The BBC’s po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence is weak. That’s worth de­fend­ing

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Polly Toyn­bee

The BBC is of­ten bad at de­fend­ing it­self. As the na­tion’s cru­cible, up­hold­ing an idea of fair re­port­ing in the tur­moil of th­ese bit­terly di­vided times, its jour­nal­ism comes un­der fe­ro­cious and un­jus­ti­fied at­tack, so it was good to hear its chair­man David Cle­menti stand­ing up for its jour­nal­ists at the Royal Tele­vi­sion So­ci­ety con­ven­tion on Wed­nes­day.

He protests at politi­cians who give their ap­proval for in­creas­ingly “ex­plicit and ag­gres­sive” abuse di­rected at BBC jour­nal­ists. Politi­cians “stand by and watch”, giv­ing tacit sup­port to heck­lers at press con­fer­ences try­ing to in­tim­i­date BBC re­porters ask­ing tough ques­tions. From right and left, pro- and anti-Brex­i­teers in the red mist of in­creas­ingly fe­ro­cious na­tional de­bate, hard ques­tion­ing by BBC jour­nal­ists is taken as proof of bias.

The first fe­male po­lit­i­cal edi­tor, ar­riv­ing at such a fraught time, was bound to at­tract most abuse, just as fe­male politi­cians and jour­nal­ists of all stripes draw a par­tic­u­larly vi­cious strand of misog­y­nist hate. How shock­ing that Laura Kuenss­berg has needed a bodyguard. De­spite the mur­der of Jo Cox and death threats against MPs, par­tic­u­larly against women, this sharp and in­ci­sive ques­tioner hasn’t buck­led.

Walk­ing the BBC line of un­bi­ased re­port­ing is be­com­ing harder by the week, as both leave and re­main sup­port­ers tear apart every word of every story. Nor does be­ing at­tacked by both sides guar­an­tee that they al­ways get it right. But on Brexit ques­tions of fact ver­sus fan­tasy, how are BBC jour­nal­ists sup­posed to bal­ance re­port­ing on ac­tual bad ef­fects hap­pen­ing now – the tum­bling pound, fi­nance HQs mov­ing to EU cap­i­tals, Eu­ratom and the medicines agency de­part­ing, van­ish­ing EU nurses, im­mi­nent chaos at the ports – against van­ish­ingly few pu­ta­tive Brexit ben­e­fits? BBC re­porters are not obliged to split the dif­fer­ence be­tween flat-Earthers and round-Earthers – or, th­ese days mer­ci­fully, be­tween cli­mate de­niers and cli­mate change ev­i­dence. Mak­ing judg­ments on the likely truth of what they re­port is part of their job.

Mount­ing abuse of the BBC could in the end de­stroy it: it only sur­vives on the trust and af­fec­tion of most cit­i­zens. Those on the left join­ing in the at­tack, dis­miss­ing the BBC as part of an “MSM” plot, fuel the right’s aim to dis­man­tle and pri­va­tise it. Mur­doch and his press seize every chance to at­tack it, mainly for com­mer­cial rea­sons. He has al­ways ar­gued for the BBC to lose the li­cence fee, and to be­come a small sub­scrip­tion ser­vice. To­day his bid is re­ferred to the Com­pe­ti­tion and Mar­kets Author­ity: if he takes over Sky, he will push next to abol­ish laws oblig­ing broad­cast­ers to be un­bi­ased, Fox­i­fy­ing our news net­works. Where does that leave the BBC?

The po­lit­i­cal an­i­mus against the BBC runs through the right of the Tory party, in­dig­nant at the very ex­is­tence of a pub­licly funded or­gan­i­sa­tion that is phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful, its every tri­umph an af­front to their anti-pub­lic ser­vice dogma. At every op­por­tu­nity, they chip away at it: Ge­orge Os­borne sliced away a third of its fund­ing. Its gover­nance is fre­quently rein­vented, its char­ter re­newal and li­cence fee rat­tled as a threat. Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments lean on it po­lit­i­cally, mainly but not ex­clu­sively Tory: Blair blasted it over the Iraq war, while Harold Wil­son boy­cotted it. But usu­ally the bul­ly­ing comes from the right: re­cently Liam Fox de­manded a meet­ing to protest that the BBC was putting out anti-Brexit pro­pa­ganda. As a na­tional bea­con, the BBC is first to be at­tacked for na­tional fail­ings oth­ers share – pay­ing its women less, over-pay­ing its man­agers, or on Wed­nes­day from Of­com for its “woe­ful” lack of di­ver­sity on and off screen. It has a tough moral duty to be best at ev­ery­thing, so it’s bound to fail some­times.

All polling shows the ar­dent sup­port the BBC still com­mands, one of the few uni­fy­ing icons of na­tional pride, along with the NHS. The envy of the world, its news is trusted as no other. But here’s a per­plex­ing ques­tion: if we have this great na­tional broad­caster, why is Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing so weak? Shouldn’t we have the bestin­formed democ­racy? Why has the BBC not had a greater mea­sur­able cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tional im­pact? Polls show con­sis­tently how lit­tle peo­ple know about the ba­sic facts on which to make po­lit­i­cal judg­ments.

But that may de­mand too much, as if the BBC could cor­rect all the fun­da­men­tal ills in the so­ci­ety it re­ports and re­flects. Even now a sup­pos­edly de­clin­ing press has a stronger pull on the na­tion’s psy­che than our na­tional broad­caster. The BBC is still a weak voice to re­bal­ance a po­lit­i­cal land­scape grossly dis­torted by a dom­i­nant far-right press for the near-cen­tury of the BBC’s ex­is­tence. That’s all the more rea­son to de­fend its jour­nal­ism against rau­cous as­sault in a coun­try more vis­cer­ally di­vided than ever be­fore.

• Polly Toyn­bee is a Guardian colum­nist

Pho­to­graph: Jeff Overs/BBC/Jeff Overs

‘Laura Kuenss­berg, the first fe­male po­lit­i­cal edi­tor, ar­riv­ing at such a fraught time, was bound to at­tract most abuse.’

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