The scene is set for radical reform at the BBC – but will staff activists change their ways?, asks former head of BBC TV News ROGER MOSEY
Roger Mosey (pictured) is the former head of BBC Television News
It’s a turning point. So says one of the BBC’s well-known presenters about Sir Nicholas Serota’s review on impartiality.
The word from some senior managers is that they are ‘delighted’ too, and one – long concerned about the BBC’s impartiality or lack of it – believes the report has gone ‘way beyond expectations’ in setting out an agenda for change.
As for Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman, he is talking of ‘an impartiality revolution’.
And with the director-general Tim Davie now planning to call in external experts regularly to check on neutrality, surely there is a better chance than ever of instituting change and putting an end to those accusations of BBC bias.
The BBC is right, of course, to insist it has many existing strengths. When it’s good, as in the early weeks of the pandemic, it’s very good.
But this review is concerned with when it is shown to be bad, as it unquestionably was during the Martin Bashir affair and his interview with Princess Diana in the 1990s.
Serota and his team are correct that it is hard to see how something like that could happen again now, because the level of external scrutiny is greater and the internal governance is better.
In the detail of the report, however, they show why there is cause for continuing concern about BBC output.
‘Not all staff,’ it notes, ‘have a comprehensive understanding of editorial standards’; there is sometimes a ‘culture of defensiveness’; a risk of ‘groupthink’ is identified; and ‘there is an opportunity for the BBC leadership team to go further’ still on impartiality.
The BBC is right, of course, to insist it has many existing strengths. But this review is concerned with when it is shown to be bad, as it unquestionably was during the Martin Bashir affair and his interview with Princess Diana in the 1990s (pictured)
That is all true and crucially important. It needs to be spelt out even more clearly that the key is breaking out of the metropolitan and often liberal mindset that defines too much of the BBC output.
When I was an editor myself, I simply didn’t know enough about the different world view of farmers in Monmouthshire or car workers in Sunderland. If a public service broadcaster, funded by the licence fee, is to survive then it has to reflect the views of everyone in the UK. The Brexit vote and the general election result in 2019 were wake-up calls.
The review identifies politely but definitively the problem about BBC employee organisations, set up with decent intentions to support staff diversity, but increasingly asserting their views on editorial policy.
It’s hard to overstate how much of an encumbrance some of the pressure groups have been for professional broadcasters, with rows ranging from the line-up of contributors on trans issues on the Today programme through to allegedly homophobic questions from the audience on Question Time.
‘This is all about software engineers thinking they’d be better programme editors,’ said one executive recently. Serota says firmly: ‘It is essential that when staff have strongly held views, these do not discourage content makers from reflecting the full range of public opinion,’ and he recommends greater clarity about the role of the employee networks, with an insistence impartiality must come first.
If a public service broadcaster, funded by the licence fee, is to survive then it has to reflect the views of everyone in the UK. The Brexit vote and the general election result in 2019 were wake-up calls (pictured, British Broadcasting Corporation headquarters in London)
Tim Davie has shown he understands the need for the BBC to restore its traditional editorial values while simultaneously adapting the corporation to survive within a noisy and volatile digital world.
He has been hindered, rather than helped, by the interventions of politicians who want to replace one form of bias with another. The BBC shouldn’t be the voice of Islington but equally it shouldn’t be the voice of Downing Street.
What Davie must do now is deliver. There are pitfalls ahead, identified in the Serota report: it is hard to reconcile richness and range of output with the cost-cutting currently under way. One presenter bluntly describes the reorganisation of BBC News as ‘destructive’.
But the framework is here for something quite radical. While social media descends into shouting matches on Twitter, the BBC could become a reinvigorated public space – open to all audiences, irrespective of their views and backgrounds – where there is fairness and enlightenment. It should crack on with that plan.