The BBC crashes out of the sky, again. The forgery and falsehood used by Martin Bashir to help work his way into Diana, Princess of Wales’s confidence was despicable, her sons’ outrage inevitable. It remains inexplicable that the BBC branded him still “an honourable man”, though the fateful rehiring in 2016 appears more cock-up than conspiracy: Tony Hall didn’t know until too late; James Harding, the ex-Times editor, had never heard what everyone knew about Bashir’s skulduggery. These were terrible errors, terribly covered up.
But here we are again: another scandal, another triumph for the BBC’s enemies. However often its governance is restructured – twice already by the Conservatives – no journalism is ever iron-clad against future trouble. The vultures are circling. Priti Patel on the Andrew Marr Show warned that “all options, naturally, will be considered” for the BBC’s proper “governance, accountability and transparency”. She joins the epic groundswell of hypocrisy, her behaviour contrary to the ministerial code and yet she escaped unscathed, her untransparent, under-governed Home Office still abusing Windrush victims and randomly imprisoning European travellers. But this is open season.
What a pity Prince William didn’t denounce Rupert Murdoch, whose press hacked his phone 35 times, his brother’s nine times, and his then girlfriend Kate’s a full 155 times. This future king might consider the useful role one national institution – the BBC – plays in promoting another – the monarchy. Look at how the last BBC row came from a public backlash over its role as prime royal publicist: people rightly rebelled at the BBC’s shutdown to mourn the Duke of Edinburgh.
“I believe it was the cover-up that cost Princess Diana’s life,” is the headline on an Andrew Neil column in the Daily Mail. Not even Diana’s distraught sons go that far. Paparazzi selling pictures were chasing Diana on the night of her death, the BBC was never in that universe. Andrew Morton, whose book was her first defence against her deceiving husband, told Sky news, “There’s no question at all that Diana was going to speak her mind.” She would have said “three of us in the marriage” to whoever won that interview out of “a long queue outside Kensington Palace”.
Andrew Neil’s GB News channel launches shortly. Here’s Allister Heath in the Telegraph: “GB News will smash the BBC’s biased, leftwing broadcasting hegemony.” The Mail on Sunday leader calls out the BBC’s “self-satisfied ideology of wokeness”, claiming: “We have a strong government born out of a huge shift in public opinion.” No, not a “huge shift”: the Tories took absolute power with just a 1.2-percentage-point increased vote share: only our monstrous electoral system translated that into hegemony.
As for BBC leftist bias, Neil at the BBC had a political freedom unthinkable for any slightly leftish presenter: he chairs the Spectator and was able to do such things as give an anti-big government, pro-flat tax Hayek lecture to the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs.
The risk remains that Mail editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, will be appointed chair of Ofcom to regulate broadcasting impartiality, says media analyst Prof Steven Barnett. The hair-raising book War Against the BBC, by Patrick Barwise and Peter York, lays out the full threat: they show the BBC’s annual £3bn public cost matches one aircraft carrier: which better conveys global influence?
During the election campaign, Boris Johnson threatened to abolish the licence fee, and right now Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, is deep in government negotiation over its level. With its public funding cut by 30% since 2010, a five-year freeze with rising inflation risks a downward spiral.
Enemies framing the BBC with “woke” nonsense spread disinformation about the level of dissatisfaction: the BBC remains the most used broadcaster by far, its iPlayer viewed 1.7bn times in just the first three months of this year. Its lockdown learning home-schooled 5.8 million children, while local radio was the Covid volunteers’ network. Fifty-one per cent of people name the BBC as their most trusted for impartiality: the next most trusted is Sky at just 7%. Last year Ofcom upheld no complaints against the BBC.
The government hired its own choice as chair, and there’s a new director-general. One of their own may prove tougher in defending the BBC against the cacophony of Tory noise. As for Lord Grade’s suggestion, encouraged by Patel, for a board of journalists to oversee the BBC’s day-to-day coverage – who would they be? Which of us is without bias? Most UK journalists spend their lives employed by foreign owners to attack from the right. BBC journalists navigate the growing nightmare, blasted by foghorns from all sides. But it holds the public’s trust – and the public needs to stand ready to defend it.