The Decline and Fall of the BBC
Admired around the world, and nowhere more than in the upper reaches of the American media, the British Broadcasting Corporation has long enjoyed the unstinting support of Britain’s metropolitan media elite, whose views it both forms and reflects. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher considered it institutionally hostile to her person as well as to her agenda. Two decades later, Tony Blair went from being one of its favorites to its number-one target, largely though not exclusively because of the Iraq war, which the BBC opposed from the very first suggestion of military action against Saddam Hussein. By the time Blair came out in favor of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008, to the barely contained fury of the BBC’s news reporters and analysts, he had already become the despised outcast he is today in British metropolitan circles, spoken of by the BBC only in terms of opprobrium and bitter mockery.
In the last few months, however, the reputation of the BBC has been battered by a twin scandal involving pedophilia, cover-ups, and journalistic shoddiness. The scandal has, in turn, provoked widespread questions about the role and internal culture of the government-subsidized broadcasting behemoth as no previous controversies have done.
It began with the revelation that one of its biggest stars, Sir Jimmy Savile, for more than 30 years had exploited his youth-oriented programs to molest and, in some instances, rape children, often on BBC property. Savile, a peculiarly unattractive and charmless personality whose success was mysterious to foreigners and many Britons, was the longtime host of Top of the Pops, the UK’s equivalent of America’s Top 40, and of a program called Jim’ll Fix It in which children, often disadvantaged, would write and ask for a wish to be granted, such as meeting a famous person. Between the early 1960s and his death in 2011, Savile’s long white hair, chunky jewelry, and trademark Cuban cigars were inescapable on British TV, and his Northern-accented staccato voice was a staple in advertisements and public-service announcements.
The onetime miner, professional wrestler, and dance-hall disc-jockey had a face for radio and a voice for mime. He was not witty or smooth or charming. But in the mid-1960s, he had the advantage of being obviously working class at a time when the BBC establishment was painfully upper-middle-class and Oxbridge, and desperate to connect with youth culture and “the street.” It may well be that this background, and the BBC’s instinctive veneration for it, were among the things that made him so strangely untouchable even as rumors of his sexual predation accumulated. That he did so much charity work—in a country where charities and NGOs are nearly worshipped by the BBC and other media—also made him untouchable, while providing him with extraordinary opportunities for wrongdoing.
Savile raised at least $60 million for charity over the years. He was such a frequent visitor at children’s hospitals, care homes, and young offenders’ institutions that officials often provided him with places to stay or his own keys to their facilities.
There were persistent rumors about his sexual proclivities at these places and in the BBC. This was partly because he was an overtly creepy figure who lived with his mother until her death (he was a lifelong bachelor) and sported the mirthless grin of a horror-movie clown. But also he had been investigated by various UK police forces on several occasions as late as 2007 and inspired sporadic allegations of child abuse that never received much attention in the news media.
It seems, however, that he used a lupine cunning to intimidate officials who might have raised a flag. Not only was he a famous public man who skillfully exploited British worship of the nonprofit sector to foster his Teflon image of benevolence, he also had a sinister ability to get hold of confidential information about the staff in the hospitals and prisons he visited. A skillful bully, he apparently liked to remind anyone who seemed likely to ask awkward questions what good friends he was with senior police officers or members of the cabinet.
Shortly before Savile’s death in 2011, officials in the BBC’s senior management were alerted two times about new allegations of pedophilia against him. The BBC nevertheless went ahead with two celebratory programs about his career.
Later, the flagship current-events show Newsnight decided not to proceed with an investigative program about Savile and his alleged sex crimes, possibly because corporation executives feared they might spoil the tributes to him scheduled for Christmas 2011. Jeremy Paxman, the formidable lead presenter on Newsnight (who described Savile’s predation as “common gossip” and the BBC management’s handling of the affair as “pathetic” and “contemptible”), apparently pressed his bosses to run the show, but to no avail.
The then director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson—now chief executive of the New York Times—denies that he ever heard rumors of Savile’s activities, or that he had any role in the cancellation of the Newsnight program. His denial has been contradicted by one of the organization’s top reporters.
Nine months after the BBC canceled the Newsnight investigation of Savile, a program on the competing private network ITV supplied a devastating account of the star’s pedophilia, which led to a police investigation by 14 forces across the country. So far, almost 500 alleged victims have contacted the authorities, and police have recorded 31 convincing allegations of rape and 199 other serious crimes, many of them committed on BBC property. As more and more people broke their silence and recounted the experiences at his hands, it came to light that Savile had even molested children at a hospice.
It is worth noting that at the beginning of the scandal, Savile’s apologists pointed out that when he began his career as the host of a pop-music show in the 1960s it was “normal” for rock musicians and people in the industry to sleep with underage groupies. Well, perhaps, but Savile continued to pursue underage girls and, occasionally, boys for decades, and the victims he chose at places like juvenile detention centers or the Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric facility, were particularly unlikely to be believed when they complained.
The second stage of the two-part scandal took place after the editor of Newsnight had already stepped down (after denying that he had been pressured to drop the Savile program) and as the police began to investigate other claims of rape and pedophilia by entertainers at the BBC. In what looked suspiciously like an effort to distract the public from the Savile debacle, Newsnight accused a senior, retired Conservative politician of similar crimes. The groundless accusation was based on flimsy evidence: the memory of a now middle-aged victim of care-home abuse, some of whose previous accusations had turned out to be false and had cost Private Eye magazine hefty libel damages.
This Newsnight investigation had been outsourced to a little-known journalist collective called the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, run by a former BBC producer. No one in charge at the BBC checked the integrity of the investigation or even confirmed that the journalists had shown a photo of the politician to his accuser. Newsnight staff seem to operate under the same reflexive assumption that apparently governs the BBC’s drama producers—that villainy is mainly to be found among white, wealthy members of the old establishment. The fact that the politician in question, Lord McAlpine, had been a close associate of Margaret Thatcher’s—the BBC had never forgiven her for winning elections and changing the face of British politics, still less for forcing the resignation of its director general Alasdair Milne in 1987—presumably made Newsnight’s producers all the more likely to believe in his alleged proclivities.
There have been other BBC scandals in the last few years, though none—not even the 2003 Gilligan–Kelly affair, involving the suicide of a government scientist named as the source of a report claiming the government “sexed up” WMD evidence in advance of the Iraq war—has provoked the current level of soul-searching and external criticism.
In 2008, Panorama, an investigative journalism show, claimed that Indian subcontractors for the Primark department-store chain were using child labor. Primark complained that Panorama’s footage of boys in Bangalore sweatshops was fraudulent. An inquiry by the BBC Trust determined that it was indeed “more than likely” that the sweatshop scenes had been staged.
A year earlier, the BBC had been forced to apologize to Queen Elizabeth II after broadcasting a trailer that was deceptively edited to suggest she had stormed out of a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz. That same year, an internal investigation discovered that a BBC6 radio show had repeatedly faked competitions featuring nonexistent prizes and in which callers were actually members or friends of the production team. This was only one of several instances of pretend call-in shows discovered during the last decade.
Last year Sir David Attenborough, the celebrated maker of nature series such as Life on Earth, was revealed to have faked footage for his Frozen Planet series: A sequence capturing two newborn polar bears had not been filmed “under the ice” in the Arctic with the rest of the documentary but in a carefully constructed phony den in a Dutch zoo with fake snow. The BBC’s PR machine responded to public outrage by saying that no deception had taken place because the true circumstances of the footage were admitted in an obscure corner of a BBC website. Much to the shock of those who had in the past marveled at the extraordinary footage in his films, Attenborough himself crossly responded that such measures were normal and justifiable; it subsequently came out that polar-bear footage in a previous program had also been shot in a zoo rather than in the wild. He recently got in more trouble for claiming in a new documentary that parts of Africa have become 3.5 degrees (Celsius) hotter in the last 20 years. When challenged, the BBC defended the assertion, citing reports by Oxfam and Christian Aid, but eventually admitted that it had no basis in fact.
Usually the BBC’s staff, PR unit, and supporters have successfully dismissed even the most deserved and well-founded criticism as politically motivated or threatening to the organization’s prized independence and objectivity. Accusations of endemic and consistent political bias have been particularly easy to bat away, largely because those making the accusations fail to understand that the organization’s very real biases—even those against Israel and America—are largely unconscious.
If the latest scandal carries so much more weight, it may be because of the cumulative effect of smaller scandals, some of which, like the contemptuous coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, have exposed the elitist attitudes of the corporation’s management. The BBC’s partisans—and it remains a much-beloved institution—fear that the Savile-McAlpine affair could end the system according to which the BBC draws much of its annual income from the UK’s television-license fee.
Everyone in the UK who owns a television set has to pay an annual license fee of £145.50 ($228). This adds up to some £3.5 billion ($5.5 billion). (Another £1.5 billion, or $2.4 billion, comes from BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s profitable commercial arm.) The leading conservative columnist Charles Moore has called this “the most regressive and ruthlessly collected of all government imposts.” It clearly weighs more heavily on the poor than on the rich. This seems all the more unfair given that the fee is generally justified by the BBC’s defenders as funding the production of critically lauded drama and current-events programs that are watched by the upper-middle class.
In fact, the costume dramas so often bought by PBS and the current-events programs that were widely believed to be such fine examples of professional “objective” journalism account for a very small amount of the BBC’s product and budget. It actually spends much more public money trying to compete for audience share with lowest-common-denominator dreck like Hotter Than My Daughter, My Man Boobs and Me, and Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents—a reality show in which teenagers were taken to the Mediterranean and encouraged to behave badly without knowing that the BBC had secretly brought their parents to watch. It was the BBC, not one of its commercial rivals, that first imported the original junk-reality TV series Big Brother to the UK. It goes almost without saying that the free market has a proven ability to fund such programs.
There are institutional problems within the BBC almost as troubling as its failure to spot a pedophile in its midst, its ruthless cover-up of his activities, and its unjustified targeting of a Tory to distract the public from its shabby behavior.
The BBC’s broadcasts reach 97 percent of the British population and at least 224 million people abroad. It has extraordinary power over British political and cultural discourse, an influence even greater than that enjoyed by the New York Times in the United States. (It also exerts remarkable influence over elite American journalists, especially those who specialize in foreign affairs.) Those whom it anoints as important intellectual or cultural figures invariably become famous and influential; those whom it ignores have a hard time getting attention or traction.
Despite being notoriously poorly managed by an enormous, slow-moving, jargon-addicted bureaucracy, the corporation ruthlessly and successfully uses its political influence and its domination of TV, radio, and the Internet (the license fee allows it to put vast amounts of material on the Web) to prevent any potential competitor from developing a similar “cross-platform” media power. When the Murdoch media empire was bidding for full control of BSkyB (the country’s biggest satellite TV operator and the main challenger to BBC TV’s “freeview” service), the BBC joined the concerted, ultimately successful PR effort by the Guardian, the New York Times, and other organizations to influence the Ofcom regulator against News International. Before and after the hacking scandal, the BBC’s coverage of Murdoch and his papers was overtly disapproving or even hostile, contradicting the BBC’s statutory obligation to strive for objectivity and eschew bias.
Indeed, the BBC is such a power in the land that it could almost be another branch of government, albeit one without democratic legitimacy. It certainly can behave like a kind of permanent opposition to the country’s elected leaders. That could theoretically be a good thing, an additional check and balance on overweening state power, but there is an argument that in practice it has a subversive effect on British democracy and legitimacy. One of the striking aspects about its current-events coverage from a foreigner’s perspective is the overtly cynical, disrespectful attitude its interviewers display to politicians. And this is an attitude mirrored in the corporation’s dramas and comedies, which tend to portray politicians, almost uniformly, as liars and crooks every bit as evil as large corporations and business executives.
When one of the BBC’s grand inquisitors, such as the intimidating Jeremy Paxman, interviews a politician, his tone usually makes it clear that the former is a liar who deserves to be caught out. The presenters on the morning show Today—listened to by everyone within Britain’s equivalent of the Beltway—behave the same way: Politicians are down in the gutter with Americans, generals, Catholic priests, bankers, and, of course, Israeli spokespersons, as presumptive liars and scumbags. When challenged, people in the BBC justify this aggressive stance as a courageous speaking of truth to power, but it is more often an exercise of power without responsibility: After all, the interviewees are the elected representatives of the people; the interviewers are self-appointed, publicly funded tribunes representing the assumptions and prejudices of the new ruling class.
It only takes a few days of listening to BBC talk radio or watching the news to get a sense of its institutional biases. You will never, ever hear an interviewer suggest that maybe the state should play a smaller role in some aspect of national life, that unrestricted mass immigration might have adverse effects, or that Britain’s welfare benefits might have undesirable social consequences or be prone to exploitation. You will certainly never encounter any skepticism about the UN, foreign aid, and the European project. Anyone who is unconvinced by the attractions of a European superstate is treated as a bigot or dinosaur or deemed mysteriously blind to the obvious appeal of “Europe” as envisioned by the modern and the cultured.
In terms of domestic politics, the BBC has exhibited, at least since the days of Thatcher, an institutional contempt for the Tory Party: Just as you are unlikely to meet a New York Times editor who openly votes Republican, there are simply no open Tories at the BBC. This is not surprising in that as a matter of course the corporation places its job advertisements in the left-of-center Guardian.
Much airtime is taken up by campaign-like bulletins that presume the existence and dangers of anthropogenic global warming, and impartiality goes out of the window whenever subjects like solar power and green taxes come up. Multiculturalism, though increasingly discredited in the UK as a whole, is still official BBC policy internally (diversity workshops are a grim fact of BBC working life), and BBC reporters and interviewers remain among its most resolute proponents. Ironically, although one BBC director general, lifetime Labour Party activist Greg Dyke, accused the corporation of being “hideously white,” its staff already includes a higher number of ethnic minorities than the nation as a whole, and its newsreaders an almost comically high proportion of the same. (The latter are often popular because anchors of South Asian, African, or Caribbean background are not discriminated against for speaking in the traditional Oxbridge or “received pronunciation” BBC accent. Yet white hires must have strong regional or working-class accents that can be hard to understand.)
Commentary readers may well have some sense that the BBC’s news division—the largest news organization in the world—has an Israel problem, as it was widely reported in the United States that the BBC’s then Jerusalem correspondent Barbara Plett actually wept in 2004 while covering the final illness of Yasir Arafat. (A BBC investigation responded to listener complaints by saying that her reporting met required standards of “fairness, accuracy, and balance.”) Plett, a Canadian, is now the BBC’s UN correspondent and remains obsessed with Israel. Another BBC correspondent in Israel, Irish journalist Orla Guerin, once produced a story about a curfew in Bethlehem titled “How the Israelis Stole Christmas.” But neither is as anti-Israel as some of the local BBC correspondents in Gaza, who in some cases are pro-Hamas activists in their spare time; their “balance” is nevertheless asserted by the organization.
Sometimes the corporation’s simplistic anti-Zionism gets its staff into trouble: It was almost certainly a factor in the kidnapping of its Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston in 2007 by gangsters with close connections to Hamas. Johnston, like many BBC reporters, was so close to Fatah that he was seen by some Gazans as essentially a Fatah agent. Palestinian Information Minister Mustafe Barghouti described him as “someone who has done a lot for our cause.”
Of all the reflexive political attitudes of BBC management and staff, the animus against Israel stands out for its obsessive and visceral qualities. The organization makes more documentaries about Israel and the Palestinians than about any other foreign subject. Again and again events in Israel and the Palestinian territories are the lead story on the BBC news website, even when world-shaking events are taking place in parts of the globe you might expect progressives to care about. The BBC’s Middle East “experts” were almost all taken by surprise by the Arab Spring, so focused were they on Israel, and so convinced were they that all the problems of the Middle East derive from the Zionist presence. An official internal report on anti-Israel bias by Malcolm Balen in 2004 has been suppressed by the BBC, presumably because it confirms the existence of the same; the corporation has spent almost $400,000 in legal fees defending the report against Freedom of Information Act requests seeking its release.
The institutional prejudices apparent in some of the BBC’s news and current-events coverage are often mirrored or even exaggerated in its entertainment output, a classic example being the successful spy series Spooks—which represents a world in which there is no Islamist terrorism and Islamist threats invariably turn out to be ruses created by evil Mossad agents and domestic right-wingers. The BBC’s serious dramas are often even worse. Every year the corporation funds heavy-handed agitprop TV films and series that are almost comical in their clunky earnestness, such as the recent consciousness-raising effort by Richard Curtis, The Girl in the Café, which starred Bill Nighy as a senior political adviser converted by Kelly Macdonald’s ingenue to the struggle against African poverty and Third World debt. Indeed, the corporation has fostered the careers of an entire cadre of hack dramatists such as Stephen Poliakoff, whose lifeless works do little but tick politically correct boxes.
The most important thing to understand about BBC bias is that, like its institutional obsessions with youth and celebrity, it is neither conscious nor in any way officially mandated. There are no orders from the top reminding journalists that Israel should be considered the greatest threat to peace, freedom, and justice, or that businessmen should generally be treated as crooks until proven innocent. That is just what everyone in the corporation believes in the same way that they know the world is round. Moreover, it is what they believe that everyone else—by which I mean everyone who is intelligent, educated, and of decent moral character—believes.
Given this perspective, it certainly should not have been a surprise to anyone that the Beeb fixed on a Tory grandee to blunt the impact of a pedophilia accusation against it. After all, for the great majority of the BBC’s journalists, producers, and managers, conservatives with a big or small c are the “other”: freakish almost by definition, and presumptively motivated by unfathomable and unattractive urges. Some BBC spokespeople seemed genuinely stunned when Lord Alistair McAlpine (whose name was revealed on Twitter) turned out to be the victim of mistaken identity.
For anyone who knows people who work at the BBC, this makes perfect sense. Many of my university contemporaries joined the BBC; they were pretty much all of a type, as if they had belonged to the same clique in high school. They were middle-class, middle-ability kids with predictably “right-on” (i.e., conventionally left-liberal) views. They shared mildly bohemian ideas about culture as a progressive, transgressive enterprise and were prone to conform to mainstream intellectual fashion. (There were a couple of exceptions: a girl whose spectacular sex appeal and wild clothes masked skeptical views about Third World virtues, and a hard-line Communist of working-class background whose eccentric career trajectory eventually took him to the Washington Times.) Those with whom I am still in contact decades later tend to have the same assumptions and attitudes that they had back in the Thatcher years. Conservatives are heartless, greedy, socially snobbish, and probably sexually deviant in repressed and dangerous ways. The UN is good, aid organizations are good, peace activists are good, unions are good, and the EU is good.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that a certain self-regard and the smug sense of belonging to an organization of uniquely intelligent, educated, and cultured people is what lies at the root of the BBC’s institutional problems. Now the BBC has revealed itself as capable of the worst kind of bureaucratic malfeasance for such a trusted and exalted organization—trying to hide its role as an abettor of an evil man by slandering a good one. Some part of its reputation may never recover.