With her MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival on August 24 Emily Maitlis proved that while she may have left the BBC for the private sector, she is not done with public service.
How else are we to describe Maitlis finally making public and explicit what has been known – and despaired of – inside the BBC for the last few years? In her speech, which largely tackled dealing with populism, Maitlis spoke of the challenges for the public broadcaster in remaining truly impartial when an “active agent of the Conservative Party” held a place on the BBC’s board, acting “as the arbiter of BBC impartiality”.
It is telling that it took someone who has left the BBC to state the obvious clearly and publicly, but it is not the fault of BBC insiders that they haven’t been able to do so. The Conservative government has been manipulating the BBC’s delicate political position in such a way as to undermine the very purpose and existence of the institution, giving its bosses a task at which they can only fail.
To demonstrate this, we need to go piece by piece. Firstly, it is a fundamental tenet of the BBC that it is a public broadcaster, not a state one; it operates for the good of the British public, not the British state or government. This was the intended purpose of protecting it with, for example, the Royal Charter, rather than operating it as a non-departmental government body.
In practice the BBC is much more vulnerable to the whims of government. The charter must be renewed every ten years and successive governments have used this leverage to their advantage. More recently, we have seen the introduction of five-year mid-term funding reviews, and the constant threat of new legislation to carve off bits of the BBC or its funding – meaning that BBC bosses are playing a never-ending game of cat and mouse with their would-be political masters.
It is a tough time to be a BBC executive. Trust in and support for the BBC remains high, but is falling. The corporation is struggling to attract the younger generation it needs to secure its long-term future, and doesn’t yet have a clear plan for a world beyond the licence fee.
But instead of being able to give their full attention to these long-term goals, the BBC’s executives and staff are having to wage a perpetual and phoney war with regard to their due impartiality. The Conservatives, having endlessly claimed that the BBC is a hothouse of Marxism, successfully installed Richard Sharp, who was an adviser to Boris Johnson during his mayoralty and a major Conservative donor, as chairman of the BBC board.
More pernicious still was the admission of Sir Robbie Gibb – surely the person to whom Maitlis was referring – who left a BBC job as head of political output to become Theresa May’s director of communications at No 10, straight back to the board from his political gig. Leaving aside the question of just how the BBC’s political content could be systematically biased to the left when it was run by the man who became the Tories’ chief spin doctor, Gibb is clearly a political figure.
As a board member, he should in theory be well away from operational decisions. In practice, BBC insiders say he involves himself in numerous appointments, whether officially or unofficially, and regularly calls senior BBC managers over day-to-day matters. He is also widely suspected, fairly or otherwise, of leaking stories about the BBC and its staff to right-leaning newspapers, sometimes with the goal of influencing appointment processes.
This all means that the BBC is left trying to create a version of “impartiality” that can suit its immediate paymasters and board members, while also trying to find a version of due impartiality (the “due” is an extremely important word) that can maintain and restore its trust with the public.
What the BBC should be doing is finding a new and authentic way to fulfil that mandate – one that doesn’t rely on an imagined world where every correspondent emerges aged 40 from a cloning machine, with no character, personality, background or opinions of their own. It needs to learn how to speak with a voice – as it did on Brexitcast and Maitlis’s Americacast – while maintaining its standards of accuracy and fairness.
Instead, it is left to try to appease a small Conservative coterie on whom its short-term survival depends, being forced to let its long-term prospects wither. The danger is that this no-win situation for the BBC becomes a win-win for the government: the BBC either lives, defanged and hollowed-out, or dies.
Its only hope of survival, then, is for those who can – those who have fled the nest – to keep doing what Maitlis has started, and to speak out. Almost everyone likes to carp about the BBC, but we would miss it were it gone.