Is now the time to change the BBC's culture through a new business model?

Is now the time to change the BBC's culture through a new business model?

by Eben Wilson
article from Monday 20, January, 2020

IN A FREE SOCIETY with plural news media there is probably little point criticising the content of its output.  But Britain’s broadcasting plurality is moot; the BBC dominates, and these are strange times when the government of the day refuses to let its ministers onto its flagship morning news programme. 

I have always shied away from describing the BBC as “biased”. For a start, news output is produced by people of diverse backgrounds; there is certainly no formal institutional control mandated beyond generalised rules about balance and impartiality.  Of course, there is a slant among journalists to be Guardian reading, with leftish “woke” views, and statists by nature. But then again, so are the people of this country as a whole. 

Such a tendency is, however, not an excuse for journalistic ignorance. I do not mean ignorant in its pejorative sense, but in the literal sense of “not knowing”. If combined with an indolence in finding out facts and endeavouring to uncover full context and wider truths, then that is a failed duty to inform and educate.  

As an example of this, I was taken by the way the BBC reported Savid Javid “warning” that “there will not be alignment with the EU after Brexit and insisting that firms must adjust”. This report of a “warning” and an “insistence” was described as an “admission”.  

But just look at those three terms.  Yes, they are journalistic; they pep up a statement of fact, but in doing so they make the “news” false.  Those who voted for a clean Brexit (and instead got three years of torture) never wanted alignment, and expected companies to adjust to new free trade rules because it is what companies do to stay in business, and Brexiteers believed this was the best way for the UK to develop its prosperity in the future. 

Savid Javid does not need to “admit” the latter truth; having thrown out Mrs May and brought in Boris, the people have democratically agreed with a different reality.  The new truth is a chancellor in alignment with the democratic will, with the BBC out on a limb infused with Remain sentiments. 

Again, this is not necessarily intended bias, it’s more often ignorance.  A BBC reporter, properly backed up, would have contact lines into the work of Economists for Free Trade, Open Europe, the IEA, Global Britain, and others who could explain the empirical basis for the Chancellor’s thinking. 

Instead, the report added “Mr Javid declined to specify which EU rules he wanted to drop”.  Wow! How long does the BBC reporter have? We have a 580-page Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Lords that lays out how one might start thinking through this separation; behind that there are room’s (no, buildings!) full of rules that need to be considered.  Again, if the BBC had managed to train its new team in even a modicum of political economy, the reporter might have recognised how silly it is to suggest that political leaders in a complex modern society can have enough knowledge or time to micro-manage every regulation. 

I am not saying that the think tanks above should always be quoted, although it would often help, but if some of the way they think about, and research, these issues were made more available to BBC journalists, the latter might be able to avoid such crass statements. 

Instead, reporting in this case reverted to type; bringing in the Food and Drink Federation to provide some more doom and gloom; or more correctly, to protect its membership and their corporate privileges under present regulation.  Their spokesman, Tim Rycroft, is a highly able communicator, a communications consultant, formerly with InterContinental Hotels, Diageo and Boots.  He’s well connected within the corridors of power having been a special political adviser in the past. 

I am sure that “corporates” and “big business” are near expletives in the leftier areas of BBC newsrooms; how weird that they reduce themselves to reporting only corporatist views. A later “analysis” about Mr Javid’s speech by a BBC political correspondent declared “getting on the wrong side of business has never been familiar ground for the Conservatives”.  Hmmm, really? We have a Prime Minister who was heard to mutter “f*ck business” at a Brexit briefing meeting, a government catalysed by its liberal Brexit-demanding wing that champions consumers over special interests, and a cabinet that has declared its commitment to the people’s wishes.   

So, one really has to ask about the BBC – do they still not get it? I don’t think they do.  If they don’t then that is bias. 

For me, this is where the BBC as an institution is failing. Not necessarily at journalistic level, but at the level of knowledge support.  Journalists are being left to find their own sources of information on complex issues on their own, and under the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle are taking easy routes to “information”; an approach that gains an increasing potential for failure if the government, its civil service and its adviser community retreat from scrutiny by what is seen as an intrusive media.  The commentariat that is left for journalists to tap into is the chatterati of the vested interests who, at root, are generally merely propagandists. 

The introduction of the BBC’s “reality check” strand is interesting, but it’s a minor nod towards the real world. Ideally, it would become an entire department dedicated not to output, but to scrutinising the facts of everything and the players in the market for information that peddle “facts”.  We have to ask ourselves whether the “sound bite” approach using adversarial scrutiny and reactive commentary produces good journalistic output; it certainly didn’t seem to throughout the Brexit debate.  For the BBC to lose so much credibility is bad for our democracy. 

Of course, the way to escape this distortion quickly, and indeed to re-vitalise the BBC and give it a prosperous future is to privatise it.  Boris has already alluded to making failure to pay the licence fee a non-criminal offence.  I am pretty sure that this would quickly mean that the licence would have to become subscription.  So be it.   The BBC is held back form exploiting its genius – its widespread creative and technical talents – through being nationalised.  Its licence fee revenue is rationed by politics; it could make a lot more money from subscription, especially internationally, through leveraging by far its biggest asset, Britain’s diverse culture and historical landscape, into sales across the globe.  At the moment, its biggest successes in people and programme formats export themselves to higher paying territories; and the BBC loses the revenue. 

If the BBC instead could raise its own revenue, it could afford to fund its news output more generously, or even with a plurality of tone and content if it wished, eschewing the falsely executed commitment to balance and impartiality of today.  Their journalists deserve that support, they work very hard and are dedicated to honesty and integrity; but are not being given access the knowledge to temper their discretion in how they inform and explain.  That ignorance is creating the exact opposite of bliss for them; they risk being increasingly side-lined.  

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