To survive, the broadcaster's governance needs to be completely overhauled, writes former BBC producer and journalist Patrick Howse
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It must be obvious to even the most on-message BBC manager that 2023 has not started well for the corporation. In fact, it’s been a disaster, the progress of which can be charted by looking at its reaction to three stories that have emerged over the past few weekends.
The most directly damaging of these was the revelations in The Sunday Times this weekend about the BBC’s Chairman, Sir Richard Sharp.
In 2020, it seems that Sharp helped his friend, Boris Johnson, secure a loan guarantee for £800,000 from another friend, Canadian businessman Sam Blyth. This happened when Johnson was Prime Minister and as Sharp was in the process of applying for the job of BBC Chairman.
Sharp told the UK’s top civil servant of the time, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, about the arrangement, but then had another private meeting with Johnson and Blyth at Chequers. Responding to reports of the dinner, Johnson's spokesman said: "So what? Big deal."
Sharp's response has been to deny any wrongdoing, insisting that he was appointed as the BBC's Chairman solely on merit and that his personal interests will be reviewed by the BBC Board's nominations committee "when it next meets".
Leaving aside any suggestions of impropriety, the idea that a candidate for the chairmanship of the BBC could be this close to the Prime Minister of the day should have been enough to rule him out.
It’s well-known that Sharp is a committed Conservative, having previously donated £400,000 to the party. But this degree of closeness should always have been seen as a barrier to his appointment. He should never have been let anywhere near the job and the fact that he was appointed shows how sick Britain’s political culture is: either it never occurred to anyone that this appointment would raise too many potential or actual conflicts of interest, or no one cared.
In another sense, of course, Sharp was the ideal man for the job – because he was Johnson’s man. From the point of view of a government hostile to the BBC, he could be relied on to continue the process of steering the corporation in a docile and fearful strategic direction, which would make any real scrutiny of, let alone challenges to, the Government impossible.
I have written extensively for Byline Times about this process and how the BBC’s domestic political coverage has repeatedly failed to live up to both the challenges of our times and to its own stated ideals. There has been a systematic, and deliberate, failure to hold the most dishonest UK Government of modern times to account.
I have also written before about how disastrous Laura Kuenssberg’s tenure as the BBC’s Political Editor was to the corporation’s reputation. She saw her job (and so did her bosses) as merely repeating what she had been told by Downing Street, rather than challenging it and exposing lies. Sadly, her departure from the role early last year has not stopped that process.
Indeed, the current state of the BBC’s domestic political coverage can be summed up by the guests chosen for the panel on Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning politics show this weekend, when the Sharp story was big news. As well as former Conservative Leader Iain Duncan Smith, the audience was treated to Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel Johnson, alongside the boss of Tesco.
Rachel Johnson told Kuenssberg that she was unaware of her brother’s financial arrangements, but that she was sure that he and Sharp did “everything above board" and that "everything was transparent”. So, that’s all alright then.
This was so pathetically inadequate that I actually felt sorry for the production staff. But the fact that the BBC thought that this was somehow acceptable, and that the chosen panel was a good enough reflection of the country’s political discourse, is appalling.
Appalling, but sadly not at all surprising.
Before Christmas, Jeremy Clarkson used his Saturday column in the Sun to mount a misogynistic tirade against Meghan Markle, in the course of which he wrote that he hated her “on a cellular level” and wanted to see her stripped naked and pelted with excrement. The following day, the Sun's editor appeared on Kuenssberg’s show – an ideal opportunity to hold power to account? No, the interview was a series of friendly questions and the subject of Clarkson’s column was not mentioned.
Then there are the allegations regarding former Chancellor and current Conservative Chairman Nadhim Zahawi’s tax avoidance and untransparent dealings with HMRC. It was a story ignored by Kuenssberg and the BBC News website did not run it until three days after it broke.
Speaking to former colleagues from BBC Westminster, it seems that this was because the BBC "couldn't stand the story up from [its] own sources”. In the end, another former colleague, Damian Grammaticas (who has spent most of his career working in foreign news rather than at Westminster), co-wrote a piece generally following the Sun on Sunday’s narrative and saying that Zahawi’s office wasn’t denying the allegations.
It seems to me that the BBC could have done a story on that basis the following day if it had wanted to, so why wait an extra 48 hours? There may have been some (justified) caution about Zahawi’s habit of instructing his lawyers to send threatening letters to media outlets and journalists thinking of running stories about him. But I believe it’s clear that the BBC just didn’t want to stick its neck out and commit to the story.
It was much more comfortable waiting and seeing what would happen next – ideally a denial or a justification from Zahawi. The corporation seems to think that it is not its role to lead on stories like this. It is far happier reporting ‘he says this, she says that and probably the truth lies somewhere in between’ – even though this is a cowardly and logically untenable approach (the truth is not the midpoint between a fact and a lie).
The BBC does not choose its chairman. It is a government appointment. However, Sharp’s role in allegedly securing money for Johnson, and his closeness to the party in power, has nevertheless brought more shame on the broadcaster. Indeed, the reputational damage done to the corporation by this – and by its domestic political coverage over the past 13 years – may not be survivable.
It will make it harder to justify the licence fee or to make the case for a higher level of funding to a public already struggling to make ends meet. Even a government committed to public service broadcasting (which the Conservatives have very much not been) will have other priorities: the NHS, education, the criminal justice system, public utilities, transport – all the institutions damaged by the Government.
To survive, the BBC's governance will have to be completely overhauled, so that never again can government stooges be installed to steer its output in favour of the ruling party. It also needs an adequate and secure level of funding, so that it is not continually looking over its shoulder and worrying that a hostile government might close it down or kill it with a thousand cuts. It will be a huge task and any new Labour government might simply have too much else to do.
Beyond that, though, there is an even bigger problem. Will the progressive, liberally-minded people who have always been the BBC's core supporters emerge from the past decade of disillusionment still caring enough to do anything to help? The corporation stands on a precipice.
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