Here at Reaction, we welcome polite disagreement (it will never catch on). In that spirit, here is why I just couldn’t get on board with my colleague Alastair’s article “Lord Adonis’s attacks on the BBC make me despair”.
In an article criticising Adonis’ “sneering” and “threatening” attacks on the BBC, Alastair writes:
“Adonis is going against the spirit of what Remain should properly represent. I voted Remain because I am European and I think the European Union… works as a bulwark against the enemies of a tolerant West that is everywhere under attack. I thought a vote to Remain was about defending British liberalism – tolerant, outward looking and pragmatic.”
He goes on: “In opposition to the creeds of nationalism and neo-fundamentalism, which detest a public space which is free and open and diverse, we must remind ourselves that those things are hard-won. They are protected by a robust and independent press and public institutions that are independent of political influence. In wildly attacking the BBC, Adonis undermines all that.”
I’m as big a fan of some BBC programmes as the next British person. I have an embarrassing addiction to Sunday night period dramas (embarrassing because I’m 24 not 64), and though I whinge endlessly about the Today Programme, I’d feel lost without it in the mornings.
Here is where Alastair and I diverge, I do not feel that it – nor any British institution for that matter – should be above criticism.
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In fact, I believe that our long and very British tradition of challenging, mocking, “sneering” at and “threatening” the BBC exemplifies the very best aspects of tolerance, liberality and pluralism. It is a sign of a functioning and healthy “outward looking and pragmatic democracy” that state TV is under constant scrutiny, and must justify itself to the people it serves.
The BBC itself seems to understand this. It is constantly making programmes poking fun at the BBC (although W1A might be a double bluff to make light of the organisation’s waste and incompetence.) Its senior staff relish criticism. James Harding, Director of BBC News until last month said in an interview last year that the “BBC must be alive to its critics” and Nick Robinson recently told reporters that that the BBC’s job was “be ready to listen and learn and correct any errors we may make”.
Before he digressed into bizarre comments about the BBC’s pro Brexit bias (?), Adonis’ offending tweet was a punchy, timely and useful criticism of the BBC – of the kind it needs. And the debate which followed on his Twitter timeline was the perfect example of the “free exchange of ideas” which Alastair rightly points out is one of the “best British traditions”. You can read it here.
In the age of Netflix, Sky, YouTube, Now TV etc, it is only sensible at least to question, as Adonis implicitly does, whether the BBC still deserves its license fee. An excellent report by Martin Le Jeune for the Centre for Policy Studies argued in 2016 that “there is no reason for providing that universal service via a compulsory tax, when people could choose instead how to spend their own money on what they really want.” He called for “radical changes to the BBC” to make it “much smaller” saying that if it “specialise[d] in what no-one else could do… it would become even more compelling over the next few years”.
Whether or not you agree with the argument, it is clearly a reasonable one. Even for its most staunch defendants, state television is only useful insofar as it gives the public something it could not get elsewhere; something, as Martin Le Jeune puts as being “important to [a country’s] social, political and cultural wellbeing”. As Adonis points out, in a rapidly changing media era, the definition of “something the public could not get elsewhere” is changing.
If the BBC is to justify itself, it must recognise this, and stay on its toes. To do this, it needs to be criticised. Some of the best content on the BBC was produced after a period of sustained criticism – and that’s not a coincidence. Blue Planet II is a classic example of the BBC at its best – a seriously high quality educational programme – and it was created in the aftermath of a huge discussion about the future of the BBC following a charter.
As far as bias goes, I firmly believe that the BBC does its best to be impartial – but impartiality is a thorny concept, and of course, sometimes it will slip up. For those times, the BBC depends on the public to weigh in and tell it where it’s going wrong.
Personally, I like the BBC, and think it does an important job well. But it should never rest on its laurels. Liberal democracy is a noisy, messy business, and it depends on fierce and robust debate. We in Britain pride ourselves on our teasing and self-deprecating humour, precisely because it means that nothing is held sacred, and everyone must be held to account. If we are to be a thriving Western democracy of the kind Alastair describes, we must not fetishize our state TV service, but mock it, laugh at it, and challenge it.