Editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL shows how the BBC has lost its confidence in the face of Farage.
‘If we are being attacked from all sides, we must be doing something right.’ It is a standard BBC executive response to complaints from left or right, Leave or Remain. But what if the complainants have a point? And what if, in less defensive and more reflective moments, BBC journalists privately admit the organisation has had a bad Brexit – which many do – and not for the reasons pumped out by the Murdoch/Rothermere/Barclays/Farage/Johnson Brexit Lie Machine?
I do not underestimate the challenges they face at the best of times, and with Brexit so complex, so divisive, these are far from the best of times for politics and media alike. But I really hope the BBC is conducting soul-searching about its Brexit coverage which goes well beyond the glib one-liner above.
Because, not least as a result of the way the right are coming for them, but also because of the vast technological and cultural change taking place across the world, the Corporation’s very future is under threat; and this at a time, with the spectre of fascism and the virus of fake news spreading as its ally, the country and indeed the world will need it most.
Nigel Farage knew what he was doing with his pre-prepared tantrum at Andrew Marr two weeks ago for asking him a range of legitimate questions about views he had expressed in the past. He was making an issue of BBC bias against him, when he personally has so much to thank the BBC for, not least all those appearances on Question Time.
A week later, overlooking the fact that he was literally the only European elections candidate to be given a berth on either The Andrew Marr Show or Question Time, Marr having that morning interviewed three non-hard Brexit party leaders to meet the election requirements of balance, Farage already having had his time, he said this showed clear bias and meant when he finally got round to writing a manifesto, the future of the BBC license would be in it.
This is straightforward bullying, out of the Trump/Bannon playbook. Sadly, it seems to work for him. It helps explain why, for example, when the next day the Guardian led on Gordon Brown calling for an inquiry into the funding of Farage’s Brexit Party, with allegations of possible wrongdoing that was allowing foreign money into its coffers to pay for its rallies, slick social media and dark advertising, it barely registered on the BBC news; though Nick Robinson did an excellent interview on the subject with squirming Farage backer Richard Tice. Time and again in the last three years, we are left wondering why, given the referendum campaign wrongdoing that has been exposed and is being pursued by the authorities, it is left to the Guardian and Channel 4 News to keep reporting, let alone investigating this.
We know why the Lie Machine of the Brexit press ignores it. But why does the BBC follow suit? Has an editorial decision been taken that the Brexit past is a foreign country, not to be visited, though it played such an important role in where we are now?
Given my history with the BBC over the Iraq War, and a dispute which led to a public inquiry which promoted the loss of its director general and chairman, and perhaps a loss of confidence too, some may not believe me when I say I am a big supporter of the BBC. But I am. The place is full of fine journalists who really want to get it right. They do get a lot right, including on Brexit.
The BBC is central to our culture and our soft power. In politics, I dread the Foxisation of our news which Farage, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Bannon, perhaps Piers Morgan would like. The BBC is our best bulwark against it.
Just this week, with my own and others’ documentaries on BBC2, they showed what power they have to move a debate, this time on mental health. And if you want to see a good doorstep of Farage other than on Channel 4, look up BBC Wales reporter Arwyn Jones pursuing him on what benefits a no-deal Brexit would bring to Wales. Proper TV journalism, but of a kind we see too little of.
Especially in a world where the US president openly uses lying as a tactic, and is emulated in this by Boris Johnson, Farage and others, the BBC needs to be far more robust in making judgements on fact. There needs to be a review too of the approach to packages – newsreader intro, context, talking head who says world is round, talking head who says world is flat, “time will tell” ‘upsum’ by reporter and now “back to you, Huw”.
They need too to understand the disjunction between press opinion and public opinion. I have never understood why TV and radio, with their long-standing monopoly on immediacy, now shared with social media, continue to allow their agenda to be set by the papers. Given the pro-Brexit and anti-progressive bias of our national press, this inevitably skews the centre of gravity in the debate, not least on the Today programme which seems to have an open invitation to a gaggle of hard Brexit old men for the 0810 slot chuckle-in with John Humphrys. Do David Davis and Iain Duncan Smith have beds in there?
The BBC needs to re-find its confidence, rediscover its own course, dictated not by what newspapers think of their coverage, or say about the issues, but what a debate as vital as this actually needs from it. That requires an honest analysis of its coverage past and present, and leadership to make and implement change.
I am not one of those – though there are plenty of them – who think the BBC is institutionally biased, or that there is some conspiracy against a People’s Vote. But somewhere in there is a virus of managerial cowardice created by an attitude of least resistance to those who shout the loudest, which in our country, especially now, is the right.
It is not that they all secretly agree with Farage, or the May narrative that Brexit must be done. It’s more that they fear being criticised if it looks like they don’t. After years of attack from the Brexit Lie machine of the Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph and the rest for its supposedly left-wing tendencies, the BBC cowers in the face of it, and so now cowers in the face of Farage, and helps him with his rebrand. A bit like Theresa May, who felt she had to go into ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mode because she had voted Remain, because the right say the BBC is full of Remainers, they over-compensate to prove them wrong.
Outside BBC HQ is a wonderful statue of George Orwell, whose work has had yet another surge of popularity amid the rise of Trump, Salvini, Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro. They, like Farage and Johnson, are straight out of the Oceania handbook in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newspeak is their mother tongue. ‘I never said we could do a Norway deal’ (yes, you did Nigel), ‘17.4million voted for no-deal’ (no, they didn’t).
Here’s an interesting piece of historical literary trivia for you. Nineteen Eighty-Four was not the original title of Orwell’s masterpiece. The first draft was called The Last Man in Europe. It was his publisher, Fredric Warburg, who suggested Nineteen Eighty-Four would be more grabby, more commercial. One thing we can be sure of, if recent events are a guide: if the BBC ever crumbles, the chances are Farage will be the last man in the studio, angrily shouting that nobody ever covers what he says, and the BBC is part of the establishment stitch-up against privately-educated, City-trading, friends of presidents and billionaires men-of-the-people like him.