Trashing the BBC comes at a price

Progressives should defend public service broadcasting. Flirting with the anti-BBC lobby has helped imperil it

Hatgate: one of the more ludicrous pieces of anti-BBC hysteria.

For a certain sort of Brit, the NHS and the BBC have long been at or near the top of their list of things to be proud of about their country. They’re both big public institutions which everyone in the UK knows. Their existence speaks to some of the core values of the left. They show that not everything should be left to the market, shared institutions matter and public provision can be popular.

The BBC produces a huge amount of high-quality content of all kinds — news, drama and TV. It makes lots of stuff I’d never want to hear or watch, and quite right too: it’s not supposed to just appeal to me or people like me. But because it’s not driven by market imperatives, it produces things I doubt I’d ever get to see or hear without it. It provides common coverage across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a pan-UK public arena. It supports local journalists around the country. It’s an enormous soft power asset for the country and a news source people in dictatorships have listened to in secret. I’d be horrified to see it go.

Governments always have an uneasy relationship with the BBC. That’s natural enough: journalists are meant to be a thorn in governments’ side. One of the licence fee’s plus points is that it’s not general taxation, so the tension’s reduced a bit: it’s not a direct case of biting the hand that feeds you. But rows about what the BBC does, how it does it, whether it reports fairly and so on are nothing new.

What is new is a government as determinedly hostile to the BBC as Boris Johnson’s. Their hostility extends to public service broadcasting more generally and fits a wider pattern. Today’s Conservatives seem hostile to scrutiny and independent institutions in a way which goes beyond the norm. Threatening Channel 4’s licence in retaliation for empty-chairing the Prime Minister and the ongoing boycott of the Today programme both set an unnerving tone. Proposing to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee has far more to do with an anti-BBC agenda than its (dubious, in my view) policy merits.

Faced with the possibility — hinted at before the election, floated by the former Culture Secretary and trailed in this week’s Sunday Times — of actually moving towards a subscription model and slashing the BBC to the bone, the Opposition should be rallying to its defence. Frankly, if Labour can’t even defend the world’s best broadcaster and one of our great public institutions, I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Sadly, most of its would-be deputy leaders haven’t got the memo. Ian Murray was an honourable exception. But Angela Rayner said she was ‘no big fan of the BBC’. Richard Burgon referred to the BBC ‘misreporting’ the news. And reaching the real nadir, Dawn Butler said ‘in a way, I thought “OK, that will teach you”’. They all went on to support the principle of a public broadcaster. But it’s more than a little reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘seven, seven and a half out of ten’ response on how strongly he felt about not leaving the EU.

You don’t have to claim the thing you’re backing is perfect. But in politics, you can’t sound lukewarm about which side you’re on when the chips are down. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s comments on a ‘People’s BBC’ this weekend were equally unhelpful. For a start, electing BBC ‘top brass’ is an atrocious idea. It’s a recipe for a hideous battle of obsessives and special interest groups in an inevitably low-turnout election. It’s also a road to politicising the BBC — the exact opposite of what it needs and the public wants.

It used to be mainly the right which trashed the BBC — their self-interest is clear, given a print media far more congenial to its views. Many Scottish nationalists joined in with vim after 2011 — and as the BBC’s very existence embodies the British public space they want to abolish, that’s not too surprising either. But Long-Bailey’s wheeze (not without precedent: a number of Corbynite politicians mutter about ‘democratising the BBC’) and would-be deputy leaders’ curmudgeonliness fit a pattern.

Triggered by the hard left but abetted by much of the soft left, Labour and many of its members have sounded increasingly hostile to free media per se. It’s gone far beyond reasonable discussion of concentrated ownership — booing journalists, the harrying of Laura Kuenssberg, bringing up media reform as a reaction to unfavourable coverage. And with a characteristic blend of zest for public control and suspicion of the actually-existing public realm, the BBC has become a bête noire. The self-parodying row over whether the BBC doctored the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn’s hat to make it look ‘more communist’ was a case in point.

Faced with a pincer movement like this, you’d think the centre and centre-left would be loud in defence of a core public institution. They should fear what wrecking one of the last bulwarks against a retreat to rival echo chambers might mean. And in fairness, the Liberal Democrats have been clear where they stand in recent weeks. But far too many self-defining centrists have not, usually as a result of Brexit. Dawn Butler’s ‘that’ll teach you’ has its counterparts. Andrew Adonis advocating a subscription model and even calling for the BBC to be in court for giving Brexiteers a platform) is a case in point. AC Grayling offers a daily exemplar.

Together with a stonking Tory majority, the result is a better climate for an assault on public service broadcasting than ever before. Britain is not Twitter, of course: plenty of Conservative voters value the BBC. Unease is spreading on the Tory benches. It’s not a foregone conclusion at all. But Opposition parties — and campaigners — need to stop making the Government’s job easier.

Yes, the BBC can merit criticism. I think it’s too inclined to juxtapose factual claims rather than evaluate their truth. I think it struggles to deal with a level of political dishonesty and bad faith we mostly haven’t had to deal with until fairly recently. I sometimes roll my eyes at solecisms in policy areas I know about. At the last election, I think it was too quick to frame an initially much more multiparty contest as a battle between the big two. Its reaction to Samira Ahmed’s totally justified complaint was dire. Some of its journalists should probably just tweet less.

But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and wholesale trashing. Criticise the BBC’s calls on election coverage: don’t say it ‘decided not to be impartial’. Argue for it to be bolder in challenging factual untruths: don’t call it the Brexit Biased Corporation. And recognise that a public service broadcaster’s job involves giving space to views you don’t like, not just playing your worldview back to you.

Because if the BBC becomes a British PBS for lack of champions, Britain will be far poorer for it. The scrutiny of government will weaken. And if you’re on the left or in the liberal centre, you really won’t like the media world you’ll get once the BBC’s brought low.

This post was originally published on on 17 February 2020.

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