The BBC's Bogeyman: The Tories & 'Impartiality'
By Jamie Beatty
The BBC has found itself in many of its own headlines recently, albeit for reasons it would much rather not be. The suspension, subsequent U-turn, and fallout of the Gary Lineker incident has brought about conversations of the BBC’s purpose, its current state and its role going forward.
According to its first Director-General, Sir John Reith, the purpose of the BBC is “to educate, inform and entertain the whole nation, free from political interference and commercial pressure.” Well, it certainly is successful in the entertainment department, with recent events leaving myself and many others glued to our Twitter feeds waiting for updates. But I’m sure this is not the kind of entertainment Sir John envisioned. It is more akin to watching Sharknado than The Sopranos; the situation this once great institution finds itself in is so dire that you can’t possibly look away, as the BBC fails to educate and inform, submitting to political interference and commercial pressure.
The latest incident is the result of a storm that has long been brewing and is just the tipping point of this debate. Gary Lineker (appropriately and accurately) comparing the rhetoric used in the new Migration Bill to that of 1930’s Germany was always going to cause a headache for the BBC. When an ‘impartial’ service’s highest paid star makes a political statement, it will always draw criticism from some. No matter how warranted the statement may be, or how the BBC’s social media guidelines are only intended for staff who work on news and politics, not areas such as sport, or how Lineker is technically a freelancer, but these are moot points in this much larger debate. What makes the BBC’s response to the entire situation so egregious are the clear double standards over its treatment of right-wing and left-wing statements, or more specifically, statements which either support or condemn the Tories. They really did score an own-goal in the ninetieth minute here.
Lineker was initially suspended for breaching the BBC’s guidelines over impartiality, but when these guidelines are written by Director General Tim Davie, a former active Conservative Party member, the reasoning behind this suspension falls on deaf ears.
Especially when there has been a long history of inconsistency, to say the least, over its treatment of political statements from members of staff. Why was The Apprentice not axed when Alan Sugar repeatedly expressed his support for Boris Johnson and distaste for Jeremy Corbyn, even going so far as comparing him to a Nazi? Now doesn’t that sound familiar. Why was Andrew Neil allowed to front multiple political programmes for the BBC whilst simultaneously being Chairman of the notoriously right-wing magazine, The Spectator? Why did he not receive anywhere near the amount of scrutiny as journalists accused of being on the left, such as Lewis Goodall? The answer, frighteningly, seems obvious. When you begin to peel back the layers, one can clearly see that the government is quite literally choking the BBC like a Python does its prey with its appointments.
There is a blue mould at the heart of the BBC, and it’s spreading throughout the institution.
Richard Sharp, the BBC’s Chairman, facilitated an £800,000 loan guarantee for then-PM Boris Johnson during his application to become Chairman. Now who recommends the appointment of a new Chairman to the King-In-Council you ask? The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which at the time was Oliver Dowden, whom himself was appointed by, you guessed it, Boris Johnson. Sharp was then responsible for appointing Davie. It’s a sticky, sleazy spider’s web, with there being countless other examples, including so-called ‘Impartiality Tsar’ Sir Robbie Gibb, Theresa May’s former Communications Chief. I hope you see the irony here. The leadership team could never have responded effectively to the Lineker incident, or any other crisis for that matter, because accusations of bias will always overhang with the current appointments process, resulting in a lack of public trust in the service. This gives merit to arguments of privatisation or abolishing the license fee, as Armando Iannucci suggested on The Newsagents podcast. He argued that an independent state broadcaster must be independent from the state, and in its current form, it isn’t, so why should we pay for it?
Based on evidence, I agree that the BBC clearly isn’t fit for purpose in its current state. But I do not agree that privatisation should ever be the way forward. Despite everything going on, almost all of the information I have used for this article I would have been able to find on the BBC’s own website, reminding me what makes the BBC so special in the first place. No private company would actively publish its own dirt in so much detail out of fear of losing money. If they were to do this, they would sacrifice their identity and ideals, becoming just another partisan media outlet that the public should be apprehensive in trusting in this post-truth age. We already have so many of these, we do not need more, let alone another right-leaning one. Instead, the solution is clear: Fix the appointments process and get a true understanding of impartiality. Remove the government’s ability to influence appointments, treat it like the Civil Service, independent from the government, as it should have always been.
Doing this would allow them to restore public trust and fulfil its original mission statement, because as it stands the BBC is even less trusted than ITV News, according to recent polls. This can of course be traced back to the Tories at the top of the food chain, but also to their broken policies on impartiality.
Impartiality doesn’t have to mean timidity.
Independence means that you can go in-depth on issues to uncover the truth, free from the fear of repercussion from the government of the day, which can then be presented in an accurate manner to the public that pays for the service.
Until these issues are solved, more scandals are bound to emerge. I actually don’t blame the government for this mess, they are trying to maintain power and the broken framework allows them to do so. I say this as an anti-Tory, but you can’t hate the player, you need to hate the game. This is why it is essential that the public becomes aware of this problem and can pressure parties to commit to changing their current policy. Keir Starmer’s pledge to strengthen BBC independence is a step in the right direction, but it should go further and separate it from government influence.
It is unlikely that the Conservatives would ever commit to this since it would compromise their position, so our hope lies with Labour to change how the BBC operates. I’m sure this would be a popular policy point and would help them in their fight in the next election, so I can only hope that they act on it. But hey, what do I know. I’m just part of the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating ‘wokerati’ after all.