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How much more will Johnson take from the out-of-control BBC?

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IN his excellenTCW article of May 21, News-watch’s David Keighley forensically demolished, point by point, the bias-driven inaccuracies and assumptions in the BBC’s now-infamous Panorama of April 27.  He correctly located the programme firmly within the coronavirus iteration of Project Fear which the Corporation has been, and still is, running.

TCW readers who watched it will remember how every failure by the NHS, and even by its semi-autonomous linked agencies, in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic was invariably deemed to be exclusively the fault of the Government – even those where it had no direct control or even involvement – in what was in effect a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party.

Which makes the Government’s over-timid response all the more deserving of criticism. It could manage little, if anything, more than a half-hearted squeak of protest delivered by Culture and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden, whom I’ve previously criticised as an ineffectual, paleo-Cameroon careerist, and who increasingly comes across as a twerp to rival even his (politically) late and unlamented namesake Oliver Letwin.

In the light of subsequent events, it’s perhaps worth revisiting and analysing Dowden’s weak, anodyne and platitudinous admonition to the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall in more detail.

Dowden urges Hall to ‘uphold the highest standards in relation to integrity and impartiality’. At the risk of being pedantic, the use of ‘uphold’ here implies that those ‘highest standards of integrity and impartiality’ are the norm from which the Panorama programme was merely an isolated, uncharacteristic aberration. That might come as a surprise to the 69 per cent of respondents to the late December 2019 Savanta-ComRes poll who said they trusted the BBC less even than ITV News on impartiality and accuracy.                    

Dowden concludes by referring to the need to maintain ‘public confidence’ in ‘the BBC’s long-standing reputation for fair and balanced reporting’. That, in turn, might come as a surprise to the 75 per cent of respondents to the (also late December) Public First poll supporting abolition of the licence fee outright, and 60 per cent favouring the decriminalisation of non-payment. 

As for the Mail‘s headline, Dowden’s pleadings represented, not so much a ‘blast’ as a half-hearted pretence at a mild rebuke. They virtually invited a contemptuous response from the BBC. It has not been long in coming.

The Corporation remains unapologetic about its practice, especially noticeable in that edition of Panorama but by no means restricted to it, of habitually featuring ‘impartial experts’ who turn out on closer investigation to be fiercely partisan, hard-Left, committed anti-conservatism activists with a distinct political agenda. Even Sky News has been shamed into improving itself a little on this score, but not the BBC. 

It participated enthusiastically in, almost to the extent of heading, the media lynch-mob in its witch-hunt against Dominic Cummings.  Acres have already been written on this, to which I don’t propose to add; except to point TCW readers to former BBC staffer Robin Aitken’s excellent Daily Telegraph article summarising the background. 

Which brings us to l’affaire Maitlis. This has also not lacked for apposite comment. Like David Sedgwick’s at Comment Central, Charles Moore’s analysis in the Daily Telegraph could leave even the most sceptical reader in no doubt that Maitlis’s partisan monologue at the start of last Tuesday’s Newsnight was a gross breach of impartiality so presumably also a gross breach of her contract of employment?).

When Number Ten is reportedly ‘incandescent‘ over Maitlis’s diatribe,  and 40,000 people go to the trouble of lodging a formal complaint about it with the BBC in a mere two days, it’s hard to imagine just how much more provocation Johnson’s Government actually needs before finally resolving to address the BBC question. Yet, judging by Dowden’s limp reaction earlier in May, the answer seems to be: ‘quite a lot’.

At least on the timing of any action, a decision to keep the powder dry for the moment, looks sound. It makes sense to keep the file labelled ‘BBC’ in the pending tray, albeit at the top, until Covid-19 and Brexit are safely out of the way. But then. . . .

Tactics, though, are all-important. It was both misguided and inept of Dowden to restrict his remarks to the issue of lack of impartiality; the ‘bias’ allegation is inherently subjective, and the Corporation has a range of strategies for deflecting and smothering it, including enticing its critics into an endless ‘he said, we said’ squabble, which ultimately gets nowhere. For the Government to try to upbraid the BBC for its political bias is the non-military equivalent of fighting a battle on ground of the enemy’s choosing.

Had the hapless Dowden been more astute, and even remotely serious, he would have threatened ‘Dear Tony’ with immediate decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, or even an urgent, unscheduled mid-period Charter review to abolish it.  Instead, his entreaties were all smokescreen and displacement activity. 

There is a much better route, and much stronger case, available based on the BBC’s iniquitous compulsory licence fee. The Daily Telegraph‘s Madeleine Grant hit the nail on the head in linking the two, correctly saying that unless the BBC rapidly both repudiates and eliminates the shamelessly partisan personal editorialising of the type epitomised by Maitlis on Newsnight, it cannot continue receiving any kind of coercive funding. 

Time is running out. Last Monday, the Times reported the BBC’s proposal that the wealthy may in future be charged more for their TV licence. This is outrageous, in the sense that no one should be coercively charged anything for a product they don’t wish to consume, especially the egregiously mis-labelled ‘TV licence’ which is, in fact, a regressive poll-tax; but making ‘the wealthy’ pay more for it both reduces its regressivity and plays to class-envy, thus taking some of the sting out of the criticism of it as a concept.

The Maitlis episode has given Johnson ample justification for pushing ahead with decriminalising non-payment of the BBC’s licence fee, on the wholly legitimate grounds that people of whatever means should not be forced to pay for this. With trust in the media being significantly reduced, rarely can the circumstances have been so propitious.

But so they were, almost as much, in the December-January period over the General Election and formal exit from the EU.  Despite all the anti-BBC Boris-bluster then, nothing has actually been done, the ball has been dropped, and it needs to be picked up again. Don’t hold your breath, though. The danger has to be that, once again, the faux-‘Conservatives’ will back down.

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Michael St George
Michael St George
Michael St George is a freelance writer arguing for minimal-state, low-tax, free-markets minarchist-libertarianism. He tweets as @A_Liberty_Rebel. He is @LibertarianRebelon Parler.

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