The Trouble with the BBC and its view of Britain

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, December 1st 2019

The BBC is one of the defining institutions of the UK for both supporters and detractors. Increasingly the BBC is not in a good place. It is not having a good election. This follows on from criticism of its coverage of the 2014 indyref and 2016 Brexit vote.

On top of this the BBC finds itself under fire from every political direction – Corbynistas, Scottish independence supporters and right-wing Conservatives.

The media landscape the BBC sits in is profoundly changing. This is now an age of multi-platform viewing, of Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+ and others, and of a younger generation which consumes less terrestrial TV. This raises questions about the sustainability of the BBC and the licence fee.

Philip Schlesinger of Glasgow University observes that the BBC finds itself in ‘a media space increasingly crowded by new entrants with deep pockets. By comparison, the BBC is hyper-regulated and increasingly under-financed.’

Trouble at this election has to be seen against this backdrop. The Boris Johnson-Andrew Neil non-interview controversy saw the BBC say he couldn’t do Marr unless he also did Neil and then cravenly cave in; the decision to cut the laughter of the ‘Question Time’ audience when Johnson was asked about truth; and the doctored footage of Johnson at the Cenotaph. Before that Andrew Marr was ticked off for saying to Priti Patel ‘I can’t see why you are laughing’; and prior to that there was the mess over BBC presenter Naga Munchetty reprimanded for her criticism of Donald Trump’s racism.

In a healthy organisation this might not matter, but in today’s climate, ‘Every editorial error and empty chair for interviews can only fuel conspiracy theories and accusations of deliberate partiality’ assesses Schlesinger. He believes that there is a particular BBC factor at play, namely that ‘The main public service broadcaster suffers especially from the prevalent scepticism about political honesty and credibility, as it is still the main theatre’, albeit one under increasing challenge.

One underlying factor in the above is the nature of senior management at the corporation headed by Director General Tony Hall – who has been responsible for a culture of appeasement and retreat in front of a near-decade of Conservative attacks on it while in government.

One of the biggest mistakes it made was over free TV licences to the over-75s doing George Osborne’s dirty work for him for Charter renewal. Free TV licences for the over-75s were a Labour policy introduced in 1999 which the Tories past on to the BBC in 2015, and senior corporation figures have just awoken to the huge cost off and attempted to reverse. It is a typical BBC management debacle from beginning to end.

The BBC has a Londoncentric view of Britain that increasingly jars with viewers and listeners. An Ofcom report published last month found that much of the corporation’s output represented ‘a white, middle class and Londoncentric point of view.’

Too much of the BBC is focused on how London sees the UK and the world. This has always been a problem for UK-wide broadcasters but has become more acute as the UK has grown more divided, unequal and with a political system where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland march to a different political beat. No longer is there a homogeneous BBC ‘British’ news, but that was always more myth than reality.

This criticism transcends the political divide. Whether pro or anti-union the BBC in the past 20 years has fallen short when it comes to how it portrays the nature of the UK. It has failed in one of the BBC Reithian mantras that ‘nation shall speak peace unto nation’ – the nations in question being the four nations of the UK.

The real issue is how the political and administrative centre of the UK has failed to understand and reflect the changing dynamics of the UK, and how it has shown itself incapable of moving with the times. This is despite a BBC ‘out of London’ policy in terms of staff and production, and the opening of MediaCityUK in Salford.

The answer to the BBC’s predicament won’t be found in what it does in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but in London. Retired businessman Nigel Smith was part of the campaign to get a ‘Scottish Six’ in the late 1990s – an integrated BBC Scottish, UK and international news, blocked by Tony Blair and BBC head, John Birt.

Smith asks ‘Why do editors in London routinely fail to contextualise news on the NHS, schools or social policy in England with an appropriate comparison from NI or Scotland or Wales?’ He thinks that political and BBC failure to understand and to champion change have reinforced each other, commenting that ‘It is the nightly non-awareness of the rest of the UK which adds a completely avoidable strain to a UK already under political stress.’

One reason the BBC has ended up in this place is more conservatism than conspiracy. As the UK has developed alternative political centres of power in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, so BBC senior management have consciously failed to reflect this new reality.

In this they are following time honoured BBC tradition of not getting ahead of change. But they have remained committed to portraying a version of Britain that is problematic and represents the political centre’s elite view of the UK.

The inadequacies of the BBC’s take on the UK are legion. There was the 2014 indyref which threw up massive challenges for BBC Scotland, of resources, news and current affairs, and how it portrayed the debate. BBC Scotland had a tendency to interpret the indyref as a constitutional question, and ignore the wider, richer debate about the kind of Scotland people wanted to live in.

In the last period of the 2014 campaign senior London staff decamped to Scotland to cover one of the biggest stories in UK history. Too many of them came with an attitude of disdain bordering on contempt: thinking how could a nation of five million people dare to become fully independent? As one London-based BBC staffer said at the time ‘Why would anyone want to be like Denmark?’

There followed the 2015 UK election and the seismic victory of the SNP winning decisively in Scotland and becoming the third force in the UK Parliament. The aftermath of 2014-15 provided an opportunity for the BBC to reset its coverage and understand a different union. It didn’t happen.

From 2017 Ofcom became the regulator of the BBC and created guidelines for BBC news as well as commercial broadcasters to try to deal with the fragmented political environment, but this cannot control content and editorial views.

Issues of ‘balance’ and ‘impartiality’ have become contentious, evident in 2014 and 2016. Robert Peston, a BBC staffer for nine years before joining ITV, said of 2016 BBC coverage – ‘The problem with the BBC, during the campaign, it put people on with diametrically opposed views and didn’t give their viewers and listeners any help in assessing which one was the loony and which one was the genius.’

BBC senior personnel have an ideological worldview and many people regard it as part of the problem. Andrew Marr put his finger on this when he said in 2006: ‘The BBC is not impartial, or neutral …. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party political bias: it’s better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.’

The BBC has always seen itself as the embodiment of liberal values. Once upon a time these were more uncontested with patrician liberals telling the natives what was in their best interests. As post-war Britain evolved in the 1960s an enlightened, progressive liberalism dared to be experimental and risk taking. This was the age of BBC investigative journalism, challenging documentaries, and the age of deference collapsing in how politicians were treated.

In the 1980s the political temperature of the UK grew colder and liberalism found it difficult to comprehend Thatcherism or its opponents. As a result the BBC has never fully recovered its place or sure-footedness since. It has become another part of the British establishment whose central place in public life is now under scrutiny and question.

A pivotal element in this has been the inability of the BBC to take stock and change. For example, after the 2014 vote the BBC engaged in no post-campaign analysis – and in London never reflected on how they covered it as a British story. Similarly, despite the June 2015 UK election making it inevitable there would be a Brexit vote, there was no assessment of what the BBC got right and wrong from 2014 and the possible lessons for Brexit. Hence, the BBC were caught out yet again in how it portrayed a divided politics, with truth, facts and ultimately, the British public being the losers.

This brings us to BBC Scotland which this year launched its long awaited new channel called ‘BBC Scotland’. It has marked a new era in BBC production and commissioning with some great programmes from drama to documentaries to telling some of the untold stories of this nation.

For too long the BBC along with other broadcast media have presented a menu of what filmmaker and academic Eleanor Yule has called unrelenting ‘cultural miserablism’ repackaging to us and selling internationally as a commodity stories of damaged lives, poverty and crime.

The new BBC channel has been a breath of fresh air, Yule thinks, aiding the representation of Scotland’s ‘inherent and growing diversity beyond the stark polarities of nostalgic ‘tartanry’ and ‘kailyard’ or the miserablism of ‘Clydesidism’’. But it leaves big questions for BBC Scotland about who it is accountable to and how it becomes more imaginative across more of its output?

Eamonn O’Neill of Napier University thinks the BBC’s failure post-indyref was hindered by ‘a lack of formal internal reflections’, but the good needs to be acknowledged as well as the bad. He says that ‘Some areas are of a very high standard (Weekend GMS on Saturday and Sunday for example); other areas seem almost comically intent on expensively chasing non-existent younger TV audiences (The Nine).’

BBC Scotland according to one seasoned media insider is ‘a fiction’: a body which isn’t autonomous and doesn’t make its own decisions, and which at the top is still accountable to London and not answerable to Scottish audiences.

The future of the BBC is not in its own hands but that of government, wider changes in broadcasting, and the future direction of politics, society and the UK.

There is a place for a publicly funded broadcaster committed to an ethos of ‘public service’, but in the near-future that will have to look very different from the BBC of today. This will require dramatic change across the BBC at the top in London and across the four nations.

It will have to involve a new culture and leadership that replaces the rotten, incompetent senior management of recent years which has taken the BBC into crisis, and not stood up and passionately championed public service broadcasting. Change is coming and the BBC can either embrace it and show leadership – or inevitably have it imposed by others.