With the resignation of Tony Hall as director general, there is talk of an ‘existential crisis’ at the BBC. The corporation is facing yet more budget cuts and the further centralisation of commissioning. Hall’s departure follows Boris Johnson’s threat to boycott the Today programme and Samira Ahmed’s successful equal pay claim. The prime minister and his consigliere Dominic Cummings are said to want to intervene in the appointment of the new director general. Who will come to the BBC’s rescue?
Even if the BBC’s decision is taken to apply only to the constraints on Naga Munchetty’s professional role as a journalist, it sends a message that people of colour working in television must approach racism in public discourse as a matter of abstract interest, to be handled neutrally.
In 2008, a Newsnight producer called me to ask if I would appear in the studio with the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, to debate ‘the white working class’. The BNP had been gaining seats on local councils since the mid-2000s, and Griffin was engaged in a campaign to make it seem a respectable electoral choice. I told the producer he had to be joking. What was he doing even thinking of having a fascist on the programme? He seemed mystified by my response. Wasn’t it a good thing that the BBC were listening to the concerns of ‘the white working class’? And shouldn’t we have these debates so the fascists won’t win? No, I said: fascists belong under stones, not on national television. Griffin didn’t appear on Newsnight that time; perhaps they couldn’t find anyone on the left willing to go on with him.
There has scarcely been a time in the BBC’s 95-year history when it hasn’t faced accusations of political bias. But it has been decades since the criticisms emanated so strongly from the left. This is a consequence of the collapse of a centre ground which had long been the BBC’s political fulcrum. As the Labour Party shifted leftwards, attracting an unprecedented influx of new members, its MPs and party bureaucracy fought back. And since the BBC is deeply embedded in Westminster, and routinely defers to the consensus there in setting the parameters of political debate, its political reporting has been skewed against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.
We should be very worried about the BBC, but not because of its real or alleged failings. It is a remarkable institution, one of the few British organisations known throughout the world, and known everywhere simply by its initials. It is by some measures the largest and most trusted international broadcaster. It is a class of institution, which we might call ‘public’, that Britain does extraordinarily well: its universities are another example. For a country more dependent for its standing on ‘soft power’ than most, these are very ‘soft powerful’. And they are now all under attack. They are disliked and sometimes hated because they are both public and successful. None of them fit Britain’s now dominant ideological values. Cable and Willetts, for instance, will ruin the universities rather than admit that their historic structure is the reason for their success, since that success is a reproach to these values.
On the Today programme on Saturday morning, John Humphrys asked the then director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle, if he was going to resign. Entwistle replied, awkwardly, that he would plough on: he would find out how and why Newsnight had aired a segment repeating old, discredited allegations that a powerful Conservative figure from the 1980s and 1990s had abused children at a Welsh care home. Twelve hours later, Entwistle resigned.
Rory Stewart may have been the first Tory MP into Libya after Gaddafi’s ousting from Tripoli (though let’s not forget the battle for Sirte is still going on), but he certainly wasn’t the last. David Cameron and William Hague were hard on his heels. The prime minister had a tricky line to walk as he addressed the crowds in Benghazi’s Tahrir Square (he and Nicolas Sarkozy were ‘greeted as heroes’, according to British state television): how to take credit for the regime change but at the same time downplay the level of foreign intervention? The former (former?) PR man handled it with his trademark plummy aplomb.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the intervention in Libya, the BBC could do with toning down the gung-ho jingoism of their coverage, not least in the photographs illustrating the story on their website. Explosions! Fireworks!!Planes!!! BRITISH planes!!!! When did they make Tony Scott director general?
According to the campaign YES! to fairer votes, the BBC's 'top brass' have circulated a memo 'that demands that their staff stop describing "electoral reform" as "electoral reform".' A quick search of the BBC website reveals that until 20 January the words 'electoral reform' were used fairly often in relation to the upcoming referendum on AV, but since then have been applied only to Jersey and Nigeria. The BBC's reasoning is that The term “reform” explicitly means an “improvement” or “change for the better”.
The BBC is encouraging its specialist reporters to blog, as a way of going into subjects at greater length and a greater degree of wonkery than they can manage in their broadcasting. The results are often interesting, especially on the economics side, where writers such as Stephanie Flanders and Robert Peston often allow themselves to get more technical than they can when they're appearing on any of the Beeb's various news outlets. Here is an absolute corker of a piece from Paul Mason, offering 'Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere', from UCL to Tahrir Square. Here are some of them:
With the historical memory of the country virtually non-existent it's good to know there are a few wise heads still around at the BBC who are, at least, aware of what's going on in the world even if they can't share this knowledge with viewers who pay to keep the BBC going as a public service. Adam Curtis's documentaries are usually very good but he makes only one or two a year. Why on earth he isn't given a weekly late-night history slot escapes me. Time surely for BBC viewers to organise a petition or threaten a licence-fee boycott if the Corporation continues to degenerate. In the meantime read Curtis's blog and learn about Yemen.
Most African herbalists cause no more damage than dispensers of alternative medicines on our high streets. Every now and then, however, a sinister practitioner will advise a very special client that while roots and animal parts are useful, the most potent medicines are made from human blood, liver, spleen and heart. Yes, it is dreadful, he whispers, but there are unscrupulous people about, and I have heard that your rival is in the market for the stuff. What choice do you have? When one big man is persuaded, his peers are immediately alerted. In consequence medicine murders tend to crop up in clusters, the clients typically rich and powerful men. The anti-human sacrifice and trafficking unit of the Uganda police recorded 26 cases in 2008 and 28 in 2009, and a number of suspects were brought to trial. Enter Tim Whewell of the BBC’s Crossing Continents programme.
Justin Webb, the BBC reporter, has returned from the US to assume new responsibilities in London, but it seeems as if he isn't pleased to be in the UK. On his blog, Webb says: 'Now back in the UK I find myself utterly at sea – I say hello to people I pass in the street. They lunge on, muttering insults.' Then, without offering any examples of what he means, he goes on to write about the 'kindness' of Americans, his affection for American cars, his dislike of Swindon, his sense that Britain may be a more violent country than the US, the peaceableness of Americans and their moral fibre. He makes one of those sweeping pseudo-lyrical observations that sound nice but mean almost nothing: ‘As for America's future – this country is full of space and youth and and hope.
The BBC has released some papers relating to the hiring and the employment of Guy Burgess. One of the more amusing details is Burgess’s habit of writing memos on the back of the expense forms; another, his fondness for first-class travel and his justifications for it: If you will refer to your papers you will see that in the past I successfully established the principle of travelling first class when at work, under war-time conditions, on Corporation business. I think you will find this on your predecessor's minutes.