In February last year, when its attention should have been on the looming coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson’s government declared war on the BBC. The licence fee, Downing Street warned, would be abolished and replaced with a subscription model, with the broadcaster forced to sell off the majority of its 61 radio stations. No 10 appeared to be pursuing the strategy long advocated by Dominic Cummings, then the Prime Minister’s chief aide, who declared in 2004 that the BBC’s “very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign”.
Twelve months later, much has changed: the immediate political threat to the broadcaster has receded because of the effects of the pandemic, and Mr Cummings has left Downing Street. Government ministers, who boycotted Radio 4’s Today programme after the Conservatives’ 2019 general election victory, have come to value the BBC as the UK’s most trusted news source during the crisis. Not for the first time, No 10’s rhetoric raced ahead of reality: the licence fee is not due for renewal until 2027 and a replacement subscription model is unfeasible without the introduction of universal broadband.
But as our special correspondent Harry Lambert writes in this week’s cover story (which features the first print interview with Tim Davie, the corporation’s new director-general), the BBC’s problems are far from over: “The need for a detached, fact-led, impartial national broadcaster may be greater than ever, but the appetite for so neutral a service is quite possibly getting weaker by the year.”
In an age of intense political polarisation, fake news, social media outrage and culture wars, the question confronting the BBC is whether it can – or even should – retain its privileged status.
The BBC remains an institution of which the United Kingdom should be proud. It occupies a vital intermediate space between the market and the state, and its founding mission to “inform, educate and entertain” is a noble one. It is one of the greatest sources of British soft power in the world – as China’s recent decision to ban the BBC World News channel shows – and its prescient launch of the iPlayer in 2007 has allowed it to remain relevant in a digital age.
But none of these are reasons to treat the corporation as beyond reproach. Despite a 30 per cent cut in its public funding since 2010, the BBC is a bloated bureaucracy, with too many managers and presenters paid well over £150,000 a year.
On an editorial level, the broadcaster’s commitment to impartiality has led to an embrace of “false equivalence”, with climate change deniers pitted against scientific experts, for instance. Programmes such as BBC One’s Question Time for too long preferred to indulge the tactics of the mob by assembling the most ideologically polarised panels available, rather than promoting original, nuanced thought. Through such acts, the broadcaster helped foster the Manichaean media culture that now threatens its existence.
Conservative critics charge the BBC with having a liberal, or “left-wing” bias, while their opponents allege the reverse. Neither is correct. In reality, the BBC has an establishment bias: it is instinctively sympathetic to those who wield power. Such quietism also leads the broadcaster to follow a news agenda set by the right-dominated press, rather than pursuing a genuinely independent approach. New current affairs channels such as Andrew Neil’s GB News and Rupert Murdoch’s News UK TV should be judged fairly on their output but, when right-wing media groups are so dominant in Britain, no one should pretend they are filling an ideological void.
Almost a century after its creation, the BBC has endured far longer than many of its political foes hoped. The debate about its future should not be defined by those who treat the licence fee as a quasi-sacred levy, or those who yearn for its abolition on dogmatic grounds. Rather, it should be defined by those who recognise the BBC for what it is: a force for the common good and a flawed but necessary institution that must be improved, not disregarded.
[see also: Can the BBC survive in an age of fracture?]
This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth