UnHerd Book Club

Books to help make sense of a chaotic year

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December 30, 2020

This year, even more than in the half-dozen previously, the biggest game in town has been information. Politics is all about information: how much we can trust it and who controls its flow. The culture wars, the “fake news” epidemic, the rise of populism, the splintering of the media, the emergence of hyper-partisan influence operations, the increasing difficulty in holding power to account, the post-Brexit role of Britain in the world — all that stuff has to do with our information ecosystem.

And so, at the heart of these pressure points in public life is the BBC. It remains — however much that may irk its detractors — the pulmonary artery in our media circulatory system. That means that the discussion of its current and future health could not be more deeply involved, wherever you stand on it, in the state we’re in. And you can see by the ferocity with which it’s attacked — all those #biasedbbc and #defundbbc hashtags; Laura Kuenssberg needing a bodyguard — that its detractors of all political stripes don’t like it up ‘em.

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Even its entertainment output — which has sustained so many of us during the pandemic — gets dragged into the culture wars. Its rivalry with commercial channels enrages the Murdochs. Its output is combed by Right-wing TV critics for “wokeism”, and incel science-fiction fans are still recovering from Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. If The Crown had been on the Beeb you can only imagine how much more ferocious the fuss over its liberties with history would have been.

So if a recent book could be said to speak to the hot-button issue of our times it is The War Against the BBC: How an unprecedented combination of hostile forces is destroying Britain’s greatest cultural institution… And why you should careLike its subject, the unkind might say, that title is bloated, unwieldy and tinged with a self-righteous complacency. But give it a chance and dig deeper.

That is very much the approach that this book’s authors recommend taking towards the BBC. Peter York and Patrick Barwise (the latter an emeritus professor of marketing at the London Business School; the former a multimedia gadfly remembered inter alia for minting the epithet “Sloane Ranger”) want to make the case for Auntie.

They address the three main lines of attack, which map the ideological fault lines of the age; these lines are as follows. It is bloated and bureaucratic, squandering the license fee on overpaid managers and overpaid stars; it does too much, competing unfairly in areas of broadcasting that are more than adequately supplied by the private sector; and it is suffused with liberal metropolitan bias and out of touch with the Plain People of Britain.

Some of these complaints are now so well established that we reach for them as instinctive truths. We picture Gary Lineker’s dressing room drowned in white lilies and Liberace fur coats, and whole fleets of black taxis idling all day outside Broadcasting House with the meters running, just in case.

In mounting their defence of the corporation, Barwise and York do a good job of unpicking these cliches and, where apt, busting myths. On efficiency, for instance, they produce a brisk demolition of the wilful innumeracy behind the claim that the BBC “spends less than half its cash on programmes”. In fact, they argue, the figure is more like 93% — and they show their workings. They add that an independent review by Ernst & Young found that the BBC’s efficiency (percentage of overheads, indirect costs) put it very near the top of a league table of media and telecommunications companies — most of them private-sector.

On the question of “unfair competition”, they note that the BBC is in a vicious double-bind. If it continues to pump out drama and light entertainment, it’s accused of eating the private sector’s lunch. Were it to strip down, as many demand, to just do the unpopular stuff — then that would become in course the basis for an argument that the many are now subsidising the few therefore Auntie should be abolished. And this is to ignore not only the soft power of the BBC overseas, and the “gross value added” (one study they quote has it that the BBC generates two quid of economic activity for every pound of the licence fee), but also the extent to which these commercial successes help to fund the uncommercial bit.

But do people want all this stuff? It seems they do. 99% of Britons use at least one BBC service every week. And, ticklingly, they quote the 2015 “BBC Deprivation Study”. Researchers struck a deal with 48 households who had answered a survey saying they thought the licence fee was poor value for money. They gave them each a cash payment of £3.60 — nine days’ worth of the licence fee — and cut their Beeb off for that long. Guess what? 33 of those 48 households changed their minds after nine days without the Corporation.

Barwise and York argue, on the question of bias, that large-scale surveys tend to show that — whatever we at home may think we know — the BBC is not systematically biased: at least, inasmuch as these things can be quantified. Its charter commitments mean that it falls over itself not to be. And though the public is divided over the BBC’s perceived impartiality (60% think it’s neutral), the accuracy of its reporting is widely credited. For 51% of the population it’s the most trusted news source, its nearest competitor at 9% being ITV. The newspapers that consistently attack it for bias and inaccuracy sit at, er, 1% in that survey.

The authors discover some murky stuff, too, in the opaquely funded think-tanks and pressure groups who monitor the corporation’s output for impartiality. It’s true, they say, that Left and Right alike moan about BBC bias — but it’s only on the Right that complaining about the BBC qualifies as a properly paid day job.

Another line of attack, perhaps a deadlier one, is starving the corporation of funds. The dirtiest trick in this department was George Osborne’s making the corporation summarily responsible for the over-75s’ licence fee. Here was a promise — or bribe, you could say — made to the electorate by politicians without any consultation with the BBC. Dropping the promise would be a vote-loser; but keeping it on the DWP’s books would get more and more expensive as the population ages. So he made it the BBC’s problem — which in turn gave government a further stick with which to beat the corporation. That’s like promising every voter a free pair of Nike trainers — and then sticking Nike with the bill.

It’s easy to see why so many big media companies — the Mail and the Murdoch titles, especially — have not only a cultural but a direct commercial interest in attacking the BBC. And it’s easy to see, too, why government will tend to want to collude in those attacks — especially a government that would prefer a little less scrutiny. A media outlet with tremendous reach, a charter commitment to facticity and a considerable budget for reporting is not, shall we say, a natural ally. Dominic Cummings didn’t have his ministers boycott the BBC on a whim.

You may not agree with the authors’ conclusions. Indeed, you may disagree with their premises: making the case for the BBC in practice may be easier than making the case for it in principle. But the value of this book is to remind us that arguments against the BBC are often dishonest or partial, often strongly motivated by vested interests — and often hope for its destruction while affecting to hope for its reform. It may make you, as it did me, think that in this accursed year there’s something to be said for keeping a-hold of nurse in fear of finding something worse.