Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
My Lords, one premise of the report that I found very stimulating is that public service broadcasters are
“struggling to achieve their mission to serve all audiences in the face of increased competition”
from streaming services
“and changing viewing habits.”
This could identify the wrong problem, and it ignores the elephant in the room. There is a serious issue of broadcasters failing to serve all audiences, but I do not think it has much to do with video on demand. There is a much more profound identity crisis, and I am glad that the Government’s public service broadcasting advisory panel has tried to dig a bit deeper and ask whether, as has already been mentioned, the concept of public service is needed and, if so, what a modern PSB should look like.
That is a bit more like it, because it seems to me that, especially in the last five to six years, there has been a growing chasm between public service broadcasters and the public. More and more of the public feel alienated from mainstream media and often feel that they are being done a disservice by PSB channels. It seems significant that we are about to see the launch of a new channel, GB News, which has already been maligned and demonised in this place. It is being launched on 13 June. The director of news, John McAndrew, described GB News’s aims as free, fair, impartial and Ofcom-regulated, arguing:
“We can sense a real hunger for something fresh and different in television news and debate.”
He is right.
It is worth noting that this new channel is headed up by Andrew Neil. He was one of the best public service news broadcasters at the BBC—but they did not know how to use him and lost him. GB News is a start-up that has attracted presenters and production talent from across the PSB landscape, and a whole swathe of young producers and employees—diverse, passionate and eager to make a difference—recruited by an enthusiasm for the project of covering stories and voices neglected by PSB channels rather than by some special HR-designed diversity charter. I think it is exciting and although, according to one noble Lord we have heard, we should be worried because of its foreign owners—my goodness, xenophobic or what?—what is to say that GB News is not a new kind of public service broadcasting? We should at least allow it to shake up any complacency.
I want to focus especially on the problems of the BBC. The BBC is an institution whose ideals I love and want to defend, but I find it increasingly hard to do so. It feels as though somewhere along the line it lost track of its public service mission. I do not doubt the BBC’s commitment to serve and reflect communities across the country but, sadly, this is conceived in rather a technical way by focusing on regional production sites and programmes commissioned outside the M25. That is all good, but why then in the same month last year did we hear of £25 million cuts to established regional programmes while a pledge of £100 million was made to a new diversity initiative? I worry that obsessing about a particular interpretation of “diversity” does not serve all audiences and does not stress what we have in common but rather plays on differences.
My fear is that there is a balkanising of audiences going on by attempting to tailor programmes to different demographics and identity groups. It is true that this reflects one aspect of modern Britain—the divisive and essentialising identity politics so fashionable in metropolitan echo chambers. It can lead to the crassest form of programme making. Look at how broadcasters do not so much cater for 16 to 34 year-olds as chase after them, flattering and fawning to prove that PSB is relevant. It is excruciating witnessing the resulting soft bigotry of low expectations. Look at the tangle that Radio 3 and the Proms get into. “Add a bit of grime and rap and the audience will love us,” you feel them saying. Too many PSBs seem convinced that the young are an undifferentiated blob with the attention span of a gnat. The irony is that what the young are watching on streaming services are complex, nuanced, challenging long-form documentaries and drama series.
Another problem that I have with the focus on diversity is that too often it neglects diversity of opinion and thought. Even though Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, used the word “impartiality” 11 times in his inaugural speech, the most common complaint that I hear about the BBC is that it is partial by offering a narrow worldview. The problem with the present strategy is that it assumes that a Geordie or Yorkshire accent means diversity—but you can talk metropolitan orthodoxies with a northern voice, believe me. The BBC may have dumped received pronunciation, but its embrace of a suite of received opinions feels even more stifling and condescending.
Often the BBC cannot hear itself. It just does not realise that it is tone deaf about diverse values and worldviews that it does not share. This became apparent to me personally in 2016. I was a panellist on Radio 4’s “Moral Maze” for 20 years. I have done all the current affairs and news programmes that the BBC has to offer—a bit of a “BBC luvvie” if you want. No doubt I was seen as a bit of a maverick, but I was accepted on the scene. However, when I mentioned that I was going to vote leave, it was met with disbelief. “But you’re an intelligent, well-educated person, Claire,” said one senior producer—and from then on, in studios and green rooms, a growing sneer. And that sneering was even more viscerally observed by audiences.
The virtually unanimous view that Brexit was a foolish, backward and inexplicable idea meant that those called public service broadcasters did not have a clue what the public were thinking and were totally shocked at the referendum result. Many news reports before and since that democratic vote have given the impression that PSBs just do not like the public.
It is sometimes suggested—it has already been said here—that anyone who makes such criticisms is whipping up grievances and fuelling a culture war. I often think it is the other way around, and I worry that the BBC is inadvertently behaving like an activist in the culture wars. There are endless examples: the bizarre statement from “Countryfile” about the UK countryside being a “white environment”, and the “Rule Britannia” saga at the BBC Proms.
It was not the Defund the BBC campaign that clipped a section of a BBC Sounds podcast featuring two young women hectoring older white women for being “Karens” who should educate themselves about their white privilege, saying, “get out of the way” and ordering them to “basically leave”. The BBC eventually deleted the clip after a backlash, but what was it thinking? “Educate yourselves, you Karens” makes the old-fashioned, patrician Reithianism sound positively egalitarian.
The BBC is owned and paid for by the public, and it has a moral duty, not just a financial one—