The BBC is the mother of all public broadcasters, but it is facing the greatest challenge of its existence. The government has taken aim at the BBC on the eve of its 100th birthday, and it is unclear what the future holds.
It all started with a flag. It stands in the back-right corner of the office of Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government and was clearly visible to millions of BBC “Breakfast” viewers at 7:40 a.m. on a morning in March. On screen, the flag is sandwiched between Jenrick’s face and that of the queen, who is smiling from a portrait hanging on the wall. The flagpole reaches right up to the ceiling – the flag really is quite large.
When the interview is over, the moderator jokes: “I think your flag is not up to standard size government interview measurements. I think it’s just a little bit small.” Laughing can be heard from the co-presenter in the studio. “It’s just a thought,” the presenter adds earnestly as a pained smile crosses the minister’s face.
A brief exchange, perhaps, but it was enough to trigger yet another nationwide scandal for the BBC. In the hours following the interview, the broadcaster received 6,500 complaints and a group of Conservative parliamentarians wrote a letter, saying: “We feel the hosts need reminding that the B in BBC stands for British.” Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw fit to get involved, saying the broadcaster had grown “detached” from the rest of the country.
A contrite BBC ultimately expressed regret and said the presenters had been “spoken to and reminded of their responsibilities.”
Was that enough? No, it wasn’t. Of course not. A week later, a Conservative member of parliament used a parliamentary hearing to reprimand Tim Davie, the new director general of the BBC. Does he know, the MP demanded, how often the British flag appears in the BBC’s 268-page annual report? Hmm?
Davie responded: “I have no idea.” The Tory said: “Well, it’s zero. Do you find that surprising?” Davie, growing annoyed, replied: “I think that’s a strange metric.” He added that the BBC is “incredibly proud” of the work it does championing Britain abroad and noted that the Union Jack flies from the Broadcasting House in London, which houses the station.
God Save the BBC.
It may all sound like a Monty Python sketch, but it really did happen. The British Broadcasting Corporation, the oldest national broadcaster in the world and one of the largest, broadcasts around the clock and around the globe, a beacon of liberal democracy and a venerable giant of journalism. Yet here it was, being ridiculed by its own government – and it was spineless enough to bend to the criticism. Because of a harmless quip about a piece of cloth.
This selfsame BBC is turning 100 years old next year. At the moment, though, there aren’t many who see that as a reason to celebrate. The broadcaster has been facing crisis after crisis for quite some time, to be sure, but rarely has the BBC been doing as poorly as it is now. Attacks are coming from all sides. Funding cuts have forced the broadcaster to pinch its pennies for the last 10 years, but the competition – in the form of private streaming companies – is wallowing in cash, able to easily fork up an average of $13 million per episode of the Netflix series “The Crown” – the American-produced show about the British queen. These days, 12 to 15-year-olds are more likely to watch or listen to offerings like Netflix or Spotify than the Beeb.
Those who do watch are less and less likely to like what they see. In the eyes of viewers, the BBC is too far to the left, or too far to the right, too pro-Brexit, too anti-Brexit, too London-centric, too anti-Scotland, too passive, too aggressive and, recently, too “woke” or not “woke” enough. The justification given by BBC supporters that it is a “broad church,” within which many different viewpoints have a home, is no longer enough. The holy BBC is losing its faithful.
More than anything, though, the broadcaster feels as though it has become embroiled in a mean-spirited political battle – one which, as things currently stand, it cannot win, because the opposing side has abandoned the deeply British concept of Fair Play.
A Fight for Survival
For years, Boris Johnson and his Brexiteer stalwarts have been slinging acrimony and hate at the BBC, which they have identified as their “sworn enemy.” The Tories have employed boycotts, funding cuts and regulatory pressure to bring the “Brexit Bashing Corporation” to its knees. A week ago on Sunday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced in an opinion piece that he intended launch a comprehensive review of the BBC’s funding structure and oversight. The announcement came on the heels of a report by Lord Dyson, which revealed possible fraudulent actions by BBC journalist Martin Bashir to obtain his sensational 1995 interview with Princess Diana.
The BBC is the final liberal monolith in a British media landscape that has been dragged to the right by Rupert Murdoch and others. The Conservatives seem focused on doing all they can to tame it and bring it under political control. The broadcasting giant, meanwhile, seems intimidated, and has even backed down on occasion, as seen during the flag controversy in March.
Some believe that the BBC, in the 100th year of its existence, is fighting for its very survival. Others believe that such claims are even understated.
And it should be clear to all: This power struggle doesn’t just affect a single broadcaster on an island in the North Atlantic. It affects public broadcasters the world over.
The BBC is the “standard bearer” of public broadcasting, says Noel Curran, head of the European Broadcasting Union. If it falls, it would give governments on the Continent an “excuse to attack” media outlets in their own countries. That, he believes, would guarantee a further poisoning of the public debate, with the consequences long visible in the United States – not just for the media, but for democracy.
Founded on Oct. 18, 1922, as the “British Broadcasting Company,” its primary purpose from the very beginning was that of spreading the British societal and economic model around the world. It was helpful that huge parts of the world were already more or less under London’s control. The year before, Northern Ireland had emerged from the rubble of the Irish War of Independence, resulting in the United Kingdom in the form we know today. The Empire was at its zenith, with every fourth person in the world subject to the monarch in London.
Europe, meanwhile, was a hotbed of instability, with not everybody as excited as the British about capitalism and globalization. There were hunger marches in Britain, and women – horror of horrors – could even vote. In some London circles, there were fears that Bolsheviks could use this obscure new broadcasting technology to launch a revolution.
The BBC – nominally independent, but dependent both financially and otherwise on the benevolence of the state – was there to keep things together. The man responsible for it all was John Reith, a Calvinist from Scotland with authoritarian tendencies and little understanding of the new technology. Later, the BBC’s first director general would admit: “The fact is, I hadn’t the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was.”
He quickly discovered, though, how powerful was the instrument over which he had been granted control. Reith believed that the BBC’s responsibility was that of bringing “into the greatest possible number of homes everything that is best in every department of human knowledge.” The broadcaster was a great democratic integrator, he believed, with everyone equal before it: “The genius and the fool, the wealthy and the poor listen simultaneously. There is no first and third class.”
As a motto for the new company, Reith chose: “Inform, educate, entertain.” It remains so to this day.
In its early days, though, the BBC didn’t quite live up to the later ideal of independent, unflinching journalism. There was censorship, for example, with Reith himself imposing it. He wanted the broadcaster to imagine its typical listener to be a respectable, older churchgoer. Moderators and singers on the BBC were prohibited of making references to alcohol and all manner of vulgarity was prohibited, as were political insinuations, meaning anything that deviated from the political mainstream.
Coverage of the 1926 general strike thus made it sound as though the broadcaster was the voice of the government, earning the BBC its first unflattering nickname: “British Falsehood Corporation.”
Colonialism and the Monarchy
Even the great Winston Churchill, who wasn’t yet as great as he would become, was essentially silenced by the BBC in the 1930s when he produced a radio series on British domestic and foreign policy. The government of fellow Tory Neville Chamberlain didn’t trust the backbencher Churchill, and the feeling was mutual.
To keep negative influences at arm’s length from the broadcaster, Reith even opened the doors of the Broadcasting House to the MI5. From 1935 onwards, domestic intelligence agents sat in Room 105 and checked out the suitability of incoming journalists. Those who were too far to the right or left stood no chance of being hired.
When the still ongoing practice was uncovered in 1985, BBC leadership expressed contrition. Only to allow her majesty’s spies to continue their work for several more years.
More than anything, though, Reith consistently took seriously the first B in the BBC. Nothing could be allowed to shake the pillars of Britain’s global hegemony – the empire and the monarchy first and foremost. If only very few in today’s Britain question colonialism and the monarchy, it is partly because the extended BBC broadcasting monopoly never questioned it either.
Instead, reports on the kingdom’s expansion tended to be a bit inexact. Here, for example, is a passage from a 1928 geography show for schoolchildren: “The British Empire was not won by fighting. Australia is ours purely by settlement. New Zealand was handed over to us, of their own free will, by the Maoris. South Africa was bought from the Dutch and in Canada, the only part that was conquered was Quebec.” Right.
Since then, “Auntie,” as the BBC is sometimes known, has come a long way. The broadcaster grew, as did the self-confidence of its employees and the trust of its listening (and viewing) public. It emancipated itself to the degree possible from political influence and developed a critical journalistic approach, an exemplary one in many respects. It no longer only reported on the pillars of the United Kingdom. Rather, it became one itself.
Today, the BBC is a media empire like no other. It employs around 22,000 people, including over 2,000 journalists, and broadcasts 24 hours a day in Britain and around much of the world. It has 10 national television and radio stations along with dozens of regional and local stations. The BBC World Service broadcasts in more than 40 languages and has correspondents in virtually every corner of the world.
The company maintains five symphony orchestras, a professional choir and a Big Band. For the last 94 years, it has produced the classical music festival BBC Proms. It has filmed all of Shakespeare’s dramas and has published numerous books – and it has been the subject of numerous books as well. George Orwell, once a BBC journalist himself, memorialized the Broadcasting House perhaps a bit unflatteringly as the “Ministry of Truth” in his novel “1984.”
In the early days of the digital era, the company even developed its own computer, the BBC Micro. Using the priceless footage of its Natural History Unit, it focused on the fragility of our globe in the series “Planet Earth.”
Through the years, it has produced a steady stream of legendary series and programs, like “Civilization,” “I, Claudius,” “Doctor Who,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and, more recently, “Fleabag” and “Line of Duty.” With “Top of the Pops,” it produced the most important pop-music show of its time. When it launched on Jan. 1, 1964, the show hosted The Beatles along with a promising young band called The Rolling Stones.
Most of what the world knows about the British, it knows from the BBC.
Even what the British know about the British comes largely from Auntie – through shows like “Gardeners’ World,” “Yes, Minister,” “Fawlty Towers,” and “The Great British Bake Off.” In the mirror of BBC, her majesty’s subjects were able to recognize themselves, and they liked what they saw: quirky, peace-loving hedge-trimmers with unending humor and a sense for good manners – to go with a grandiose history. Back when everyone used to watch TV at the same time, the good old BBC created a sense of community.
Along with power, though, came difficulties. The BBC became akin to a public authority, both arrogant and anxious – and overly bureaucratic. Insiders say sardonically that one of the BBC’s largest departments is the one for the prevention of good ideas.
The BBC also became home to controversy and scandal. There were bitter fights over the coverage of the Falkland War, the Iraq War, the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit. There was the unmasking of star moderator Jimmy Savile, who had abused hundreds of children over the decades, and now the broadcaster is facing the embarrassment over the 1995 Diana interview, which was a coup in part because of Diana’s explosive comment: “There were three of us in this marriage.”
Recently, an independent investigation reached the conclusion that Diana’s interviewer Martin Bashir forged bank statements to suggest that she was under surveillance, thus winning her trust. The BBC, the report notes, sought to cover up “deceitful behavior.”
Collective outrage and multi-year inquiries have been an almost constant companion. And it was never about just any old media company, it was the BBC, a national treasure. The Beeb, though, always managed to recover.
The BBC’s constantly growing influence, however, was frequently a source of unease, particularly in political circles. In part because the BBC consistently expanded its news department. Today, it is far and away the company’s largest department, and BBC political journalists have always been seen as too far to the left or right, depending on who currently resides in Downing Street 10. Margaret Thatcher, who found the BBC to be “quite intolerable,” took on the broadcaster, as did Tony Blair. The threat has always been the same: that of cutting down the goliath to normal size. Usually, though, BBC journalists were simply doing their jobs: analytical, critical journalism.
What that looks like was perfectly demonstrated by the legendary BBC inquisitor Jeremy Paxman on May 13, 1997, on his show “Newsnight.” It is still worthwhile to watch the show in its full length. Paxman’s guest that night was Michael Howard, who had been home secretary until two weeks before the interview and who found himself at the center of a political scandal. He had been accused of having threatened to overrule the head of the country’s prison service on a sensitive personnel question.
Sitting in front of a backdrop of London at night, Paxman quickly gets to the decisive question: “Did you threaten to overrule him?” He doesn’t, however, receive a satisfactory reply. Paxman tries again, and again. “Did you threaten to overrule him?” “Did you threaten to overrule him?” Howard looks increasingly uncomfortable, and keeps talking without saying anything. Paxman keeps grilling him, asking him the same question 12 times within just a few minutes. “It’s a straight yes-or-no answer,” says Paxman, and Howard replies: “I will give you an answer.” But he never did. In the end, Howard looked as though someone had sucked all of the oxygen out of the studio.
“Politicians have always seen the BBC as a threat that had to be endured,” says David Dimbleby. For decades, Dimbleby has been one of the high priests of the BBC and is part of the almost legendary Dimbleby dynasty. His father Richard was the BBC’s first war reporter and his younger brother Jonathan is one of its most important moderators.
“The Only Way”
David Dimbleby himself accompanied the Brits through all elections from 1979 to 2017 along with numerous memorial services, in addition to interviewing multiple top politicians on his show “Question Time.” He is currently working on a three-part documentary to commemorate the BBC’s 100th birthday.
For our interview, he has opened up his townhouse in the upscale Pimlico area of London and leads the way up to the study, which is full of abstract art displayed tastefully around the fireplace. On the table are books about Byzantium, Lucian Freud and one called “May You Live in Interesting Times.” A white-haired 82-year-old, Dimbleby is wearing an olive-green corduroy suit along with pink-and-light blue socks. He gives off the aura of the landed gentry and his intellectual presence is intimidating.
Dimbleby has seen many prime ministers come and go. But the BBC has always survived. “I was at a charity lunch with Mrs. Thatcher well into her period in office,” he relates. “I said: ‘You came in saying you were going to clear out the BBC. You don’t seem to have done anything. Why not?’ And her reply was really interesting. She said: ‘Because whenever I try to do anything to the BBC, people come out of the woodwork to defend it.’”
That’s how it has always been, says Dimbleby. The BBC, he says, would dissect politicians and their arguments, with the political leaders “constantly attacking” the BBC in return. The broadcaster always did best, he says, when it pushed back against those attacks. What about when the pressure grew too strong? “Then the BBC would appeal to the electorate over the heads of the politicians. That’s the only way.”
Now, though, Dimbleby doesn’t know if the BBC can still be saved. Rarely in the past has the media outlet been so defenseless as it is now, he says, and never before has the government launched attacks as aggressive as the ones currently coming from Boris Johnson. “Margaret Thatcher was always angry with the BBC, but she didn’t want to destroy it,” he says. But he’s not so sure about Boris Johnson. What he’s doing, Dimbleby says, is “quite frightening.”
It all started with Brexit. In the months leading up to the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, Johnson and his Vote Leave campaign caricatured the broadcaster as the headquarters of EU bootlickers. As a hotbed of left-wing, hip big-city types who had no idea about the lives and sufferings of the normal English and couldn’t understand the arguments in favor of Brexit.
The opposite was actually the case: In their almost obsessive effort to avoid taking sides, the BBC frequently allowed blatant lies from the Brexiteers to be broadcast without comment – which in turn led a lot of Remainers to turn their backs.
But Johnson’s narrative clearly served a much broader purpose. He and his followers would like to see a fundamental reshaping of the media landscape, one in which critical, liberal journalism is finally replaced by opinionated bellowing that is no longer interested in fairness and balance.
The screenplay for the broad offensive on the BBC was written several years ago by Dominic Cummings, who would go on to become head of Johnson’s Brexit campaign and then his chief of staff. Cummings’ now defunct think tank, called the New Frontiers Foundation, began calling for the “end of the BBC in its current form” back in 2004 and 2005. Conservatives, the think tank suggested, “can only prosper in the long term by undermining the BBC’s reputation for impartiality.”
A “culture war” was necessary, the think tank argued, one which should also target other parts of the British establishment. The BBC – the “mortal enemy” of the Conservative party – should be replaced by media outlets modeled on the U.S. agitprop channel Fox News. According to a 2004 blog post from the New Frontiers Foundation – fully a decade before the Brexit referendum began taking shape – the following was necessary: “During the election and even more so in an EU referendum, there will be a huge need for the BBC’s reporting of issues to be scrutinized and taken apart minute-to-minute.”
The Walls Are Closing In
Then, Boris Johnson’s long march to the top of the government got started. Since he has been prime minister, the BBC has hardly been able to take a breath. No matter what the broadcaster does, the Tories view it as wrong. Conservatives describe it as being “anti-British” or “Marxist,” and say it is too expensive. At regular intervals, the Conservatives have threatened to either cut or completely eliminate the annual television license fee charged to all British households – a financing model that accounts for the majority of the BBC’s multibillion-pound budget.
That would indeed mark the end of the BBC in its current form. The media house is completely dependent on a government responsible for issuing a new broadcast license every 10 years – or for withholding said license. There are Tories who would like to hold a referendum to determine the future of the BBC. After all, the country has had such success with such referenda in the past.
At the beginning of the year, the government appointed Richard Sharp as BBC chairman. Sharp is a former investment banker and, hardly surprising, has been a major donor to the Conservative Party for years. In one of his first public appearances after being appointed to his new role, Sharp criticized the political series “Roadkill” because it was populated with “Conservative villains,” which could “influence people.”
Soon, Johnson’s government is expected to appoint Paul Dacre as the new head of the country’s communications regulator Ofcom – a choice that isn’t free of a certain irony. Ofcom’s mission is ensuring fairness in the media landscape and protecting the public from insulting or otherwise offensive content. Yet Dacre’s previous role was as publisher of the bright-yellow tabloid Daily Mail, which declared allegedly pro-EU judges as “Enemies of the People” under his watch. He once described the BBC as being “too bloody big, too bloody pervasive and too bloody powerful.”
As chance would have it, two new private broadcasters are set to launch in the coming months in Britain: GB News and News UK TV. The latter is financed by Rupert Murdoch, while the other is headed up by the ruthless interviewer and anti-leftist Andrew Neil.
The pandemic, to be sure, has softened the Conservatives’ onslaught against the BBC in recent months. The government needed the broadcaster, which many Britons turned to in the crisis for reliable information, steadiness and reassurance. Nobody, however, believes that the storm is over.
It is an astonishing campaign that Boris Johnson and his Brexiteers have launched. Whereas they never tire from proclaiming their desire to ensure success for a “Global Britain” freed from the shackles of the EU, they are doing their utmost to lay waste to one of the UK’s greatest global attractions. “The best playing cards the UK has got globally is the BBC. No other country can deliver that,” says Tony Hall, former BBC director general. But perhaps Johnson doesn’t care.
And it shouldn’t be assumed that enough people will crawl out of the woodwork to defend the BBC this time as well. The vitriol that the BBC’s enemies have spewed in the past several years is having an effect, with trust in the mother of all media outlets eroding. In 2018, a survey found that 40 percent of Britons believe that the BBC is partisan – though half said it was too far to the right and the other half said it was too leftist. In a survey from last winter, almost half the respondents said the BBC no longer represents their values.
It almost looks as though the BBC’s Voltaire-esque aspiration of doing justice to all sides of a debate is no longer applicable in an era in which people only want to be served up their own worldview. An era in which people react to opposing views as an intolerable affront and treat those who think differently as an irritating disruption.
Mark Damazer, a former deputy director of BBC News, complains that many people no longer seem to understand what the purpose of a public broadcaster actually is. “The BBC is not there to make you feel better about your view of the world or to put opponents of your view onto the airwaves to show that they are idiots. For that, you can go to Fox News or anywhere else which specializes in outrage or monetizes it.”
The BBC has suddenly become an explosive societal laboratory. The biggest debates facing the British are being carried out under its roof: the culture, gender and identity fights of our times, the polarization, the social fragmentation, the epic battle between truth and lie – and the question as to what democracy is still good for. If anything.
But the BBC itself is currently unable to provide satisfactory answers to any of them. Worn down by years of penny-pinching, political rancor and its own mistakes, it is half-heartedly seeking its purpose. And to avoid even more criticism, it seems to be shying away from controversy.
The new director general, Tim Davie – who was once a senior Pepsi executive responsible for resuscitating the brand – has decreed that his employees be strictly impartial. No member of the BBC team is allowed to voice an opinion on Twitter or even express agreement with an opinion. Even emojis are forbidden since they can “accidentally or deliberately” signal partisanship.
Those whose judgement may be impaired – by alcohol, for example – should refrain from tweeting entirely. All “virtue signaling” should be strictly avoided, Davie has made clear. Lesbian and gay journalists have reportedly been confused as to whether they were allowed to discuss pride marches, much less attend them.
Davie plans to send thousands of BBC employees to all corners of the UK in the coming years in an attempt to confront accusations that the broadcaster has become too “London-centric.” And staff diversity is a priority, meaning white men who have graduated from Eton and Oxford will find it more difficult to climb the BBC ladder.
Some of the steps Davie, 54, is taking are long in coming. But the primary impression is that Davie is bowing to the pressure exuded by powerful adversaries. Will it be enough to satisfy Boris Johnson, who also spent some time as a journalist of sorts? And if you are trying to satisfy everyone, is there not the risk of satisfying no one? It is a question that many of those who work at the BBC are asking as well.
If you stand in front of the old part of the building, you won’t just see a Union Jack flying way up above, but also – a few floors below – two stone figures. They are Prospero and his servant Ariel, from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” It is the story of an astonishing comeback. At the end, Prospero says: “Gentle breath of yours my sails / must fill, or else my project fails, / Which was to please.”
A bit of tail wind – it is something that the BBC could use as well.