There is currently so much political upheaval in Britain that one might not be able to see the forest for the trees. The panic of the establishment is palpable. It is not only the right wing media that is losing its contenance, but the BBC and Guardian as well. Apparently in desperation neo-liberal interests are stumping up 50 million Pounds to form a new political party headed by Tony Blair to stop the “political rot”.
In recent weeks there has been an unusual level of criticism directed towards the BBC from both liberals and the left. Leading Blairites Andrew Adonis and Alistair Campbell have broken a taboo in centrist circles by publicly alleging right-wing bias at the BBC as part of their campaign against Brexit, whilst the left-wing Guardian columnist Owen Jones – who has long maintained that the BBC is a ‘mouthpiece of the Establishment’ – has written an article noting the right-wing politics of the BBC presenter Andrew Neil and the general marginality of the left in the British media (declaration of interest: Jones linked to a series of reform proposals which I worked on for the Media Reform Coalition).
Jones’s article follows a series of public spats over the BBC’s reporting on the left-wing leadership of the Labour Party, including a protracted debate about Jeremy Corbyn’s hat in a photoshopped imagine used by BBC Newsnight. The growing disappointment, even anger, at the BBC on the left – which is known by some older British people affectionately as ‘Auntie’ – has now prompted an editorial from the Guardian, referring to the BBC’s ‘preciousness’.
That editorial recognised the need for the BBC to step up its online operations, but unfortunately failed to acknowledge the persistent and increasingly obvious problems with the BBC’s journalism. This is in keeping with a longstanding defensive posture on the left when it comes to the BBC, which has tended to see all criticism as grist to the mill of the right.
But even if the Guardian editorial team might not like it, there does seem to have been something of a shift of mood on the BBC. So what’s going on? Behind the flashpoints and the Twitter spats, there are some long term political realignments both at the BBC itself and in British society more broadly.
The BBC is usually not described as a state broadcaster because of the connotations of direct political control, but it has since its establishment in the 1920s enjoyed only a precarious form of independence. Governments have held powers of appointments to its board (in its various iterations) and have periodically set the level of the licence fee and renewed the BBC’s Charter. Together with other deep-rooted formal and informal ties to the British Establishment, as well as other factors like the makeup of senior BBC personnel and the political imbalances within the private press, this has shaped the BBC’s small ‘c’ conservative editorial culture. Historically speaking the BBC hasn’t been particularly ‘biased’ to the left or the right of formal politics, but its news and current affairs reporting has tended to reflect elite opinion. Under more stable political conditions, this has allowed the BBC for the most part to occupy a comfortable centre ground, and to offer an uncontroversial range of political opinion and contestation. But during more turbulent times this has proved more challenging – and as the British Establishment has slipped into crisis, the BBC has meanwhile lost its bearings.
One major issue is how to cover Brexit, which is what is turning liberal opinion against the BBC. This presents enormous challenges in terms of the balance of coverage. The problem is that the majority of the British elite – who naturally shape the contours of the BBC’s news and current affairs reporting – are opposed to Brexit, whilst the electorate remain fairly evenly split.
The other major issue for the BBC is the leftward shift of the Labour Party. This has been opposed by the party’s right-wing, who still enjoy privileged access to BBC programming, and this has skewedreporting. But there is also the fact that the Labour leader and his supporters stand outside an established consensus on foreign and domestic policy which has been embedded within the DNA of the BBC, especially as it shifted from a broadly social democratic to a neoliberal organisation. This goes back to the 1980s. As elite opinion and policy shifted rightwards post-Thatcher, so did the BBC. This was partly because of the rightward shift in Westminster, with the Labour Party’s adoption of corporate-friendly neoliberal policies, but there was also an institutional shift in the BBC itself. Its organisational culture was quite deliberately moved in a neoliberal, pro-business direction under its director general John Birt and under his successor, Greg Dyke – a process I described in some detail in my book.
There then seems to have been a further rightward drift at the BBC since the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010. Whilst the BBC in general tends to be broadly pro-government, it appears to lean more to the right under Conservative governments than left under Labour governments (again a reflection of the balance of opinion within the broader Establishment). And just as there were a number of prominent Blairites in key editorial and executive positions in the BBC under the Labour government, there have in recent years been a number of right-wingers in key positions.
What we are seeing in the debates around the politics of the BBC, then, is symptomatic of a broader political upheaval. Last time we saw this sort of crisis of legitimacy for the broadcaster was in the 1970s and ‘80s, which eventually ushered in a period of radical change at the BBC and in society more broadly.