possible and desirable reforms – the democratisation of its governance, for one thing – but this alone would eliminate the direct threat of government encroachment every time the charter comes up for renewal, and the obsequiousness of the toadies in charge. It would thereby create a space in which the public service broadcasting principles of balance, impartiality and objectivity could be reframed more democratically: to prevent egregious practices such as impetuous threats by politicians, giving climate deniers the same legitimacy as climate science, or trying to muzzle the free speech of its celebrities when they speak from somewhere on the left but not the right. 

What we need is a BBC that extends the public sphere, not narrows it, which honestly represents the gamut of opinions across society – excluding only those that are hateful, disinformed, or incitement, not because the guidelines say so but because any responsible journalist can see they are. In short, a BBC able to address the democratic deficits of the disintegrating world that it translates onto the screen day in, day out, for what should be the benefit of the public at large. Conceived in this way, the struggle for the future of the world’s foremost public service broadcaster is not just a national concern, but an episode in a wider fight for the democratisation of the mass media and against authoritarianism.

Further evidence of mismanagement:

Leaked letter: ‘A toxic culture of fear and paranoia’ at the BBC, from the D-G down

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