Can the BBC ever regain our trust?

A recent survey, in which 2,000 people were polled, found that only 17% of the public trust the BBC.

George Orwell: "The people will believe what the media tells them they believe".
George Orwell: “The people will believe what the media tells them they believe”.

The survey, commissioned by Creditplus and conducted by Researchers from OnePoll.com, found that just one in six British people trust the public service broadcaster.

Could it be that the Beeb is not as honest and impartial as it purports to be?

All the time we get those [bias accusation] emails. And honestly, no one at the BBC takes those kinds of things into account…” — Evan Davis

BBC Thatcher
Since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the BBC has served as a mouthpiece for successive Neoliberal governments, with ministers determining the rate of the licence fee, approving any changes to the charter and selecting their preferred candidates for the BBC Board. This has eroded creativity in entertainment, as well as journalistic freedom. Thatcher appointed a succession of governors in a bid to bring the BBC “in line” with government policy. True to form, she scrapped the tradition of trade union representation on the Board.

BBC Blair
Gavyn Davies, the millionaire chief economist at American bankers Goldman Sachs, was chairman of the BBC from 2001 until 2004, with Greg Dyke in place as Director-General of the BBC (2000 to 2004). Both Davies and Dyke had donated thousands of pounds to New Labour.

Conservative newspapers and MPs accused Tony Blair of packing the BBC with his “cronies” and complained of political bias. David Davis MP protested:

“The BBC may not be free of charge but it should be free of bias.”

He went on, “Over the past four years Tony Blair has stuffed his cronies into every corner of British public life. It would be a grave misjudgment if he were now to mount a final takeover bid for the BBC.”

During Blair’s tenure came The Hutton Inquiry, which heavily criticised the BBC for its coverage of the death of David Kelly. New Labour’s opponents, as well as many of its supporters, saw the inquiry as a whitewash, designed to absolve Blair’s leadership of wrongdoing.

Consequently, Gavyn Davies resigned. Lord Ryder, previously a Tory MP and close to Thatcher, then replaced Davies as Acting Chairman. Along with other Tories on the Board, he forced out Director-General Greg Dyke. This made way for Baron Michael Grade, who was the last permanent chairman of the Board and is now a Tory life peer in the Lords.

The BBC Trust was established by the 2007 Royal Charter. Its objective was stated as “setting the overall strategic direction of the BBC, including its priorities, and in exercising a general oversight of the work of the Executive Board”. And, in May 2007, Sir Michael Lyons, a former New Labour councillor, became Chairman of the Trust.

Back under Tory control
When the Tory-Lib Dem coalition took control, it was time for a new Royal Charter to be written.

Baron Chris Patten was hastened in as Chairman of the Trust. He had served as an MP under Thatcher before being promoted to Chair of the Conservative Party. When, on grounds of ill-health, he resigned from the post, David Cameron appointed Baroness Rona Fairhead as his successor.

Fairhead had a background in banking (Morgan Stanley and HSBC). She also had very strong ties with the Tory leadership, as a close friend of George Osborne and having previously worked as a cabinet office member for the Tories. Her husband had also been a Tory Councillor. Some claimed that Cameron appointed Fairhead to help stifle talk of his involvement in a HSBC fraud cover-up. She left the BBC in 2017 when Theresa May made her International Trade minister with a life peerage.

Rona Fairhead before of the public accounts committee.
Rona Fairhead before of the Public Accounts Committee.

In the same month, the new charter abolished the BBC Trust and replaced it with external regulation by Ofcom and governance by the BBC Board.

Sir David Clementi is the current Chairman of the BBC Board. Like Fairhead, he has a solid background in banking (former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, as well as Chairman of Prudential and Virgin Money). He had also worked as an advisor to the Tories on privatisation.

Meanwhile, James Harding, another close friend of Osborne and erstwhile editor of Rupert Murdoch’s The Times, stood down as Director of BBC News at the end of last year. Having purportedly further centralised the BBC’s news operations, Harding was replaced by his understudy and fellow-Conservative, Fran Unsworth.

It’s the BBC’s political output, rather than its programming in general, that most concerns government. Thus, they usher in their trusted cohorts to positions on the Board/Trust and they, in turn, select like-minded candidates for editorial positions.

Robbie Gibb was head of the BBC’s political team, until last year when he was made Downing Street’s Director of Communication. Brother of Tory MP Nick Gibb, Robbie had previously worked as an adviser to Tory MPs Francis Maude and Michael Portillo.

BBC Editors
The BBC had already come in for widespread accusations of anti-Corbyn bias before Laura Kuenssberg,
Political Editor of BBC News, arranged for Blairite MP Stephen Doughty to resign live on Daily Politics. Subsequently, an official complaint was made by Labour’s director of communications, but this was rejected by Robbie Gibb.

In 2015, Kuenssberg’s News at Six report was edited to give the incorrect impression that Corbyn disagreed with the use of firearms by police in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris. In 2017, the BBC Trust itself had no choice but to rule that her report had breached the broadcaster’s impartiality and accuracy guidelines. The Trust stated that this inaccuracy was then “compounded” when she went on to state that Corbyn’s message “couldn’t be more different” from that of the Theresa May’s.

Meanwhile, the editor of BBC’s Today programme, Sarah Sands, worked in editorial roles for Conservative newspapers, including the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and actively campaigned for a Tory Mayor of London in three successive elections.

BBC Presenters
It doesn’t stop there. Presenters on the BBC’s flagship political programmes are required to sing from the same hymn sheet. The previous political editor, 
who now presents the BBC’s Today programme, boasts an extensive back record as a Tory activist. Nick Robinson was the founder-member of Macclesfield Young Conservatives, Chairman of Cheshire Young Conservatives, Chairman of National Young Conservatives and President of the Oxford University Conservative Association.

Another devout Tory, Andrew Neil, presents This Week on BBC1 and Daily Politics on BBC2. He is a former member of the Conservative Club, former Chairman of the Federation of Conservative students, a former research assistant for the Conservative Party and the current chairman of the Press Holdings group, which owns the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator.

Andrew Neil and friends.
Andrew Neil and friends.

BBC Political Panellists
Ivor Gaber, Professor of Political Journalism at the University of Sussex, monitored the panels of the BBC’s flagship Sunday political shows for five weeks and found that, ‘of the 30 possible panellists, 20 were from the right or centre-right, eight from the centre-left, one from the left and one of no declared political position’.

There is, however, still one prominent leftie at the BBC… Unfortunately, he is rendered in bronze and forced to stand outside…

The George Orwell Statue at BBC Broadcasting House, London.
The George Orwell Statue (by Martin Jennings) at BBC Broadcasting House, London.

Can we ever hope to democratise the BBC?
As a public service broadcaster, the BBC is funded principally by an annual TV licence fee which is charged to all British households and organisations receiving BBC broadcasts. Yet, the licence fee payer has little to no influence over the governance of the BBC which, by Royal Charter operates under its Agreement with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The BBC’s reporting remains doggedly fixated on matters of Brexit, Trump and the Royals, often at the expense of issues more concerning to much of its potential audience, such as job insecurity, in-work poverty, homelessness and the NHS.

In 2012, Labour MP Helen Goodman, suggested collaboration with the BBC on a system of citizen commissioning. She proposed weekly slots on all BBC radio and TV channels whereby the public could choose topics for programmes.

She cited a book, The Return of the Public, by Dan Hind, in which he set out a series of proposals intended to democratise public discourse through a system of citizen-led editorial commissioning.

Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, signalled a desire to curb government control of the BBC when he introduced a private members’ bill supporting the election of a director general.

The BBC already has a sign-in requirement for digital users, so digital democratic accountability could be achieved at little cost.

However, it is probable that any reforms will require a more democratically-minded government to take power.

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Mark Jameson

Mark Jameson is a contemporary artist and an activist.