The BBC Must Cut its Ties to 'Agents of The Conservative Party' if it Wants to Survive
As the Conservative Government nears its end, it's time for its placemen to be stripped from our national broadcaster, writes Patrick Howse.
Patrick Howse is a former BBC reporter and producer. In this piece he reveals how the corporation is still under threat from Conservative forces within.
On the face of it, 2022 has been good to the BBC. First and foremost it was its centenary year, and it took the opportunity to remind its audiences just how important it has been to British society through all those turbulent and eventful times. Perhaps even more encouraging than that, though, was the disappearance from the scene of some powerful external enemies.
Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave advisors — all implacably against the very notion of public service broadcasting — have passed into what feels like ancient history. Nadine Dorries — who this time last year was a Culture Secretary set on privatising Channel 4 and breaking up the BBC — has returned to the backbenches and apparently her career as a typer of terrible books. Those departures were followed by Liz Truss’ IEA-inspired headlong dive into oblivion, and that removed another enemy, leaving the current government too beset by Brexit-induced crises and too intent on demonising asylum seekers to spare much time or energy on the BBC.
In the meantime the BBC proved once again that it is the organisation people in Britain are most likely to turn to for news of war and landmark events. In February and March my former colleague Clive Myrie’s calm and authoritative broadcasts from Ukraine (helped by a team of brave and talented video journalists, producers, engineers and support staff) gave viewers in Britain the truth about what was happening in Putin’s war of aggression.
Later, as summer came to an end, it was Huw Edwards’ turn to confirm his status as a national treasure, presiding over the coverage of the Queen’s death and funeral. Now, that coverage was not to everyone’s taste (as a republican I endorse this opinion), but there is no denying that most viewers and listeners turned to BBC outlets rather than to the competition. In difficult times, it seems, the BBC remains a trusted voice.
But — and yes, it’s a big ‘but’ — to be seduced by such a soothing reading of the BBC’s year, as some within the corporation seem to have been, would be a huge mistake.
The Conservatives and their supporters continue to hate the BBC. They want it dead, and until it is dead, they want it docile. Charter renewal looms (it always does) and there’s little support for the continuation of the licence fee from that quarter. But perhaps a bigger headache now is that the BBC has a major problem convincing liberal opinion — its natural support base — that it is still worth not just supporting, but actually saving.
Brexit, the terrible ‘B-word’ that the corporation spent years not mentioning, is coming back to bite it. The problems inherent in Brexit — the huge economic harm, the political and diplomatic damage, and the non-existent benefits — are all starting to break through into voters’ consciousness. Inevitably, questions will now start to be heard louder and louder about the BBC’s coverage of this unfolding disaster over the past six years.
That questioning will focus on why the BBC chose to appease its enemies in the Government rather than telling the truth about them, and the closeness of senior figures in the corporation’s hierarchy with the Conservative Party.
These senior figures include the Director General Tim Davie, and the Chairman, Sir Richard Sharp, and their influence has been seen through other important unfortunate appointments. I’ve written before about the malign influence of Board member Sir Robbie Gibb — described by Emily Maitlis (of whom more in a minute) as “an active agent of the Conservative Party”. In November John McAndrew joined the BBC’s senior editorial team as Director of News Programmes. This is a crucial, hands-on role, and McAndrew, like Gibb, was involved in the setting up and launch of GB News, the right-wing TV outlet I’ve seen best described as a “rant channel”.
These appointments were made possible by the men at the top, Davie — a former Conservative council candidate — and Sharp.
Sir Richard Sharp is a man of conviction, and those convictions are thoroughly right wing. He worked for JP Morgan for eight years, and for Goldman Sachs for 23, making enough money to set up his own charity, The Sharp Foundation. Not afraid to put his money where his mouth is, he donated £400,000 to the Conservative Party and, through his trust, £35,000 to the Quilliam think-tank. Quilliam, which was dissolved in 2021, had links with the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society.
In my 25-year career as an operational BBC journalist I met and interacted with four Director Generals, but I never met any of the Chairmen. Their role is not hands-on, and their presence is felt by the rank and file rather than seen by them. The first Chairman I remember was Marmaduke Hussey, a thoroughbred Conservative picked by Margaret Thatcher to shake up what she saw as a bastion of established liberalism. Hussey, however, ‘went native,' embraced the corporation, and helped defend it against political interference. It seems that Sharp is not cut from the same cloth.
This brings me back to Emily Maitlis. She left the BBC this year — part of a haemorrhaging of talent at all levels during the past twelve months (which is another reason for concern about the BBC’s future). As she did so, she took the swipe at Sir Robbie Gibb I quoted above, and also talked about the BBC’s reluctance to address — or even mention — the problems caused by Brexit.
Earlier this month Sharp used an interview with the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times to single out Maitlis and her now notorious Newsnight monologue in which she called out the lies of the then prime-ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings. “We’re not a campaigning institution,” Sharp said. “Our approach is to present the facts and not to lead with a broadcaster’s opinion.”
Except the facts have all too often not been presented, particularly when they go against government narratives. And while Sharp may not have much direct editorial influence, the tone he sets and the people he appoints are tremendously influential. Furthermore Sharp’s responsibilities include “the strategic direction for the BBC,” and under him that direction has simply been too close to the government, as I said in my Byline Times article about Laura Kuenssberg’s tenure as political editor in March.
The chaotic climax to Boris Johnson’s premiership and the almost comical ineptitude of Truss’ six-and-a-bit weeks in office did finally prompt the BBC’s political journalists to ask some serious questions and point out some of the absurdities. But this was all very late in the day. Johnson always got an easy ride from the BBC’s news programmes and political journalists, right up until the very messy end.
Even now, in what I see as another sign of malign Tory influence, over the past few weeks I’ve heard several BBC journalists refer to “illegal asylum seekers.” You won’t hear this often on the BBC, but it is not illegal to claim asylum, nor is it to cross the channel in a boat, and to routinely refer to these things as “illegal” amounts to mere parroting of government propaganda. One journalist — Michael Keohan from BBC Kent — even reported that the Channel was where Britain was “defending itself on the frontline against migrants.” That was from an over-worked and under-resourced regional journalist (which is another continuing issue for the BBC), but he used language that completely and unquestioningly bought into the government’s narrative, evoking warfare and conflict, and characterising migrants and asylum seekers as a threat and an “invasion”.
And then there’s Scotland. I don’t have the space to do this justice here — it’s worth an article on its own. Suffice to say that the British Broadcasting Corporation is struggling to navigate through a situation where more than half the country’s population favours independence (as current polls suggest) and where the Conservatives are a fringe party with dwindling support.
As this year ends, and the term of the current government winds down, there is some cause for optimism for the BBC. It’s hard, for example, to see any non-Conservative government being as hostile to the very idea of public service broadcasting as the Tories have been. But there are huge issues facing it – a strangling funding squeeze that’s unlikely to end, even if Labour come to power; increasing suspicion and hostility in the various nations that make up the UK; and above all, Brexit’s economic chickens continuing to come home to roost.
The BBC needs to win back friends if it is to make it far into its second century. It’s unlikely to be able to do that under leaders that are so indelibly tainted by their close and unhealthy relationship with a failed and divisive governing party.
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