As the debate over the future of the BBC warms up, the usual suspects are taking up their usual positions, which means anyone and everyone out there on the right is lobbying hard for the Corporation to be broken up, for it to become a subscription service, and of course for the decriminalisation of the licence fee, while claiming that it is a hotbed of leftist agitation, but accepting every invitation to contribute to its programming.
That is a problem, but a more pressing, and growing, problem is that the countervailing argument from the left is being presented with far less enthusiasm than might have been expected in the recent past. And here lies a further problem: as the Beeb comes under fire as never before, many of those who would normally be among the first to defend it feel alienated and disillusioned at the organisation’s perceived inability to listen to them.
Thus it is that yesterday’s Observer editorial rightly asserted “The case for public service broadcasting is as strong as ever”, but went awry as it continued “Almost a century [after its creation], and despite many predictions of its demise, the BBC remains an overwhelmingly trusted institution, cherished by the British public”.
As YouGov reported last December, “As the BBC responds to claims of bias following its coverage of the general election, YouGov polling reveals that faith in BBC News journalists to tell the truth has dropped, but the trend is not unique to the broadcaster, with trust in journalists falling across the board. Less than half of Britons (44%) now say they trust the institution to tell the truth despite its public charter to remain politically neutral. This is a fall of seven percentage points since October”. Less than half.
Vote Leave - scrutiny absent
And while trust in the press has also declined, with more than half not willing to trust tabloid newspapers at all, there is the ominous observation “One in five Britons now does not trust the public broadcaster to tell the truth at all”. How can this be? Simples. Let’s take one subject as an example: data. And the misuse and abuse of it.
Former Labour MP Ian Lucas, seeing that the BBC had happily covered an allegation of a data breach made against Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign, mused “What mystifies me here is that there has been virtually no BBC coverage of data breaches still being considered by the ICO into Vote Leave with Johnson, Gove and Cummings prominent. They now run the country”. Others involved with Vote Leave get BBC punditry invites.
The entire subject of data misuse and abuse as part of the referendum campaign has been missed by the Corporation, or even when it was momentarily considered, used to shout down those doing the investigating. The main offenders - like Matthew Elliott - were given access to the BBC’s political editor. The resulting coverage was favourable to the point of whitewashing. Complaints got nowhere; the Beeb had done nothing wrong.
Selection of news topics in this way causes the BBC to follow the press; it has become timid and defensive in the face of assault from the right, and in doing so, has left itself dangerously exposed as exasperated former supporters have given up on it.
We want to trust the BBC. But the BBC doesn’t seem to care. It doesn’t listen to criticism. So trust fades away. If this continues, the Corporation will fade away too.
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