Politics & Policy

How to Combat Bias at the BBC?

Boris Johnson, mayor of London
Simply stop paying the licensing fee, Beeb refuseniks say.

London – At last someone has said it. Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London who just won reelection over his left-wing nemesis, “Red Ken” Livingstone, thinks the BBC — the nation’s biggest news outlet — is biased and must change in fundamental ways.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson makes plain just how pernicious he thinks the British Broadcasting Corporation has become. He notes that it is “unlike any other media organisation in the free world, in that it levies billions from British households whether they want to watch it or not.” The annual $230 license fee is required of every British television owner and provides some 75 percent of the BBC’s $7 billion budget. And Big Beeb claims it vigorously prosecutes people for not ponying up.

Given the slush fund it has access to, it’s no surprise the BBC is big, bloated, and hopelessly biased. Even the network’s own internal studies have exposed the bias. In 2007 an official BBC report found that the network was institutionally biased, especially in its treatment of climate change, poverty, race, and religion. In 2003, a BBC reporter falsely accused the Tony Blair government of “sexing up” an intelligence report before the Iraq War.

Even Mark Thompson, the soon-to-retire director general of the BBC, acknowledges the biases of at least the past. In a 2010 interview with the New Statesman, he said that in the BBC he joined in the 1980s, “there was . . . a massive bias to the Left,” although he now insists that “it is a completely different generation.”

#ad#Critics such as Mayor Johnson beg to differ. “I sometimes felt that my chief opponent was the local BBC News,” Johnson says of the reelection campaign he just fought. “The prevailing view of Beeb newsrooms is, with honourable exceptions, statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, [and] Europhile.” He finds it curious that BBC London ignores the 75 percent of London’s economy that is driven by the private sector.

The way to fight this, Johnson claims, is to appoint a Conservative-party supporter to replace Thompson as director general — “and no mucking around.” The new BBC head must be someone who is “free-market [and] pro-business and [who] understands the depths of the problems this country faces,” he insists. “If we can’t change the Beeb, we can’t change the country.”

I understand his frustration, but I worry about his methods. Of course the BBC is biased, but appointing someone to run it based on their political allegiance smacks of how the heads of French, German, Italian, and Austrian television are now chosen. The jobs have tended to go to hacks, and the programming has been unimaginative at best. Putting in a Tory is also unlikely to lead to permanent reforms. As Anne McEvoy of the London Evening Standard has noted, “Follow Boris’s disastrous recipe and when the government eventually changes, the cry would surely be to turf out the chief broadcaster and put in a political clone of the other party.”

There is a better way. Vladimir Bukovsky, the former Soviet dissident who spent a decade in the Gulag before being released in 1976, has fought a long-running battle with the BBC since he settled in Britain. Although it once spoke for the entire nation and had high standards, it now “unfairly competes with private channels and has sunk to juvenile levels in much of its programming,” Bukovsky has observed.

So he has joined the estimated 5 percent of Britons who simply refuse to pay the annual BBC license fee. He is not surprised that he and most other refuseniks haven’t been pursued. “I wanted people to see images of me being handcuffed and dragged into court,” he wistfully told the London Times in 2008. “But instead, the BBC retreated quietly.”

It’s time for the revolt to spread. Charles Moore, the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, has long refused to pay his license fee. He points out that New Zealand had a similar system but successfully scrapped it a decade or so ago with few complaints.

“Any government would find it a political winner to abolish the license fee,” he says. “But the Tories would be terrified of how the BBC would cover them if they actually did it. So we have to have the people revolt and force their hand.”

Such a revolt might have more impact than people think. Times are tough in Britain, and the over $7 billion spent on the BBC could go toward other priorities that are far more popular. Change is indeed possible in an era of rapid technological development. After all, there was a time when no one thought that Dan Rather would ever be forced to leave CBS or that CNN’s ratings would approach those of a test pattern.

 — John Fund is the national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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