Has the worm finally turned? Are Conservative politicians about to free themselves from the Stockholm Syndrome which has imprisoned them in their relationship with the BBC?
For years I have listened and watched Tory politicians being patronised and traduced by BBC interviewers but, no matter how badly they were treated, they always returned to abase themselves and receive more blows and curses from the masters. But this time, maybe, it’s going to be different. There have been a number of highly significant briefings from government sources since Friday morning’s political earthquake; suggestions that, if carried through, pose a real threat to the Corporation.
First the Sunday Telegraph reported that the government is considering decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee. On the face of it that doesn’t sound earth shattering but if the threat of prison, or even a fine, is removed from those who refuse to pay their annual £154.50 that would be a serious threat to the Corporation’s revenue. Increasingly the licence fee — a tax introduced, let us remember, nearly a century ago — looks anachronistic in an era of digital fragmentation; the BBC’s own figures show that it is finding it hard to attract young viewers accustomed to buying the services they want and resentful of having to pay a tax for a service they don’t use. If the sanction for non-payment is removed the BBC will lose millions in revenue as the audience drifts away.
Second, ‘government sources’ have intimated that, in future, it might feel under no obligation to provide Radio 4’s Today programme with a minister whenever the broadcasters demand one. ‘Empty chairing’ is a game two can play and all current affairs shows have much to lose; though the tone and content of Today has increasingly grated in recent years I have mostly stuck with it because I am interested in politics. But if all the show can offer is a diet of arts news, nature notes and tendentious climate-change activists I can do without.
And that will go for many others too. This might seem far-fetched (the belief that “they need us more than we need them” has always been the broadcasters’ comfort blanket) but if Dominic Cummings has been accurately reported the broadcasters have reason to fear.
Cummings reportedly didn’t listen to Today during the EU referendum; that is entirely in line with his stated belief that it’s not worth the effort of debating politics with the most highly educated because they never change their minds. The acquisition of a degree confers adamantine confidence in the holder’s political judgment, says Cummings, and their political prejudices become unshakeable; much better to concentrate your efforts on those with a lower opinion of themselves who are more open to persuasion.
Are these suggestions of revenge merely a hubristic response from Tories flushed with victory? Possibly, but to my mind this has been a long time coming. The bias against Conservatives, upper and lower case, is of many decades standing but the tone of this election campaign has brought things to a head.
There was an interview in September when Johnson was trying to negotiate the exit agreement; Laura Kuenssberg could barely disguise her contempt for him. And then there was the Andrew Neil (non-)interview: was it really wise for the BBC to throw down the gauntlet in that way? After all the Tories were in the business of winning an election: they were under no obligation to satisfy Neil’s demands. That episode showed the BBC’s sky-high self-regard but perhaps also a lack of understanding about a change in the terms of trade between politicians and broadcasters.
The BBC’s response to these charges of bias against the Tories has been to point to the fact that the Labour Party has been howling about the Corporation’s supposed bias against Mr Corbyn. But like so much else about the Corbyn project, these complaints are delusional. There is absolutely no equivalence between the bias against conservatives, which is deep-rooted and long-standing, and the BBC’s scepticism about Corbynism, which was a reaction to the sheer implausibility of Mr Corbyn as a leader plus the nasty stain of the party’s anti-Semitism.
I know about the BBC’s anti-Tory bias from personal, lived, experience. If you go back to the 1980s BBC newsrooms were viscerally opposed to Mrs Thatcher; in the 1990s they relished the demolition of Mr Major’s government; but then came 1997 and the BBC was suddenly worshipping at the altar of New Labour. The Blair Supremacy transformed the Corporation overnight from rottweiler to lapdog.
Ah, I hear you say, this is all entirely subjective; you are merely retailing your own prejudices. There is something in that charge; we all suffer from confirmation bias, hearing only those things we want to hear and ignoring the facts that don’t fit our prejudices. And it is true is that ‘proving’ bias is an exceptionally difficult thing to do given the slipperiness of the subject matter. But one man has made it his business to subject BBC output to rigorous checking.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a former leader of UKIP, hired specialists to monitor exactly what the BBC has been broadcasting about the EU and Brexit over many years. They found, for instance, that in the decade 2005–2015 of 4,275 interviewees on Today talking about the EU only 132 (3.2%) were opposed to the UK’s membership. And the bias persisted after the referendum result right up to the present moment. As Robbie Burns had it “facts are chiels that winna ding” or, in translation, “facts cannot be overturned”. And insofar as bias can be proven it has been so at least in regard to the BBC’s reporting of the EU.
My view is that bias is evident across the whole range of BBC output and it bears down particularly hard on social conservatives. Any view that does not conform to the liberal orthodoxy on matters ranging from the LGBT agenda to Islam to immigration is routinely screened out; the BBC simply does not allow any serious challenge to its world-view.
In October the BBC appointed the broadcaster and campaigner June Sarpong to the post of Director of Creative Diversity. The diversity she will be aiming for will be a trivial and superficial thing. What she will not be doing is trying to achieve any real ‘diversity’ of political opinion. The underlying contours of the BBC’s internal political culture will remain untouched.
The question is whether the new government will follow through on its threats. I wonder. Maybe this is just a tactical game, a way of calling the BBC to heel. There are reasons for doubting the Tories have the stomach for the fight; for one thing Boris is himself a thoroughgoing social liberal; for another there will come a time in the political cycle when the government will hit troubled waters and then, perhaps they will discover they need the BBC.
What is more, any significant challenge to the BBC will bring a chorus of complaints from the liberal Establishment (bruised but not vanquished by Friday’s result) about a threat to Britain’s cultural ‘jewel in the crown’. That is why I hope action is taken now, whilst Boris’s political capital is at flood tide.
I have been writing on this subject for many years; the first book I published on the subject in 2007 Can We Trust the BBC? ended with these thoughts: “As currently constituted the BBC is a profoundly influential opponent of everything that social and political conservatives believe… If the time ever comes when British conservatives feel like getting off their knees and fighting back, broadcasting policy might not be a bad place to start.”
This is the moment and I hope the new government grasps it.