12th February 2020
The BBC`s Head of News, Fran Unsworth, is quoted as saying “Never in my career have I felt this organisation being under threat as I do now”.
The BBC is one of the jewels in the British cultural crown. Those countries that started from commercially rather than licence-fee funded broadcasting have universally tried and failed to replicate anything half-decent resembling the public service broadcaster known as “Auntie”. So why does a Corporation with a global reputation for allowing “Nation to Speak unto Nation”, as the motif over the entrance to London`s Broadcasting House grandly proclaims, find itself under siege with its funding and possibly its whole future threatened?
Back in the 1970s I was one of the founding team that put Radio One Newsbeat on air. The editor was a Marxist, the Deputy Editor was a Liverpudlian Socialist and the two producers, of whom I was one, were both Tories. It was our proud claim that our personal politics did not intrude upon editorial judgement or flavour in any way what we broadcast. I stand by that claim. What we saw, heard and recorded was the unvarnished truth that went out on air. We were of course, even then, subjected to allegations of political bias- particularly during our coverage of the 1974 EEC referendum campaign and two General Elections, but those allegations came in equal measure from both left and right and on that basis I believe that we had the balance about fair.
In the intervening forty-five years I have watched, mostly from the House of Commons and with wry amusement, as successive politicians have squared up to successive interviewers and reporters. I even recall, late at night at a conference and as a Vice-Chairman of my Party, standing myself toe to toe with somebody called Andrew Marr and berating him for daring to criticise – unfairly of course – one of my Party`s star performers. Mr. Marr, entirely properly, told me precisely where to shove my criticism. It was ever thus.
Does this matter? I think it does. A free democracy requires a free press. In reaction to what is perceived, and I fear with some justification, as a metro-centric North London elitist liberal bias within the BBC a Government with a large majority could easily, under the guise of “reviewing the licence fee and the remit of the BBC in the context of electronic communications and an availability of a wide choice of news sources”, seek to eviscerate a part of our national media landscape that once lost will never be regained.
The BBC, under new and hopefully strong Leadership following the departure of Lord (Tony) Hall as Director General, must search its own soul and put its own financial and editorial house in order. And Government must heed the need not to, at the behest of an authoritarian inner circle in Downing Street, throw the gems out with the garbage. Time, in “toe to toe” terms, for both sides to take a step back and reflect, I think. The BBC may not be perfect but it is still the “least worst broadcaster in the world” and at the price of a pint of beer a week neither politicians nor its own executives will be thanked for destroying it.