In Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography of his father, Richard, he describes the shame Dimbleby senior felt at the timidity of the BBC during the Spanish Civil War. “From 1936 to 1939,” writes the younger Dimbleby, “no member of the BBC News Department was permitted to go to the war.” Richard Dimbleby thought the BBC was in effect siding with the Franco regime through editorial selection. It was, to put it in the bloodless bureaucratic language of the Serota Review into BBC standards, published on 29 October, failing in its duty of impartiality. In response to the Serota panel’s findings, the BBC’s chairman Richard Sharp said the corporation needs “an impartiality revolution”. I like to imagine the slogans of this overthrow of the current regime. Perhaps: “Which side are you on? Both. Or neither.”
The very idea of impartiality is a minefield. Outside Broadcasting House in London there is a statue of George Orwell adorned with a quotation in praise of telling people what they do not want to hear. The man shot in Barcelona fighting for the republican side would have been aghast at the idea that the BBC might have balanced the claims of Franco against those of the cause he fought for.
The broadcasting expert Ivor Gaber has written that the best definitions of the operating ideas in broadcasting should be found in their practice in the world, not in the futile search for theoretical exposition. The words of the 1986 Peacock report on BBC financing might be as good as we can do: “We had some difficulty obtaining an operational definition from broadcasters of public service broadcasting… but its meaning is reasonably clear from its usage.”
You certainly get no operational definition of impartiality from either the Serota Review or the response to it from Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general. What you do get is a comprehensive tour of the BBC boiler room and a detailed guide to the internal plumbing. There is lots on changing the culture – the staple remark of those who don’t have much to say – as well as recommendations for training courses and recognition of the importance of having meetings with managers. I half expected a section on the configuration of desks in the newsroom. In his rare sedentary moments between presenting every show, Amol Rajan should sit next to Huw Edwards. Though maybe Edwards should hot-desk, since he’s rarely in the building.
[see also: The BBC and the battle for truth]
The mystery about the latest BBC review, led by the former Tate director Nicholas Serota, is which question it was designed to answer. Following the review, there will, apparently, be scrutiny of the record of impartiality of every BBC department, including CBeebies and BBC Sport. Yet the Serota report does not contain a single example of the lack of impartiality it was ostensibly set up to address. Former BBC executives such as Roger Mosey (a New Statesman contributor) have been quick to pile on the clichés about liberal metropolitan bias without giving evidence of it. The BBC should reflect all the opinions of the country, Mosey argues. It would, in fact, be illegal for the BBC to reflect back the racism sincerely held by a fraction of the population. The BBC is not simply a mirror in which the nation sees itself.
Davie has said he will be judged on how far the corporation returns to impartial reporting. This is to concede a point he ought to be contesting. Insofar as we have a shared understanding of what we mean by impartiality, the BBC is the best news outlet in the country by some distance. Much of the media is not seeking to be impartial. Most publications have a world-view. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph have obvious positions; even some in government marvel at how slavishly the Times serves the Johnson administration’s publicity needs.
Media policy has not had much political traction. But there is hardly an area of public life that so divides the government and the opposition as the issue of media regulation. The government is populated by politicians – spearheaded by the new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – who genuinely think that the BBC is overrun with pinkoes and that Emily Maitlis is an unwitting agent of socialism. The Labour Party, meanwhile, is a “Leveson Two” operation. Its senior ranks contain people who think the Tory press is out to get them. I can tell you from experience that this is, sadly, true. The antipathy towards Keir Starmer at the top of News UK, the parent company of the Times and the Sun, is visceral.
It is obvious that the best thing that could happen to the BBC would be a Labour government, but the broadcaster is too scrupulously impartial to suggest any such thing. What it should do is carry on reporting, not yield to puerile pressure or give the impression of an organisation having a nervous breakdown. Of course, the BBC makes plenty of mistakes. Twenty-six years ago Martin Bashir got things egregiously wrong. Its internal procedures are still a mess.
But across the vast terrain of its output, the BBC needs a strong defence of its place in our national life, not a craven confession by its management that Dorries might just have a point. Instead of his “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir” approach, Tim Davie should stand up to the government, tell ministers to get out of his way, and insist that the BBC will carry on doing the best it can, in difficult circumstances, to tell the story straight.
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained