I’m certain I’m not alone, to judge from personal enquiries and listener statistics: the Today programme lost 800,000 listeners between August 2017 and August 2018.
Some of this listener loss could be down to the changing shape of media – there are now many more news outlets than the BBC available to everyone. And it’s true that many people, especially young people, gain their news from online sources, not radio and television. But these long-term social and media trends can’t account for such a headlong fall as the Today programme has suffered. So what’s going on?
The first explanation is to do with the ‘BBC stance’ on the main issues of the day. At the moment, in the UK, there seems to be only one critical political issue, and there has only been one such issue for two years – Brexit. Since for the central BBC ‘UK politics’ equates to ‘politics as seen within a square mile of Westminster’, all the other issues that concern people – poverty and depression, low grade employment, rapidly worsening public services, a crumbling NHS – are secondary.
If you want proof of this, look for mentions on the BBC of the important and devastating report on avoidable poverty in the UK, published on 16 November by the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. There was a brief mention of the report on television news, following by a curt, unargued rejection of its content by the government, as if that disposed of the irritating matter. The BBC website, eventually, did rather better. But instead of giving the report the major coverage and wide discussion it deserved, the BBC rapidly hid the story away. [Note, 19 November: I’m told that five minutes was given over to this issue on the Ten o’clock News, with a report by Michael Buchanan.]
Ever since the referendum result the BBC’s treatment of Brexit has been partial – partial in both senses, partisan and incomplete. At that time a decision was clearly taken, at the highest level, that the argument over membership of the EU was over, and that the 48% of voters who favoured remain would be ‘forgotten’, as if all of them had immediately given up their beliefs and embraced Brexit, or as if it was illegitimate for a democracy to change its mind in future. And because the ‘Westminster’ media prism of politics always takes its cue from party alignments in the House of Commons, where Tory and Labour both swallowed the result without question, the BBC feels justified in ignoring or sidelining broader Remainer feeling – even if that feeling expresses itself in huge marches through major cities, as happened several times in 2018. The BBC, following the government’s lead, has effectively censored serious discussion of charges of criminalty in Leave campaigns, and treats the lies told by Leave campaigners as ‘water under the bridge’. Today, you would hardly guess from the BBC that there are many vociferous calls for a second referendum.
The supine stance of the Labour Party on Brexit has allowed the BBC to treat the Brexit debate as a merely an internal civil war – or an exciting tactical game, as it seems to be to many London politicians and journalists – within the Tory Party. Night after night different sets of Tory antagonists in this increasingly vicious fight can be seen slugging it out on screen, as if no one else counted.
The second explanation of the flight from the BBC is to do with the values that the BBC embraces. There’s one value it makes a great deal of – balance. Political balance is naturally very important for any public broadcaster. But balance is a far from simple concept. In particular, balance depends crucially on where the fulcrum of an argument lies. So often the BBC places the fulcrum in a position that is questionable, to say the least. During the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 the BBC was heavily criticised for implying that calls for independence were ‘beyond the political pale’. Nigel Lawson, a man rarely troubled by the need to produce corroboration, was repeatedly called into studios to ‘balance’ scientists who insisted, in line with overwhelming evidence, that climate change was a real phenomenon (the BBC apologised for this, much later). Nigel Farage appeared to hold a permanent seat at the table of Question Time, long after he ceased to represent any opinion other than his own on the extreme right. Strangely, the Andrew Marr show allowed the Leave campaign funder Arron Banks to defend himself in public, even though he was under criminal investigation: not a luxury given to many suspected criminals.
Part of the problem is that, while ‘balance’ is paramount, the BBC seems to have abandoned other values. One is an insistence on factual truth – or, to be more exact, exposing falsehood. The other day I was amazed to catch a recent interview between an Al Jazeera journalist and a Republican apologist for Donald Trump, in which the reporter systematically challenged and exposed the politician’s obvious lies. My surprise was because you now see this so seldom on BBC news programmes. Eddie Mair would do it (remember the ‘you’re a nasty piece of work’ interview with Boris Johnson), but he’s abandoned the BBC. Indeed, journalistic scepticism, in the sense of a predisposition and readiness to question the words and motives of those in power, seems to have died. Who in the BBC today asks the famous question, ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ posed by Jeremy Paxman? Most nights you need to turn to Channel 4 news for reporters who hold power to account.
Another ‘missing value’ is the idea that there are some political positions so extreme and undemocratic that they don’t deserve to be treated with the ‘respect of balance’. Fascism is an example. Figures like Steve Bannon in the US and ‘Tommy Robinson’ in the UK who preach xenophobia and race hatred were for long treated by the BBC as if they were legitimate and acceptable political actors rather than people who threaten all humane values.
What accounts for these serious failings in BBC news? The Corporation is always nervous of governments, and not only when licence fee negotiations loom. You need to make allowances, too, for the inevitable, even if infuriating, effects of being the ‘state broadcaster’ – those acres of space given over to the royal family or red poppies (though it does seem that a new, stifling conformism surrounds both of these now). But I wonder whether it’s not just fearfulness and state symbolism that affect the BBC’s ability to be an effective news organisation. Could it be that the news part of the Corporation has actually been ‘captured’ by forces that are politically far removed from its traditional liberal overlords? The current head of BBC News, Sarah Sands, is a product of a string of right-wing newspapers, most recently the Evening Standard, while her predecessor, James Harding, was a Murdoch alumnus (he was previously editor of The Times). Rupert Murdoch used to complain bitterly about the BBC and continually demand its destruction, but he’s been very silent on the question recently. For him, taming is as good as elimination.
In these circumstances it’s hardly surprising that BBC news’s own ‘fulcrum’ of judgement has moved a long way to the right. Recently Andrew Neil, one of its chief interviewers mocked the investigative reporter Carole Cadwallader as a ‘mad cat lady’ and ‘Karol Kodswallop’. This crude and extreme misogyny earned him not the smallest reprimand. Despite the BBC’s own code of conduct on neutrality Neil is highly active in propagating his own neo-Thatcherite views outside his BBC appearances. As Owen Jones has pointed out, it’s inconceivable that a left-wing equivalent to him could hold a comparable position in today’s BBC.
These political leanings, in theory at least, could be reversed in future. But there’s another feature of BBC news as it is now that’s just as worrying, or even more so, because it may stem from a more permanent change in culture. The problem is this. What constitutes ‘news’, especially on the main news bulletins like the Six o’clock News, has shifted considerably. There’s much less ‘hard’ news, accompanied by proper analysis, and many more more ‘soft’, human interest stories intended to stand by themselves, without much intellectual context. Not content with telling us how we should think, on poppies, the monarchy or Brexit, the BBC now likes to tell us how we should feel. There’s a populist emotionalism about this approach that recalls the Daily Mail. Or that terrible old programme That’s Life, where Esther Rantzen would usually leave a pause at the end of another heart-tugging story, so that we could all share her noble compassion in dumb silence.
Not only is this approach patronising and insulting to the intelligence of viewers, it turns back a long BBC tradition of trying to analyse, explain and educate about the big issues of our time. John Birt, who always seemed a bit of a villain when he was Director General of the BBC in the 1990s, at least held to the view that the job of the BBC was to help us understand. If all it does now is help us to ‘feel’, we’ve not gained much and we’ve lost a great deal.
Where the new approach to news is most obvious is the BBC news website. This is now so devoid of hard news, and so choked with human interest stories, celebrity gossip, video clips, magazine items, quizzes and other trivia, that no one in their right mind would turn to it as the main source of their news, at least about the UK.
It’s important to say that many excellent and principled journalists still work for BBC news programmes. And that outside London BBC news still tries to maintain its conventional roles and standards. BBC Cymru Wales is a good example. Wales has its media problems – a paucity of media alternatives to the BBC being one of them – but here at least the BBC does try to maintain its traditional roles.
But ‘national’ (UK) news is the most visible part of the BBC’s output, and this is where, under the direct gaze of directors and controllers, the main problems lie. Can the BBC afford to continue its conformist and partial treatment of important issues, parroting government views, ignoring views it regards as marginal or inconvenient, and failing to confront lying politicians? Can it afford to debase presentation and analysis of hard news into emotionalist or sensationalist trivia? In short, can BBC news avoid degenerating into being the broadcasting equivalent of the Daily Mail?
Maybe BBC news bosses should reflect that not all of us read the Daily Mail. And most of us would never dream of paying for it.