Former deputy governor of the Bank of England Sir David Clementi’s review of BBC governance as part of BBC Charter renewal looks impressive at first glance – but he has badly misunderstood what is required.
What he proposes will leave the Corporation entrenched at the heart of the broadcasting establishment and almost impervious to real change; even worse, the proposals will do nothing to attack endemic BBC bias.
It’s an elegantly worded, absorbing read, and contains some good logistical proposals for improving the Corporation’s internal administration, including the creation of a beefed up BBC executive board, with a full-time chairman who would be more senior in the pecking order than the director-general.
That could provide a much-needed counterweight to arguably the most powerful figure in world media; Lord Hall, the current incumbent, is – almost uniquely in big media organisations – effectively both chief executive and editor-in-chief.
Sir David has also recommended that, as widely predicted, the current Trustees should be abolished. Bravo. But here, his good ideas ran out because his solution is that the BBC should then be placed under Ofcom.
Disaster! The malaise of the BBC is principally that it is run by broadcasting establishment figures with no desire to think radically or independently – and Ofcom is no different. It is a quango, peopled by liberal left quangocrats cast from exactly the same mould as the BBC Trustees.
For example, Ofcom’s current chairman, is Dame Patricia Hodgson, who spent a quarter of a century as a BBC producer, strategy executive, and a BBC Trustee. She has never worked outside the public sector.
All that will happen as a result of Sir David’s proposals is that the Corporation will be absorbed into the overall broadcasting establishment. There might be a few more challenges to some of its more nakedly commercial activities – such as the dominance of the internet – but the chances of radical reform, for example of the licence fee, will vanish, because Ofcom overwhelmingly favours the status quo. To them, it’s an article of faith that taxpayer funding is the highest good.
There’s a further vital area that Sir David missed altogether – so glaring an omission that it negates and renders virtually useless the whole exercise.
The rot in the BBC is not as Sir David appears to think, primarily about management systems. It is that almost every aspect of the Corporation’s output is biased – and the staff are so much in a liberal left bubble that they are blind to it.
That’s because the BBC is its own judge and jury in the handling of complaints and over the years, has constructed a hugely complex complaints procedure that is designed primarily for one purpose: to protect the Corporation and its journalists. In the same vein, editorial guidelines have been fashioned around the false yardstick of ‘due impartiality’, a concept that allows BBC editors and executives to interpret balance in areas such as climate change and immigration entirely on the Corporation’s own terms.
The upshot is that most complaints are rejected on highly cavalier grounds, and the BBC is totally out of touch with its audiences. It despises ‘populism’ in all its forms – and especially the Brexit variety.
Over the years, the Corporation has become cumulatively more biased in line with the prevailing liberal left ideology that forms the stifling orthodoxy at the heart of British public life. Those who work at the BBC would never acknowledge this in a thousand years; but to any outside observer of a different mindset it is blindingly obvious.
Against this background, Sir David’s proposal is that complaints are still handled in the first instance almost exactly as before by the BBC itself and those focused on impartiality that are not resolved at that level will be passed on to Ofcom’s content board. He glibly concludes that this will hold the BBC ‘more publicly to account’ – but he’s badly wrong.
His ‘Broadcaster First’ internal complaints handling approach will solve nothing. The ‘unitary executive board’ will go native and like the boards of all public sector organisations, their primary drive will be to defend themselves against outside criticism.
Nothing will change about the editorial guidelines, a grotesque creation that allows BBC producers, executives and journalists to get away with blue murder in the name of ‘editorial judgment’.
There is no insistence on regular, robust assessments of content, only a vague requirement that the same sort of (biased) impartiality reviews that the Trustees have been trotting out for years continue.
Even worse is Sir David’s suggestion that Ofcom becomes the final court of appeal. Ofcom’s content board – which deals with impartiality issues – is chaired by Bill Emmott, a fanatical Europhile whose current main objective is to spread propaganda on a massive scale warning that Brexit would spell disaster for the UK.
Bizarrely, when this was pointed out in a previous TCW and News-watch blog, Ofcom’s response was to acknowledge that this was a potential problem. A spokesmen said Emmott would be forced to stand down when any matters connected to the EU were discussed.
But that would not help either, because as the same TCW post also pointed out, nearly every other member of the board has cosy links to the BBC and has spent considerable parts of their career in the BBC orbit. Thus, the handling by Ofocm of BBC complaints will not make one iota of difference to the current regime.
Culture secretary John Whittingdale told an audience of the broadcasting establishment after he received Sir David’s report that he was impressed by it. This TCW blog last year warned that the BBC consultation that he ordered could easily become an empty exercise – that David Cameron wanted the BBC to remain unreformed so that it would help him win the referendum. If Whittingdale adopts the Clementi report, there will be no change. ‘Biased Broadcasting Corporation’ will become a fully accurate description of our most powerful broadcast institution and be set in stone for another generation.