On January 9, Andrew Neil retweeted the following from Stephen Daisley:
— Stephen Daisley (@JournoStephen) January 9, 2016
The tweet refers to the noisy and widespread criticism of the BBC over its handling of the recent Labour reshuffle. Specifically, many of us called foul when it emerged that the BBC had arranged for shadow foreign affairs minister Stephen Doughty to resign live on air, moments before Prime Minister's Questions.
But let's pause to consider Daisley's last remark (apparently endorsed by Neil) that "a dread thought occurs: these folk are allowed to vote." It's a telling and anti-democratic quip, an insiders' joke shared by two journalists - already offensive when expressed by Daisley (who works for STV), but all the more so when repeated by a BBC presenter in the heat of Doughtygate. For an instant, the curtain parts and we catch a glimpse behind the scenes of our public broadcaster. We learn that we are viewed with utter contempt by a person we pay to deliver our news and political analysis. If Neil sees us this way, what about the other journalists and presenters? What about BBC producers and management?
Here's an idea for you. On the BBC website, there is a very interesting page titled "Inside the BBC". Packed with jargon-soaked information about the structure and mission of the BBC, it nonetheless makes an interesting read. Take a look for yourself. Pick out the objectives and promises that you think are most important. Here are three separate points that jumped out at me immediately:
-Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.
-Audiences are at the heart of everything we do.
-The BBC will also ensure that the tone and style of news and the range of perspectives included in news programmes are sensitive to diverse communities of interest.
There are many passages to choose from and you will find your own. Then, armed with your new knowledge about what the BBC is supposed to deliver, choose a news story or topic dear to your heart and spend a week or two tracking its coverage by the news and current affairs programmes. It could be any topic, but there are some glaring options: the austerity narrative, coverage of Jeremy Corbyn, the NHS, the junior doctors' dispute. But you will have your specific concerns, no doubt.
With your topic in mind, start with Today (Radio 4); follow up with Daily Politics (BBC 2); spend an hour comparing our 24-hour BBC News Channel to Sky News (this to see whether you notice any difference between the two); and finish off your day with Newsnight. Of course this is a personal, anecdotal sort of analysis. But if enough people pursue it and share their findings, we may all learn something important. I also predict that many of you will be so incensed at the end of it that you'll demand the link to the BBC complaints page. Please use it often and share it with friends. The BBC belongs to us and clearly needs our engaged and robust feedback.
To return to my own example - Doughty's resignation - it is painfully clear that the BBC failed in its brief to remain "independent" and "impartial." The tactics deployed by its journalists on that day took the Corporation dangerously close to manufacturing the news rather than reporting it. The timing of the live resignation, minutes before Prime Minister's Questions, arguably influenced parliamentary proceedings. Moreover, if "audiences are at the heart" of the BBC mission, then why is Neil, an important public face of the broadcaster, dismissing us with such open contempt on social media?
Finally, what does all this tell us about the BBC's stated commitment to diversity? Here, my small example provides a shorthand for something far more entrenched and unjust. We don't need to see into the radio studio or open our eyes to the telly screen to know that, on a daily basis, we struggle to find a broad and fair representation of the public in BBC news content and personnel. Dearest Auntie, if you will not practice genuine diversity in your news perspectives and your hiring practices, then why not invite more of us in to speak? If you cannot see, hear, and include us, why should we trust you at all?
There have been mornings when I listened to the Today presenters discussing, oh let's say benefits cuts or the housing crisis, with all the sophistication and awareness of a toenail. They may have the headline on this, the contours of parliamentary debate, interviews with key commentators. And don't get me wrong - this is helpful. But they tell us nothing of how people are experiencing these issues on the ground. They repeatedly make Osborne's "austerity narrative" an unquestioned start point and "truth." They are far more interested in sowing discord in Labour ranks than providing an impartial account of its anti-austerity agenda. And they almost never include the voices of those directly affected by austerity policies.
Judging by the accents alone, it is hard to escape the feeling that most news readers attended the same handful of schools and universities - we know the names of these places. No doubt, there is the odd exception, but how many of the thousands of listeners and viewers who devote our time to these programmes - how many recognize something of our lives and places, our knowledge and concerns? This matters. It matters now especially, because we have a government pursuing an economic policy that will hit many of us very hard indeed.
And so, my own "dread thought occurs": yes, the BBC regularly views its public with contempt. It saddens me to say this in the year our cherished institution faces charter renewal. But we do it no favours by keeping silent.