This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in the Daily Telegraph
"Adapt or die” is a maxim the BBC would do well to adopt if it is to survive the coming years. Following its questionable coverage of the general election, it is going through one of its occasional periods of introspection, where it feels under attack from politicians from all sides. Instead of complaining about it or piously intoning the value of the licence fee, however, it needs to open its eyes to the scale of its detachment from Britain today.
For 20 years, the BBC has been told, even by many of its stars, that it is too biased towards the London liberal elites. Andrew Marr was the first to break cover when he admitted that although the BBC might not have a party political bias, it certainly had a “liberal” one.
Peter Sissons, in his memoirs, railed against the BBC for its addiction to employing producers who had a single world view – one that didn’t include any understanding of free markets, borders or anything which might have even a slight conservative tinge to it. Lately, John Humphrys has joined the fray.
The problem reached its zenith after Brexit. Like most London middle-class liberals, the BBC couldn’t understand why 17.4 million had voted to leave the EU. But then it has never seemed to make any attempt to do so. After the referendum, it panicked, apparently believing that the Leave vote was a consequence of its failure to dispel politicians’ “lies” or “populism”.
Thus for the last three years, it has gladly wheeled out its “Reality Check” fact-checkers to pick holes in the case for Brexit, deploying them only occasionally to question the case for Remain. Its ostensibly impartial presenters, meanwhile, feel the need to stand in judgment over the argument, determining what is “true” as if viewers were incapable of making up their own minds.
But implicit bias is everywhere. When the BBC puts together panels for its shows, for example, it is rare they contain a majority of Brexiteers. Many is the time I have been outnumbered two or even three to one. And on the one occasion there was a 3-3 balance on Question Time, the Remainers were allowed to dominate the discussion to such an extent that in an hour-long programme, the three Leavers, including your humble servant, got all of 15 minutes between us.
The sycophantic coverage given to “People’s Vote” campaigners (even the use of that absurd moniker to describe people who want to reverse the original people’s vote) when compared to the “look down your nose and sniff” tone the BBC adopts when questioning Brexiteers has been readily apparent to anyone who isn’t aligned to the Remain cause. One of the big stories of the last week is that the campaign for a second referendum is effectively dead. Have you heard that reflected on the BBC in the last week? Me neither.
Then there is the election. From my experience, about 85 per cent of the BBC news department voted Remain and they’ve created an echo chamber for themselves. Why else did they appear so shocked at Labour Leave seats voting Tory in such numbers last week? Had they made even a cursory effort to talk to these voters instead of subliminally ridiculing them or assuming they had all given up on Brexit, perhaps that air of surprise would not have been so stark.
And why did the post-election Question Time take place in a London borough which saw the only Labour gain in the country? The story of this election wasn’t in liberal Wandsworth – it was in Workington and Wakefield. The audience was probably the most anti-Tory they’ve had this year on a day when the Conservatives had won an emphatic victory. The BBC is broadcasting a view of the country that most of us do not recognise.
The dominant mentality in the BBC is not necessarily pro-Labour, but its assumptions are those of middle-class liberals. Look at its coverage of poverty. Judging by its output, anyone would think that Britain is a country solely of billionaires and the very poor: the interests of the majority in the middle are rarely taken into account.
On food banks, the BBC makes out as if they are a peculiarly British phenomenon, forced on people by a wicked Tory Government. There are food banks in virtually every country in Europe, but you won’t see that pointed out by BBC producers whose middle-class guilt complex permeates every minute of their output.
Suggest that it’s capitalism that has lifted poor people all over the world out of poverty and it’s a quick, “Sorry Mr Dale, we don’t think that particular documentary idea is right for our audience.” Why? Because they commission programmes for “people like us”. Perish the thought that the kind of person in Bassetlaw who voted Tory last week should be catered for.
Does the BBC think those of us on the Right haven’t noticed? No minister has appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme this week and that boycott looks likely to continue. Such is the frustration with a programme that seemingly relishes a barney over Brexit or obsessive analysis of niche subjects of interest only to liberal urban types rather than a proper examination of policies which affect real people, No 10 has decided enough is enough.
The Tories won’t be missing much. If the PM does a series of interviews with a dozen or so local radio stations, he can reach Mr & Mrs Normal in a way the Today programme never can. In this multi-channel world, no one programme has an entitlement any longer. There are other outlets to go to. Yet BBC shows continue to think as they did in the three channel era.
On my LBC show I’ve been talking to real voters for the last two years. You pick up trends quickly. I realised the flaws in the implementation of universal credit when three grown men in a row broke down in tears during a phone-in. The BBC, however, has been stuck in its bubble, incapable of looking beyond the narrow horizons of the London middle classes.
The BBC should do what it does best and stick to its public service remit. It has no business trying to compete with the commercial sector. Back in 2003 I presented some shows on a spoken word station called Oneword. The BBC then decided to create BBC7, which then morphed into Radio 4 Extra with the specific intention of putting Oneword out of business. Within six months it had succeeded. They’re now at it again. They now intend to create various genre-based music stations to compete with Heart 80s, Kisstory, Capital Xtra and Smooth Chill. Two months ago LBC launched a new rolling news channel, LBC News. It is now rumoured that the BBC is planning to launch something similar. The simple truth is that if they had their public service remit in their minds, they would have done that donkey’s years ago. They don’t seem to even acknowledge that by trying to outdo successful commercial stations they are acting directly against their own charter, something which I know hasn’t passed by advisers in Number 10 Downing Street. Surely the scarce resources of the licence fee should be deployed to meet the BBC’s public service remit, not to replicate services which exist elsewhere? If the BBC can’t afford to fund free TV licences for the over 75s, surely it shouldn’t be wasting money on vanity projects. Presumably OfCom will advise them accordingly.
It cannot afford to continue the way it is. The media landscape is shifting beneath its feet, and viewers and listeners will not put up with this behaviour indefinitely. Will it adapt to the times and realise the scale of its failures? Might it even be proactive and put forward its own proposals to replace the outdated licence fee, before the Government gets there first? I won’t hold my breath.