ONE of life’s current puzzles is the opinion that the BBC is ‘right-wing’ and ‘pro-Brexit’. For many of us those assertions are incredible but a highly detailed book hoping to prove them has been published. Writers Patrick Barwise and Peter York say they set out to ‘enrage,’ and they certainly irritate as they quote socialist commentator Owen Jones, and write furiously to dispel ‘A campaign of right-wing myths and deception’ about their beloved BBC.
The ‘myths’ they list in The War Against the BBC: How an Unprecedented Combination of Hostile Forces Is Destroying Britain’s Greatest Cultural Institution . . . And Why You Should Care include: lots of people not using the BBC but still having to pay the licence fee or go to prison; wastefulness; it’s already well funded; it does things that should be left to the market; it overpays its managers and presenters; it’s left-wing and anti-Brexit.
They are armed with ‘academic content analysis’, graphs, polls, five appendices, copious notes and some spectacular maths: ‘The average UK adult consumes 18 hours [of BBC output] per week. Assuming an average programme length of 45 minutes, that’s equivalent to 24 programme choices a week or 3.4 per day. With 52million UK adults, that’s 178million BBC programme choices every day.’
They are enraged by what they see as unjustified hostility to the BBC originating with ‘dark money’ from ‘right-wing think-tanks’. Then there’s the ‘hugely partisan media’ represented by Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, and hostile Tories such as Dominic Cummings whom they call ‘untouchable’. Worse, sinister collusions between the likes of Putin and Trump which they believe now control democratic elections and brought about the catastrophe of Brexit.
They explain the BBC’s financial problems clearly. Gordon Brown looted its coffers by making it fund the switch to digital; George Osborne sold off the old analogue spectrum for £2.34billion but didn’t hand over the money. The over-75s’ free licence was given out blithely by Blair, the cost then foisted on to the corporation.
They say that without the ‘huge cuts’ since 2010, the BBC’s annual income would be £1.4billion higher, but they don’t explain the Corporation’s ‘Creative Diversity Commitment’, costing £100million from this April, with a mandatory 20 per cent diversity target in all new network commissions, or the £75,000 salary for a three-day week paid to June Sarpong, their first ‘Director of Creative Diversity’.
The original BBC Charter listed five aims, including ‘to serve the diverse communities of all the UK’s nations and regions’. But according to the last census only 3 per cent of the UK population is ‘diverse’. ‘Right-wing’ critics sometimes believe that the BBC, like the Labour Party, now flatly ignores Englishness and in particular the white working class. The nearest it gets to addressing English life is The Archers, but Ambridge is now so woke that its pensioners hire buses to London for Gay Pride rallies.
Barwise and York show how the BBC has been hampered in its competitive outlets. FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) drive up costs when their money outbids the BBC for talent and production costs. The current Charter requires its board to consider ‘the impact on the rest of the market of all service innovations’. The BBC cannot change or bid freely enough in this competitive market. It wanted to improve its iPlayer and video on demand services but was prevented by cumbersome bureaucracy and lost out to Netflix.
They also cite the much-discussed problem of providing content for young people in the digital age, but isn’t it normal for teenagers to watch less TV than their parents? And Ofcom recently found that it’s older folk who are abandoning the BBC. That raises the question, asked mainly by the ‘enemy’ mythologisers, of who is the BBC for these days? The authors love Strictly, Killing Eve and RuPaul’s Drag Race, the kind of programmes introduced to the British public by Sir Peter Bazalgette, now the chairman of ITV who is demanding reform of the licence fee.
The book hardly mentions Radios 3 and 4, the most important part of BBC output for many. The authors praise Saturday Live, with its gay vicar and diverse presenters encouraging listeners to share ‘lived experience’ of breakdown, drug addiction and disability. They boast of its 2.3million listeners enjoying a ‘positive version of modern Britain’. But that means millions more switch it off or switch over to BBC Radio 4 Extra which plays old BBC programmes from a time when Auntie’s output was still witty, erudite and English.
The authors hate those old Reithian days: ‘paternalistic’ and ‘skewed toward high culture’. They say such a remit now would be ‘of little sense to most viewers and listeners’. They may be right but should remember Reith’s warning: ‘He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for low standards which he will then satisfy.’ For many of us, BBC output is tabloid culture, yet the authors hate the tabloid press. Perhaps they genuinely aren’t aware of how frustrated once-loyal listeners are by dreary crime series and politically skewed anachronistic adaptations of classics.
It is possible to agree with them when they say that the BBC is in an untenable position, neither commercial nor distinctively public service, trying to ‘hold the centre’ funded by a licence fee which needs to be updated. They suggest using general taxation. Unlikely, because in the culture war of progressive against conservative, the BBC has taken a position firmly among the progressives, although of course the authors insist that the opposite is true. According to them, ‘evidence from independent academic research is that the BBC constantly strives to be impartial in its news coverage, and when it departs from this it tends to over represent the right-leaning view.’
They are extremely unfriendly towards pro-Brexit journalist Isabel Oakeshott. They call writer Milo Yiannopoulos a ‘notorious troll’. That kind of spite, worthy of Twitter, suggests that they themselves are just another weapon in the culture wars. How else can they seriously believe that Andrew Neil was ever ‘central to the BBC’s political coverage, its top political presenter and interviewer’? Can that be the same Andrew Neil who was wastefully marginalised by the BBC for years and who recently left in disgust?
Perhaps the most apt moment in the book is a 1993 New Yorker cartoon showing a dog in front of a computer, saying, ‘On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.’ It sums up the duplicitous digital world where truth is often of little importance and where the BBC has to find an identity which will allow it to survive.