PROBLEMS which politicians hope will subside or preferably disappear if they cover their eyes, block their ears and pretend they either don’t exist or aren’t serious, rarely do either. On the contrary, they tend to get worse. Such is the position in which the Johnson government finds itself with the BBC.
It’s obvious that the Corporation has benefited from the ‘Conservative’ Party’s cynical abandonment of its pre-election pledge either to abolish the iniquitous ‘licence fee’ as a funding mechanism or at least decriminalise non-payment of it. It’s also evident that the BBC has in effect banked those concessions and doubled down on its woke-metropolitan-Left-‘liberal’ bias, on its ill-concealed contempt for its captive funders and, above all, on its institutional arrogance arguably derived from an assumption of its own immunity.
Recent developments especially, however, must prompt the question: how far it will be allowed to go before even Johnson’s over-indulgent administration is driven to act? Just what does the BBC have to do before this government, seemingly paralysed by timidity and reluctance to challenge it, finally acts to curb its excesses?
Before discussing those recent developments, it’s worth briefly re-visiting a few of its more blatant abuses of its uniquely privileged position over the past 18 months.
Eagerly embracing the woke agenda, it has ‘advised’ all its staff that only trans-friendly pronouns may now be used for all internal communications and email signatures. (One can’t help but wonder if the Chairman and Director-General still prefer ‘Sir’ as a mode of address?)
Despite cutting its regional staffing quite drastically, it has nevertheless pledged to spend £100million of ‘licence fee’ payers’ money on expanding its diversity agenda in content and production. Whether this will produce any greater diversity of political viewpoints projected at its audience, however, is unclear.
It came very close to overt anti-white, class-hatred, anti-provincial racism in its notorious ‘Karens’ podcast of last summer in which two well-educated, well-off, intensely bien-pensant white women spent their time mocking less-educated, less well-off white women and instructing them on what to think. Typically, it declined to apologise, despite the substantial backlash.
Despite cutting 520 jobs in news and current affairs – including Andrew Neil’s – it nevertheless managed to trumpet as a virtue the fact that its largesse with ‘licence fee’ payers’ cash meant its 12 top earners trousering a combined £7.2million a year. From an organisation sanctifying the NHS and abhorring anyone profiting from providing healthcare, there was no discernible awareness of the incongruity of presenters becoming millionaires via a coercive, regressive tax.
Neither was any embarrassment evident at its spending £800,000 of ‘licence-fee’ payers money on a re-design of its annual accounts, a figure twice the typical spend of similar-sized private sector businesses. Nor at its receipt of 266 specific complaints and a raft of public criticism at its – literal – genuflection to Wokery and Black Lives Matter in its Christmas 2020 edition of The Vicar Of Dibley.
Finally for this list, the BBC in January re-hired, a mere fortnight after his normal retirement, its former director of nations and regions, Ken MacQuarrie, in the £325,000-a-year, impeccably-woke, grandiosely-titled role of Executive Director for Safeguarding Impartiality. As arguably the epitome of corporate marking-your-own-homework, this takes some beating.
Unacceptable and relevant as all this is, what makes the question posed in the title both urgent and unavoidable emerged from the Commons culture Select Committee summoning no fewer than three former BBC Directors-General to appear before it on June 15, the trigger for which was the publication of the Dyson Report into the BBC’s failings, not only surrounding Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana in 1995, but also his subsequent re-hiring.
The committee session promised to be compelling viewing, and in that respect it didn’t disappoint. TCW‘s David Keighley, with the benefit of his prodigious inside knowledge, has already summarised the hearing and its outcome, but the demeanour of the three principal protagonists is directly relevant to my central point, namely, the Johnson government’s continued passive tolerance. Anyone wishing to sit through, as I did, the whole 3 hours 40 minutes performance can do so via the Parliament Live stream.
Only 20 minutes into the hearing, the chairman’s forensic grilling of Lord Hall was already generating from the latter a studied evasiveness on the issue of Bashir’s re-hiring, His Lordship in effect blaming his subordinates. Asked by the chairman how ‘this known liar’ [Bashir] was being paid, Hall denied knowledge of, or involvement in, Bashir’s pay arrangements on the grounds he personally was fully occupied in trying to run the whole of the BBC, before going on also to deny any knowledge of how Bashir came to be allowed to, in effect, moonlight at ITV while being paid by the BBC.
So, ‘Nothing to do with me, Guv’, in effect. Either His Lordship had mislaid his ‘The Buck Stops Here’ sign which presumably once adorned his desk, or this was taking hands-off management to a whole new level. Apparently too, on his watch, the BBC needed official guidelines to explain to its reporters that obtaining a story or an interview based on forged or fake documents wasn’t necessarily best practice.
An exchange with Select Committee member Clive Efford (Lab, Eltham) was especially revealing.
Efford: ‘You had this particular guy [Bashir] being re-employed, and yet no one thought to knock on your door and tell you as DG that he was being re-employed?’
Hall: ‘No, they didn’t.’
Having heard from ex-DG Lord Birt that he expected his (then) colleagues might have had a perfectly satisfactory explanation as to why they thought Bashir was lying (but didn’t tell him), committee chairman Julian Knight (Con, Solihull) got angry with him, practically accusing him of outright lying about the BBC’s treatment (both firing and blacklisting) of the Bashir whistleblower Matt Wiessler.
As David Keighley also recounts, the former DGs’ drive to inculpate others and exculpate themselves for the failings of the Corporation’s top management was relentless, prompting chairman Knight to observe: ‘Well, I’ve heard victim-blaming before, but this is quite something!’
The combined evidence of Lords Hall and Birt can in effect be summarised thus: ‘We re-hired the guy who we either knew or suspected was a liar with previous form in faking documents, who’d been sacked for wrongdoing in the US media, and who we knew was moonlighting for ITV while working for us. But neither of us is in any way to blame.’
Yet, even faced with all this, the Government response remained relatively muted. Culture and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden contented himself with a few bleating bromides about how the BBC ‘needs far-reaching change’ – but evidently, making it change its funding model to one involving willing customers voluntarily parting with their cash to consume its product is rather too ‘far-reaching’.
If an allegedly ‘Conservative’ government, despite being elected on a landslide only 18 months ago, cannot bring itself to abolish an illiberal regressive tax, payable via coercion even by people who don’t want to consume the product which it funds, what is the point of it?
If that same ‘Conservative’ government – with incontrovertible proof that the broadcaster uniquely privileged and protected by this tax not only failed to investigate adequately possibly the most shameful case of fraudulent journalism in half a century but compounded its self-indulgent negligence by re-hiring the perpetrator, to the evident incuriosity and insouciance of the individuals charged with running it – refuses to challenge it, then what is the point of a ‘Conservative’ government or even a ‘Conservative’ Party at all?