Can’t Afford to Tell the Truth

Owen Bennett-Jones on the state of the BBC

Depending on how one defines the BBC’s purpose, its licence fee income of £3.8 billion is either too much or not enough. In a world dominated by Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, it’s ever harder for the BBC to keep up. It is estimated that Netflix alone will have spent upwards of $12 billion on content in 2018. It has a global audience of more than 130 million, a figure that is increasing by more than two million each month. The problem is that, faced with such numbers, the licence fee can never provide sufficient funds to allow the BBC to compete. It’s only a matter of time before Wimbledon and other prized parts of the output go the way of the Premier League and Sir David Attenborough onto better financed channels. That’s not the only difficulty. It is generally reckoned that if the BBC is to justify being the beneficiary of a poll tax, the BBC needs to reach at least 90 per cent of the UK audience, although there is a bit of wiggle room in terms of the period over which that measurement should be made – whether they need to watch once a week, or once a month, or what. Since the BBC’s funding depends on hitting this number, it is a higher priority than the more widely proclaimed purposes of informing, educating and entertaining the audience. To reach 90 per cent the BBC needs to be everywhere: if young people are migrating from TV to YouTube, the BBC has to have a YouTube channel. And it has to work out how to collect the licence fee from YouTube users. The decreasing use of TV sets, which are being replaced by computer and phone screens, will make it harder for the BBC to charge all its viewers. These issues are pressing: from the BBC’s point of view the intensity of the competition and the difficulties of raising revenue are likely to get worse quickly.

Yet anyone witnessing a BBC news operation during a major story would think it had money to spare. It takes more than thirty BBC staff to cover an event such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. For Nelson Mandela’s state memorial service, there were more than a hundred. The only effective check on this is the Daily Mail, which, as part of its long-running campaign to undermine the BBC, sometimes carries stories about these excessive deployments. Managers, for whom the avoidance of bad publicity is by far the highest priority, are so nervous of these articles they have instituted a ‘star chamber’ which attempts, without much success, to whittle down the numbers. Such excess isn’t only expensive but counterproductive. Having so many staff tripping over one another in search of the same story means that potential interviewees – government spokespeople, for example – complain about being called by multiple BBC producers, each claiming to work for a flagship programme more deserving than any other. Occasionally a message appears on news staff computers saying ‘Please don’t bid for X – they have said that if they get another call from the BBC they won’t ever speak to us again.’ These problems arise because each programme controls its own budget, meaning that the economies of scale the BBC should enjoy never materialise. It also means that for BBC journalists, the real competition is with each other. Typically, a ten o’clock news correspondent covering, say, a US party convention, will declare it beneath his or her dignity to file a report for anything other than the national TV news bulletins or the Today programme. Moving down the pecking order, each correspondent in turn asserts their status by refusing to appear on a programme they consider beneath them, at the same time trying to get on to the ones slightly above. At the bottom of the pile, Radio Wales and Radio Scotland are generally served by freelancers who figure that whether it’s Today or Good Morning Scotland, it’s still £40 for three minutes. As none of this is formalised or the subject of orderly contractual obligation, the boundaries are constantly in flux and keenly fought over. In the midst of this, barely any thought is given to what media rivals are doing. For a BBC correspondent it really doesn’t matter if ITV gets an interview with someone. The important thing is that no one else from the BBC gets it. Given that the BBC’s news programmes, under ever tighter managerial control, increasingly look and sound the same, the only one that has a genuine case for deploying its own correspondents is Radio 1’s Newsbeat, which not unreasonably takes the view that all BBC journalists, except its own, sound too posh.

Elsewhere, the BBC’s excessive funding has different manifestations. For an independent programme maker, selling a single TV documentary to the BBC can involve more than ten face to face meetings, dozens of conference calls and several hundred emails over a year or two. Many independents now pitch to the BBC last because, much as they would like to secure a BBC commission, they can’t find an individual person to take responsibility for making a decision and sticking to it. I recently made a series of ten podcasts on the murder of Benazir Bhutto called The Assassination. It took more than a year to get it commissioned, during which time many promises were made and broken, and my emails were routinely left unanswered. By the time the series was finally commissioned, my producer and I had just ten weeks before the first episode was broadcast. When the series briefly reached No. 1 in the UK podcast charts, there was frenzied activity, as all the managers who had even the slightest association with the project, including some who had been very unhelpful, tried to claim credit. I was copied into messages from a dozen managers all congratulating each other. Incidentally, podcasts provide a good illustration of the difficulties the BBC has in operating in the emerging media environment. The last outpost of quality speech radio programming, Radio 4, is now faced with stiff competition from podcasters. Some of the BBC’s own podcasts – take the recent Ratline for example – are better than most radio programmes, and yet schedulers, unable to escape the constraints of inflexible programme timings, run them on Radio 4 only in severely truncated form.

That the BBC can waste so much money is argument enough for radical reform of its funding arrangements. And change is bound to come. Some parts of the organisation have already experienced it. Chris Moore’s Going Gone: How Newsrooms Die is the latest and best-written in a series of memoirs chronicling the recent history of the BBC and specifically the World Service.[*] Moore and I were both World Service lifers, but never in the same part of it. From different vantage points we both witnessed significant changes. Some things, such as audio quality, improved, but editorial standards declined as the channel was transformed from one of the most respected radio stations on earth into a multimedia production house churning out material of highly variable quality. The World Service newsroom used to have a commitment to accuracy so extreme it touched on the absurd. The story goes that one duty editor refused to report on a fire in the Strand which he could see with his own eyes until it was confirmed by Reuters. Despite such rigidities, and in part because of them, the BBC World Service news was famously trustworthy. In addition, the channel had dedicated correspondents, stringers and writers whose deep knowledge of the countries on which they reported resulted in consistently well-informed, clearly written, accurate output. Some of that quality remains, but much of its output today consists of scraps offered by domestic journalists – a source of contamination, in Moore’s words – who consider the World Service a waste of their time. Since the BBC’s upper echelons rarely, if ever, listen to the station, contributing to the World Service does nothing to enhance a reporter’s career prospects. Moore’s account of its decline, overseen by incompetent, ill-motivated and grossly overpaid managers, will be too detailed for some. Emails from on high that most staff deleted unopened are reproduced and closely analysed. He is furious that the senior executives who dismantled the best aspects of the World Service were paid so much while having so little to offer. To his credit, he did not wait until he left the BBC to make this assessment. As a BBC employee, he directly confronted many senior managers about their salary and pension arrangements. It was an approach that won him admirers, as well as some detractors who found his complaints too relentless. But even his strongest critics will enjoy the splendidly intemperate emails to Mark Thompson, Alan Yentob and their ilk in which he set about the hopeless task of urging them to fly economy.

Ever since the series W1A appeared, BBC managers have become a national joke. The problem is structural. Many start out as capable and engaged producers but they can only win promotion by showing ever greater degrees of editorial caution. By the time they reach senior positions, many view the journalists beneath them as lazy, editorially unreliable malcontents. The lack of respect is reciprocated by the journalists, who in time often absorb much of the caution and lack of ambition imbued in them by the prevailing atmosphere. The World Service’s problems really began when an activist manager led an effort to integrate it with the rest of the corporation. Once a proudly independent champion of the BBC’s best values, it became a minor department in the BBC’s sprawling empire. But the World Service had its uses. It’s said that when one senior manager walked into the recently opened New Broadcasting House he was horrified when he looked down at the staff in the huge newsroom, clearly visible from the lobby. ‘They’re all white!’ he said. Someone suggested they could bung the Arabic Service down there to make it look more diverse.

As the World Service was folded into the rest of the BBC, more managers were appointed to the World Service, to match the top-heavy ratio in other parts of the organisation. The system used to be that a junior producer and a day editor dealt with minor editorial problems. Trickier issues were referred up. When I began at the World Service as a junior producer in the 1980s an editorial decision had to be referred up only four times before it landed on the desk of the managing director. Today this system has collapsed. Tough decisions are endlessly batted between departments – programme, legal, editorial policy, multimedia, news and current affairs, and even health and safety – as everyone tries to avoid taking a decision. I presented World Service current affairs programmes on and off for more than 25 years. At the start we had no overall editor, then we had one, two, and ultimately three. Their function was far from clear. They were busy enough: many of them were staring at, and swearing at, their computer screens until six or seven in the evening, but with the exception of one charismatic and highly talented editor, they made next to no impact on the programmes, which trundled along as they always had. Managers with backgrounds in domestic BBC services weren’t equipped to deal with World Service-type problems. One managing director in Bush House admitted to me, without embarrassment, that he lacked the knowledge of foreign affairs to make the editorial decisions that came before him.

And BBC managers are unsackable. In the recent judgment on the Cliff Richard case, besides criticising the rationale behind broadcasting the story in the first place (which, typically enough, was in part to avoid criticism for not broadcasting it), the judge found that the UK news editor was not a reliable witness and that the head of newsgathering had ‘almost wilfully’ failed to ‘acknowledge inconsistencies’ in the BBC case. Both still hold senior positions. Had named executives in the Murdoch empire faced such sharp judicial criticism, BBC presenters would have been asking why there had been no resignations. There was a similar failure of accountability after Newsnight’s decision to drop its investigation into Jimmy Savile’s child abuse, and then not to cover the ITV exposé of the case, after which the editors responsible for the debacle remained employed while the journalists who had tried to publish the story were pushed out.

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When it was founded in 1932 the Empire Service had a clear mission: the provision of news and reminders of home to Britons in far-flung parts of the world. During the Second World War too there was a clear purpose, as the corporation rallied to the war effort, not least, in the World Service’s case, by broadcasting coded messages to Allied agents. After the war some said the BBC should direct its broadcasting at Cold War dissidents. More recently, people have argued the same about their equivalents in Iran, where the BBC has an impressive TV service. Others have wanted it to provide reliable information to people caught up in conflict; others that it should focus on upwardly mobile Asians and Africans. This confusion remains unresolved. The BBC says it doesn’t really matter because its worldwide audience is climbing steadily towards a target of five hundred million. However, the sleights of hand used to achieve these audience figures render them largely meaningless. The trick has been to take the existing content, chop it up into ever smaller gobbets and pump them out on every social media platform imaginable. Anyone who glances at one of these offerings, even if momentarily and by accident, counts as a member of the audience. Without such statistical alchemy, the BBC still attracts mass radio audiences in failed states such as Somalia, Afghanistan and South Sudan. But it seems uninterested in these listeners and has stopped even measuring its audience in some of these countries. The once vast radio audiences of the subcontinent have been lost to local TV channels, but radio is growing in the most advanced markets such as the US, where it consistently outperforms BBC TV. This brings its own problems. Since the BBC is far more likely to report, for example, on climate change rather than, as Fox News might, on crimes committed by immigrants, its agenda is perceived in the US as liberal-leaning. This perception is bolstered by the rebroadcasting of the BBC on public radio stations, whose audiences tend to be liberal. The BBC is now, not unreasonably, associated with one side in the US culture wars.

Underlying all these uncertainties about the BBC World Service’s purpose is the broader question of whether it exists to advance British soft power or to do journalism. The people who work for it would like to think they are journalists, not cultural ambassadors. But the director general, Tony Hall, is not so sure. He has claimed that ‘the World Service is one of the UK’s most important cultural exports and one of our best sources of global influence.’ Similarly, the current director of the World Service Group has argued that the BBC is in the first rank of British brands, alongside the royal family and the Premier League. Such statements are intended to encourage generous licence fee settlements and top-up funds for the World Service. But where does that leave the journalism? The BBC tries to sidestep the problem by arguing that good journalism promotes British soft power. And that can sometimes be true. For example, the editorial decision to report conflicting Argentinian and British casualty figures during the Falklands War, even after Thatcher objected, not only enhanced the BBC World Service’s journalistic credibility but also Britain’s image as a fair-minded nation.

Despite such flashes of editorial independence, there is plenty of evidence that the BBC, in both its international and domestic manifestations, deserves the epithet ‘state broadcaster’. The most important moment in the recent history of BBC news was the publication of the Hutton Inquiry report into the circumstances surrounding the death of the scientist David Kelly. The report was highly critical of the BBC and, ever since, editorial controls on output have become stifling. Most editors are less concerned about what should be in a programme than with what should be left out for fear of – and this language is actually used in New Broadcasting House – being non-compliant. For all the talk of how much the BBC values original journalism, it is in fact very nervous of it. The vast bulk of its output merely turns around sanctioned news from officials, corporations and NGOs, or curates stories generated by other news organisations. Most BBC journalists neither break stories nor see it as their job to do so. It is not unknown for BBC journalists who do want to break new ground to leak their stories to the Times or the Guardian. Once editors see it in print they will be more comfortable broadcasting it.

But for all the damage Hutton’s report inflicted, it only accentuated problems that already existed and which arose from the power relationship inherent in the licence fee or, in the World Service’s case in the past, direct government funding. When BBC journalists went off-script during the Troubles in Northern Ireland they were dismissed. Until the 1990s MI5, with the BBC’s full co-operation and lying denials, monitored the political opinions of its staff. As recently as 2014, the BBC’s monitoring service in Caversham was generating material for the British intelligence services that was made available only to a select group of senior BBC journalists. When I asked to see it I was judged too unreliable to be given access. And when the BBC in 2015 secured £85 million in new funding for the foreign language services, the decision followed a strategic defence and security review. In fact, domestic BBC services tried to grab much of the money, but that’s another story (it might make an interesting topic at a select committee hearing).

Russia Today, Iran’s Press TV, Qatar’s Al Jazeera and the BBC all reflect the views of the societies from which they emanate. If the World Service were a genuinely global broadcaster rather than a Western one, its editorial agenda would give equal weight to the pro-Muslim Brotherhood views of Al Jazeera, the anti-Nato attitudes of Russia Today and the hostility to Israel of Press TV. Supporters of liberal democracy would like to think that while Russian, Iranian and Qatari journalists working for their international broadcasters are coerced to follow a news agenda imposed from on high, their BBC counterparts are free to express themselves as they see fit. It’s not quite as simple as that. The process by which governments get journalists to say what they want them to can be brutal, but needn’t be. One of the most memorable discussions I moderated at the BBC brought together two master spin doctors: Alastair Campbell and John Nagenda, who managed the media for President Museveni in Uganda. Much of the programme dealt with the techniques used by British officials – some of them former BBC employees – such as timing the release of information to control the news agenda, or securing positive coverage by denying or granting journalists access to leading politicians and military frontlines. After a while Nagenda laughed: ‘I just use the penal code,’ he said. As for the claim that the BBC is independent of government influence, I have never believed it since conducting an interview with the then foreign secretary Jack Straw in 2004. Our interaction came at a moment when there was a slight difference in the line being taken by the Foreign Office and Number Ten about the various inquiries into Iraq – exactly the sort of thing BBC journalists were paid to niggle away at. When I kept going on about it, Straw eventually lost his temper and swore on tape. Scoop! The difficulty was that the Foreign Office funded the World Service. As I left King Charles Street, I called the BBC to say I had a story. By the time I got back to the office, a manager had already called FCO officials to apologise. Straw’s loss of temper was never broadcast and the offending part of the tape was purged from the archive.

The licence fee creates similar incentives not to upset those in power or those who might acquire it, as the Today programme’s dogged failure to challenge the false claims of Brexiteers has shown. The BBC has papered over its failure to challenge authority by developing a house style of aggressive interviewing which gives the impression of holding power to account without actually doing so. Having conducted more than my fair share of these exchanges, I eventually reached the conclusion that they were essentially false. Yes, BBC presenters seek the truth, but do so certain in the knowledge that it won’t be forthcoming. The politician plays along, pretending to have been given a hard time.

For all these difficulties, the BBC still enjoys high levels of public support. That is partly a reflection of the extreme bias in the rest of the media. For example, the two national dailies that have strongly and consistently opposed leaving the EU, the Guardian and the Financial Times, together have a circulation of 334,000. The papers that have strongly and consistently backed Brexit have a joint circulation just shy of four million. Even though BBC editors, among so many other failures over Brexit, continue to give the small minority of business leaders who support leaving the EU a disproportionate amount of airtime compared to the vast majority who oppose it, they at least allow Remainers some airtime. By providing some alternative to the unrepresentative opinions pumped out by the campaigning right-wing press, the BBC strikes a chord with millions of British people: it remains the most trusted news brand in the country – although it is more trusted by those on the left than by those on the right. Its high-quality coverage of national events also contributes to a well of genuine and sustained support. Despite the doubts of Brexiteers, Remainers and Corbynistas, all of whom believe the BBC is biased against them, the levels of trust, give or take the occasional fluctuation at moments such as the Savile debacle, have remained broadly consistent over the last decade.

However, those who don’t trust the BBC – around 20 per cent to 35 per cent of the audience depending which survey you believe – are rejecting what they think of as fake news with ever greater fervour. Because he took the phrase as his own, these developments are associated with Donald Trump. But others saw this coming a decade before he became president. During the George W. Bush administration, the senior US journalist Ron Suskind encountered a White House official who admonished him for living in what he called the ‘reality-based community’, in which solutions emerged from the study of evidence and discernible reality. ‘That’s not the way the world really works any more,’ the official said. ‘We create our own reality.’

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All this poses a significant challenge to an organisation such as the BBC, which has historically justified its public funding in part on the basis of its reputation for providing accurate information. If no one can agree that there is such a thing, what then? Fact-checkers can point out any number of inaccuracies in Fox News’s content but its viewers won’t change their minds. In the post-truth world, being right isn’t as important as being believed. It may be that in twenty years’ time, the impartiality requirement that comes with the licence fee will look anachronistic because it will have become imperative to answer the tribal television news networks such as Fox News with rival tribal television networks. American TV news today creates a self-referential world of half-truths and alleged plots that is consumed by its viewers for hours every day. Many Fox viewers don’t watch anything else and describe the channel as an important part of their lives. Many in the UK will resist the idea of partial TV, but services such as the BBC, unable to participate openly in the culture wars, look leaden when compared to ideologically driven channels such as Fox and its leftist shadow MSNBC. In the UK the radio station LBC is hiring partial hosts. But because it tries to have presenters from both left and right, it lacks the crucial element underlying Fox’s awesome agenda-setting power: the creation of a complete information system in which true believers get all their news from a single point of view. While it is easy to deplore such broadcasting and to rely on the virtues of fact-checking, the left has to ask how it is going to enthuse its base if it considers itself above using similar tactics to Fox. Most BBC producers would probably choose to oppose Fox rather than join it, but it’s not clear that they have sufficient ruthlessness and ideological passion to make effective cultural warriors.

Although the BBC insists on its commitment to impartiality there are times when it will take sides and tell the truth. This is not through any newfound sense of duty but because it fears that, on some issues, a failure to take sides will lead to bad publicity. The climate change lobby, for example, has become sufficiently powerful to persuade the BBC that giving climate change deniers airtime amounts to false balance. Similarly, the BBC would be happy to assert that the MMR vaccination doesn’t cause autism for fear of the backlash if it didn’t. But the acknowledgment that false balance exists does not extend to Brexit. Even though the BBC has a fact-checking service, its findings are buried pretty deep in the output and journalists do not feel able forcefully to contradict Brexiteers’ tendentious claims. It is unimaginable that the ten o’clock news would lead a bulletin with: ‘Leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson today made false assertions about a “Canada plus” deal.’ CNN, which seems to have abandoned impartiality, recently ran a caption under a shot of the White House spokeswoman which read: ‘White House denies Trump was mocking Kavanaugh accuser after Trump mocks Kavanaugh accuser.’ Were one to ask the BBC to explain why it won’t follow CNN, managers would come up with a reply along these lines: ‘Our commitment to due impartiality is unshakeable; we report what people say, it is for viewers to make up their minds as to who to believe.’ What they wouldn’t say is: ‘We can’t afford to tell the truth if it means alienating a politician who could in the future have power over our funding.’

Those who value the BBC will be nervous about the future. But, given that the licence fee is unsustainable, the important question is how to manage the change that is coming. It is worth keeping in mind that things could be improved. The BBC’s failure to challenge authority, its nervousness about telling the truth and its inefficiency are all related to the way it is funded. New arrangements – subscription seems the most likely candidate – should enable it to remain an important non-privately-owned cultural institution. After all, Sky subscribers pay far more than the licence fee, providing Sky with an income more than twice as big as the BBC’s for a far less comprehensive service. Government subsidies, presumably distributed through quangos, could provide extra funding for output in areas in which the market is unlikely to deliver, such as the Proms, high-quality speech radio and children’s TV. The BBC will never embrace such a future: giving up a guaranteed multi-billion-pound income backed by the criminal justice system isn’t easy. Instead, it will seek to defend the licence fee to the bitter end. Whatever funding proposals are made, the BBC will still need to confront the post-truth world, either embracing it by going tribal or trying to make due impartiality look relevant in a world where an increasing number of people want to see their opinions clearly reflected in the media they consume. Picking a way through these challenges will require a nimbleness an organisation the size of the BBC is unlikely to achieve. As the more energetic and capable senior executives mutter when they leave for the private sector, it is too big to be reformed.

[*] Chris Moore, 254 pp., £10.99, October, 978 0 9957707 7 5.