One of the (many) political battles to be put in the freezer by the onset of the Covid-19 crisis was the looming clash over the future of the BBC.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Government sources were bullish about pushing for aggressive reform – even to an extent which disquieted some Tory MPs.
Any such plans have been overtaken by events. But those amongst the Corporation’s defenders hoping that the pandemic will kill off talk of reform are surely over-optimistic. Even senior sources at the BBC concede that whilst coronavirus has given it an opportunity to showcase its strengths, it hasn’t changed the long-term outlook all that much.
When something resembling normal politics returns, so too will this debate. The shape of it could hinge on whether or not the BBC is viewed as having had a ‘good crisis’.
A couple of recent polls appeared to suggest that it hadn’t – or at least, that its sector hadn’t. First, a poll for the Press Gazette, carried out by PR firm Kekst CNC, reportedly found “a collapse in confidence in the media since the outbreak began”. This seemed to be backed up by another poll for Sky News which found the media “performing disastrously” in terms of public trust.
But not so fast. Will Jennings and Chris Curtis, of YouGov, point out that this represents not so much a collapse in trust for the media as a surge in trust in the Government, as political leaders benefit from a ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect which lifts their usually abysmal ratings.
There’s more. YouGov’s own polling, which tested respondents opinions on more specific categories of journalist, found ‘BBC journalists’ outperforming their counterparts at ITV and the newspapers. This tallies with findings from the Reuters Institute which found 60 per cent of respondents thought the Corporation was ‘doing a good job’, versus just 37 per cent for ‘the news media’. And Ofcom, in their most recent study of consumption and attitudes towards Covid-19 coverage, find that:
“BBC TV is the most trusted source for information on Covid-19 across the nations (England 78%, Scotland 76%, Wales 78% and Northern Ireland 79%).”
Such figures do two things. First, they vindicate BBC sources who suggest that the Sky polling fails to capture the Corporation’s performance by lumping them in with ‘TV journalists’ as a whole. By the same token, these findings suggest that the BBC’s critics are on to a loser when they argue that the BBC’s coverage is insufficiently different from that of the commercial broadcasters. The public can clearly detect some sort of difference.
But if BBC executives take comfort in these findings, there is another thread running through these which ought to be causing them concern: polarisation.
According to the above-linked YouGov data, Conservative voters are much more likely to trust mid-market and ‘red top’ newspapers over other outlets – a remarkable finding when taken alongside the fact that those sources’ overall trust ratings come in at 13 and seven per cent respectively. The gap between Tory and Labour voters on trusting the BBC is wide and, after a short blip, widening.
This is the context in which Daily Mail headlines such as “How WAS flagship BBC show infiltrated by the Left?” land. Panorama running a PPE episode featuring a cast of inadequately-labelled Labour activists, or Emily Maitlis taking the pulpit in a manner perceived by Conservatives as an attack, contribute to what seems evidently a growing sense of alienation between the public broadcaster and a significant section of the public. This will inevitably have political consequences down the line.
Too often, politicos can forget that the handful of shows that loom large in SW1 – Today, Newsnight, and so on – are only the barest tip of the BBC iceberg. The Corporation’s output is enormous, and spans a vast range of informational, educational, and entertainment television and radio. Fierce attacks on the ‘biased BBC’ must look a little deranged to people whose only experience of it comes from music, drama, or game shows.
But likewise, there could be a danger in BBC executives drawing too much comfort from overall satisfaction with the total output of their empire and failing to grasp that deep partisan disaffection with its current affairs output could have serious consequences.
British broadcasting rules are supposed to prevent the development of a US-style media environment, where political and cultural polarisation is fuelled by each side having non-overlapping news ecosystems, and the BBC is surely the lintel of that system. It will not survive if right-leaning voters and politicians feel un- or under-represented and withdraw their support for it.
There is clearly some recognition that there’s a problem, if the periodic pleas from management for journalists to be more judicious on Twitter are any indication. But that suggests what’s needed is a more disciplined internal culture and stricter rules about impartiality. It’s all very well letting Andrew Neil inveigh against ISIS – who supports ISIS? – but it does set a precedent which makes it harder to prevent his colleagues indulging in similar tactics on more divisive ground.
Defenders of the Corporation point out that it is a public broadcaster, not a state one, and it has a duty to hold the Government politically to account. This is correct. But they must not make the John Bercow mistake of thinking (or at least, affecting to think) that antagonism is an inevitable by-product of effective accountability. Covid-19 has given the BBC a chance to exhibit its undeniable strengths – but these are no excuse for not addressing its weaknesses.