Orwell would be in despair over the BBC

Published by The i paper (1st November, 2021)

The BBC – battered, bruised and in near-perpetual crisis – is indulging in another bout of navel-gazing with launch of a 10-point impartiality plan. This is a typically bureaucratic response to deserved criticism of deceitful editorial practices over Martin Bashir’s infamous interview with Princess Diana. There will be “thematic reviews” of news output in key areas, management reviews of content, monitoring of “impartiality” metrics such as complaints, new procedures for internal investigations, fresh guidelines for staff, measures to improve transparency – and no doubt lots more meetings for all the highly paid suits. 

This follows a review of BBC culture by the former Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, set up in response to another review by the retired judge Lord Dyson into the BBC’s behaviour over Bashir. So we can now rest assured: it will be a model of balance and propriety. The chairman Richard Sharp, who happens to be a Tory donor and former adviser to Boris Johnson, proclaims “an impartiality revolution” while the director-general Tim Davie, coincidentally a former Conservative council candidate, declares “editorial values of impartiality, accuracy and trust” to be the foundation stone of the corporation’s relationship with audiences.

Yet the BBC already has scores of highly paid managers agonising over any signs of bias and has made strenuous efforts to diversify staff while still getting bashed from all sides for supposed partisanship. It is funded by a tax that is an anachronism in a digital world at a time when threatened by richer streaming rivals, growing largely irrelevant to younger generations and assailed by a populist government seeking revenge for its Brexit coverage. If it wants to survive it should unshackle its journalists instead of adding more layers of calcifying bureaucracy.

This might sound counter-intuitive. But the existential problem confronting the BBC is not bias but boredom. It has been attacked by politicians throughout its history, dating back to Stanley Baldwin’s concern over coverage of the 1926 General Strike four years after its birth, while efforts to satisfy everyone are nigh-impossible amid savage culture wars in an age of social media. It has adapted pretty well to new technologies with a thriving website, effective streaming services and extending the reach of its brand around the world. And for all the histrionics over perceived prejudice, it remains relatively trusted compared with other media.

Next year marks the centenary of the BBC’s birth with Lord Reith’s famous mission to “inform, educate and entertain.” It is one of the country’s strongest global brands, despite being routinely undermined by a government that loves to pontificate about British exceptionalism. Yet it is an entertainment pipsqueak compared with rivals such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney, which have a combined content budget eight times bigger. It has one major point of difference with the big streamers: strength in news, although this is constantly being undermined by its blundering bosses.

The BBC has 199 “senior leaders” on six-figure salaries, according to its annual report, yet remains cursed by corporate timidity. This swollen army of suits displays a woeful lack of leadership, leading to a series of self-inflicted scandals inflamed by weakness under attack. 

Yes, its Brexit coverage was dire – partly since it gave false equivalence to “experts” on both sides while failing to detect the surge of insurgent anger outside London due to inept reporting. The solution is not to relocate World Service business reporters to Salford, 200 miles from Europe’s financial capital, but to discover a model that supports better journalism.

The BBC employs 6,000 people in news, four times more than our most successful newspaper group. So why are real scoops, bold investigations and jaw-dropping news stories far more likely to come from its rivals, whether in print or on television? Sunday papers have small newsrooms but routinely set the agenda. And it seemed symbolic that although the BBC has so many staff in the United States, it was ITV’s lone wolf reporter Robert Moore who led the only news crew that filmed the rioters storming the Capitol. 

Meanwhile, the BBC behemoth churns out its pitiful diet of bland bulletins filled with predictable reports, banal analysis, and dreary vox pops designed to avoid causing a fuss. These are fleshed out by formulaic daily “rollouts” of tedious stories planned by centralised teams stifled by groupthink. A statue of George Orwell stands outside BBC headquarters. Inscribed on the wall behind is the great man’s phrase that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – something the managers inside the building have forgotten. 

Effective journalism relies on brave executives who resist intimidation, editors who take risks and responsibility, tenacious reporters who challenge vested interests. It benefits from competition, whether internal or external. Yet ever since the BBC tangled with Tony Blair’s government over Iraq, faint-hearted leaders have retreated in the opposite direction by giving in to critics, restraining editors, centralising reporting and cutting staff. “We’re like an animal that can’t stop doing something that it knows is wrong,” said one of its top journalists.

The BBC as a public service broadcaster must strive for impartiality and there are still jewels to be found in a flow of news sludge. Like some other media, it struggles also with generational differences over boundaries on free speech. But journalism is not about box-ticking and bureaucracy. Editors should be empowered – and if they fail or screw up, they can be replaced. Newsrooms should break and tell stories that cause waves, confront powerful forces, reveal details others want hidden and even spark occasional offence. Davie admits the BBC has “no inalienable right to exist” as it approaches its centenary. Yet he needs to give those of us with lingering faith a reason to believe. Beset by enemies, all too often Auntie seems set on a suicidal path of self-destruction.

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