Just what must the BBC do before Boris Johnson acts to curb its excesses?

The incompetence and arrogance of BBC top executives before a Parliamentary committee prompt the question of how bad its behaviour must become before Boris Johnson’s timid government is forced to clip its wings

Note: Extended and updated version of the article published at The Conservative Woman on Friday 2nd July 2021

Problems which politicians hope will – if only they cover their eyes, block their ears, and pretend those problems either don’t exist or aren’t serious – miraculously subside or preferably even disappear, rarely do either. On the contrary, they tend to get even worse. Such is the situation the Johnson government now finds itself mired in with the BBC.

It’s obvious that the Corporation has benefited from the ‘Conservative’ Party’s cynical abandonment of its pre-election pledge, either to abolish the iniquitous ‘licence-fee’ as a funding mechanism or at least decriminalise non-payment of it. It’s also evident, however, that the BBC has in effect banked that concession – or perhaps it would be better described as appeasement – and doubled-down on its woke-metropolitan left-‘liberal’ bias, on its ill-concealed contempt for its captive funders, and, above all, on its institutional arrogance arguably derived mainly from an assumption of its own immunity.

This was already obvious in the latter part of 2020, as the BBC –

More recent developments especially, however, must now prompt the question: how far it will be allowed to go before even Johnson’s over-indulgent administration is driven to act? Just what does the BBC have to do before this government, seemingly paralysed by timidity and reluctance to challenge it, finally acts to curb its excesses.

Before discussing those recent developments, it’s worth briefly re-visiting a few of its more blatant abuses of its uniquely privileged position over the past 18 months which I’ve previously either mentioned only in passing or not at all, or have occurred since I last wrote specifically about the Government-BBC relationship.

Eagerly embracing the woke agenda, it’s ‘advised’ all its staff that only trans-friendly pronouns may now be used for all internal communications and email signatures. (Though one can’t help but wonder if the Chairman and Director-General still prefer ‘Sir’ as a mode of address?) 

Despite cutting its regional staffing quite drastically, it’s nevertheless pledged to spend £100 million of ‘licence-fee’ payers’ money on expanding its ‘Diversity’ agenda in content and production. Whether this will produce any greater diversity of political viewpoints projected at its audience, however, is unclear.

It came very close to overt anti-white, class-hatred, anti-provincial racism in its notorious ‘Karens’ podcast of last summer in which two well-educated, well-off, intensely bien-pensant white women spent their time mocking less-educated, less well-off white women and instructing them on what to think. Typically, it declined to apologise, despite the substantial backlash.

Despite cutting 520 jobs in news and current affairs – including Andrew Neil’s – it nevertheless managed to trumpet as a virtue the fact that its largesse with ‘licence-fee’ payers’ cash meant its 12 top earners trousering a combined £7.2 million a year. From an organisation sanctifying the NHS and abhorring anyone profiting from providing healthcare, there was no discernible awareness of the incongruity of presenters becoming millionaires via a coercive, regressive tax.                   

Neither was any embarrassment evident at its spending £800,000 of ‘licence-fee’ payers money on a re-design of its annual accounts, a figure twice the typical spend of similar-sized private sector businesses. Nor at its receipt of 266 specific complaints and a raft of public criticism at its – literal – genuflection to Wokery and Black Lives Matter in its Christmas 2020 edition of The Vicar Of Dibley.

Finally for this list, the BBC in January re-employed, a mere fortnight after his normal retirement, its former director of nations and regions, Ken MacQuarrie, in the £325,000 a year, impeccably-woke, grandiosely-titled role of Executive Director for Safeguarding Impartiality. Nice work if you can get it. As arguably the epitome of corporate marking-your-own-homework, this takes some beating.

Unacceptable and relevant as all this is, what makes the question posed in the title both urgent and unavoidable emerged from the Commons DCMS Select Committee summoning no fewer than three former or current BBC Directors-General to appear before it on 15th June, the trigger for which was the publication of the Dyson Report into the BBC’s failings, not only surrounding the original Martin Bashir interview with Princess Diana in 1995, but also his subsequent re-hiring.

The Select Committee’s session promised to be compelling viewing, and in that respect at least, it didn’t disappoint. Over at The Conservative Woman, David Keighley, with the benefit of his prodigious inside knowledge, has already summarised the hearing and its outcome, but the demeanour of the three principal protagonists is directly relevant to my central point, namely, the Johnson government’s continued passive tolerance.  Anyone wishing to sit through, as I did, the whole 3 hours 40 minutes performance can do so via the Parliament Live stream.

Only 20 minutes into the hearing, the Chairman’s forensic grilling of Lord Hall was already generating from the latter a studied evasiveness on the issue of Bashir’s re-hiring, His Lordship in effect blaming his subordinates. Asked by the Chairman how ‘this known liar‘ [Bashir] was being paid, Hall denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, Bashir’s pay arrangements, on the grounds that he personally was fully occupied in trying to run the whole of the BBC. He went on to deny also any knowledge of how Bashir came to be allowed to, in effect, moonlight at ITV while being paid by the BBC.

So, “Nothing to do with me, Guv“, in effect. Either His Lordship had sadly mislaid his “THE BUCK STOPS HERE” sign which presumably once adorned his desk, or this was taking hands-off management to a whole new level. Apparently, on his watch, the BBC needed official guidelines to explain to its reporters that obtaining a story or an interview based on forged or fake documents wasn’t necessarily best practice.

An exchange with Select Committee member Clive Efford (Lab, Feltham) was especially revealing.

Efford: “You had this particular guy (Bashir) being re-employed, and yet no-one thought to knock on your door and tell you as D-G that he was being re-employed?

Hall: “No, they didn’t.

Yet it was this same, apparently serially incurious, Lord Hall, who in July 2020, trumpeting its “largest-ever increase in investment in the World Service”, had cited as justification the BBC’s “potential to combat fake news”. The combination of hypocrisy and tin-eared lack of any self-awareness or contrition was breathtaking.

Having heard from ex-DG Lord Birt that he expected his (then) colleagues might have had a perfectly satisfactory explanation as to why they thought Bashir was lying (but didn’t tell him), Committee Chairman Julian Knight (Con, Solihull) subsequently became angry with him, practically accusing him of outright lying about the BBC’s treatment (both firing and blacklisting) of the Bashir whistleblower Matt Wiessler.

As David Keighley also recounts, the former D-Gs’ drive to inculpate others and exculpate themselves for the failings of the Corporation’s top management was relentless. It prompted Chairman Knight finally to observe, acidly: “Well, I’ve heard victim-blaming before, but this is quite something!

The combined evidence of former D-Gs Lords Hall and Birt and current D-G Tim Davie can in effect be summarised thus:

We re-hired the guy whom we either knew or suspected was a liar with previous form in faking documents, who’d been sacked for wrongdoing in the US media, and who we knew was moonlighting for ITV while working for us. But neither of us is in any way to blame

As a Dee-Gees’ reunion concert, it left a lot to be desired. But even after such a devastating public shaming, did the BBC appear to feel any guilt or embarrassment? Judging by its subsequent actions, not one iota.

Because, only one week after The Three DeeGees’ humiliation at the hands of the DCMS Select Committee, the Corporation announced plans to deploy ‘licence-fee’ enforcers to harass and intimidate over-75s who have yet to make arrangements to resume payment of it after the expiration of their Covid-related ‘licence-fee’ amnesty – notwithstanding that the amnesty doesn’t actually expire until 31st July – and to prosecute any who fail to pay.

To add insult to injury, it’s barely a year since the BBC, despite its agreement to take over from HM Treasury the funding of free ‘licences’ for older pensioners, as a quid pro quo for the Government’s deferral of an investigation into its funding model as part of its last Charter Review, decided to resile from that agreement and start charging older pensioners after all.

Yet, even faced with all this, the Government response remained relatively muted. Culture and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden contented himself with a few bleating bromides about how the BBC’ needs far-reaching change’ – but evidently, making it change its funding model to one involving willing customers voluntarily parting with their cash to consume specifically its own product is rather too ‘far-reaching.’

If an allegedly ‘Conservative’ government, despite being elected on a landslide only 18 months ago and with a parliamentary majority of 80, cannot bring itself to abolish an illiberal regressive tax, payable via coercion even by people who don’t want to consume the product which it funds, then what is the point of it?

If that same ‘Conservative’ government – with incontrovertible proof that the broadcaster uniquely privileged and protected by that tax not only failed to investigate adequately possibly the most shameful case of fraudulent journalism in half a century but compounded its self-indulgent negligence by re-hiring the perpetrator, to the evident incuriosity and insouciance of the individuals charged with running it – refuses to challenge it, then what is the point of a ‘Conservative’ government, or even a ‘Conservative’ Party, at all?

Just what does the BBC have to do before Johnson stirs himself?

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