The real disappointment of the 2019 UK General Election was the BBC. Once regarded as the bastion of quality media and the envy of much of the world, the BCC’s reputation is diminished greatly in recent years. From the historic cover up of Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse, to having to pay compensation to female journalists in equal pay claims the BBC is no longer viewed in as positive light by the British public.
At the 2019 election the BBC had an opportunity to show the world what quality political journalism looks like in the 21st century. It failed. The consequences for this could be dire for the Beeb.
Last week it was announced that the BBC are cutting 450 staff, which will result in fewer stories and greater centralisation in London. The very things that critics believe caused problems with the BBC in recent years are set to get even worse. Is the BBC now in its death throes? And how did it get to this point?
One widely held criticism of the BBC is that it is run by upper middle class predominately white and well educated people. Also that the BBC is heavily London centric. While similar criticisms can be made of other media outlets, it matters more what people say about the BBC. It matters because it’s funded through the broadcasting fee and public funds. It matters because its raison d’être is to set the standard for journalism in the UK and abroad. If its quality is in question, this call into question what its purpose really is.
The first example I recall while living in London of the BBC not hitting the mark was back in 2018 when there were major protests in support of the NHS, and the BBC failed to report on them. As mentioned in my previous blog post it is difficult for the media to report on everything happening. But these weren’t small protests, and NHS funding and the threat of privatisation is and remains one of the major issues in UK politics.
There were two events during the election where I thought the BBC fell short of what the public should expect of a public broadcaster.
The first was the Andrew Neil interviews with Party leaders. Both Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson were interviewed by Andrew Neil and it would be fair to say took a grilling. Both agreed to the interview believing that Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson would also be interviewed by Neil. The BBC had lead both leaders to believe this was the case, where in fact Johnson had never agreed to do and interview with Neil. Andrew Neil ended up doing an ’empty chair’ speech criticising Johnson for not doing the interview. Yes Boris shouldn’t have refused and interview with a tough journalist. Equally, The Conservatives had never agreed to do an interview with Neil. The empty chair stunt felt like the BBC saving face having mislead other party leaders in claims that Johnson would do an interview with Neil.
The second was BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg’s reporting the day before the election that postal ballot results painted a grim picture for Labour. The UK Electoral Commission issued a warning that these comments were a breach of electoral law. The day before the election postal ballots were still arriving by post, and had not been counted. So the statement being reported by Kuenssberg was not only breaching the law, but at the time it was being made lacked substance to back it up. It’s unlikely Laura’s comments had that much impact on the December 2019 election result. But they do make the BBC look unprofessional.
The BBC get accused of bias often, and this is nothing new. In recent years there have been criticisms that the BBC are too pro EU/anti Brexit and have been too critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. In both cases, there have been accusations that reporting on both these things has not been balanced or honest at times. Balance in the media is tough, and journalists and people working in news rooms will often have unconscious (sometimes conscious) bias. Given the generally middle class and urban nature of BBC reporters and its leadership, it is likely this would come through in its reporting.
A public broadcaster has a duty to be challenging and critical. And on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership it is right that the BBC asked hard questions. In both cases there were plenty of hard questions to ask. But did the public broadcaster allow its middle class, urban and privileged perspective to cloud its reporting?
My view in watching the BBC reporting on Brexit, Corbyn, UK politics and global news is that it as a public broadcaster still operates like its the 1990s. In that context Brexit, Trump and the 2017 election didn’t make sense. Had the BBC really tried to understand why Brexit happened? Did the proponents of a second referendum really deserve as much air time as the BBC gave them? Did the BBC ever really try to understand why Corbyn won two Labour leadership elections? And why Labour’s vote increased significantly in 2017? The BBC took the view that the world had gone a bit mad, but if they just kept on saying and doing what they’d always done normal 1990s service would resume soon.
The BBC as a public broadcaster is owned by the government. The Government set the rules, and most importantly set the funding. After the election the Conservative Government announced that it would consider decriminalising non payment of the licence fee. They announced this at a time when people from across the political spectrum believed the BBC has underperformed as a reliable source of news. There is always a tension between the BBC and government, especially with centre right governments who don’t necessarily believe having a public broadcaster is necessary.
At a time of uncertainty, the BBC finds itself with fewer supporters than at any other time in its history. While still a much loved British institution which still produces a number of popular shows, many now question whether it’s achieving what it needs to as a public broadcaster.