Some optimists say that the current crisis might bring out the best in us. These sunny souls are invoking the re-emergence of the “Blitz spirit” of the Second World War, when the country displayed what we like to think of as our true national character: stoicism, generosity and fortitude in the face of adversity, all leavened with a doughty, self-deprecating humour.
They may well be right – it does feel somehow different out there – but whatever else this crisis has in common with that period, one wartime comparison that certainly rings true is that the BBC is once again a vital, unifing force.
The BBC is having a good crisis; in fact the coronavirus emergency could have been custom-made in one of the management suites of New Broadcasting House, the better to display the merits of our national broadcaster.
Back in January things were looking pretty bleak for the Corporation. There were threatening noises coming out of government circles about a forthcoming reckoning; the licence fee was said to be under unsympathetic scrutiny and to some the BBC’s very future seemed in doubt. Some commentators believed a “punishment beating” was in the offing in retaliation for the perceived slights of the previous three years.
That period was dominated by the frustrations of the Brexit debate, during which a long-brewing crisis in relations between Leavers and the BBC reached its peak. In the BBC’s latest annual report Tony Hall, the Director General, claims he was “extremely proud” of how his news teams had covered “this vitally important national story”, but this was not how many Leave voters viewed things, and to them it displayed a tin ear about the BBC’s one-sidedness.
But two months on and the landscape has been transformed by events, events that give the corporation time to do some repair work on its tarnished image as a trustworthy guide. That image is itself partly a legacy of the BBC’s wartime role as an honest truth-teller at a time of national crisis, for the years 1939-45 were when the foundation stones of the BBC’s reputation were laid, and explain why so many people have a strong emotional attachment to it.
In Auntie’s War, Ed Stourton’s book about the BBC during the period, he talks about “a golden thread of truth-telling” which ran through its output; and in some ways the Corporation has ever since been living off the moral capital it acquired during those perilous years. But 1945 is a long time ago and in recent years that capital has been draining away. And the Brexit debate nearly emptied the well.
The problem Brexit posed for the BBC was that its own deepest instincts, which were to remain firmly ensconced in the European bosom, coincided exactly with the strong preference of the Establishment. In the course of the long debate the BBC became the trusted cheerleader for those who opposed leaving. But the “national broadcaster” was broadcasting to a divided nation in which a slight majority had taken the opposite view and the Corporation never found a way of speaking for them. Rather than bring people together its reporting caused resentment and further division.
But Covid-19 is a very different proposition. For the past few weeks the BBC’s output has effortlessly found a tone which suits the national mood: it is clearly “on our side” because, unlike Brexit, this is a crisis which puts us all on one side against an invisible and frightening enemy. There is no deep political divide over the virus and, so far at least, the opposition parties have been supportive of the government’s action. And this makes the BBC’s job much easier; it gives it an opportunity to demonstrate its core values in a politics-free zone.
“Public service broadcasting” is a phrase that embodies a noble ideal, a promise of a fair, non-partisan, and truthful news service which everybody can rely on. This is particularly important when, as now, there is a genuine threat to national well-being. And the BBC — particularly Radio Four — has risen to the challenge.
The coverage of the spread of the virus, the containment measures proposed and the practical steps that individuals should take to minimise risk to themselves has been exemplary. All the news programmes have done well, but I would single out PM and Evan Davies in particular; Davies, with his non-confrontational, intelligent and probing style, is ideally suited to this particular crisis. Covid-19 has allowed us a glimpse of what authentic public service broadcasting looks and sounds like.
One small sign of how things have changed is the way in which government ministers are once again being heard on the BBC. The edict that ministers would no longer automatically offer themselves for a daily grilling on Today apparently came from Dominic Cummings, who saw little political profit in allowing ministers to be savaged by BBC journalists, always on the look-out for minor discrepancies to turn into a “divisions in government” story.
Throughout January and February the flagship programmes were minister-free zones, a policy which undeniably diminished them. Today has always prided itself on “setting the agenda” and the amount of “pick-up” by other media outlets was partly the measure by which it judged the success of its output; without any agenda-setting government interviews a vital ingredient was missing.
I always assumed that at some point in the political cycle this embargo would end; the time would arrive, I calculated, when the Government needed the BBC again. But I had not anticipated that time would arrive so quickly; of course, no one did.
As it is, health and business ministers now need to get on to the airwaves to reassure us all that the Government knows what it’s doing and is feeling our pain. One senses that BBC presenters are pleased that the old relationship has been, at least partly, restored; programmes top-heavy with Opposition spokesmen feel lopsided and incomplete.
This is not to say that the antagonism between the BBC and the Government is now a thing entirely of the past; the Beeb’s underlying political instincts have not changed and are still largely antithetical to conservatism. In Right-wing circles deep suspicion of the Corporation’s bias will remain, and it will not be a question of just letting “bygones be bygone”.
It is likely that when the epidemic has run its course hostilities will be resumed, if only because towards the end of the year the nation’s focus will turn again to Brexit as the negotiations between the EU and Britain reach their climax. But for now Covid-19 has entirely eclipsed Brexit and this gives both the BBC and the Government an opportunity to re-set the relationship.
It is in this context that the choice of replacement for Tony Hall in the summer is so important. The next D-G’s first and most important task will be to build on this truce and conciliate those elements of the Tory party who feel the Corporation is firmly in the enemy camp. Failure to do so might mean that the threat to abolish the licence fee (which has been and remains a hugely valuable privilege) translates into a reality.
But when the two sides begin to talk about these things the BBC will now be able to point to its performance during this health emergency: there they will be able to say “that is what good public service broadcasting means”.
In the coming weeks, with people marooned in their homes for long periods, the BBC will for many become a vital service keeping them informed and diverted at a difficult time. When “the war is over”, as it were, the Corporation is likely to emerge having earned renewed gratitude. Its stock will be high and it will thus be in a much stronger position to repel any political challenge.
If the BBC is wise it will also understand why this has happened and draw the right lesson from it. Because of the virus “public service broadcasting” has become more than just a phrase; it has real meaning which is allowing the Corporation to speak to, and for, the whole nation. What the BBC will then need to re-discover how to do that when times are normal again and ordinary politics come back into play.