Should the Left Defend the BBC Against Johnson?

30 March 2021

In an ever-crowded media space, Dave Kellaway asks if the state broadcaster is fit for the 21st Century?

Most of us on the left felt the BBC was in many ways as bad as the rest of the mainstream media in crucifying Jeremy Corbyn when for a time he threatened the stability and moderation of the British two-party system.

We all remember how in the last general election the BBC let Johnson off the hook by letting their attack dog, Andrew Neil, interview all the other political leaders except Boris Johnson. Then there was the way the audience’s laughter against Johnson in the Question Time election show was mysteriously edited out in all the sound bites and re-runs. The different ways the supposedly rampant antisemitism in Labour was treated compared to the Islamophobia prevalent inside the Tory party was another example of the failure of the much-vaunted BBC impartiality. Impartiality is not just a case of timing the amount of coverage each party receives but also which policies are prioritised for debate and the general tone and narrative used in dealing with them. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was critical of both Labour and Tory manifestos but its analysis of the Labour one received much more attention. And everybody knows about Laura Kuenssburg’s use of inside Tory sources. For more analysis of how the BBC treated Labour see Peter Oborne’s article or the Media Reform Coalition’s report.

The myth of impartiality

Nobody is suggesting that BBC journalists are taken to a room and told how to report in a way that reproduces a moderate range of political views that largely excludes any anti-capitalist or radical ecological positions. Its news coverage is very much dominated by the mainstream press media and news agencies which are nearly all controlled and owned by corporate interests. Why else is the daily discussion of the main newspapers such a constant feature of all news shows? Commentators or pundits are nearly always people who fit within a spectrum from moderate social democracy to neoliberalism. The BBC recruits overwhelmingly from Oxbridge and a narrow social class even if has made recent attempts to improve its gender and ethnic balance.

The claimed culture of balance and impartiality exists within this constrained framework of views. To a degree, the framework has moved to the right as the labour movement has experienced defeats and setbacks over the last forty years. I remember the days when the TUC or trade union leaders were regularly given airtime to discuss industrial disputes or economic policies. There used to be BBC industrial correspondents. Thatcher’s political victory over working people was reflected in the way the BBC became more aligned to the management culture and practice of commercial television. Its in-house production of programmes was decimated and it began the tendency of competing on the same terrain as the worse commercial TV trash.

Tory Culture wars

It suits the Tories to continue to parade the false myth of left-wing or liberal bias at the BBC – today re-embroidered as woke, metropolitan ‘remainers’ against the honest, nationalist values of their new friends in the northern red wall seats. As Owen Jones has pointed out in a recent article:

“It is a campaign based on myths and deception, but it is extraordinary clever. It allows the right to police the BBC: to make the corporation fearful of crossing certain lines, and to ensure the right sets the political agenda.”

Just the other week the new Director-General, and ex-Tory councillor, Tim Davie, has announced that comedy shows are too left-wing and must reflect ‘a broader range of voices’. So shows like the Mash Report have been dropped and the Radio 4 News Quiz programme is under threat. Another Tory donor, ex Goldman Sachs banker, Richard Sharp, has been appointed BBC chairman. A Murdoch newspaper manager, Paul Potts, is the ‘senior independent panel member set up to advise the government on who to appoint as the new Ofcom chief who is responsible for regulating the mass media. Paul Dacre ex-Daily Mail editor is being mooted as the likely appointment.

Attacking the License Fee

George Osborne, as Tory Chancellor, cut the government subsidy of the over-75s free TV license – taking £750 million out of the BBC budget in one fell swoop. Many Tories, including Johnson himself, have questioned the continuation of the license fee system which has underpinned the partial, very relative ‘independence’ of the public broadcaster from direct ministerial control. The expansion of new digital platforms and streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime are presented as justification for abandoning the license fee and moving to an optional subscription service. Young people are invoked – despite evidence that they still use a lot of BBC services – and the fact that increasingly people are asking not to pay the license fee. Indeed the Tories, led by Johnson, even proposed decriminalisation of non-payment of the license fee. Given the furore it triggered they dropped the idea.

In fact, an all-party committee of MPs recently appeared to kick the voluntary subscription service plan into the long grass:

“The government either needs to come out with a strong alternative to the licence fee that it can put to parliament, or strongly support the current model for at least the next charter period (2028-2038) and actively aid the BBC in driving down evasion.”

Not all Tories are totally hostile to the BBC. Some have long valued it as a prestigious British institution and an instrument of soft power. A number publicly came out and criticised a Sunday Times article that relayed Downing Street’s wish to force the BBC to move to a subscription service. These Tories see the advantages of maintaining institutions that reproduce a sense of national unity and ‘common’ values. Cut it back, keep critical voices shut out, make it more corporate but laud it for its role in educational services during the pandemic or for community cohesion. In any case, any radical change is not technically possible until 2027 at the earliest.

How should the Left respond?

As Tom Mills, in several excellent articles (here and here) has pointed out there are two opposed but incorrect ways of reacting.

The first is to remind us all of what it did to Jeremy Corbyn and how its so-called reputation for balance and impartiality is a myth. For instance how long did it take to abandon the idea of balancing anti-scientific views on global warming with the position of 99% of scientists or how it often just unquestionably repeats Police press briefings that are later proved to be economical with the truth such as the famous broken bones in Bristol? I have seen plenty of people on Facebook say that the BBC is no better than Russia Today and it is just state propaganda.

However, the BBC is not just its political reporting. There is all the cultural and educational output that it produces that the commercial media are just not going to do because of their pure market orientation. Just to mention two examples among many – the Planet Earth series with David Attenborough or Steve McQueen’s Small Axe drama series about the post-war Black experience. Just as a news organisation it is necessary to defend the BBC since it would be very hard in some future scenario to rebuild such a public institution from scratch. The obvious example to keep in mind is whether we think we would be better off with the US system of corporate news networks with Fox News on the rise. Just think how much more difficult it would be to build a more democratic broadcast system starting with Fox News rather that a public service. As Tom Mills says:

“Far better to draw on the promise of public media that the BBC still embodies, its accrued legitimacy, infrastructure and expertise, and to repurpose it towards genuinely public and democratic purposes.”

Defending the BBC is not enough

The diametrically opposed but equally wrong second response is to take a purely defensive approach. This sugar coats the reality of the BBC and is the classic liberal and social democratic response. It proposes maybe some different personnel and a few more regulations but essentially treats the BBC like a national treasure that is fundamentally a good thing. You can actually end up protecting a certain patrician Oxbridge ownership of what constitutes good culture and political reporting.

What about the license fee? Its strength is recognition that the BBC is a universal public service potentially serving all of the people, unlike the corporate subscription services who are not interested in any broadcasting areas that are not profitable. One example of this link to a public service ethos is the way the license fee has helped maintain the Welsh language through the development of a distinct channel in Wales.

Sky, Netflix, and other companies build parcels of services to particular demographics. There is no coherent universal service and whole areas are ignored. It can also be argued that a not-for-profit service means that no money is diverted to private shareholders and any surplus can be fed back into making good quality programmes. The income generated by worldwide sales of Planet Earth work exactly in that way. Capitalists sell information, education, and culture through its development of restrictive markets. We want to make them accessible to everyone. A radical transformation of the BBC could involve the building of an alternative to the current commercial digital platforms. It could complement Labour’s manifesto promise of free, universal broadband.

Retaining the license fee would also entail making it fairer so those who can afford more should pay their fair share. A body independent of government would control it and make recommendations for any increases. It could be paid through the internet service providers. Linking it to the council tax would make it fairer.

The Media Reform Group, of whom Tom Mills is a leading member, has developed a whole programme for how to transform the BBC. Its demands can be used to mobilise people now and point to a progressive future for the broadcasting media. Ideas include elections by license payers and staff for the BBC board of governors – cutting out the government appointments of the key posts and then the appointment by them of other board members. There would also be governance on a regional and national basis with further elections. Regulation would take into account the public interest rather than market considerations as much of it does today. Commissioning of programming should also be democratised and involve the whole community. Delivering on diversity, including class, would be another priority.

Despite all its weaknesses the BBC still represents a gain for working people that should be defended against privatisation. We need to build the widest possible unity to defend it and engage the debate about what a transformed BBC would look like. Demands for its autonomy, democratisation, and its potential to unleash popular creativity can be raised as part of a mobilisation for a socialist alternative. Enjoying public TV without advertising might seem a small thing but it is expressive of a space for culture and information that limits the control of corporate power and the market. Let’s not forget it.

Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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