Politicians that threaten the BBC seek to undermine our democratic process
We should all defend the BBC in retaining its independence and capacity to hold to the powerful to account, writes Lord Blunkett
There is nothing new about politicians of all persuasions piling in to criticise the BBC. Usually, about political and current affairs coverage and allegations of ‘bias’. It is no comfort to BBC bosses that the criticism emerges from all quarters. ‘Plague on all your coverage’ doesn’t really help the BBC to survive the numerous subtle pressures which are brought to bear from the great and the good.
In the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, the not so subtle threats were fairly obvious. Accusations were thrown about, which apart from the usual ones of bias, involved ‘bullying” and bizarrely, that Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme had spent too much time visiting universities (although one of the visits to an education institution was a Further Education college, which has a very different student profile, with many adult learners).
The daftest thing of all from my point of view was the allegation that presenters of the Today programme were either unfair to or far too robust with government ministers. In the next breath – on the record – we learn that the government have taken the decision to minimise the number of cabinet ministers who will appear.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got my own criticisms of the BBC. Currently, I think that Radio 4 has drifted into being one of the most miserable stations on the dial and remains overwhelmingly metropolitan, despite the creation of MediaCity in Salford. I do not object to the massive effort that is going into reflecting diversity, rather that when you switch on, you’re almost guaranteed to learn about someone, somewhere, who is in the depths of despair, bereft of love and compassion, or just struggling to survive. All of this is true but needs to be leavened with a bit of cheer.
Mind you, it’s a great recruiting ground for Radio 3 and for that matter, Classic FM where of course you can find the once frightening scourge of politicians, one John Humphrys.
So, could we return to the common sense? The current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now in the House of Lords – Baroness Nicky Morgan – is sensible, balanced and very often a breath of fresh air. Whether she’ll be there after the reshuffle is entirely another matter.
That is why we should all be extremely careful to defend the BBC from whatever quarter, in retaining its independence and also its capacity to hold to account the powerful and the famous. Any Cabinet minister who cannot face being interviewed rigorously on the Today Programme shouldn’t be in their job. It’s a simple as that.
In other words, it doesn’t matter what Andrew Neil said or didn’t say when the Prime Minister would not appear to be interrogated by him. For reasons of my own, I wouldn’t want to be interviewed by Andrew Neil any time soon. However, I never, never remember turning down the opportunity of an in-depth interrogation in the eight years I was in the Cabinet.
There is, and this is the most central point of all, a much deeper issue here. When politicians start throwing their weight about and threatening the BBC because they don’t like either the way that interviews proceed or the nature of the coverage, they seek to undermine our democratic process. Were their words to be put in say “Russian” and played back to them, their reaction would be very different.
I think the term that we can use when dealing with the tactics of clumsy intimidation is simply ‘hypocrisy’.
Lord Blunkett’s oral question on the BBC is scheduled for Wednesday 22 January
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.