The battle the BBC didn’t want

Nadine Dorries readied herself at her dispatch box, looking forward to deflecting attention from the media-shy Sue Gray and her start-up detective agency with an actual policy announcement. Except her announcement was not greeted by half-asleep middle-aged men on green benches on a Monday, but by over 8000 self-righteous comments on the Daily Mail website on a Sunday.

The announcement itself, that the TV licence fee will be frozen for two years and then apparently written off for renewal in 2027, was ostensibly written in the understanding that the BBC has to ‘modernise’. Yet for some drowsy Westminster carpetbaggers, the BBC has recently been far too ‘awake’, though criticism is hardly new. A 2013 Alternative Queen’s Speech drafted by UKIP sympathising Tories listed the privatisation of the BBC as a priority, alongside resuming capital punishment, and naming a bank holiday after Margaret Thatcher – perhaps for her services to the calcium intake of schoolchildren. 

Justifying the decision as part of a wider ‘levelling up’ mission, Dorries spoke of being unable to justify ‘extra pressure on the wallets of hard-working households’. It’s a pity she seemed to forget that in recent months she could have voted to both keep the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and cut VAT in energy bills, but declined.

To its critics, the BBC is out of touch, no longer representative of the UK as a whole, though what nowadays represents the UK apart from watching David Attenborough and drinking tea, isn’t clear. The BBC is most likely biased, though mainly because it’s often near-impossible to be impartial. In current affairs, I would estimate it currently leans right, aware that it relies on fruitful negotiations with the government (which also happens to currently lean right) in order to survive. But in other areas, it has tacked left, with comedy and satire poking fun at authority in much the same way as it has for decades. But as we approach a Conservative-led government’s 12th birthday – in an unprecedented inter-connected age of communication – all this echo-chamber poking might have made the governmental bear finally bite. 

It seems fashionable to attack the BBC, not least as it is unable to respond to partisan attacks with the vigour of a partisan, especially in times of government-imposed budget cuts. The BBC has never been ‘in fashion’ as such. When established on the airwaves, the notion of ‘outside’ thoughts and noise entering people’s homes and minds was greeted with the sort of scepticism that might also greet another Downing Street work event revelation: What horror?

Today, these outside thoughts seem to emanate from other media bigwigs, such as Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre. The former met the Prime Minister several times last summer before announcing his latest conservative outlet – TalkTV. The latter remains chair of the group which publishes Nadine’s favoured mouthpiece, the Daily Mail, and was subject of a botched attempt by the government to be installed as the new head of broadcasting regulator Ofcom.

With the thoughts of people like this emanating through readerships and ministers alike, it’s no wonder that the BBC is facing perhaps its toughest challenge yet at defending itself. Yet as an institution comparable to the NHS – or even the entire ‘soft power’ of the Foreign Office – this means it is now as critical as ever that the BBC can hold truth to power, and be the Reithian public service broadcaster it was established to be. In the meantime, the debate as to whether it can or will ever achieve this could grow as long and tiresome as a Daily Mail comment thread.

Illustration by Marie-Louise Wohrle

By Callum Devereux

Editor-in-Chief, May-September 2022
Former Deputy EiC & Opinion Editor