Whatever change is needed at the BBC, Dowden must ensure he ‘reforms to conserve’

22 May

Yesterday, in response to Lord Dyson’s report about how the BBC apparently “covered up” that Martin Bashir used duplicitous means to secure an interview with Princess Diana, Oliver Dowden said that the Government would ‘reflect’ on “damning failings at the heart of the BBC” ahead of its ‘mid-term’ charter renewal next year.

This will be music to the ears of those on the right who view the Corporation as a biased bastion of the left. Coming alongside the imminent launch of GB News, which looks set to be as close as our broadcasting laws permit to being an explicitly right-wing news organisation, it suggests that the BBC could be vulnerable.

Ministers may be tempted to press for reforms they ducked at the last full charter renewal, such as an overhaul of the licence fee. Others might see an opportunity to try and challenge BBC management over perceived bias.

Beyond the specific questions raised by the Bashir scandal, there is little doubt that some change is needed. The demand for GB News surely arises in part from collapsing faith amongst Conservatives about the impartiality of important sections of the Corporation’s news output, which I wrote about last year. Strongly positive overall perceptions of the BBC amongst the public risked disguising rot in specific areas.

But in the very week that the Government has taken a half-step towards reviving British Rail, and in so doing recognised that the long-term future of the United Kingdom requires more and stronger ‘British’ institutions, the Culture Secretary’s starting point must be recognising the vital importance of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

This does not mean that he should shrink from reform. But to borrow the Tory cliché, he must ‘reform to conserve’.

For starters, if the Government is serious about eventually bringing an end to the licence fee then that will almost certainly see a fall in the BBC’s budget. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly few Conservatives will weep to trim the farther reaches of its sprawling network. But if the cuts are not to be merely haphazard, or undermine the BBC’s core functions, the Government ought to work out not just a new funding model, but a clear idea of what a leaner, more focused version of the BBC would actually for.

One obvious path would be to lay greater emphasis on its national dimension, and indeed try to strengthen that – put the ‘British’ back in BBC.

Dowden should start by speaking to those Welsh Conservative MPs who recently wrote to BBC management to express concern at BBC Wales’ allegedly imbalanced coverage of the small separatist movement there, and to their Scottish colleagues concerned about BBC Scotland’s decision to give Nicola Sturgeon a privileged platform for ‘coronavirus updates’ which she used to launch political attacks ahead of the Holyrood elections.

It would also be reasonable that, if polling still finds Conservative supporters recording low levels of trust in the Corporation’s news coverage, it should be charged with investigating and addressing that, lest we end up in a US-style media environment where everybody gets their content from different, more homogenous networks. Likewise, whatever process it is that keeps producing self-inflicted wounds on ‘culture war’ issues, such as the proms.

This will be a fine line to tread. On the one hand, Dowden will likely face stiff resistance to any programme for change, be that special pleading for every outpost of the BBC empire – all allegedly essential to someone – or general hostility from those determined to repel a perceived Conservative attack on the institution.

On the other, he will need to fend off those rightist iconoclasts who are either actively hostile to the BBC or cannot view it in anything but narrow, commercial terms, and thus neglect its broader importance to the culture, coherence, and perhaps even the future, of the nation itself.