To Be Impartial the BBC Must Change Its Relationship to Britain’s Billionaire-owned Newspapers
by Aaron Bastani
25 November 2019
The endurance of the BBC, the world’s oldest and most successful public service broadcaster, is an unlikely story in a country whose public culture is increasingly shaped by the wealthy.
Whatever your views on its output, the BBC’s revenue model is egalitarian. There is no advertising and it remains the most democratically funded of the world’s leading media outlets.
Then there is its mission. In contrast to maximising shareholder value, or acting as a propaganda outlet for the government of the day, its objective – enshrined in its Royal Charter – is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”.
Those words – inform, educate, entertain – have been in the corporation’s DNA since its inception. John Reith, its first director general, was adamant about the standards he wished to uphold saying the BBC should broadcast, “all that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement”. It was Reith who coined the inform, educate and entertain mantra – a shorthand which, now more than ever, stands in defiant contrast to the country’s press.
While it’s easy to lament the decline of the BBC’s ability to challenge audiences like it once did, it remains undoubtedly world class. For every calamity there are a dozen successes – from adaptations like War and Peace to historical dramas like World on Fire and agenda-setting current affairs journalism – such as the recent interview with Prince Andrew.
Which is why, until recently, the reflex for those of a liberal and leftwing stripe was to defend the BBC. Whatever its flaws, its funding model and commitment to impartiality rendered it a unique counterweight to an unscrupulous Fleet Street – whose papers were increasingly the plaything of billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the 4th Viscount Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers.
And yet, in recent years, that sentiment has shifted. Faced with funding cuts while public opinion polarises and audiences fragment, the instinctive respect it once commanded has somehow disintegrated.
While it’s easy to blame individuals – this journalist having historical views which impair their judgment, that editor exhibiting a brazen disregard for objectivity – as with any organisation of such scale greater nuance is required.
The background to a condition of near-permanent crisis, alongside the nation’s economic malaise, is a transformation in people’s media habits and how they engage with politics. Here the once mighty papers of Fleet Street are mere shadows of their former selves: twenty years ago The Sun had a circulation of 3.8 million – today it is less than a third of that and in the year to July it lost £91 million. Similarly the Daily Mail’s print circulation is down by two-thirds on two decades ago, as is the Daily Telegraph’s. While the Mail’s online offer is increasingly profitable that is unusual – the Telegraph, for instance, saw profits fall 94% in 2018. It is increasingly the case that people choose to own newspapers, not in the pursuit of returns, but to shape the political agenda.
Some of these outlets, like the Mail Online and The Guardian, maintain tremendous reach through their digital presence. Others, like the paywalled Telegraph and Times, do not. In any case the heft of publications like the Mail was never a detailed account you would choose to critically read, but the flash of a front page offering a daily drip of political common sense. Technological change should mean, broadly speaking, that advantage has now gone.
That’s certainly how it appeared after the surprise result of the last general election. Despite universal opprobrium from nearly all of the country’s papers (the Daily Mirror and little read print Guardian aside) Labour received 40% of the vote. On the day of the election the Mail committed fourteen pages to attacking its leader Jeremy Corbyn. The net result? The party’s best results in a national election since 1997 and the biggest increase in vote share, for anyone, since 1945.
And yet despite declining sales, waning influence and agendas which are anything but impartial, these newspapers – overwhelmingly owned by billionaires who don’t live or pay tax in Britain – are amplified by the BBC, a public service broadcaster with a legal commitment to impartiality. Surreal as it may sound, the licence fee payer is now subsidising the political reach of the ultra-rich.
From the moment you listen to the Today programme on Radio 4 in the morning, to watching Newsnight just before bed there are pronouncements about the front pages and how they will shape political events.
One example of this is the Marr show – broadcast to an audience of 1.5 million people every Sunday morning. At the top of the programme is a review of the day’s papers – from the Sun on Sunday and Mail on Sunday (both with readerships of a million) to the Sunday Telegraph and Observer (240,000 and 155,000 readers respectively). The individuals reviewing these papers, invariably, are newspapers journalists too – meaning the licence fee payer is subsidising writers and content from a declining industry. If Britain’s print media was more balanced that would be less of an issue – but they are the most partisan in Europe.
It’s the same with The Papers, broadcast every night on the BBC News Channel as journalists, again almost always from print, review the following day’s front pages. Many more people will watch Momentum Facebook videos during this election than read The Telegraph or Times – so why doesn’t the BBC review those as well? Of course such a move would undermine its commitment to impartiality – but why is amplifying newspapers, owned and controlled by billionaires with overt political views, any different? This isn’t conjecture – speaking in 2008 the BBC’s Andrew Neil, who formerly worked for Murdoch at The Sunday Times said: “If you want to know what Rupert Murdoch really thinks read the editorials in The Sun and the New York Post because he is editor-in-chief of these papers.”
Going further, it is clear that the relationship between the BBC and the press, and how the former permits the latter to determine the news agenda, undermines the commitment in the corporation’s own Royal Charter to “provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming”. The format of the ‘paper review’, increasingly ubiquitous for the BBC as it faces ever deeper cuts (even Newsnight started a proper one in 2018) would thus appear entirely at odds with the kind of journalism the BBC is obliged to provide.
Emblematic of this was how last Friday evening, after the Question Time leaders special, one caller to BBC 5 Live claimed Jeremy Corbyn would play well on the global stage. The response of the show’s presenter, Stephen Nolan, was to guffaw and point to the following day’s front pages. By the BBC’s own standards this is a journalistic failure. After all its mission includes offering a “range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other news providers”. What Mr Nolan did was precisely the opposite.
As someone born in Britain the BBC is one of the institutions I am most proud of – regardless of its inarguable deficiencies when it comes to news and current affairs. But it could be so much better, offering a genuine counterweight to a billionaire class intent on rigging the country’s democratic process. But it won’t do that, and live up to its own charter, until it re-thinks its relationship to the rightwing press. Fewer ‘paper reviews’, fewer ‘pundits’ (I talk as one) and a healthy dose of scepticism towards Fleet Street would be a start – not to mention a professional default that recognises how media ownership can and does undermine a well-informed public.
Until that happens the BBC will fail to live up to its founding principles. Rather than redress the power of private interests, it will remain a megaphone for them.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor. For more from Aaron, sign up to his newsletter here.