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JOHN KAMPFNER: No question – the BBC has lost its bottle

A panel on the BBC's Question Time time programme. Photograph: BBC. - Credit: Archant

The Corporation is facing one of the most severe tests in its history, says John Kampfner. And in vital areas it is failing it is not meeting the challenge.

Some 20 years ago, when I was working as a political correspondent for the BBC at Westminster, I got a scoop. I went to tell the news editor, to discuss with him how we would run it. Hold on, he told me, perhaps it would be better to wait for the papers in the morning and then we can follow it up.

It wasn’t, if truth be told, a particular humdinger of a story. It wasn’t going to change the world. But I was shocked. I had come from a newspaper culture where taking a risk was regarded as a good thing – as long as the basic work of sourcing, fact-checking and legal due diligence had been done.

At the Beeb, it felt as if risks (the good sort, the calculated ones) were frowned upon. I looked around the open plan newsroom and realised that nobody around me had got where they were by ‘causing trouble’. I decided shortly after that the Beeb wasn’t the place for me and moved on, back to the world of print.

A few years later, in 2005, as editor of the New Statesman, I wrote a story that wound them up so much so that Mark Thompson, then Director General, went on to the PM programme to denounce me. I gave as good as I got in the discussion.

I wasn’t entirely surprised by his vehemence. We had designed the cover to show an old-fashioned TV with spindly legs and an old test-card with the letters B B C. Under it was the title, ‘Broken, Beaten, Cowed’.

I had looked into the extent to which the corporation had taken fright after the Hutton report into Iraq, weapons of mass destruction and whether or not the Today programme had got it wrong. Hutton’s conclusions were roundly denounced as a whitewash in the service of government, leading to the resignation of the BBC’s Chairman and Director General.

The Today programme had made mistakes, everyone would agree with that. But the errors were seized upon by an embattled Downing Street in order to silence those in the corporation with a more audacious streak.

That row feels almost quaint now, but its consequences continue to linger. The BBC long ago lost its bottle and, apart from the odd individual or programme, it has yet to recover it. Indeed, in this era of populism, anti-politics and so-called citizen journalism, the problems facing the Beeb have become more acute.

In short, they do not trust their own. And to compensate for that, they give outsiders almost untrammelled licence to proffer nonsense.

The BBC’s role in the 2016 EU referendum has been trawled over by many a political and media analyst. The accusation is the broadcaster allowed the protagonists to spout untruths and distortions, pretty much unchecked. Balance was judged to be putting up someone to give the counter view. Hence the extra £350 million a week for the NHS, the hordes of Turks who would arrive following the country’s accession into the bloc, and the other assorted lies. On the other side came George Osborne’s predictions of Armageddon that would follow straight after a defeat. Whatever damage was caused by his over-heated forecasts, there was no equivalence in the competition to mislead voters. The Leave camp, as has been amply demonstrated since, won that by a country mile.

Lying is the new normal for politics. The tactic is so successful, everyone it seems is at it, with Donald Trump famously at the helm. All public institutions, including respectable global broadcasters, have struggled to cope.

Even though the BBC has not admitted its inadvertent role as cheerleader for propagandists and populists in 2016 (for all its seeming weakness it rarely admits error), it has belatedly begun to act. Its Reality Check department does good work, on air and off air, stress-testing assertions by both sides. Remarkably, the Beeb has also begun to ‘call out’ politicians telling porky pies.

On January 18, when Boris Johnson claimed, during a Q&A following another of his leadership-grasping speeches, that he had never mentioned Turkey during the referendum campaign, the BBC in its bulletins used the word ‘falsely’ when reporting his assertion. By its standards, that was some step, even if it did have cover from Conservative-supporting newspapers who made a similar accusation.

There is perhaps no point in crying further over spilt milk. But it is important to learn from mistakes to prepare better for the future. If there is a People’s Vote, a second referendum, will the BBC act more robustly? Will it be prepared to incur the wrath of the protagonists? Or will it revert to saying that it has done its duty by juxtaposing one view with another? To be facetious for a moment, the BBC does not interpret ‘balance’ in this way when it comes to Holocaust denial. It recently stopped doing that on climate change denial. So why on any other issue?

The bigger question, of internal self-confidence and courage, remains unresolved. Its most senior reporters – the estimable Laura Kuenssberg (its political editor) and her Europe counterpart, Katya Adler – are given freedom to take risks in their analysis.

Other senior figures are allowed similar leeway. But on day-to-day programmes, on local radio, on Radio 5 Live and elsewhere, the airwaves are opened up to pretty much anyone to say pretty much what they want, as long as someone else is provided to rebut it. Equivalence is taken ad absurdum.

On Brexit, the ‘Leave-means-Leave’ ultras have two or three well-known business leaders and economists to fall back on. And that’s it. By contrast, advocates of either a People’s Vote or a softer Brexit can rely on dozens of eminent names – not the so-called ‘elite’ but people who know a thing or two about how to run a company or an economy – to make the case. And yet, equivalence demands one versus one. No matter if it is a serious person versus a Mickey Mouse character.

What matters to some programme editors and executives, it seems, is noise. The worst example of this is Question Time. I am dumbfounded as to why people regard this shock jock television as a good watch. On the rare occasions I now bother to tune in I recoil at the lowest common denominator tone and substance.

Its mantra seems to be: bring on Nigel Farage or Rod Liddle or someone from a Corbynista agitprop organisation, and make sure the audience is whipped up in advance.

In a recent edition, Diane Abbott complained that the crowd (one might as well use a football term) were being encouraged to go after her, suggesting that racism was being tacitly condoned. Abbott has been one of the most trolled politicians and many, not just she, have concluded that being a woman and being black is at the heart of the hostility. The specific allegation against QT may or may not be valid in her case, but the generic bias against reasonableness rears its head too often to be dismissed.

All viewpoints require represent-ation, but is it too much, even in these populist days, to demand that they are expressed intelligently? Bear-baiting and cowardice – the two sides of the same coin – are an abrogation of the BBC’s Reithian values. Its leadership needs to remember its mission to explain, to shed light on difficult issues, to give a voice to all sides, but to have the courage to take strong editorial decisions.

Why, readers may wonder, have I focused on one organisation? Sky, ITV, Channel Four News and others all face the same societal challenges.

Their various programmes cope with them with varying degrees of competence. But the BBC continues to be the voice of the nation, the place around which the public realm should cohere.

If that sounds pompous, it is meant to be.

With so much at stake in coming weeks and months, the corporation should regard that as a compliment.

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