The BBC needs a reality check

28 October 2020

3:28 AM

28 October 2020

3:28 AM

One of my favourite moments of viewing in this strange and dark year was the outgoing director-general of the BBC, Tony Hall, explaining why the Corporation had decided to drop the singing of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from the Last Night of the Proms. The BBC had already, needlessly, dug itself a capacious hole and Tony had turned up with a big spade to continue the work. ‘The fact is we have come to the right conclusion, which is a creative and artistic conclusion,’ his emollience announced, his nose growing fractionally longer with every second of the interview.

Earlier ‘BBC sources’ had – shamefully, out of cowardice – attempted to suggest that the guest conductor, the Ukrainian-Finnish Dalia Stasevska, being a bit of a leftie, had objected to the jingoistic nature of the words of those anthems. Vilified on social media as the furore grew, poor Ms Stasevska felt obliged to release a statement saying that she had made no such objections and that it would have been ‘arrogant’ to do so. Indeed.

Who, exactly, would have had such arrogance? Only the BBC. It cannot stand Last Night of the Proms – all that flag waving and patriotism – which is why the programme has been made more (here’s the word its critics cower behind) ‘diverse’ over the last decade.

Much as it cannot stand Jeremy Clarkson, Brexit, the Conservative party or a white male Time Lord, It took the decision to infuriate a large proportion of its audience because it inhabits a woke echo chamber where almost everybody has the same fashionable opinions, buttressed by their hugely unrepresentative followers on social media. The producers and presenters probably do not think that binning Land of Hope and Glory is a political act at all, simply that it is ‘right’. And this is the problem which Tim Davie, the new director-general, faces: not so much that the BBC is institutionally biased towards a liberal leftish position on almost every issue, a bias which shows through in every area of its output – news, documentaries, drama and most obviously comedy – but that the staff do not feel it is a bias at all, simply decency, and that beyond W1 everyone shares their opinions. But they do not. Far from it.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lord Hall said that staff were expected to hang up their opinions on a coat peg when they entered Broadcasting House. Leaving aside the issue as to where one might find a coat peg large enough to accommodate Emily Maitlis’s array of raiment, this facile observation revealed a patent lack of understanding of the BBC’s psychology. I repeat: they do not think they are opinions at all, simply that they are right. And there is uniformity of opinion among the largely young, largely arts or social science graduates, largely metropolitan, exclusively middle-class liberals who work for the organisation.

Twenty years ago, when I was editor of the Today programme, I took to the controller of editorial policy a series of complaints from Eurosceptic politicians to the effect that our coverage grossly under-represented the Eurosceptic cause. ‘What you have to understand, Rod,’ I was told, ‘is that these people are all mad.’ And yet even then, two decades ago, those views had considerable purchase – beyond the north circular.

That the BBC is biased seems to me a statement so incontestable that it would be otiose to run through the evidence. The myriad of independent reports – such as the Wilson report from 2005, which concluded the BBC was deeply partisan over Europe even if it did not think it was – or the Institute for Economic Affairs report in 2018 which showed that panellists on both Question Time and Any Questions were 68 per cent in favour of Remain. (This last survey, incidentally, followed an open letter from MPs complaining about ‘pessimistic and skewed’ coverage of Brexit.) I could go on and on.

We have long since passed the time when it was acceptable for the BBC to shrug off these observations with the banal rejoinder, trotted out once again by that political titan Gary Lineker in September 2020: 

Go down Twitter when there’s a news or political programme and you’ll see ‘the BBC’s so left wing’ and then you’ll see ‘the BBC’s now so right wing’. If they’re getting complaints from both sides then they’re just about in the right place!’ 

(Incidentally, I have no doubt that the BBC, in general, found Jeremy Corbyn hard to stomach. The bias is more cultural than political. It’s not necessarily pro-Labour).

There is a certain naivety at the heart of this problem, rooted in that notion advanced by Tony Hall that one might shed oneself of political opinions whilst at work, and then presumably resume them once you’ve clocked off. The same naivety which resulted in the creation of the BBC’s ‘Reality Check’, which the journalist Chris Morris works on.

The idea of Reality Check was that Chris and his small team would wander along after a disputatious argument between politicians to adjudicate who was telling the truth, i.e. they would give the ‘facts’. The trouble was, whose facts? As was demonstrated in an acrimonious interview between Morris and the former Conservative minister Peter Lilley, Morris was not providing ‘facts’ – simply countering Lilley’s opinions with opinions of his own drawn from reports which Morris found agreeable.

Beyond that, though, the idea that in this complex, fissiparous, world Chris Morris and his team alone have the sole access to the ‘truth’ on every possible topic is so naïve as to be laughable. I might point out too that Mr Reality Checker was responsible for a five-part radio series, ‘Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed’. He used a total of 24 main interviews for this unbiased, unpartisan revelation of the truth – of which 18 were speaking from a Remain perspective. Only seven per cent of the words uttered throughout the series were spoken by people who were in favour of what the majority wanted to do – leave the European Union.

But still, the problem is less in the bias than in the un-knowing. The arrogant conviction that it is not bias at all. The aforementioned Newsnight presenter, Emily Maitlis, has twice been reprimanded by her employers for allowing her own political opinions to either distort an interview or indeed make a party political broadcast against the government at the start of the programme. But there is not the slightest evidence that either she, or her editor Esme Wren, think she has done anything wrong at all. And there is seemingly nobody on that benighted show to offer a word of dissent, to dispute or contradict Maitlis’s inane bien pensant opinions. They are all agreed that they are not opinions at all, just fact.

Comfortably cocooned in its ‘right-on ‘bubble, the BBC has long since lost touch with the mores and cultural values of the mass of people who pay for its existence. This is more of a crisis, I would suggest, than the diminishing interest young people show in the BBC (despite the Corporation’s continual obeisance to this minority sector of the population). Yet all that is needed is a certain awareness, an honesty and a stripping away of that certitude which seems to afflict the liberal left. An understanding that what they think are facts are really just opinions.

Tim Davie’s first act as incoming director-general was to restore the singing of those two jingoistic anthems in Last Night of the Proms. Wasn’t that hard to do, was it? The finale was conducted with bravura by Dalia Stasevska, whose face, at the end, was suffused with jubilation and delight. Everybody happy.

If Davie can continue to tilt the Corporation towards those values and aspirations shared by the majority of British people, then perhaps old Aunty still has a future. But the rot runs terribly deep and they do not think it is rot at all.

I’m taking part in a Zoom discussion tomorrow at 5.30pm on the future of the BBC. It’s to mark the publication of a book ‘The BBC – A Winter of Discontent’ for which I’ve written the above chapter. Please join us. I think I am the only one on the panel who suspects the BBC might be a teensy bit biased.

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