The BBC is, by common consent around the world, the best broadcasting organisation – by about a billion miles! At 40p a day, it’s also the best value on earth. We get multiple channels of uninterrupted TV and radio broadcasting, a definitive source to turn to on the internet, and much more besides. And we share our radio services with the world (World Service and domestic channels via the internet, for free. It’s called soft power.) (The news that children and young people spend more time on Netflix than the whole of BBC output saddened me considerably and shows what a difficult time traditional media have in this digital age.)
But some things need to change: the BBC, in some respects, has been bullied and starved of funds for so long that some of its output is cowed and subservient to Government propaganda.
The Good Stuff
Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of stuff on the BBC which reflects life in modern Britain. In drama, I particularly liked David Hare’s highly political Collateral, completed only recently on catch-up following my extensive hospitalisation. No exaggeration, but I think that Nish Kumar’s Mash Report is the best satire on TV since That Was the Week That Was, way back in 1963. Nothing else comes close in the years between, except possibly Spitting Image. That was on ITV in the days when the channel was obliged to observe its obligations as a Public Service Broadcaster.
On the Mash Report, I particularly like Rachel Parris, who very cleverly walks a wafer-thin line between satirising the inanity of much of today’s TV output and making some razor-sharp political points. BBC Radio has The Now Show and, more genteelly, The News Quiz, where Government stupidity is called to account. (BBC1’s Have I Got News for You, originally a spin-off from The NewsQuiz, has grown a bit safe and flabby with age, but has its moments.)
No, the problem is more narrow that this – but oh so important. The problem is not with the BBC’s output as a whole, but with BBC News.
New Labour and Beyond
New Labour under Blair didn’t exactly tell it straight. Every new initiative – and there were many – came with some form of spending target. Spending was announced again when plans were finalised and when funds were allocated to specific plans. Those working in the voluntary sector at that time quickly learned to keep an eye open for any financial commitments from which they could benefit, add it all up over time and divide by 3. (The same money, often grouped differently in different announcements, was typically repeated 3 times in different ways). Each statement was, in a sense, true, but the end result was always less than it seemed at first sight.
All pretence at honesty went out the window under Cameron and May – particularly under the malign influence of the all-powerful Osborne, for whom political machinations, rather than economics, was his strong point. Propaganda demonising the poor and deflecting the blame away from their friends (and Tory donors) in the City was broadly successful. The BBC didn’t seem to notice – or care – too much.
The Low Point
The BBC had a lamentable time during the EU referendum campaign. It was all over the place, trying to find a false “balance” between the arguments of the Remainers and the Leavers. There was no moral equivalence between the two sides. The Leavers (especially the more extreme Leave.EU) simply told lies after lies after lies. The two most notorious were this. The implication that we would be £350m a week better off outside the EU and the money could be used to fund the NHS was never remotely true. And the claim that Turkey was about to join was ludicrous, a piece of dog-whistle Islamophobia, very thinly disguised. To be an EU member, 32 boxes need to be ticked, Turkey had managed just two and was going backwards under the authoritarian rule of Recep Erdogan.
The Remainers, meanwhile, had Project Fear: a series of wild speculations about what might happen. There was barely a mention of the benefits 40 years of membership of the EU had brought to this country, nor indeed of its effects on other countries. I lamented this last point, in iambic pentameter, two days before the vote, in my post This Blinkered Isle. It was essentially Tory v. Tory. Cameron, in particular, made a wholly unconvincing convert to the cause with his magnificent negotiation of further “concessions”, having been happy to be a member of a party which had consistently slagged off the EU for the best part of 40 years. Corbyn’s evident lack of enthusiasm for the EU didn’t help and Labour’s Remainers were given about as much airtime as the handful of the Labour Leave rebels.
It was over 40 years since there had been a UK-wide referendum, a constitutional aberration in our “Parliament is sovereign” way of running the country. I guess the BBC’s over-cautious approach was partly through lack of skills and experience. With evidence now emerging of dodgy dealing between Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica and a breach of the rules (which is a crime) in the arrangements between Vote Leave and BeLeave, the whole process looks increasingly shabby. As the brave Gina Miller said earlier this week: “If the referendum had been a court trial, a retrial would have been ordered by now.”
But the BBC did a piss-poor job of informing and educating the public in those crucial months in early 2016.
What’s Needed Now
There are some small signs that things are improving. The BBC website often includes “Explainers” and “Reality Check” links for those who want to get a more balanced perspective. But BBC News needs to find its mojo: to assert its independence from Government and show some courage.
But far, far too many news items on BBC TV and Radio take the following form:
- Some academics, researchers or lobby groups – beware the Thought Police! – produce some well-researched analysis of a problem and manage to get some BBC airtime, or an item on the news;
- The BBC gives the group a reasonable amount of time to make their argument;
- The report finishes with a bland reading of a statement that begins something like “A government spokesman said…” and what follows is some bland statement from a departmental Press office which, 90% of the time, fails to address the substantive issue. (You can feel for the poor civil servant obliged to churn out this stuff. The evident lack of conviction shines through between the words. Another little bit of the man’s or woman’s soul dies.)
- Move on to the next item; once again, the BBC lets an element of Government policy off the hook.
Must do better: it’s our BBC and we want be informed.