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Britain's BBC Is Swimming in Poisonous Cultural Waters

Martin Ivens
·6 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The BBC’s new director-general says the British public broadcaster could force its on-air talent to leave social media if they’re not sufficiently impartial. Tim Davie knows this seemingly minor issue is key to his organization’s survival.

For impartiality is what makes it possible for the BBC to be funded by a compulsory tax of 157.50 pounds ($204) on every TV-owning U.K. household. It’s more than a crude matter of balance or neutrality between opposing viewpoints — you can't be neutral on, say, democracy or racism — but it must give “a broad range of perspective over an appropriate timeframe,” and avoid being trapped in echo chambers of narrow opinion.

Yet within hours of the first U.S. presidential debate, the BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis took aim at Donald Trump on Twitter: “The problem with the ‘it was all a shitshow’ take … is that it ignores the real possibility it was a deliberate attempt to undermine democratic process. If you make everyone believe it’s pointless to listen/vote/count when you are trailing — it’s job done.”

It’s a view. Another, advanced by someone more sympathetic to Trump, the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker, is that the president’s boorish behavior let Joe Biden off the hook and damaged his own cause. A social media outburst, however, leaves no room for counterargument; it just takes one side and amplifies it. Baker is paid to write opinion columns. Maitlis’s job is to be an impartial anchor.

Davie’s dilemma — how to guide talented employees who flout editorial guidelines — is echoed across restive newsrooms on both sides of the Atlantic. I faced it myself as editor of Britain’s Sunday Times (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK via Times Newspapers, where I am still a director) in deciding when to intervene over staff tweets and when to roll my eyes and move on.

But the problem is existential for the BBC, which depends on government support for its license fee.

Twitter bans aren’t the answer to the BBC’s bias problems, only symbolic of them. Impartiality is a process and a state of mind. Correspondents don’t have to say that all is well in Trump world, Boris Johnson is wonderful or Brexit will be a roaring success. But they should give due respect to counterarguments from outside the left-liberal bubble.

So the new BBC boss must stick to his guns. It is even-handedness that makes the BBC trusted around the world, even by enemies of the West. Culture wars imported from America threaten its editorial integrity. Davie has to weed out overt partisanship or bias among its defining voices.

Some claims of BBC bias are exaggerated by the right. In all media organizations the editorial choice and treatment of news is contentious. But the “Beeb” is too prone to giving publicity to lobby groups’ pleas for more state cash. It’s less likely to ask whether the taxpayer can afford it. A lot of director-generals have promised to shake things up. Usually the institution defeats them.

The corporation's critics are becoming bolder. Johnson’s Conservative government believes the national broadcaster defers to liberal lobbies on subjects such as immigration and is anti-Brexit. Frances Cairncross, a politically neutral economist who led a review into the the U.K.’s news industry, agrees. “The BBC could do an awful lot more to reflect the views of people on the right of center,” she said recently. The director-general wants to widen newsroom diversity, including finding people from white working class backgrounds. But that will take years to have an impact.

The government could freeze the license fee or even force the BBC to become a Netflix-style subscription service. Such nuclear options might not wash with the public, but Johnson does also have the power of patronage — a power underused by his Tory predecessor David Cameron. The prime minister effectively decides who becomes chairman of the BBC board and of OFCOM, the broadcast regulator.

Some of the names suggested for these roles in recent weeks appear tailor made to inflame liberal-left journalists. They include Charles Moore, former editor of the conservative Daily Telegraph and biographer of Margaret Thatcher, and Paul Dacre, former long-serving editor of the popular Daily Mail, a man who did more than most to deliver Brexit. Both are critics of the BBC and the license fee. Yet Moore has ruled himself out of contention for the Beeb’s chairmanship, while whoever gets OFCOM will probably drown in tedious detail about spectrum and regulations.

That didn’t stop the outrage about this apparent attempt to foist right-wingers — even a “High Tory” like Moore — on media institutions. There were few such protests when Tony Blair’s Labour government appointed the author of one of its election manifestos (Ed Richards) as OFCOM’s boss. A Labour donor (Greg Dyke) became director-general of the BBC.

No wonder some on the right are challenging the BBC’s near monopoly on TV news. News UK is backing a new digital-streaming service, while GB News, funded by the American company Discovery Inc., will imitate the Fox News and MSNBC networks with a more opinionated, 24-hour current affairs channel.

Tentative steps have also been made to allow political bias in U.K. programming as long as it’s balanced by countervailing opinion on the same channel. Former BBC director-general Mark Thompson says it would benefit if rival broadcasters were allowed to take an overt political stance. The BBC’s impartiality — if it truly delivers that — would therefore be a unique proposition.

Others would lament the “Foxification” of British news but’s there’s not much real risk of that. The BBC, having failed to offer a broad enough church of political opinion, would just find niche competitors also framing the debate. Broadcasting abhors a vacuum.

Today, the Beeb, sometimes known as “Auntie,” is in the spotlight because it has defined Britain’s centerground too narrowly. Impartiality is the trump card the broadcaster holds against rivals. But so long as many of its leading voices don’t really believe in the notion, why should we?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

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