Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

An independent BBC is the last defence against Johnson’s fake world, and it is disappearing fast


Johnson’s popularity relies on the existence of a fantasy world. In this fantasy world ending all defences against COVID is freedom, our vaccination programme would not have been possible if we had remained in the EU, the economy is strong and so on. It is a fantasy world that many believe - enough at least to safely keep this government in power. You will discover this fantasy world if you read the following newspapers: the Sun, Mail, Express and Telegraph.

In terms of total reach (print and on-line) that is just over half of the total reach of the major newspapers. That means that just over half of the newspaper reading population (print or online) are fed this fantasy created by this media and the Conservative government. With FPTP biased in favour of the socially conservative Conservatives, that alone would ensure the Conservative party always wins.

That fits our past experience since the moment Mrs Thatcher won. The only time Labour has won is when one member of this newspaper group, the Sun, started supporting Labour. However that probably overstates the influence of the print media. A paper suggest that Murdoch’s flip to Labour before 1997 was not decisive (Blair would have probably won without it), which in turn motivated Murdoch to support Labour.

So it is possible to overcome this bias in the print media if you have a failing government and an attractive opposition. A key reason this remains a possibility is the BBC. The BBC is by far the most widely used source of news in the UK. Unlike the right wing press, it is not ideologically tied to the government, and so for the readers of the right wing press it is an alternative source of information. For most uninterested in politics it is the only alternative source of information about political issues. 

As Tom Mills points out, the BBC is not fully independent in the sense that it depends on the government for its form of financing and the government makes key appointments. However for the most part (but not always) the BBC generally has editorial autonomy. In particular, those appointments that are not formally chosen by the government are made by the BBC alone.

This is the context in which to see the recent delay in the appointment of Jess Brammar, former editor of HuffPost and BBC Newsnight, to a new post to oversee the BBC’s entire news output. According to both the FT and Guardian this delay is because a BBC Board member, Robbie Gibb (who was director of communications for Theresa May), said the appointment would shatter relations with the government. According to the FT, one of the problems is that Brammar filed a formal complaint to the Cabinet Office after a Treasury minister described a HuffPost journalist’s questions as ‘creepy and bizarre’ and that led to the journalist receiving abuse on social media. (The question the journalist asked was straightforward, not ‘creepy and bizarre’.)

Normally the BBC Board is meant to protect the BBC from politicians, and stand up to ministerial pressure. One of their responsibilities involves “upholding and protecting” the BBC’s independence. Robbie Gibb has turned it into a conduit for government interference in BBC appointments. This is “highly unorthodox”, to quote the FT, but hardly surprising from this government.

Needless to say the current Director-General of the BBC is Tim Davie, a former Chairman of a Conservative Association who once stood to be a Tory councillor. Davie criticised BBC comedy output for "constantly aiming jokes at the Tories", and the Mash report is no more. The recently appointed BBC Chairman is Richard Sharp, a former advisor to Boris Johnson as London Mayor and Rishi Sunak as Chancellor, who has also donated £400,000 to the Conservative Party.

There are three reactions to all this which miss the point. The first is to say this boat sailed a long time ago, and the BBC is already a propaganda arm of this government. I think this goes too far, and partly reflects the antagonism towards Corbyn’s Labour seen across the mainstream media. If you want to argue that the BBC has become propaganda I really suggest watching Fox News.

A second reaction is to say what’s new. Governments always appoint their own to key posts, and they often make their views known to the BBC. What is unusual in this case is that we have heard about it. But this issue isn’t about conventional left and right. It is about whether the fantasy world constructed by the government and right wing media is taken as real by the BBC or not.

Which brings us to the third view, which is that the BBC should not appoint people to senior posts who are political. An example of this attitude is a reported response from a government source which says in effect that HuffPost was a “borderline fake news lefty clickbait website”. There are at least two problems with this take. One is that Gibbs himself previously worked at the BBC. The more serious is to equate investigative reporting with ‘fake news’, when the real fake news is produced elsewhere.

There is a very real danger that the UK will become like the US under Trump, where reality is called by the government and its supporters ‘Fake News’, and the BBC feels reluctant to deviate from the real fake news produced by the government. Any discussion of reality and how it differs from the government’s fake news will be called ‘lefty’ by the government and its supporters.

There are plenty of signs that the BBC is already losing its objectivity. There was leaving Brexit lies unchallenged in 2016, Maitlis being reprimanded by the BBC for telling the truth about that trip to Barnards Castle, or Laura Kuenssberg gushing about the deal Johnson did with the EU which was the EU’s first choice deal, and much more. If the BBC is to avoid going further down that slippery slope, it has to ignore Gibb's intervention and ignore pressure from the government when making internal appointments. Not confirming Brammer because of some other spurious reason will fool no one. This will really be a test case about how bad things really are at the BBC.

The reason this is so important is that a completely subservient BBC that fails to challenge Johnson’s fake world when it deviates from reality will probably [1] end democracy in the UK. It is a cop out to suggest this is the opposition's job if the opposition gets a fraction of the airtime the government has. A democracy where only one party gets elected because enough of the population believes a fake version of reality is not a true democracy. Right now the BBC is our main defence against that, and if it falls democracy in the UK will probably fall with it. .

[1] I say probably because there remains one possible route to end a government which has sufficient propaganda resources pushing its fantasy, and that is a public event that has to be reported which allows reality to shatter the government’s fake world. One example from the past was Sterling being thrown out of the ERM in 1992. The government’s reputation for economic management never recovered. However events like this and of this magnitude are very rare.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything in this blog. I have become so disenchanted with the BBC with the heroic exception of Maitlis that I now watch ITV news at ten and it has been a real eye opener. Proper scepticism about the fantasy world being promoted and hard hitting investigative pieces - on housing conditions, on Amazon's appalling disposal of new goods too expensive to store.

    With Professor Simon Szreter at Cambridge university (my husband) I am publishing a book based on my 30 years as a government economist and senior civil servant and his historical insight which seeks to debunk the myths and expose the democratic danger we are in. After the Virus: Lessons from the Past for Better Future


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