It was a difficult path to choose. From his first day as BBC director-general, 14 months ago, Tim Davie committed himself to a reinvigoration of impartiality at the country’s most-scrutinised media organisation amid an ever more polarised national debate. We can assume that Davie would agree, as I do, with the headline about the corporation in last week’s New Statesman piece by Philip Collins: “The BBC needs to stand up for itself: it is still best placed to tell the story straight”. But Davie has also made it plain that the corporation could do better, and that failure would erode public consent for the licence fee. The BBC must not close its ears to its critics, tempting though that is when the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is making much of the noise.
Nicholas Serota’s review into impartiality, commissioned by Davie, is a decent attempt at exploring the challenges, though it is written in the bloodless prose of corporate speak and it needs some decoding. First, it reflects the commonly-held view among senior BBC managers and some editors that younger generations of journalists do not “get” the traditional version of impartiality. It is completely understandable why they don’t. They are used to the free-for-all shouting matches of Twitter, and they have an example in current broadcast journalism where Piers Morgan was allowed to be the presenter of a flagship ITV breakfast programme without regulators restraining the unbridled expression of his personal views.
[see also: The BBC needs to stand up for itself]
This has been compounded by the rise of BBC staff special interest groups, which have expanded their remit from internal diversity – a good thing – to taking a view on editorial matters, which is more problematic. The former foreign correspondent Paul Wood recently quoted a senior BBC figure as saying “we’re fighting our own culture war within the corporation”, and I have spoken myself to executives exasperated by battles with employees about news agendas and the right of some contributors to appear. Others take a more benign view of the internal discussions, but it is clear that Serota and his team believe there is a problem. They are unambiguous that staff groups should not be able to stop the fullest expression of public opinion, even if they don’t find what is being said congenial. “Clear guidance, long overdue,” says one experienced editor.
But the biggest question concerning BBC impartiality is the one Davie raised in his inaugural speech: “This is more about whether people feel we see the world from their point of view. Our research shows that too many perceive us to be shaped by a particular perspective.”
Philip Collins claims I and others have been “quick to pile on the clichés about liberal metropolitan bias without giving evidence of it”, when actually we have based on our arguments on the biggest stories of recent times – principally the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the general election in 2019. The BBC wasn’t biased in the sense of being pro-Remain or pro-Leave, and it wasn’t banging the drum for either Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson. But it was disappointingly hazy about what was happening in the country. A corporation that had tracked the Blair revolution in the mid-1990s was largely unsighted in 2019 on the attraction of Johnson’s politics in the heartlands of England. The election race was usually portrayed as very close, with the party leaders depicted as equal turn-offs for voters, when there was plenty of evidence on the ground that many of Labour’s traditional voters wanted to “get Brexit done”.
This echoed the failings – shared by other broadcasters – in the EU referendum campaign. The result, and what had driven it, was not predicted. There was then a surreal period of catch-up in which crews were despatched to Burnley and Boston to find out what had been going on. Favourite locations were market stalls and chip shops, where angry voters were found and allowed to rail against immigration. This was equally uncomprehending, in that Brexiteers could also have been found shopping at Waitrose in Sevenoaks in Kent, where 54 per cent voted to leave. A BBC with more editorial power in the nations and regions, and with a workforce that had greater political range, would have performed better.
[see also: The BBC and the battle for truth]
Davie has also made the important point that the question of impartiality is “not simply about left and right”. The BBC’s enormous team of correspondents at Westminster were less effective at spotting the rise of Jeremy Corbyn among the Labour grass-roots than was Stephen Bush in this magazine. The BBC is by no means an organisation of the left, and there is truth in the view that it tends to be more like the Labour-turned-SDP-turned-Liberal-Democrat peer Shirley Williams, only pro-abortion. It has underrepresented the views of those who support nationalisation of utilities just as it took too long to realise the seriousness of Ukip. It is pro-royal, and I can see why Scottish nationalists think it is pro-Union too. But part of the challenge of being a public service broadcaster in a fragmented, disparate country is that it should indeed be holding up a mirror to the nation and representing all the views that can legally be expressed. If you pay for it, you should be able to have your voice heard.
So the tightrope Davie is walking is that improving impartiality and widening the breadth of opinion is the correct thing to do, but politicians have made his task more difficult by conflating that with their own partisan agendas. The government has gone from having a legitimate stake in defining what public service broadcasting should be to seeking to intervene about individual interviews, and, even more disgracefully, linking complaints with the future of the licence fee. But there is nothing terribly new in this, and when Collins says that the corporation needs a Labour government we should remember that the last Labour administration went to war with the BBC over Iraq and produced the dreadful Hutton report. Politicians are not to be trusted with broadcasting, and the best guarantor for the BBC is public support. Impartiality is a way of bolstering that, and Davie should hold firm.