Why we should defend the BBC

The ‘Huw Edwards affair’ has been another round in the long-running Murdoch press campaign against the BBC.  The exact details behind the charges against him as published in the Sun remain unclear; the Sun has now retreated from its initial story, and the police have said that there is nothing to justify pressing charges.  The Times fired off shots in support, listing the highest salaries of BBC presenters with a disapproving commentary – not noting the remarkably high fees that Talk News, owned by the Murdoch press and promoted ad nausea in the pages of the Times, pays to right-wing MPs and chat-show hosts for doing a few hours’ work a week.  Other papers have hinted at the not so defensible private behaviour of Dan Wootton, a former Sun journalist now with GB News and Mail Online, on which the Murdoch press has remained silent.

 The BBC attempts to hold together debates within the British national community.  The Murdoch press, from its first incursion into British media nearly 50 years ago, ha been a disrupter and divider.  Rupert Murdoch has also seen himself as a political player, expecting political leaders in Australia, Britain and the USA to court him for his support – or, at least, to moderate his opposition.  Tony Blair travelled to Australia to meet him; Keir Starmer has reportedly met him twice this year.  The aggressive style of the Murdoch media has made British politics more raucous.  But it’s in the USA, without a well-funded public broadcasting network, that it has had the deepest impact.  Fox News has given voice and encouragement to the populist right, to climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists and closet racists, preparing the ground for Donald Trump to make a successful run for the Presidency while dismissing as ‘fake news’ the evidence-based policies he was rubbishing.

While all active and fit Liberal Democrats were out delivering leaflets or knocking on doors in Somerton and Frome the BBC showed its quality in the underlying message of the opening concert of the summer Proms.  Dalia Stasevska, Finnish but born in Kyiv, conducted a concert of mainly Nordic patriotic music, Sibelius and Grieg, as well as a new commission from a Ukrainian composer.  It carried a strong implicit message of British solidarity with Ukraine and of the links we have with countries on Russia’s western border.

Those of us who read the Times note its constant negative stories about the BBC, together with promotion of Talk TV and Times Radio.   The Telegraph and the Mail also do their best to denigrate the BBC.  They too are committed to moving the balance of opinion within the UK to the right.  They are also competitors, as more and more people move on-.  Mail On-line competes with BBC Online, successfully on gossip but unsuccessfully on serious news.  The BBC remains, according to polling surveys, the most trusted source of news for British citizens, and the most regular source of news for younger people, directly or through links to other websites.  The extraordinarily high fee the Telegraph paid to Boris Johnson for his columns, now provided by the Mail, and the high fees to Farage,  Dorries and the like for their TV chat shows, provide subsidies for right-wing politicians: another dimension of the way in which money shapes British politics.

 The BBC has been under sustained attack from the Conservative government; they see it as a central part of the ‘liberal establishment’ which they claim has prevented them from driving through the radical shrinking of the state they set out to achieve.  Its licence fee has been frozen, its income shrunk.  But the move to on-line viewing and listening, as much as the move away from newspapers, is reshaping Britain’s media environment and making the ‘flat tax’ of the licence fee harder to defend.  

How to fund the public benefits of a public broadcasting network, and how large and diverse a range of activities that should extend to, are questions which we have to engage with.  The BBC’s orchestras and choirs, its superb educational material (from which I benefitted enormously when teaching my grandchildren on Skype during the lockdown), its regional and national hubs across the UK, make vital contributions to the UK’s cultural and political life. 

With all its faults and failures, the BBC promotes open debate, reasoned argument, and national culture.  Take it away, and we’d be left with an American-style, fractious debate.  We should cherish it, and vigorously defend it from its self-interested right-wing critics.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Simon Parritt 29th Jul '23 - 9:58am

    I can’t agree more with Lord Wallace – I find the proliferation and unrelenting attack both obvious and subtle both sinister and dangerous. Whilst the BBC has, like any large corporation, it’s problems it remain one of the few places where we still have the opportunity to experience drama, news, art and information across all media channels.
    If we as the fail to defend it and stop it’s demise we will be in a Trumpian/Putinesque distopian British nightmare.

  • Peter Martin 29th Jul '23 - 12:57pm

    I would expect that most BBC staff have views ranging from slightly left of centre to slightly right of centre. This is naturally seen as too left wing by the political right which has the muscle and financial power to try to counter its influence in the print and TV media. It’s noticeable that the BBC has moved to the right in recent years. It’s likely worried about being defunded by Tory governments and seeks to head off a barrage of legal complaints from a well funded right.

    Those to the left have never been treated particularly even-handedly by the BBC. This has become even more noticeable recently. There is a virtual civil war going on in the Labour Party which has largely been ignored except to report that Starmer has made the party electable again. Surely that would have happened anyway given the Tory shambles?

    There’s been, for example, hardly any critical coverage of how the Starmer who was elected Labour leader has been replaced by someone who looks the same but says quite different things! Or the leaked internal report showing that paid Labour Party staffers were openly working to lose the 2017 election. We’ll have to see how the next election turns out but it could well be that Starmer faces much more left opposition than he’s bargained for with Jeremy Corbyn, Dianne Abbott and Jamie Driscoll being key players.

  • Steve Trevethan 29th Jul '23 - 4:52pm

    Thank you for an important article.

    If objective, investigative news and its derivatives, produced and delivered by the B. B. C are vital for national cohesion and national equitable sustainability, as many think it is, how many out of ten does the B B C currently seem to score and why?

    What might be the score for the political impartiality of the B. B.C governing body?

  • Denis Loretto 30th Jul '23 - 8:56am

    Bound up with the attacks on the BBC is the illusory view of many on the right of the opinion the world holds of the UK. This is bound up with the “global Britain” myth in the wake of brexit. There is much to be proud of in being British despite everything and it should be realised that the BBC is one of the principal ways in which what I may call good Britishness is projected across the world as against bad Britishness. We would be enormously damaged if the BBC were to be emasculated.

  • What’s the end game for the Tories with the BBC?
    A Government mouthpiece, showering North Korean style praise on every ministerial utterance? Yuk!
    A semi publicly funded broadcaster with some advertising to make up the lost revenue? A quick look across the Irish Sea at RTE’s troubles, with no one knowing whether payments came from the public purse or advertising sponsorship. That’s a mess, although RTE is a decent broadcaster, certainly their material broadcast here is.
    No, keep the BBC, but let it evolve as technology and society does.

  • The BBC has long since abandoned any attempts at impartially so defending it is just silly.

    That was notable on EU related issues years before the Brexit referendum, never mind during the referendum itself and in Kuennsberg’s “love in” coverage of Johnson’s rise to being PM and during most of his tenure.

    Had the BBC risen to “American-style, fractious debate” during that time, it would have been an improvement on the coverage it provided.

  • A free press is a cornerstone of a free democracy. The BBC as an institution has served this country very well just as the NHS has.
    Ofcom reports that News content is available across a variety of platforms and provided in a range of ways that make it accessible and convenient. The majority of UK adults (96%) consume news in some form with broadcast TV maintaining its position as the most used platform, reaching 70% of UK adults. This represents a decline compared to 2022, and longer term compared to 2018. However, this increases to 75% when broadcast video on-demand (BVoD) services are included.
    Around two in five, (42%) use broadcast TV only, 5% use BVoD only and 28% use both.
    Although there has been a long-term decline in the use of print newspapers, with overall reach of these news brands supplemented by their digital platforms, Ofcom’s most recent data shows consistent reach between 2022 and 2023.
    TV news (BBC and Sky) remain the dominant forms of News delivery for good reason. This is what is referred to as the Mainstream Broadcast Media, but it remains a trusted source despite the challenges of populist politicians everywhere to undermine the editorial independence and objectivity of professional and journalists.

  • George Thomas 30th Jul '23 - 7:07pm

    The last article I read about how good/not good the BBC is was written by the Reach Media group who were warning against BBC plans to significantly reduce their local radio output and replace it with expanding local print output.

    The idea that it would put existing local journalism out of business and reporting which questions government of the day (example given being HS2 funding not being devolved to Wales despite it clearly being an England only project) would be lost.

    What does the BBC do now and especially since it became talking point for those on center-right? Fairly tame comedy, Wimbledon, documentaries which offer credit to both sides of the argument as if they’re equals, long hours of pro-royal family programming and political reporting which does everything it can to prevent street protests recently seen in France. Oh, and the incredible World Service which boosts UK soft power internationally, cheap entertainment and fairly trust-worthy news reporting.

    Losing the BBC would be worse than keeping it as it is, keeping the BBC as it is (or the direction of travel it currently has) would not be a success.

  • william wallace 30th Jul '23 - 9:21pm

    From Mark Pack’s latest posting:- The BBC scores a net +18% trust score (44% trust/26% distrust), well ahead of GB News on net -16% (19% trust/35% distrust), the Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday on -31% (16% trust/47% distrust) and The Sun on net -54% (9% trust/63% distrust) according to Opinium. The highest net trust score is +22% for Channel 4 News (40% trust/18% distrust).

  • The BBC nutty view of impartiality with regard to Brexit was deplorable but I’m still prepared to see it as world class public service broadcasting- an accolade which the Government ascribe to many aspects of our public life which are nothing of the sort. Some things we do do brilliantly – see John Harris’s piece in today’s Guardian Journal about the Youth Hostels Association which would probably be meaningless to most members of the Cabinet.
    Michael Foot used to refer to one of the worst of our national newspapers (I think it was the Daily Express in those pre-Murdoch days) as “the Forgers’ Gazette”. The tag could be applied to several of the others today.
    That’s why I’ve always see Focus leaflets as necessary alternative media. Problems inside the BBC can and should be dealt with but the shortcomings of the right wing print media are something else.

  • Peter Hirst 6th Aug '23 - 12:50pm

    While agreeing with your comments William there is a need for a more more open discussion about people in the public eye. We all err from time to time and perhaps those more in the public eye do more so for various reasons. We also value transparency and accountability so we can expect similar occurrences to occur in the future. Perhaps a forced time off without pay could solve this dilemma. Ultimately the public should decide whether there is a public future for those commiting the more serious offences. Obviously breaking the law is another matter and must be responded to appropriately.

  • Peter Hirst 6th Aug '23 - 1:45pm

    We and the country needs a debate about actions by people in the public eye that while not commiting a crime are generally considered undesirable. We value transparency and accountability. These decisions do determine what is acceptable and deserve a wider public debate. Is it right that these decisions should be determined entirely by the organisation in which they occur?

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