Toby Helm, Political Editor, & Vanessa Thorpe
Sat, 27 August 2022 at 7:00 pm
Labour has pledged to strengthen the BBC’s political independence and retain it as a publicly-owned, public service broadcaster at the heart of British life, amid signs that a Tory government led by Liz Truss would wage war on the corporation.
Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, told the Observer she is examining a series of reforms to insulate the BBC from political pressures, including ending “revolving door” appointments of people in politics to top posts in the corporation, and extending the charter renewal period from 10 to 15 or 20 years to reduce pressures on BBC leaders to toe the government line.
The move by Labour follows explosive claims last week by the former BBC presenter Emily Maitlis that a Tory “agent” was “acting as the arbiter of BBC impartiality” from his seat on the corporation’s board. Although she did not name him, Maitlis was referring to Theresa May’s former director of communications, Robbie Gibb, who has since denied the claims.
With Truss, the foreign secretary, expected to become the next prime minister, there are signs that the Conservatives under her leadership will press ahead with radical changes to the BBC, including ending the licence fee in its current form. The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, an outspoken critic of the BBC and Channel 4, and a supporter of Truss, has said that the licence fee would be frozen for two years and signalled its end altogether, declaring in a tweet that “this licence fee announcement will be the last”.
Truss has also questioned the BBC’s accuracy during her six-week Tory leadership campaign. Speaking on the rightwing news channel GB News a week ago, she said she believed the BBC did not check its facts.
Yet some of the BBC’s best-known former presenters last week accused the corporation of steering towards a Tory agenda. Even before Maitlis delivered her Edinburgh lecture, she and Jon Sopel, until recently the BBC’s North America editor and her new colleague at Global, both complained to this newspaper of the BBC’s enslavement to “balance” in all reports and its timid coverage of the impact of Brexit.
The veteran BBC radio presenter Roger Bolton, just ousted from his job holding the corporation to account on Radio 4’s Feedback after 23 years, has also complained about bias.
Speaking before his barbed on-air departure from the programme on Friday, Bolton said that Maitlis was “absolutely right” to criticise the BBC’s coverage of Brexit. “The BBC are increasingly confused between their corporate responses and their editorial responses. And the bosses are not as accountable as they should be,” Bolton told the Observer.
But those close to Gibb have pushed back this weekend, arguing that impartiality in news coverage remains the real goal. “It is not a coincidence that the director general, Tim Davie, has made it a top priority,” a source close to Gibb told the Observer.
“It is a reflection of the fact that we know how highly cherished that ideal is around the world. It’s something that can be achieved even at the most prominent level, with the appointment of Chris Mason as political editor, for example, and is something the audience expect.”
Speaking on Radio 4 on Saturday morning, the acclaimed broadcaster David Dimbleby also attacked Maitlis, arguing on the Today programme that her comments on Dominic Cummings’ “shocking” rule-breaking during lockdown should have been questions, not statements.
“Not everybody may have been shocked,” he said, quoting Maitlis’s description of the public response to Cummings’ misdemeanour as “one of fury, contempt and anguish”.
“It was a polemic. I think that was the mistake,” Dimbleby said.
The Labour leadership is now keen to portray itself as a supporter of the best traditions of the BBC while also being open to change, including about the precise form of the licence fee.
Powell stressed the vital role the BBC plays in British life. Its reporting of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Queen’s platinum jubilee and the women’s Euro football had shown it at its best.
“But constant attacks from the Tories are tearing down the BBC by stealth,” she said.
“The BBC needs to change with the times, and shouldn’t be afraid of robust reporting and debate which reflects the views of the country.
“In the midst of a cost of living crisis, our fast-growing, world-renowned British film and TV industry will be vital to growing our economy. The BBC is critical to this unique ecosystem.”
She added: “Under Labour, the BBC would be free from political interference, and the BBC’s future as a universal, publicly owned, public service broadcaster would be safe.”