Category Archives: Politics

Time to defend the BBC

Throughout its history, British Governments have sought to influence the BBC, as the national broadcaster, to reflect more positively on their agenda (which they naturally see as coinciding with the national and public interest). Some have done so by frontal attacks and demands, others by gradual change of funding or regulation. Overall, the institution has successfully defended itself. Faced with a government with a substantial majority in Parliament the BBC once again faces a serious challenge, and it is important (once again) to defend its unique mission and achievements.

Most broadcasting organisations worldwide are either commercial organisations, answerable to shareholders, proprietors, and advertisers;  or publicly run, and accountable to governments. In both cases their mission and activities, and their reporting of news and current affairs is liable to direct bias to reflect the interests of their owners. In many cases this amounts to direct control.

This is constitutionally not true of the BBC, which is bound by a Royal Charter to be independent and impartial, and

“to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.

It is, of course, exposed to pressure from Governments, which naturally tend to identify the national and public interest with their own agenda.  However, its funding, mainly through a hypothecated tax (the licence fee) and its governing bodies, provide a degree of protection against undue influence, as does its relationship with the independent broadcasting regulator OFCOM.

Nevertheless, it does not always succeed in preserving its impartiality. Independent evaluations have shown that its news coverage has a bias towards the status quo, partly because its view of news priorities is influenced by the print news media, most of which is explicitly biased by its proprietors to the political right.

The fact that the BBC is criticised for bias in its news and current affairs coverage from both left and right does not necessarily mean that it gets the balance “right”, since there is no absolute “centre”. However, over time it does adjust, albeit cautiously, as evidence and public attitudes change. For example, on grounds of impartiality, it used to present climate change as a debate between two opposing views. It now accepts that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence supports the view that manmade climate change is a serious issue and that there is no need to give equal time to the opponents.

The BBC’s news coverage commands very wide support. IPSOS/MORI’s survey of adults who follow the news compares people’s views of the five main broadcast media in the UK. It finds clear majorities who believe that BBC news is impartial (44%), trustworthy (51% – five times higher than ITV), and accurate (53%). In normal times, 80% of adults and 70% of 16-34 year olds reached by BBC news each week, and at critical times, most people turn to the BBC. During the Brexit debates in Parliament more than 3 million people watched BBC Parliament, for its direct coverage and its explanations and commentary.

News is the most politically sensitive aspect of its work, but it is only one. The scale of the BBC is unique. In the UK it operates 8 TV channels and 20 radio stations, while its commercial arm, which supports all the work financially, also runs 10 TV channels. The BBC is a major contributor to our society and culture through documentaries, entertainment, music (of all forms), drama, education and information on a scale unrivalled by any broadcasting agency in the world. Its regional organisation provides local and regional news in every part of the UK.  It maintains orchestras, and runs the world’s largest music festival (The Proms) each year. And it does this through a wide range of media – TV, Radio, Podcasts, Websites.

It reaches most of the adult population every week, as well as large audiences worldwide.  80% of adults see BBC TV, and 62% listen to BBC radio each week. By contrast 70% of adults watch ITV, and 65% listen to all commercial radio stations. Two thirds of viewers and listeners say that the BBC is effective at helping them learn new things. 56% of people think that  the BBC reflects people like them, and a similar number say it is effective at catering for the part of the UK where they live. Despite the rise of online and streaming services, 80% of people under 16 still use the BBC each week.

The BBC is highly respected worldwide for its independence and the range and quality of its output. It broadcasts in 40 languages to an audience outside the UK of nearly 400 million every week.  Its unique role and size enables it to maintain a network of journalists round the world. A global network of journalists and bureaux in 59 countries give it a unique capacity to report news and current affairs quickly to UK and global audiences, based on long term familiarity with different countries and regions. Its international reputation is reflected in the scale of its international sales of programmes. Unlike other national broadcasters with global scope it is seen as objective and impartial, and not projecting a national political agenda, beyond the promotion of open societies and democratic debate. Its nearest global competitor is CNN, with half the global audience, and only 36 “editorial operations bases”.

The key to the BBC’s independence is its Charter, and its funding model. Three quarters of its funding comes through the licence fee, which is effectively a hypothecated tax. Government can set the level of the licence fee, but is prevented from any more direct influence. The licence fee is a tax on everyone who watches BBC TV, but it accounts for 75% of the BBC’s income, and goes to sustain the whole organisation, which consists of many interlocking parts. Half the licence fee income is spent on TV, 17% on radio, and 8% of online services (which have a very large global audience). The scale of the licence fee (at £13 a month) is small by comparison with its rivals, none of whom provide anything like the scale and diversity of services. A basic Sky subscription costs £22 a month, and a Netflix subscription (which provides a much more limited range of services) costs £9 a month.

The BBC is subject to a high degree of public scrutiny. It receives and responds to, a large body of criticism and complaints about individual broadcasts and activities, and there is a constant debate about its institutional policies on issues like equal pay or the scale of regional coverage. However, formal complaints are remarkably rare.  In 2018-19 OFCOM received 247 complaints against the BBC. It fond against the BBC on two of these.

The BBC is unique, but like any large organisation, it can improve the way it manages itself, and the quality and reach of its output. However, there is no comparable broadcasting institution in the world, in terms of scale, reach, quality of output and public trust. Anyone who wishes to propose a major change in the BBC as a duty to demonstrate how these qualities could be maintained by any other model of funding, governance, and accountability. To change these fundamentally without clear evidence of benefit, would be vandalism of a major national asset.

A government with a large Parliamentary majority is always a potential threat to the BBC, and our present government has made its intentions clear. Of course it needs improvement, but any alternative would be hugely worse. Now is the time to support it.

Three disastrous myths of the Left

On a recent RSA “Polarised” podcast Chris Clarke (former Labour press officer) proposes three myths of the “populist left” which prevent us from achieving power and improving the world. They are:

  • The Dark Knight myth – we are virtuous: they are evil. Tories are not misguided or incompetent, they are morally reprehensible. Since no proper leftist can be friends with a Tory, we must not cooperate with people outside our own bubble, whose votes we would need to win power. Because we are claiming the moral high ground, we are held to higher standards than other parties. This makes us vulnerable to attacks on issues like antisemitism within the party.
  • The Puppet Master myth – we live in a hidden dictatorship. The world is ruled by a rich elite and media barons. Their power is so great that we could only ever win by unacceptable compromise (“Tony Blair was Rupert Murdoch’s puppet”)
  • The Golden Age myth – we must get back to the glorious years of real Labour (whenever that was). Since then the history of the left has been one of constant betrayal (Attlee gave us the welfare state, but was derided as a “mealy mouthed moderate”). This makes us vulnerable to claims that we are trying to recreate the 1970s (or some similar distant past, remembered mainly for its problems)

Versions of all three can be regularly found in left leaning Facebook groups. The narrative which they feed is one of heroic defeat. We will always lose, because the forces against us are too strong, clever and evil, and we are betrayed by sneering traitors. Since winning means abandoning virtue and joining the wicked elite, deep down we have given up before we begin.

I find it a persuasive argument (listen to the podcast below), and I think we should resist all three. The world is a complex and untidy place. Most people are not inherently malign, but they disagree legitimately about what is good, and how to pursue it. They also disagree about what should be prioritised when. Institutions which can help or obstruct progress need continual review and reform. Governments have to respond to events. Progress happens slowly, faster in some areas than others.

And remember, revolutions always punish the poorest first and most.

The myth of “no deal” Brexit

Four years ago, most people in Britain never gave a thought to the European Union.

They could not name a European law which had made their lives more difficult, they were happy to be able to travel freely around Europe, and that there were enough people to run our NHS, to care for our old people, and pick our fruit and vegetables, they could not name a single European law which made their lives more difficult, and they were content that £1 a week of their taxes was spent on our membership of the EU.

Then, to try to end a long running quarrel in the Tory Party, David Cameron decided to crush the Europhobe minority of his Party by proving that the British people were happy with this situation.

The people were angry about a lot of things – austerity, cuts to public services, falling real wages, rising crime, homelessness, food banks, potholes, queues in the NHS. None of these had anything to do with the EU. In one or two cases, the EU was actually helping.

But people were told that these problems were the fault of the politicians, and that leaving the EU would make these things better. Politicians told them to vote remain, so they voted leave

Since then we have become a deeply divided society over something that almost nobody cared about, and most people didn’t understand. And our country, of which I used to be proud, has become a laughing stock around the world.

So it’s no wonder that the only thing we now agree about is that we want it all to be over. That is why so many people would vote for leaving with “no deal” as soon as possible.

But just as leaving the EU will not deal with potholes in Norfolk, so leaving with no deal will not stop the debate about our relationship with the EU.

No deal is an illusion. We cannot survive without working relationships with our nearest neighbours. So after a “no deal” exit our government would have to go back to Brussels to ask them to open negotiations: on cooperation on crime, on how to avoid civil war in Ireland, on how to maintain free trade and shared standards for food and medicines, on citizen’s rights, on licensing of air traffic and professional qualifications. And they will be happy to negotiate, provided we first sign up to the things which our government agreed to, and Parliament rejected.

So no deal is groundhog day. It means starting the whole awful process of the last three years again, just from a weaker position. We will spend billions on bailing out businesses damaged by Brexit. We will see the flow of businesses moving out of the UK grow as they despair of our ever reaching a solution. Every commentator (including the pro-leave economists, and the Government) agrees that we will be poorer. We will still have 14,000 civil servants working on Brexit rather than our real problems. Our politics and government will continue to have no time for the country’s real problems.

It is time to be honest with the people – no deal is not a solution, it is not “getting it over with”, it is restarting the whole awful mess.

There are really only two choices – a possible agreement on how to leave the EU, carefully negotiated over three painful years, or sticking with the deal we had four years ago, membership of the EU, on terms more generous than any other country has. Four years ago the overwhelming majority were content with the deal we have.

We need to ask the people – how will your life be better if we leave? Is that worth the price of more years of political division, and a government too busy with Brexit to be able work on our real problems.

No deal is no answer – its time to ask the people.