Spin doctors have replaced shouting and swearing at BBC news editors by bombarding them with text messages, former BBC executive Phil Harding reveals in a chapter in a new book Is the BBC in Crisis?
He also says the "crass incompetence" of the Corporation in handling both its internal crises and the public’s money has put it right in the firing line. But that’s only part of the reason for the bad press. There have been two longer-running and deeper-seated causes: a growing commercial clash between the BBC and the press groups over its online operations; and political attacks in which the BBC is accused of being "institutionally left-wing."
Harding, a former editor of the Today programme and controller of editorial policy at the Corporation, argues a BBC willing to lay down stricter rules about its political accountability while opening up a more open relationship with the public would become stronger and less prone to political bullying:
The BBC shall be independent in all matters concerning the content of its output, the times and manner in which this is supplied, and in the management of its affairs.
In this chapter I want to suggest that in the midst of all the recent BBC’s self-inflicted crises there has been a subtle but important shifting of that line away from editorial independence and towards political interference. The run-up to the next general election in 2015 will coincide with the negotiations for the next BBC Charter and licence fee. It’s a politically toxic period and one full of dangers for the BBC.
Editorial pressure/institutional pressureThere are two types of political pressure on the BBC. There is the pressure about editorial coverage and there is pressure on the BBC as a public institution. The latter includes how well it is managed, the scope and scale of the BBC and whether or not it should exist at all. I will explore each in turn.
Usually the two types of pressure are kept separate. While an editor might receive the most vigorous complaints about his or her programme they are never accompanied by a threat to cut the licence fee. That was what made the recent intervention by the current Conservative Party Chairman, Grant Shapps, in which he explicitly linked the future of the BBC licence fee to political coverage by the BBC’s Home Editor, Mark Easton, so remarkable and why it provoked such a storm (Ross 2013).
Shapps was, in fact, the fourth front-bencher to pick on Easton for his reporting. While some think that is because of the controversial nature of Easton’s journalistic beat, others think the Conservatives are now calculatingly taking a page out of the Labour Party spinbook of dark arts, by singling out one individual journalist and then picking on them at every opportunity.
Pressure modern and ancientPolitical pressure on the BBC is nothing new. Almost from its inception, relations with politicians have rarely been cosy, usually bracing and often abrasive. The BBC is usually under political pressure of one sort or another. After all, applying political pressure is what politicians do. It’s their job. It’s not the pressure that matters as much as what the BBC does in the face of such pressure. Part of the reason the BBC comes under so much political pressure is because it is so influential in public life. It has large audiences for its radio and television programmes.
It has a high readership for its web and mobile services. It has a high reputation for providing quality coverage. It is the most trusted media source in Britain. Public and politicians have high expectations of it. It is also just about the only media outlet these days where politicians will receive extended coverage.
Neither is political pressure on the BBC necessarily a bad thing. If politicians complain about the coverage and seek to correct it, then it may just be that they have a point. Executives and editors should always listen. Political complaint and pressure can on occasion act as a necessary corrective to thoughtless or bad journalism.
A bit of history – the ‘back channel’In the 1970s and 1980s relations between the BBC and politicians were handled by two different routes. There was a front door and a back door. The day-to-day contacts and skirmishes over individual programmes were usually handled – as they are now – at a programme editor level. Sometimes a particularly fierce row would reach the head of department or the director of news but most were dealt with that day and forgotten by tomorrow. When I became the BBC’s Chief Political Advisor in 1995 I became aware that there was a second parallel system in operation.
It worked between the upper echelons of the BBC and the Chief Whips of the three main parties. This ‘back channel’ was where the big editorial disagreements between the BBC and the parties were discussed. It acted as an unofficial pressure valve for serious political discontent with the BBC. It wasn’t a channel that was used often but when it was the BBC took it seriously.
One of the other main functions of this channel was to deal with the allocation of party election and party political broadcasts. This mattered because the allocation of air time for the election broadcasts formed the basis for deciding the rough allocation of time for the BBC’s news coverage during a general election campaign. (For many years the ratio was 5-5-3/Conservative-Labour-Liberal Democrat).
As I discovered, the whole system of negotiation was liberally oiled by very large glasses of malt whisky in the office of the Government Chief Whip at No. 12 Downing Street.
The back-channel was a useful conduit – and helped avoid several potential clashes – though, of course, it didn’t stop some of the big rows between the BBC and the Thatcher government over coverage of Northern Ireland, the Falklands war (of 1982) and the Panorama special, Maggie’s Militant Tendency (broadcast on 30 January 1984).
In the mid-1990s, this back-channel system had to be abandoned. Firstly, the allocation of party broadcasts was coming under increasing legal challenge – especially from the fringe parties. The keen advice of the BBC’s lawyers was that the system would not withstand any serious legal challenge under Judicial Review.
The second reason, which was to have even wider consequences, was the revamping of Labour’s media operation – firstly under Peter Mandelson and then even more sweepingly under Alastair Campbell. The arrival of Campbell and his successful demand for full control and command of Labour’s media relations meant that all issues about coverage were, in future, to be channeled through him – and only through him. As a result, any discussion with the Labour Chief Whip about media coverage was swiftly referred on.
The Campbell eraThis change in Labour’s media tactics – first in opposition then in government – meant that everything from the launch of campaigns to appearances on programmes to complaints about coverage minor and major all went through one route: Alastair Campbell.
While this concentration of power doubtless had the effect of making Labour a much more disciplined campaigning force, it also meant that from the BBC’s point of view it was no longer clear which complaints were being lodged because they were serious complaints and which were being lodged for party advantage. As the level of ‘noise’ increased so did the temptation for editors to ignore the complaints whether they were legitimate or not. This eventually culminated in the row about Andrew Gilligan’s reporting of the Iraq dossier on 29 May 2003.
In this case, the removal of any ‘back-channel’ for taking some of the heat out of situation meant the row escalated without check. When a senior cabinet minister approached the BBC and offered to mediate in the dispute his approach was rejected. There was no longer a back-channel, trust had broken down. In the end, the Campbell approach of constant badgering and intimidation became counter-productive. Labour over-played its hand. Editors developed cloth ears.
Pressure todayThese days a lot of the shouting and swearing has died down to be replaced by intensive texting. News editors at the BBC can expected to be bombarded two or three times a week by the new generations of spin doctors. Phrases such as ‘totally inaccurate’, ‘lazy journalism’, ‘that story is far too prominent’, ‘totally unfair tone of that interview’ will fly around. Conscious of the agenda-setting role of the Today programme, particular targets are the 6, 7 and 8 o’clock news bulletins.
The BBC News website is increasingly important too. The government media operation complains more than Labour. Often the battle is over language: the ‘bedroom tax’ versus the ‘spare bedroom subsidy’ is a classic example.
In the run-up to the next general election the BBC can expect to start receiving even more texts and phone calls. Some editors say it had started before the end of 2012 already. At the same time we will have the negotiations for the next charter and licence fee. It’s going to be a particularly febrile political time for a debate on the future of the BBC.
The licence fee and top-slicingEven if the BBC were not such an influential political broadcaster, the fact that the level of the licence fee is set by the government of the day means that the negotiations over money and the BBC become intensely political. Often the final deal is only done with the Chancellor or the Culture Secretary on one side of the table and the BBC on the other. There has been a revival of talk in recent months about top-slicing the BBC’s licence fee, perhaps even making all of the licence fee open to competition from all broadcasters (along similar lines to the Arts Council).
Already part of the licence fee has been quietly diverted. Starting in April 2015, the BBC will pay the Department of Culture, Media and Sport £12.5m a month for two years (£300 million in all) to pay for the funding of the roll-out of broadband to rural areas across the UK. This pattern of using the licence fee for other public purposes was started with the 2006 licence fee settlement when part of the licence fee was allocated to the television digital switchover programme. From that point on the genie was out of the bottle.
The role of the National Audit Office
The NAO has taken an increasing role in the scrutiny by parliament of the spending of the BBC. It was first given access to the BBC’s books in 2006 but with strict limitations. These restrictions have since been gradually removed until a new agreement in the autumn of 2015 has given the NAO the right to go where it chooses to go without seeking the prior permission of the BBC provided only that the NAO does not involve itself in editorial matters. It is a controversial role.
Recently, the NAO was described by the former BBC Chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, as being ‘the most politicised auditor you can imagine’, too focused in its reporting on ‘whether they get a headline’ (Plunkett 2013).
The argument about the BBC and the NAO crucially centres round the point that the BBC is not just another government department under the control of a minister. In order to keep its editorial independence it’s important that it should not be treated as just another ministry. The line between legitimately assessing what is value for public money and allowing the NAO and MPs to decide on the BBC’s editorial priorities is a thin one.
For example, where would an examination of the BBC’s spend on sporting rights fit? What is value for money if you are comparing the spending on say the Football World Cup versus the Ashes series? Though the current BBC Chairman, Chris Patten, professes himself to be relaxed about the new arrangements, others are less sure. This comment is from the BBC’s former Director of News, Richard Sambrook:
The worry is that a disgruntled MP might demand some immediate review of the BBC in retaliation for difficult questions being asked on Newsnight or Today – and the BBC would be powerless to resist. Or a competitor could raise questions for an MP to pursue in aid of its commercial advantage. A Daily Mail story on the number of staff sent to cover the World Cup, for example, might prompt calls for a hard look at value for money – surely commentators could do both radio and TV? If other broadcasters manage with one morning presenter, is that awkward one on the Today programme really necessary? Hard to imagine? No, not really (Sambrook 2013).
Each NAO report is, of course, laid before parliament which means there is then a grilling for the BBC by the Public Accounts Committee.
Select committeesAppearances before parliamentary select committees are seen as being an important part of the BBC’s duty of public accountability. In 2013, the BBC has appeared before select committees at Westminster no fewer than 14 times. Of course, some of these appearances have been in response to the various self-inflicted crises: the Savile/Newsnight affair, the resignation of George Entwistle, the senior staff pay-offs and so on. By comparison five years ago there were three appearances, in 2002 there were two appearances. In addition, BBC executives and Trustees are now expected to appear before the relevant committees of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies.
Even allowing for the fact that the past year has been an exceptionally bad one for the BBC, full of self-inflicted crises, there is clearly a longer-term trend here. Politicians are calling the BBC to give evidence more often and are taking a closer and closer interest in the internal workings of the BBC. The increasing numbers of appearances before select committees was recently described by one senior BBC executive as being ‘totally out of control’.
Many of the BBC’s recent appearances before select committees have been marked by very aggressive and hostile questioning. The BBC, of course, has not been alone in this. In recent years, some of the committees seem to have come to see their job as holding the wider world to account by hostile grilling of people who hold no governmental role. This represents a significant extension of the select committee’s powers which thus far has not been subject to much public debate. It certainly marks an increase in the powers that select committees think they have over the BBC.
There have also been some very singular lines of inquiry by MPs. A lot of the appearance by Lords Patten and Hall before the Culture Media and Sport Committee in October 2013 was occupied by detailed questions about the differing accounts given to the Pollard Inquiry by Mark Thompson and Helen Boaden. Elsewhere, an appearance by three senior BBC editorial figures before the European Scrutiny Committee in February included questions about the make-up of a panel for one edition of Question Time and why their committee did not receive more coverage on BBC Parliament (European Scrutiny Committee 2013a).
It appears to have been increasing concern about the amount and scope of political scrutiny from select committees that led Chris Patten to write to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, Bill Cash, turning down their invitation to appear before the committee in the following blunt terms:
I have consulted my colleagues on the BBC Trust and this letter reflects our collective and unanimous view. It is incumbent upon the Trust under the terms of the royal charter to stand up for the independence of the BBC and, in particular, its editorial independence. We are bound to weigh this as of paramount importance when viewed against a request to appear before your committee which we believe to be inappropriate. Accordingly, I must decline your request. As part of our role I and my colleagues appear quite properly in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, and neither attempts to engage with us – as you are proposing to do – on the editorial decisions of the BBC. Since becoming BBC Trust Chairman in May 2011, I myself have appeared before these two committees a total of six times … We wonder if you have considered that the result of you asserting your right to call me before your committee on this issue is that BBC Trustees could in future be required to appear before any select committee to discuss the coverage of the BBC in its particular area of responsibility. It is not, therefore, beyond the bounds of possibility to conceive that in quite short order we could be expected to answer to say the Home Affairs Committee on the BBC's coverage of that area, or the Foreign Affairs Committee on international stories. We can’t believe that is what was intended when the royal charter was drafted and we do not believe that it is consistent with the ideal of an independent Trust protecting the BBC from undue political interference (European Scrutiny Committee 2013b).
The BBC and the pressIn recent years there has been a growing tension between sections of the press (the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Murdoch’s News UK groups, in particular) and the BBC. There are more and more critical stories often coupled with open contempt in the editorial columns. It’s also perhaps no coincidence that two of the fiercest periods of attack by the press on the BBC have been at crucial times in the Leveson/royal charter press regulation debate.
The crass incompetence of the Corporation in handling both its internal crises and the public’s money has of course put it right in the firing line. But that’s only part of the reason for the bad press. There have been two longer-running and deeper-seated causes.
First of all there is a growing commercial clash between the BBC and the various press groups. As media consumption and advertising spend moves more and more online and as newspapers have struggled to find a business model to fit, there have been increasing complaints that the BBC with its large online presence has been squeezing the living daylights out of the online operations of the commercial press. Secondly, there has been a growing line of political attack on the BBC. This comes from claims by the political right that, far from being the impartial editorial organisation it claims to be, the Corporation is, in fact, institutionally left-wing. This argument was expressed most fruitily by the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, in his 2007 Hugh Cudlipp lecture in an attack on what he saw as the subsidised liberal media:
The press and the politicsFor some years the various press groups have been lobbying the government of the day over the size and scope of the BBC. The days of Rupert Murdoch being able to pop into Downing Street at will may have gone but the political pressures on the BBC from the press persist. Added to this is a new self-reinforcing alliance between some newspapers and some MPs who want to prune drastically the BBC (the latter described to me by one BBC executive as the ‘tea-party faction’). This alliance sometimes takes the form of the newsdesk going to a particular MP for an attacking quote, sometimes the MP tabling a question which follows the particular agenda being pursued by that newspaper at the time.
ConclusionThe BBC will always be at the heart of political rows; it’s almost part of its job. But as this chapter has argued, the political pressures on the BBC are mounting insidiously. It’s been lots of small things: increasing pressure from MPs, the increasing numbers of appearances before select committees, the increasing acceptance that parts of the licence fee will be used for bits of national infrastructure, increasing scrutiny from the NAO, increasingly strident criticism from the press and the linking of editorial pressure with corporate pressure. It’s been a bit like the story of the frog in the boiling water. The changes have been subtle and have taken place over a long period of time so that no one has really noticed how hot the water has become. So what is the way out of this dilemma? If the BBC is not to lose its editorial independence two things need to happen.
First, there need to be some new, clearer ground rules for appearances in front of select committees. The BBC has given ground on the activities of the NAO. In return it is time that MPs agreed that the BBC should normally only have to report to two select committees the Culture Media and Sport Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, perhaps at fixed times of year and with a clearer understanding from the chair of the committee on the limitations of the questioning. At the moment, the balance is shifting dangerously close to editorial interference by MPs.
The second corrective is much broader and goes to the heart of the nature of the BBC as a public broadcaster. At present too much of the public’s perception of the BBC is mediated by MPs and the press. The BBC needs to start building a much more direct relationship with the public whom it serves. It is a theme Tony Hall has started to develop:
A central part of my vision for the BBC is that it is not just paid for by its viewers and listeners, it belongs to them, to you … Digital technology now means that we are able to hand to our listeners and viewers a huge amount of control that 30 years ago we kept to ourselves ... Services like the iPlayer bring you the programmes you want to watch and listen to whenever you want them. Start The Week in the middle of the week. In Our Time, in your time, the Today programme – tomorrow. The BBC you can have is catching up with the BBC you want … There’s a fundamental shift happening. I want a BBC that feels different, where our audiences are on the inside, helping us to be the best we can be (BBC 2013).
But this new vision needs to go beyond words and beyond what can be done with the iPlayer. The BBC needs to fully embrace the idea that the public own the BBC not just pay for it. That demands a big cultural shift. One of the ways that people have talked about involving the public in running the BBC is by instituting some sort of membership structure. Some in the Labour Party have talked about the ‘mutualisation’ of the BBC. There are some interesting ideas in Tessa Jowell’s article for the Third Way booklet Making it Mutual (Jowell 2013). The idea here would be something along the lines of a National Trust with TV licences; every licence fee payer would become a member of the BBC. The BBC Trust would become accountable to the membership.
There is certainly something to be looked at here. But with the new technologies on offer the BBC could go much further. The BBC could become a truly open and porous organisation in which the boundaries between its professional operations and those of the public become increasingly blurred. There could be partnerships – real partnerships not token ones – with other bodies that provide public service value: local communities, councils, commercial media, production companies, cultural and educational bodies. The BBC may be a national treasure but at the moment the citizen has little engagement with how it is run. If every licence-fee payer felt they had a real personal stake and involvement in the BBC, then it could become a truly public broadcaster in every sense.
Some parts of BBC management, especially those who still think in terms of commanding fiefdoms, could find all this rather uncomfortable; so might some members of the BBC Trust. But a BBC that was willing to lay down much stricter rules about its political accountability while at the same time opening a more open and direct relationship with the public who own it would become a stronger, better BBC and one much less prone to political bullying.
- Is the BBC in Crisis? is edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble and published by Abramis on 1 March.
- Phil Harding is a journalist and broadcaster. He is a former BBC executive and editor and held a number of jobs while at the BBC including Chief Political Adviser, Controller of Editorial Policy and Editor of the Today programme.