If Not Now, Then When?

How many more instances of the out-of-control BBC’s blatant bias does the Johnson Government need to make it finally resolve to tackle it?

Note: longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Tuesday 02 June 2020   

In an excellent article on 21 May at The Conservative Woman, News-Watch’s David Keighley forensically demolished, point by point, the bias-driven inaccuracies and assumptions in the BBC’s now-infamous 27 April edition of Panorama.  He correctly located the programme firmly within the Coronavirus iteration of Project Fear which the Corporation had been running, and still was – or even still is. 

Anyone who watched it will remember how every failure by the NHS, and even by its semi-autonomous linked agencies, in dealing with the COVID19 pandemic was invariably deemed to be exclusively the fault of the Government – even where it had no direct control or even involvement – in what was in effect a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party

Which makes the Government’s over-timid response, understandably touched on only briefly in David Keighley’s article, all the more deserving of criticism.  It could manage little, if anything, more than a half-hearted squeak of protest delivered by Culture and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden, whom I’ve previously criticised as an ineffectual, paleo-Cameroon careerist, and who increasingly comes across as a twerp to rival even his (politically) late and unlamented namesake Oliver Letwin.

MoS headline Sun 03-May-2020 Dowden-BBC

In the light of subsequent events, it’s worth re-visiting and analysing Dowden’s weak, anodyne and platitudinous admonition to the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall in more detail.

First, there’s the excessive “Dear Tony” familiarity; at the risk of being stuffy, I’d suggest this is singularly inappropriate in the current circumstances, and does nothing to dispel the impression of what ought to be a formal arm’s-length relationship in the public interest being conducted more like a friendly exchange between fellow-members of the same like-minded elite.

Dowden urges Hall to ‘uphold the highest standards in relation to integrity and impartiality‘.  At the risk, this time, of being pedantic, the use of ‘uphold‘’ here implies that those ‘highest standards of integrity and impartiality‘ are in fact the norm from which the Panorama programme was merely an isolated, uncharacteristic, aberration.  That might come as a surprise to the 69 per cent of respondents to the late December 2019 Savanta-ComRes poll who said they trusted the BBC less even than ITV News on impartiality and accuracy.

Dowden concludes by referring to the need to maintain ‘public confidence‘ in ‘the BBC’s long-standing reputation for fair and balanced reporting‘.  That, in turn, might come as a surprise to the 75 per cent of respondents to the (also late-December) Public First poll supporting abolition of the ‘licence fee’ outright, and the 60 per cent favouring the decriminalisation of non-payment.

As for the Mail‘s headline, Dowden’s pleadings represented, not so much a ‘blast’ as a half-hearted pretence at a gentle rap over the knuckles.  They virtually invited a contemptuous response from the BBC.  It has not been long in coming.

The Corporation remains unapologetic about its practice, especially noticeable in that edition of Panorama but by no means restricted to it, of habitually presenting as ‘impartial’ ‘experts’ people who turn out on closer investigation to be fiercely partisan, hard-Left, committed anti-conservatism activists with a distinct political agenda. Even Sky News has been shamed into improving itself a little on this score; but not the BBC. 

It participated enthusiastically in, almost to the extent of heading up, the media lynch-mob in its witch-hunt against Dominic Cummings.  Acres have already been written on this, to which I don’t propose to add; except to point TCW readers to former BBC staffer Robin Aitken’s excellent Daily Telegraph article. summarising the underlying background.  Two statements, in particular, stand out, and they explain a great deal:

he is the BBC’s single most dangerous opponent, because he is one of the very few people on the Right who clearly understands that the BBC presents an obstacle to everything that conservatives believe in

and

the BBC hold Cummings and the Prime Minister responsible for Brexit, which for an organisation that led the battle to prevent the referendum result ever taking effect (and very nearly succeeded), is a very bitter charge indeed.’

Which brings us to L’Affaire Maitlis. This has also not lacked for apposite comment.  Like David Sedgwick’s at Comment Central, Charles Moore’s analysis at the Daily Telegraph could leave even the most sceptical reader in no doubt that Maitlis’ partisan monologue at the start of Tuesday 26 May’s Newsnight was a gross breach of BBC impartiality, (and so presumably must also have been a gross breach of her contract of employment?)

As Moore suggested, there was a dual purpose to Maitlis’ diatribe, which incidentally can’t be explained away as spontaneous: it was read from a teleprompter, so must have been pre-scripted, which therefore also means it must have been subject to BBC editorial control.  The first aim was simply to hector the audience, but the second, ancillary aim was to virtue-signal to Maitlis’ like-minded professional and social milieux, to reassure them that she too holds the ‘correct’ metropolitan left-‘liberal’ opinions prevalent in their circle.  

Less remarked on, though, was the hint of deception, or at least complicity in deception, by Maitlis’ colleagues and therefore, by inference, the BBC itself.  Remember, Maitlis had signed off from the Tuesday edition with the promise See you tomorrow‘; but, as speculation over the reason for her non-appearance on the following (Wednesday) evening’s edition grew, her Newsnight friend, colleague and Editor Katie Razzall tweeted thus:

But by 9.32.pm on that Wednesday evening, Razzall as Editor must surely have known what we the audience then didn’t, because it emerged publicly only on the Thursday morning: that the BBC, far from ‘suspending’ Maitlis, had in effect surrendered to her imperious demand to be given a night (in the end, two) off, because she was ‘furious’ at it for having the cheek actually to reprimand her, however gently (and inadequately), for her blatant breach of its impartiality requirement as her employer.  Razzall, therefore, looks to have taken the opportunity to appear supportive and principled, but in reality, was arguably just being disingenuous, if not two-faced.

As might have been predicted (and was probably inevitable), the ineffectiveness of the BBC’s excessively kid-gloves response was shown starkly only a few days later when Maitlis, far from being chastised, doubled-down and offered a repeat performance.       

Taking everything into account, the tweet below is hard to find fault with.

When Number Ten is reportedly ‘incandescent’ over Maitlis’ diatribes,  and 40,000 people went to the trouble of lodging a formal complaint about it with the BBC in a mere two days, it’s hard to imagine just how much more provocation Johnson’s Government actually needs before finally resolving to address the BBC question.  Yet, judging by Dowden’s limp reaction earlier in May, the answer seems to be: ‘quite a lot’.

At least on the timing of any action, a decision to keep the powder dry for the moment, looks sound.  It makes sense to keep the file labelled ‘BBC’ in the pending tray, albeit at the top, until COVID19 and Brexit are safely out of the way.  But then. . . .

Tactics, though, are all-important.  It was both misguided and inept of Dowden to restrict his remarks to the issue of lack of impartiality; the ‘bias’ allegation is by definition inherently subjective, and the Corporation has a range of strategies for deflecting and then smothering it, including enticing its critics into an endless ‘he said, but we said’ squabble, which ultimately gets nowhere.  For the Government to try and upbraid the BBC for its political bias is the non-military equivalent of fighting a battle on ground of the enemy’s choosing.

Had the hapless Dowden been more astute, and even remotely serious, he would have threatened ‘Dear Tony‘ with immediate decriminalisation of non-payment of the ‘licence-fee’, or even an urgent, unscheduled mid-period Charter Review to abolish it.  Instead, his entreaties were all smokescreen and displacement activity.

There is a much better route, and much stronger case, available based on the BBC’s iniquitous compulsory ‘licence-fee’.  It’s true that much of  the UK’s mainstream media, whether broadcast or print, is biased.  But the BBC is uniquely egregious on that score because we are forced on pain of fine or imprisonment to pay for it regardless of whether we want to consume its output or not: unlike, say, Sky News or The Times, where we can simply choose not to purchase their product, or cease subscribing to it.             

The Daily Telegraph‘s Madeleine Grant hit the nail on the head in linking the two, correctly saying that, unless the BBC rapidly both repudiates and eliminates the shamelessly partisan personal editorialising of the type epitomised by Maitlis on Newsnight, it cannot continue receiving any kind of coercive funding.  

Time, though, is running out.  On Monday 25 May, The Times reported the BBC’s proposal that the wealthy may in future be charged more for their TV licence.  This is outrageous, in the sense that no-one should be coercively charged anything for a product they don’t wish to consume, especially the deceitfully mis-labelled ‘TV-licence’ which is, in fact, a regressive poll-tax; but making ‘the wealthy’ pay more for it both reduces its regressivity and plays to class-envy, thus taking some of the sting out of the criticism of it as a concept.

The Maitlis episode as culmination of ever more flagrant BBC bias has given Johnson ample justification for pushing ahead with decriminalising non-payment of the BBC’s iniquitous ‘licence fee’, on the wholly legitimate grounds that people of whatever means should not be forced to pay for this. With trust in the media being significantly lower, rarely can the circumstances have been so propitious.

But so they were, almost as much, over the period of the General Election and then formal exit from the EU in December and January.  Despite all the anti-BBC Boris-bluster then, nothing has actually been done, the ball has been dropped, and it needs to be picked up again. Don’t hold your breath, though. The danger has to be that, once again, the faux-‘Conservatives’ will back down.

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