When, in a democracy-suborning inversion of our unwritten political constitution, our government and our uniquely State-privileged media are so closely intertwined in a mutually reinforcing relationship as it now appears, writing about only one specific manifestation of it may open a can of worms.
My TCW article last Friday argued that the appointments of Jess Brammar as the BBC’s new Executive News Editor and particularly that of Nadine Dorries as Culture and Media Secretary represented not the struggle between the Corporation and the government that they were intended to depict, but a unified strategy to ensure that the interests of the BBC and the Johnson administration remained closely aligned.
But in only just over a year, there have been no fewer than five senior appointments critical to the governance of the BBC, of which Brammar and Dorries were only two. The other three have been of equal, if not greater, significance to that alignment.
Since Tim Davie’s promotion to BBC Director-General from early September 2020, the doubts expressed by TCW‘s David Keighley about his reforming zeal have been vindicated. I listed some of his failings in July, but several recent ones are more egregious.
He has failed to curb the Corporation’s institutional bias in any significant way. His instructions to its presenters to observe scrupulously the impartiality demanded by its protected status and its Charter are openly ignored by the likes of Emily Maitlis and Gary Lineker. His authority to enforce this seems to extend barely to his own office door.
My TCW article last week criticised Davie’s role in, initially, making the BBC a key conduit for the Johnson government’s anti-democratic psychological manipulation on Covid, and subsequently announcing the Corporation’s de-politicisation of climate change, enabling it to dispense with both accuracy and impartiality. Both changes, however, are now merging to reveal a disturbing vision.
The role of the government’s shadowy Behavioural Insights Team, aka the ‘Nudge Unit’, in disseminating Covid propaganda, first on the virus’ fear-factor and more latterly on the vaccine, has emerged only gradually over the past 18 months. Now, in the wake of COP26, it is extending its tentacles into the (fortuitously) newly de-politicised realm of climate change and the Johnson government’s Net Zero decarbonisation eco-agenda.
The BBC, along with 11 other UK media brands, have signed up to the Behavioural Insights Team’s new ‘Climate Content Pledge‘, under which coverage of the issue will both be expanded out of the confines of news and current affairs reporting into everyday programming, and presented in such a way as subliminally to direct behaviour towards acceptance and, eventually, agreement.
In other words, blatant propaganda, stripped of the need to be either factually accurate or politically balanced, and on the two most important and far-reaching political issues of the moment. No prizes for guessing which media brand will be the most diligent in complying.
When the Johnson government appointed Richard Sharp as BBC chairman last January, I predicted that Sharp was unlikely to rock the complacent BBC’s boat for all sorts of reasons. The reports that ‘senior BBC figures expressed relief’ at his appointment, having feared the arrival at their head of an arch-critic such as Lord (Charles) Moore, seemed especially significant.
Little if anything has happened subsequently to challenge that view. Given the controversies in which the BBC has since embroiled itself, Sharp appears to be almost invisible. The former BBC journalist and author of The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda, Robin Aitken, was correct in predicting that: ‘In choosing Mr Sharp, a walking caricature of the Establishment, the Johnson government is signalling that it’s opting for a quiet life rather than conflict with the BBC.’
Not merely a quiet life, but a congenial relationship, perhaps. Not only had multimillionaire Sharp been a consistent large donor to the Tory Party, coughing up over £400,000 since 2001; he had also been an adviser to Johnson during the latter’s time as Mayor of London, as well as both a previous Goldman Sachs colleague – boss, actually – of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and an unpaid adviser to him on the economic response to the Covid outbreak.
Of course, none of this is to question Sharp’s probity. But if you’re Prime Minister and Chancellor respectively in a ‘Conservative’ government that’s now neo-Keynesian on economic policy, Green on environmental policy, and Woke on socio-cultural policy, might it not be helpful to have a substantial party donor and former adviser to both of you as chairman of the like-minded media group with the dominant market share in news and current affairs coverage?
Especially one on whom you’re relying so much to ‘spread the government’s message on health safety’ that it’s among those benefiting from the nearly £200million of taxpayers’ money you spent during in 2020 alone in buying media coverage?
Equally, if you’re the chairman of that media group, might it not be reciprocally helpful to have two former colleagues as Prime Minister and Chancellor respectively in the government formed by the party to which you’ve been a major donor?
Especially if you wanted to persuade them, within only two weeks of your appointment, to rule out even decriminalising non-payment of your regressive-tax ‘licence-fee‘, and within only a further two months convince your Parliamentary oversight body not to threaten your group’s protected revenue stream by changing its coercive funding model until 2028 at the very earliest?
Finally, notwithstanding its previous incumbent having left at the end of 2020, the chair of Ofcom, the UK’s – and thus the BBC’s – media regulator is still vacant, since our dripping-wet former Culture and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden – despite implausibly denying it – bowed to blatant anti-conservative lobbying by the ‘liberal’-Left mainstream and Big Tech social media against the appointment of former Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre, and agreed to re-start the selection process with a new panel.
However, with Dacre still in the running,* that lobbying has predictably resurfaced. There are threats of legal action, either to veto his appointment or to stop him even reapplying. There are accusations that the new panel is being rigged to ease his appointment, ironically coming mainly from sources which arguably may have influenced the original panel to reject him.
Into this now steps the Prime Minister’s sister to warn against Dacre’s appointment. It might be churlish to suspect Rachel Johnson’s objections owe more to Dacre’s description of her ‘journalism’ as ‘giving banality a bad name’ than selfless concern for the integrity of Ofcom’s media oversight; but all the same, the timing is intriguing. Given the simultaneously Machiavellian but inept way in which the Downing Street bunker operates, it’s tempting to wonder if this is an ‘authorised’ intervention; in other words, PM Johnson encouraging his sibling to signal his consent to Dacre’s rejection a second time.
If this occurs and a less ‘controversial’, i.e. more passive and BBC-accommodating Ofcom chair is appointed, that would mean three BBC-related appointments all conducive to not disturbing the cosy alignment of the BBC’s and the Johnson government’s interests; or rather five, counting the Brammar and Dorries appointments discussed in my previous TCW article.
Bad for pluralist politics, bad for objective and impartial journalism, and above all, bad for democracy. The BBC-Government cabal now resembles nothing so much as a mutual protection racket, funded by us, its victims.