Commanding View

The BBC amplifies the voices of billionaires, and shuts down those who challenge them.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 7th October 2020

They don’t want balance, they want possession. The oligarchs who own the newspapers will never accept the BBC, because it does not belong to them. However tame and conservative it becomes, they will demand it is defunded. And Boris Johnson is listening.

In an interview with the Guardian last week, the presenter Andrew Marr warned that

“The Murdoch empire and others are trying to push us towards a world in which the BBC is pretty marginal and people are getting most of their news and their views from privately funded television companies, as in America”. He’s right. A forthcoming book by Patrick Barwise and Peter York, The War Against the BBC, shows that Johnson’s attacks arise from a long-standing plan to cripple it. Dominic Cummings sketched out his strategy in 2004: discredit the BBC; set up rival, partisan channels; and lift the ban on political advertising. It seems to be falling into place.

But when I watch Andrew Marr’s Sunday programme, it seems to me that the BBC is already part-owned by the oligarchs. To an even greater extent than most BBC news and current affairs, his show follows the newspapers’ lead. Six years ago, Robert Peston, then the BBC’s economics editor, remarked that BBC news is “completely obsessed by the agenda set by newspapers”, especially the Mail and the Telegraph. Since then, nothing has changed. The BBC follows the billionaire press like a faithful dog.

These newspapers do not report the news: they create it. Every day, massive events happen: environmental disasters, theft and fraud by the very rich, power grabs and attacks on democracy. Instead of reporting them, the newspapers concoct scandals out of marginal topics, or out of thin air. They turn the public anger that should be directed at billionaires and corporations against refugees, Muslims, the “woke”, the poor and other scapegoats. News in the UK is the propaganda of the oligarch, amplified by the BBC.

Alongside this general capitulation, there are specific concessions. Before the last election, the  Andrew Marr Show became the Conservative Party’s patsy. The BBC had persuaded Jeremy Corbyn to be interviewed by Andrew Neil – the toughest gig on television – before it secured the same commitment from Boris Johnson. Corbyn was duly mangled, then Johnson refused to appear. The Conservatives instead offered him to the Andrew Marr Show, which is seen as a softer option. At first, the BBC rightly refused to play, then suddenly caved in, citing as its justification a terrorist attack in London.

The day after Vote Leave admitted to breaking the law during the EU referendum campaign, its chair, Gisela Stuart, appeared on the Andrew Marr Show to give her side of the story. But as Shahmir Sanni, the whistleblower whose revelations led to the admission, pointed out, “none of us who uncovered their criminality have been asked to speak on the issue. The BBC didn’t just ignorantly allow for a cover up, they are facilitating it.”

I don’t mean to single out Andrew Marr, but to show how even the staunchest defenders of the BBC’s independence unwittingly surrender it. They report from within the castle of power. For most BBC political journalists, politics seem to begin and end in Westminster. A political issue is one that divides the major parties (or divides people within a party). If the parties aren’t divided, it’s not an issue. The BBC’s political reporting, like that of almost all the media, is, in effect, court reporting: what one powerful person said to another, who’s in, who’s out, who might win, who might lose.

The really big questions – such as the gathering collapse of our life support systems – are, on most days, outside the circle of light. Above all, because the BBC is unconsciously led by the oligarchs’ agenda, it fails to confront the greatest source of political power: money. The BBC represents politics as a matter of preferences, rather than as a matter of interests.

With a few rare and brave exceptions, it avoids explaining how economic power comes to dominate and direct political power. Instead, every day it provides an unchallenged platform to those who promote this power: lobbyists, trade associations, opaquely-funded thinktanks. The BBC’s bias is not trivial or inconsequential: throughout the modern era, the primary political conflict has been between democratic power and the power of money. Its partiality is fundamental, and calamitous for democracy.

The BBC’s journalists genuinely believe they’re impartial. But they belong to, and reflect, a peculiar and tendentious culture, immersed in wealth and power, looking out from the centre. Society moves from the margins. All the new and thrilling political ideas are hatched outside mainstream politics, beyond the citadel’s walls. By excluding marginal issues and marginal voices, the BBC ensures it is always aligned with the status quo, and always behind the curve.

Impartiality is not just about balance. It’s about the way you construct a picture of the world. But BBC bosses, as Tom Mills, author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, points out, simply refuse to engage with these objections. They see the surface. They don’t see the depths.

The BBC’s appeasement of monied power, both conscious and unconscious, won’t save it. Like Donald Trump, the billionaire owners of the newspapers are constitutionally dissatisfied. However much wealth and power they accumulate, they cannot fill the hole in their hearts. They supported Boris Johnson for a specific purpose: to destroy obstacles to their power – tax, public protections and public institutions.

For all its failings, like Andrew Marr, I still want to save the BBC. I want to save it from the oligarchs and from the government. But above all, I want to save it from itself.