This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 6 March 2020.
The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, didn’t beat around the bush in his first major speech yesterday. He said the BBC must do more to reflect the country and avoid providing a “narrow urban outlook”. There must be genuine diversity of thought, he added. In other words, the BBC is a London-centric, liberal-minded broadcaster that is no longer in touch with the public.
Many people would consider that to be stating the obvious. The BBC is in serious trouble. It is losing viewers and listeners in their thousands to online streaming services and to commercial rivals. It is feeling “got at” by the Government. In his role as lightning rod for the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings has seen fit to ban ministers from going on various BBC programmes, including Radio 4’s flagship Today, because of anti-Tory bias. It is a bias that hasn’t escaped the notice of some viewers and listeners, either.
And yet the BBC’s response has not been to reflect, but largely to double-down, repeating its usual mantras about the good value offered by the license fee. If the broadcaster was in a healthy state, it wouldn’t need to be told by a politician to think outside the metropolitan, liberal box.
So how out of touch is the BBC? It’s difficult to know where to start. Most obviously, it failed to gauge the public mood on Brexit, constantly obsessing about a second referendum and only paying lip-service to those who gently pointed out that the demand for one didn’t really exist outside Remain-supporting London – coincidentally where most BBC producers and editors live. It even sought to “correct” the views of Brexiteers, with its “Reality Check” journalists, a service that was rarely performed on claims made by Remainers.
The election result, therefore, came as an almost total surprise. To be fair, the BBC wasn’t alone in not seeing the Boris majority coming a mile off, but its reaction showed little understanding of what brought it about. Indeed, it was partly the BBC which brought it about. It has consistently struggled to reflect the public’s views on touchstone issues like crime and immigration, which it views as deeply reactionary.
Its London-centricity is best illustrated by the Today programme. It regards getting out of London once a month to broadcast from a top tier university as somehow being enough to reflect the mood of the country. Why does it never broadcast from a factory or a call centre?
Then consider the BBC’s obsession with going on about what we now are obliged to refer to as the “climate emergency”. Preaching to us all about how terrible we are for the lifestyles we lead does little to endear the broadcaster to its non-Islington audience. Radio 4’s token doff of its cap to its audience is to provide a whole half an hour, yes, 30 minutes, to hearing the views of listeners on Any Answers. Perhaps if it became more like LBC and had a daily phone-in show, it might realise where it’s going wrong.
The BBC, however, does not seem very interested in local opinion. It is set, for example, on turning its so-called “local” radio stations into carbon copies of each other. In the last few months they’ve all been given identical jingles with the universal strapline of “All the music you love…”.
It is also panicking about losing young viewers and listeners, while failing to see that other demographics will not remain loyal forever. To take one example, BBC Radio London is turning its 10pm-1am phone-in into a youth-oriented music show. BBC Radio London has long been a basket case of a station, yet its controller has mysteriously clung onto his job for more than 20 years. Maybe it’s the unique way the BBC is funded. For now, anyway.
I want the BBC to succeed. I admire a lot of what it does. But it is threatening to turn in on itself. It’s being held back by an institutionalised management more interested in covering their own backs than promoting innovation and giving viewers and listeners what they want.
The battle for eyeballs and ears has never been more cutthroat, and if the BBC fails to acknowledge that it has no divine right to exist in its current form, there will be further trouble ahead.