Brexit and the BBC: a tough call for Britain's culture secretary?

Given his very public role in the anti-EU campaign, John Whittingdale must be seen to be scrupulously fair in the debate over the BBC's future.

Damian Tambini
1 March 2016

Credit: Number 10

Culture secretary John Whittingdale is expected to outline government policy on the BBC in a speech at the Oxford Media Convention this week. All the parties, as well as recent select committee reports, and even the chair of the BBC Trust, agree that reform of BBC regulation is necessary.

Whittingdale is also, however, a prominent leader of the Brexit campaign. This puts him – and BBC reform – in a perilous position. It is normal, and entirely understandable in the hurly burly of a campaign, for protagonists to perceive news reports as unfair. It is a near certainty that the campaign the culture minister backs will make multiple formal and informal complaints to the BBC for unfair coverage, and that tempers will fray.

But between sessions plotting in the Brexit campaign bunker, and during the weeks following what will be a bloody campaign, Whittingdale will also be reforming the very structures that regulate the bias of the BBC. This is a lot to ask of any minister. It will require Herculean restraint. It will also demand real commitment to orderly and transparent consultation. Whittingdale must set out clear procedures and rules of the game for the consultation on the BBC. If not, we all suffer.

There are two things that can go wrong: both of them with serious consequences for the public. One is that BBC coverage of the issues behind the referendum is compromised, which leaves citizens under-informed, and the other is that the process of setting out the next BBC charter is rushed, botched or vindictive or perceived as such.

While the BBC insisted last week that its new referendum guidelines will enable it to be robust and impartial, there can be no way of knowing for sure if the BBC is pulling its punches. Neither Ofcom nor the BBC systematically reviews news balance. While independent academic studies have been done on the election and other specific issue areas, there is no ongoing study of presentation of Europe sufficient to confirm or rebut either Brexiters claims of bias, or those of their opponents. This is the realm of claim and counter-claim. The only way to avoid the danger that the charter negotiations compromise the BBC’s news coverage is to conduct the negotiations in a transparent, open way with full consultation. Not to rush them behind closed doors.

For his part, the minister, who previously chaired the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, has made many worthy statements about the need to protect BBC impartiality and independence over the years. But his record since appointment at DCMS, and in particular his participation in a rushed and opaque negotiation on BBC funding have raised questions about his commitment to BBC independence. With the stakes so high over the referendum, and so much at stake for the corporation, it may be difficult to maintain a separation between his roles as both minister and campaign leader.

To make good policy in this area, and emerge with his reputation as a competent and fair minister intact, Whittingdale will have to resist pressure to rush through the BBC charter reforms, and to under-consult on them. The government may be tempted to delay. In the 90 years since the first BBC charter, there have been numerous interim solutions. But if the BBC is to do its job properly without the looming shadow of a punitive charter, it should avoid vague interim delays that merely prolong the uncertainty.

Ukip and the Europhobe wing of the Tory party have been criticising the BBC’s coverage of Europe for a long time. After a rash of complaints, the BBC’s Europe coverage was reviewed by an independent panel in 2005. The panel did not find that the BBC’s coverage was biased, but they did find problems of ignorance, oversimplification and a metropolitan mindset. They also highlighted the central problem with impartiality, namely that the implicit comparator by which judgements of BBC bias are made is newspapers. The BBC, they argued “must not slip into construing its task as either one of counterbalancing ‘ignorant, anti-European’ prejudice stimulated by the Eurosceptic section of the press, or as taking its agenda from that press”.

The Brexit campaign has powerful media connections. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are journalists, and Whittingdale the minister responsible for all media policy. But if this is a team that believes in protecting British values of fairness, this is no time for a blundering, bulldozing approach to policy. The Brexit campaign should start by making absolutely clear that they believe in robust and fair, merit-based debate both about the future of the BBC and in its news output. To do this they must make sure that established protocols of consultation, evidence and involvement are respected during negotiations about the BBC’s future. Milton said that truth and falsehood should be permitted to “grapple”. This can only take place if the BBC is not looking over its shoulder, and the government and the BBC both recognise the seriousness – and potential for mutual damage – if they get this one wrong.

Republished with thanks to The Guardian.

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