Given that the BBC must endure a daily barrage of envy from less popular competitors, one would think it would have now become more adept at defending itself.
Private Eye reported that over the summer more than 2,000 articles were devoted to the means by which Martin Bashir obtained an interview with Diana, Princess of Wales in 1995. Was the public interested? Not very. When former Tory political candidate Tim Davie was appointed BBC chief executive in 2020, much of Fleet Street couldn’t bother to say a single word. But when Jess Brammar was brought up as news editor, after allegedly making derogatory remarks about Brexit on social media, outrage ignited the press for weeks. If you support public broadcasting and care about its survival, the BBC’s failure to articulately challenge the obvious hypocrisy of its critics was far more disturbing than the one-sided delusions of the critics themselves.
The original purpose of the BBC was to inform, educate and entertain. It wasn’t until the 1990s, under John Birt, that two of those roles were subjugated to the third. Until then, the BBC had boasted of its distinctly diverse function of democratizing art, music, film and theater, while giving equal importance to philosophy, sport, religion, gardening and history – in short, the culture of the whole country. No other broadcaster could do it and, to date, none come close. This is the case with its existence. Lutalo Muhammad and Antonia Quirke are said to have the same status as Huw Edwards.
So when Birt chose to pitch the BBC as the world’s largest news gathering organization, it only caused problems. First, it reduced the much bigger role the BBC was there to play. Second, he encouraged people to start asking why we needed the BBC. While its main purpose was to gather information, there were a plethora of business outlets that could do the job just as well. But third, it has pushed the culture of departments other than the news towards an alien management style, which producer Tony Garnett has memorably described as “totalitarian micromanagement.” It still prevails.
If you doubt that current affairs are considered the main activity, you will find it expressed architecturally if you visit Broadcasting House. All other departments are flattened against the walls of an over-the-top newsroom that draws all the energy to the center. And yet, if you look at the real scandals that have done lasting harm to the BBC – its excruciating mismanagement of the revelation that its ex-employee Jimmy Savile was a rapist, or his illegal broadcast of a police raid on Cliff Richard – they’ve always been due to news errors.
Earlier this year Richard Sharp, Goldman Sachs banker and £ 400,000 donor to the Conservative Party and £ 35,000 to the controversial Quilliam Foundation, was appointed president of the BBC. In his oral testimony to the government, Sharp said he believed there had been a stay biased on question time (although he defended the BBC’s overall Brexit coverage as balanced) and implored the company to be ‘its own toughest critic of fairness’. Perhaps to this end he used my television series on the Conservatives in Westminster, Roadkill, to illustrate leftist prejudices. To do this, he deployed what older readers will remember as Mary Whitehouse’s argument. Sharp said he himself had been able to take advantage of Roadkill, because he was knowledgeable enough to know that my portrayal of a charismatic politician in hock business interests was not accurate. (Whitehouse also claimed that she herself was far too high to be corrupted by pornography.) However, Sharp was concerned that some people, especially young people, might mistake drama for truth.
My first reaction was to think that since my protagonist, Peter Laurence, had been played by Hugh Laurie with ten times the charm, humor and intelligence of any current cabinet member, Sharp should have been quietly grateful. But my second thought was, “Oh my gosh, here’s yet another big deal that doesn’t differentiate fact from fiction. All pieces are, by their very nature, biased, as they come from an individual’s imagination. Macbeth does not need to be banned as people can mistake it for an attack on the Scottish Monarchy. The contemplation of Hamlet’s suicide also does not need a warning at the end to anyone who might have been assigned to call the Samaritans.
My own experience of the public is that they know much better than the President of the BBC what a play is. is. But the publication of Absolutely Everything left every other department in the company drowning in the extremely turbulent wake of the news. The BBC has experienced a horrific pandemic, with its News at Ten too often reduced to the dismal reiteration of government press releases. It has become more of a state broadcaster than a public service, with serious investigations dropped and any mention of the prime minister’s lie story censored. But the rot also spreads to once healthy organs. Government threats and the alleged interference by a BBC board member himself succeeded in silencing the BBC in its own defense. In the face of terror over the license renewal, the current drama on the BBC is clearly undisputed – just the assertion of well-known truths.
Like all so-called well-intentioned organizations, the BBC takes particular pleasure in betraying its friends, especially the most loyal. We expect it. At this point, too intimidated to attack her detractors, she prefers to revolve around her supporters instead. But we are right to fear that unless the leaders of the BBC start arguing with conviction for goals much broader than being a British CNN, they are playing into the hands of their enemies.
David Hare is a playwright and screenwriter
This article was corrected on October 5, 2021, making it clear that Tim Davie is a former Tory political candidate, not a former Tory politician