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Will the Emily Maitlis BBC controversy finally wake up moderates?

The journalist’s impartiality claims only touch on what academics have been trying to warn about for years

Dan Hind
26 August 2022, 1.19pm
Emily Maitlis ruffled feathers by criticising the BBC’s board
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WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Much of what former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis said in this week’s annual MacTaggart lecture will have been reassuringly familiar to self-described moderates.

Right-wing populism is a threat to independent journalism, she said, as is populism on the Left. Sometimes BBC journalists strive too hard to be balanced and they are too reticent about the impacts of Brexit. All quite predictable.

But Maitlis also levelled some more surprising criticisms at the BBC, including a claim that an “active agent of the Conservative party”, Robbie Gibb, has become “the arbiter of BBC independence” from his position on the BBC’s board. She also referred to a Financial Times report of attempts by Gibb to “block the appointments of journalists he considers damaging to government relations”.

Credible accusations of direct influence over editorial decisions by the executive and by members of the ruling party don’t sit well with centrists and moderates. It’s the sort of thing that happens in places that have regimes rather than governments. As long as politicians aren’t picking up the phone and dictating the content of news bulletins, the BBC remains a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. So runs the logic of the sensible centre.

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But the problems at the BBC run much deeper than explicit interference by the executive. Its news and current affairs departments are captive to an establishment common sense that should have been buried at least as long ago as the 2008 financial crisis. Anyone who was paying attention while the BBC interviewed a succession of ‘City economists’ during that period will not be remotely surprised that the institution is sensitive to the needs of those who wield substantial social power.

Maitlis is only scratching the surface of a much deeper problem that academic researchers like Mike Berry have been trying to warn us about for years. Tom Mills, with whom I collaborate occasionally, wrote a whole book, ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’, about all this.

Barrage of misinformation

There’s something badly wrong with the world-view of the London-based establishment to which the BBC belongs and from which it takes its cues. And this was obvious long before Maitlis decided to speak out.

A decade ago, openDemocracy launched ourBeeb, a wide-ranging attempt to start a conversation about the BBC’s future. Under its auspices, the case was made for democratic control of some of the BBC’s journalism budget and for the introduction of juries into the corporation’s governance.

Related story

Journalist Emily Maitlis rehearsing ahead of delivering the 2022 MacTaggart Lecture in The Lennox at the EICC at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Picture date: Thursday August 24, 2022
The ex-BBC star called board member Robbie Gibb a Tory ‘agent’. Reality is more complex

In 2018, the then Labour leader and left-wing populist, Jeremy Corbyn, weighed in and called for “a more democratic, representative and independent BBC”. Among other things, he proposed elections to the BBC national and regional boards. Chilling stuff. And in November last year, the Media Reform Coalition set out a Manifesto for a People’s Media, which also included proposals for BBC reform.

So clearly, there is no shortage of suggestions. But nothing will change without new forms of external pressure. As it stands, the right-wing media will continue to take any opportunity to denounce the BBC for left-wing bias, wokeness and general antipathy to everything that ordinary, patriotic Brits hold dear.

Advancing under this barrage of misinformation and half-truths, Conservative politicians will continue to delight their supporters with attacks on the national broadcaster’s journalistic integrity. Only a few days ago, Tory leadership frontrunner, Liz Truss, showered bemused GB News interviewer, Alistair Stewart, with laughable praise: “It’s not the BBC, you actually get your facts right.” Given how successful the Right has been at pushing the BBC around, there’s no reason to think it will stop now.

The BBC has lost its credibility with millions of people since the turn of the century. Instead of challenging the Labour government in the months before the invasion of Iraq, it collaborated in selling an illegal war. When crisis hit our under-regulated financial sector, it shifted the blame onto public spending and helped to make the case for austerity.

If you defend the BBC because you think it’s a force for moderation in a world of extremes, you need to join the ranks of the disillusioned

Scottish supporters of independence who saw how the corporation behaved during the 2014 referendum aren’t likely to have many illusions about its impartiality. Those who supported the social democratic reforms proposed by Labour between 2015 and 2019 won’t forget how savagely the BBC and other centrist media responded. As the country lurches towards a winter of unaffordable bills and rampant inflation, the question remains as to why debates about political economy remain captive to the same worldview that brought us the crisis of 2008.

If you are inclined to defend the BBC because you think it is a force for moderation in a world of extremes, you need to join the ranks of the disillusioned. You also need to stop worrying and embrace the cause of democratisation. If you really want the BBC to be independent of the government of the day then you must put your trust in your fellow citizens. Only by bringing the people into the operations of our public media can we hope to put an end to the Conservatives’ clownish bullying of the BBC. Far from being a threat, populism, actual populism, is the only thing that will save the BBC from its grovelling submission to power.

But there’s a catch. A more democratic BBC will be much less hospitable to the fantasies that so many wealthy centrists find so comforting. Brexit was a symptom, not the cause, of our ongoing crisis. Corbyn is not comparable to Donald Trump. Stanning for Rory Stewart and Jess Phillips is no substitute for developing a clear-eyed understanding of the times in which we live. We are not where we are because the sensible centre was ignored.

Forty years of centrist capitulation to the Right have brought us to our present condition. And Labour leader Keir Starmer, with his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, are determined to continue with the same ruinous policies that got us here. The people making fun of you on Twitter have been right all along. All this and more will find expression in a reformed BBC.

No one ever made a fortune betting on the intellectual rigour of England’s self-defined moderates. But l hope those of you who still pine for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony find your way out of the BBC’s cosy cave and into the light. After all, can anyone look at what has happened since the financial crash – what has really happened – and conclude that communicative democracy would have left us worse off than we are now?

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