The first, and most important hurdle to jump, is that of admission. And admission is something that, right now, the BBC is finding very difficult to do. But jump the hurdle it must, if its reputation is to recover from its failures over Brexit. Starting with the referendum campaign, and through the aftermath into the mounting controversies over cheating, something at the Corporation has gone wrong, yet this cannot be admitted.
What has gone wrong may not be admitted, but it can be put directly: the BBC has, under unremitting pressure and complaining from the Leave lobby, lost its nerve, the same way it lost its nerve in the 1980s under constant sniping from the Thatcher Government and its hangers-on. Those were not pleasant times to be in broadcast media: Thames TV stood its ground over the landmark investigation Death on the Rock, and was vindicated. But Mrs T saw to it that they lost their franchise as a result. She was that petty and vindictive.
Now it is the Leave crowd, with the swaggering, arrogant, loud, bullying, persistent, pushy, mildly paranoid, and indeed obsessional figures of Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings in the vanguard. They are, in turn, amplified and otherwise supported by the full range of right-leaning Astroturf lobby groups, anti-EU newspapers and their pundits, and their hangers-on within the new media universe.
It is with this background that Raymond Snoddy, who knows a little about the broadcast media, has penned “BBC policy on Brexit is not impartial” for the Radio Times, of all publications. He notes that “During the referendum campaign, the BBC was criticised for its tit-for-tat news coverage, which created what former BBC journalist Professor Ivor Gaber calls a ‘phoney balance’”. Gaber’s examples are telling.
Jo Maugham QC
“He cites, as an example, when 1,280 business leaders signed a letter to The Times backing UK membership of the EU. This story was ‘balanced’ by a quote from a single entrepreneur, Sir James Dyson … And a warning from ten Nobel Prize-winning economists about the dangers of Brexit was ‘balanced’ by one economist, Professor Patrick Minford, a BBC regular”. Minford has been getting his economics wrong for decades.
Disturbingly, Snoddy also notes “Director-general Lord Hall says that the BBC is no longer reporting on the binary choice that faced the electorate in the referendum, but examining ‘the Brexit negotiations and the impact of Brexit on the UK and the wider world’. As if the decision to leave the EU has been irrevocably taken”. It hasn’t.
And Snoddy quotes former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who “sees parallels with the BBC coverage of the Suez crisis in 1956 - when it was found afterwards that even Panorama had ‘skirted around’ the fundamental issues … Rusbridger argued that those who still believe that Brexit would be an economic and foreign policy disaster for the UK are being portrayed by the BBC as ‘undemocratic extremists’. They are, Rusbridger says, allowed a voice ‘only if repeatedly challenged, and balanced by fervent Brexit hardliners’”.
Those who witnessed the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr being shouted down by mercenary hack Isabel Oakeshott on The Andy Marr Show™ may forgive themselves for experiencing a moment of déjà vu. Others will see how this all fits into a pattern, one which does no more than confirm that something is wrong at the Corporation.
Take, for instance, the musings of Jo Maugham QC at the clear evidence that Vote Leave’s Matthew Elliott had been briefing BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg (with no counter view being sought). “Extraordinary that @bbclaurak is giving Vote Leave free rein to smear the report. (Obviously she would never speak to me for a counter-view. That would be too much like balance)”. Then he posted something remarkable.
“Further to yesterday's puff piece by @bbclaurak for Vote Leave yesterday, I've just had an interesting conversation with a senior BBC political journalist (who has given me permission to tweet this) … ‘Can you tell me what's going on at the BBC at the moment?’ I asked. ‘This is doing immense damage to the BBC - even some of my most conservative friends now no longer think the BBC should exist. It feels like it's just frit.’”
Good Thatcher word there. And his reply? “‘They just don't have the guts,’ he said. ‘This thing is so big that there is a fear among certain editors of being seen as Remainers.’ … the journalist also said that if he tried to do something that exposed the folly of Brexit (he was more specific) he was challenged internally, 'who gave you permission’?”
Maugham has been dismissed (hello Rob Burley) as a conspiracist, but his information chimes with Snoddy’s article. And then we have that now infamous Newsnight interview of whistleblower Chris Wylie by host Kirsty Wark.
Here’s the BBC Press Team’s excuse note: “An explanation on the @BBCNewsnight i/v last night. Electoral Commission found Vote Leave had acted illegally. That’s a fact not an allegation. EC did not rule on whether Facebook ‘facilitated’ this illegality, so correct to call that an allegation”. To quote Mrs T., No, No, No, No, No.
Chris Wylie had to spell it out. “BBC here are the facts: 1) Majority of Vote Leave's AIQ spend went to Facebook ads. That's a fact. 2) Facebook did NOT check if it was legal. That's a fact. 3) The EC found the scheme was illegal. That's a fact. 4) Facebook's platform facilitated those illegal ads. That's a fact”. And there was more.
James O’Brien, who knows a little about the BBC and Newsnight, showed his exasperation - and dropped the key term: “Jesus. The money was *spent on Facebook ads*. If the EC didn’t rule on whether Facebook ‘facilitated’ the illegality it’s because it’s not even remotely refutable. It’s the orchestrated, high level complaining by Brexists that’s broken the BBC’s nerve. I’ve seen it first hand”.
Raymond Snoddy had this observation in closing his article: “I believe it is in everyone’s interest that, if the UK is going to leave the EU, it should be in the light of the best, most comprehensive and accurate information possible … It is late, but not too late, for Lord Hall to withdraw his ‘guidelines’ and admit an honest mistake. If he does not, history will judge both him and BBC coverage harshly, when it is too late to do anything about it”.
The Corporation has lost its nerve. It is operating to a false prospectus. And the problems are visible to all - except, it would seem, their own press team. This may entertain some, but it does not educate, and nor does it inform. But the BBC cannot move on until and unless it is prepared to admit that it has a problem.
The time for evasion is over. Now the hurdle of admission must be crossed. That is all.