The abrupt and unexpected departure of Rona Fairhead from her post as BBC Chairman is interesting indeed.
David Cameron had appointed her Chairman for the first, crucial phase of the new Charter covering the abolition of the Trustees and their replacement by a souped-up executive board. But suddenly, seemingly as a result of intervention by Theresa May, she is toast.
Could it presage that the May government – as Brexit gathers pace – has woken up to that something urgent and radical needs doing to curb BBC bias?
This is a Corporation that is still treating Brexit as a major mistake, looking for every opportunity to rubbish the idea, and to link it with racism. Martha Kearney, for example, on Radio 4’s World at One on Wednesday, chose to pick up with relish Jean-Claude Juncker’s malicious claims that the Brexit vote was linked to a huge upsurge in race hate, including the murder of a Polish man in Harlow – when no such linkage has yet been established by the police.
David Cameron’s approach to the Corporation, from the moment he took office in 2010, was both lenient and laissez-faire – largely, it now seems most likely, because he saw the Corporation as a key ally in his battle to remain in the EU.
Lord Patten, Fairhead’s predecessor as chairman, was (and is) an EU zealot of the most extreme kind. He was appointed by Cameron in 2011. Patten predictably and obdurately resisted strongly any suggestion that the BBC’s coverage of the EU was biased, most notably by refusing repeated summonses to appear before the Commons European Scrutiny Committee in connection with its inquiry into whether the Corporation was adequately covering EU affairs.
After Patten suddenly stepped down because of ill-health, high-flying executive Fairhead, who had no broadcast experience, was parachuted in. Precisely why remains a mystery, especially as there were huge question marks about her conduct as a director of HSBC. Some have claimed a link with George Osborne, perhaps via her husband, a former Tory councillor.
The newly-appointed Fairhead did appear before the European Scrutiny committee, under duress. It became clear immediately that she had gone native. Under her regulatory regime, there would be no change in the dead-bat approach to any complaints about EU reporting. She sat smug-faced as her fellow Trustee –a former BBC employee of 30 years – Richard Ayre intoned nonsensically that he knew coverage of the EU was not biased because, well, he said so – his experience told him that it was impossible that his BBC colleagues could ever be biased.
Pardon? Ayre is a past Chairman of the Article 19 ‘journalists’ rights’ organisation which, under an alleged ‘neutral’ banner, campaigns vigorously for Palestinian rights, against Israel, and to ensure that women’s voices are heard in the ‘climate change’ debate. Here is an example of its ‘unbiased’ approach, to which Ayre presumably subscribed:
The threats from climate change are not gender-neutral and it is essential that gender be incorporated into strategies to address climate change. In order to reach adaptation strategies and policies that are truly gender-sensitive, women’s voices need to be heard. To make their voices heard, women need information about their rights and the policies that affect their daily lives. This ARTICLE 19 project seeks to foster the exercise of communication rights to challenge women’s vulnerability to climate change.
The BBC defence against EU bias (and everything that went with it at the hearing) amounted to similar baloney and obfuscation on a huge scale. The subsequent ESC’s report, written immediately before the 2015 General Election, was excoriating. Bill Cash, the chairman, concluded in his report about the BBC:
“Accountability to Parliament and proper impartiality must be a key factor in the forthcoming review of the BBC Charter.”
Since then, John Whittingdale – whose appointment as Culture Secretary was a huge surprise because of his known antipathy towards the BBC – prepared his Green Paper on the BBC’s Charter Renewal. The predictions were initially that the licence fee could be replaced by subscription.
But then George Osborne intervened. The licence fee would be set in aspic for another decade. That meant Whittingdale’s plans for major reform were in totally scuppered. What emerged was a messy compromise: the abolition of the Trustees, their replacement by a new executive board with powerful outside, independent directors, and some elements of complaints handling handed to the ‘independent’ Ofcom.
Yet this will solve nothing. The left-leaning Ofcom content board is drawn from the same cadre as the BBC Trustees, and is chaired by the arch-Europhile Bill Emmott,who makes even Patten look tame.
In reality, the changes were only a rearrangement of the deck chairs, and a continuation of the status quo. Cameron’s appointment of Fairhead to oversee the so-called transition period confirmed that.
Today (Thursday), the unknown and untested new Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, an accountant with no previous experience of the broadcasting industry, is due to announce the main details of Charter renewal, following the White Paper in May. The key issue is whether she and the May government will grasp that until there is genuine rigorous, independent scrutiny of BBC content, heavy, left-leaning bias will continue.
And that could well derail Brexit.