Reading the coverage of the BBC and the Emily Maitlis affair, you’d think this sort of thing was entirely new. Maitlis, who left her role as lead presenter at Newsnight earlier this year, caused a furore when she referred to “Tory cronyism at the heart of the BBC” in a speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival on 24 August. People seem to think that in the past the BBC was universally admired and governments left it alone, then Boris Johnson swept in and the trouble started.
If only. I’ve worked for the BBC since 1966 – more than half of its existence. My time has been regularly marked by efforts by successive governments – Labour as well as Conservative – to force the BBC to be their faithful messenger. It started only four years after the BBC’s founding, when Winston Churchill as chancellor tried to make it the voice of government policy during the General Strike, and threatened to close it down when it refused. Neville Chamberlain pressured the BBC not to report on Nazi persecution or interview Oswald Mosley; during the Second World War, Churchill often accused the BBC of being gleeful in reporting British losses.
Anthony Eden considered abolishing the BBC because it insisted on reporting his Suez policy evenhandedly. Harold Wilson appointed his personal nominee as BBC chairman in order to force out the director-general Hugh Greene. Margaret Thatcher carried out a guerrilla war against the BBC. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell did shocking damage to the BBC by attacking its coverage of the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: the chairman and the director-general both resigned. Boris Johnson – well, everyone knows about him. We may be in for a torrid time with Liz Truss, who recently joked (let’s hope it was a joke) that GB News got its facts right and the BBC didn’t.
The problem is there are many structural weaknesses in the way the BBC was set up. Governments can install the chairman and a minority of the non-executive directors and, crucially, they set the licence fee. But how much does all the fuss at the pit-head affect the broadcasters at the coalface? Not much. Laura Kuenssberg says that when she was political editor no one told her what to report. I was political editor in Thatcher’s early years, and though there were major rows no one suggested I should change my reporting. I did the job as I saw fit.
According to Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian, Maitlis is now “free to say what needed saying: the BBC has lost its nerve”. Maitlis told her Edinburgh audience that the Conservatives had an “active agent” (Robbie Gibb, former director of communications for Theresa May) on the BBC board; it was reported last year that he tried to block the appointment of Jess Brammar as head of the BBC News Channel on the grounds that “fragile trust in the BBC would be shattered”. Well, Brammar got the job and she’s a big success. It’s hard to work out how that could have happened if the BBC had really become the Johnson government’s obedient servant.
In 2020, after Maitlis made her famous broadcast about Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown rules, the BBC said publicly that she’d been wrong. I’d always admired her work, so my first instinct was to leap to her defence. But when I watched the recording, I agreed with the BBC’s verdict: by telling us what the nation felt about Cummings she was actually telling us what she herself felt about him. I don’t want to know what Maitlis thought. Plenty of us have strong opinions, but our job is to set out the facts as carefully as we can, and let people make up their own minds.
There’s an entire department in BBC News that examines what political leaders say, then states clearly on BBC Online – nowadays our biggest audience – whether the claims are true or not. Ros Atkins does the same on television. I’ve created a new BBC Two programme, Unspun World, in which I interview the BBC’s huge range of experts about the big questions: has Brexit damaged Britain? How bad is the economy?
Of course politicians should leave broadcasting to the broadcasters, and not try to coerce them into reporting favourably. But when politics gets tough, governments and opposition parties alike are desperate for the broadcasters’ support, and when they don’t get it they claim the broadcasters are biased against them. So how should we respond? Here’s a suggestion: after a particularly controversial edition of the Today programme, one of the presenters headed into the office. The phone rang. A top political spin-doctor was on the other end, complaining about the coverage and screaming threats down the line. The Today presenter listened patiently for some time, then broke in: “Could I just say something?” “Yes,” said the spin-doctor, mid-obscenity. “F*** off,” said the presenter slowly and clearly, and put the phone down.
I’m not writing on behalf of BBC management: they must answer accusations of timidity and bias in their own way. I’m speaking for the broadcasters. I simply don’t believe Nick Robinson has lost his nerve. Or Amol Rajan. Or Chris Mason, the new political editor. Or Lyse Doucet, Jeremy Bowen or Clive Myrie in Ukraine. Or John Sudworth, who’s done such brave reporting about China’s repression of the Uyghurs. Week after week Panorama demonstrates that it hasn’t lost its nerve, and I hope I haven’t lost mine. In the final analysis, nerve is all we broadcasters have got.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His programme “Unspun World” is on BBC Two on 7 September and is available on iPlayer
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine