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27 August 2022

The BBC has a problem – but not the one Emily Maitlis thinks

By kowtowing to its enemies the BBC is alienating its friends.

By Jonn Elledge

I love the BBC. I love it in the way one loves family: it may have its flaws, it may drive me nuts, but woe betide anyone who criticises it within my earshot.

This is not entirely irrational. It’s the source of most of the comedy I grew up with, it produces most of the documentaries I want to watch, it’s a huge source of soft power, and it created both Hitchhiker’s and Doctor Who. All that for just £3 per household per week! At any rate, boomers think they fought the war because it did so much to shape the world they grew up in; I feel loyal to the BBC for much the same reason.

As so often with a much-loved family member, though, the BBC’s approach to politics can make me want to smack my head against the nearest wall. Its news coverage seems simply incapable of reporting any contentious issue – Iraq, austerity, Brexit – without simply accepting the framing presented by the government of the day.

Here, for anyone who’s been distracted by fripperies like TikTok or their energy bill, is the latest scandal. On Wednesday (24 August) the former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis delivered the MacTaggart memorial lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. In it, she discussed the BBC’s tendency towards false equivalence in its reporting on contentious issues, noting that it would give a platform to both pro- and anti-Brexit economists, without making clear to viewers that the latter were vastly more numerous.

More explosively, she described the BBC’s reaction to her baldly stating, on a 2020 edition of Newsnight, that Dominic Cummings had “broken the rules… the country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot”. Initially, her employers were supportive. The next morning, though, one phone call from Downing Street was enough to send Auntie into a panic about “impartiality”, despite the fact that whether or not Cummings had broken the rules was surely not a matter of political opinion.

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What lay behind this spinelessness in the face of government pressure? Maitlis blamed “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”. That sounds like the CV of the former Theresa May courtier Sir Robbie Gibb, who is still, somehow, moving about, despite having been humiliated by a tweet from then-BBC journalist Lewis Goodall back in January 2020 (“Thanks for this Robbie. Maybe one day, if I’m as impartial as you, I can get a knighthood too”).

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This story, as with the BBC’s difficulties in covering everything from the aftermath of the financial crisis to Jeremy Corbyn, actually encapsulates two quite different problems, one of them a lot harder to address than the other. The simpler one is that – hardly uniquely among news organisations – BBC news reporting often conflates objectivity with balance. An objective report might note that 97 per cent of climate scientists believe in man-made climate change; the BBC approach, however, is often to get one of them to debate someone representing the 3 per cent.

You can see how this happens. Attaining balance is a lot easier than determining objective truth, reporters are time-pressed, and there are well-funded lobbying campaigns masquerading as think tanks out there which have worked out how to play the game. I’m not saying it’s easy, but solutions are feasible, and anyway this is an issue every other media organisation is grappling with.

The other problem is unique to the BBC, though, and is much, much harder to fix. As James Ball noted this week, the BBC’s charter is renewed every ten years and its funding reviewed at the midpoint between them. I don’t believe for a second this affects day to day reporting, but it does explain why a man as nakedly partisan as Gibb ended up the arbiter of impartiality, and why a hostile phone call from the government can send the execs into a panic. And really, can you imagine a call from the leader of the opposition’s office having quite the same effect?

This problem is built into the very structure and culture of the institution: we are, as a species, very good at conflating self-interest with objective truth, and the self-interest of BBC management will usually lie in staying close to the establishment of the day. Addressing that conflict might require a radical shift in its whole financial model.

Until it finds a way of doing that, though, every scandal risks driving public support for the institution just a little lower. Those younger than me, who grew up in the age of the internet and a vastly more diverse media landscape, do not share my instinctive affection for Auntie. There are those on the right who were never going to love a publicly-funded broadcaster, but those in the centre or the left should have been winnable. Many have been driven away, though, by its terror of a sitting government, its cowardice over Brexit, its apparent inability to report Tory scandals with the same enthusiasm as it found for Labour ones. Those who still love the BBC better hope it finds a way of demonstrating its independence of government – and soon.

Personally, on the grounds he’s become the story and the BBC needs to show it will not allow even the appearance of wrongdoing, I would start by removing Robbie Gibb. But of course, I am biased.

[See also: Emily Maitlis knows what’s up at the BBC]

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