Not for the first time during this extraordinary election does the world feel like the bottom of the rabbit hole, where Alice, with a “bumped head and bruised soul”, says: “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
In just a fortnight, the Conservative party rebranded its press office Twitter account into a seemingly neutral fact-checking service; edited BBC footage for a Facebook advert in a move that was called a “completely unacceptable” distortion of the broadcaster’s output; and threatened to “review” Channel 4’s broadcasting licence for its “provocative partisan stunt” replacing the prime minister with an ice sculpture during its climate debate.
Then, not long after the sculpture melted, the BBC pulled off its own provocative partisan stunt by giving Boris Johnson a platform to make political capital out of the dead.
To add insult to injury, inviting Johnson on to the Marr Show to discuss the London Bridge horror, even though he had refused to sit across from Andrew Neil, was “in the public interest”, according to a pompous BBC statement.
That interest was hardly served by Johnson filibustering his way out of any answers as though he were a poor contestant on just A Minute. Marr tried his best but even describing Johnson’s refusal to stop talking over him or answering the questions as “chuntering”, rather than “lying”, felt wrong.
No journalist likes to refuse an interview but there was a good reason for the BBC to refuse to play into Johnson’s hands.
Several cock-ups at the BBC have already prompted an alarming number of online conspiracy theories and staff morale is low among those working on the election. Most notably, the broadcasting of Neil’s grilling of Jeremy Corbyn – before a deal with Johnson was agreed – was not only blundering but craven, too.
It seems like a good time to ask how this country – with a public service broadcaster that has long been the envy of the world – has been brought so low by bullying and gaslighting tactics straight from the Trumpian rulebook. Old games, such as playing off the media by demanding control for access, and snubbing those who don’t play the game, now come with an added frisson of a political tendency to favour online polls and playing to social media, rather than a proper grilling by a journalist.
In this environment no amount of old-style BBC excuses, from highlighting individual victories such as Reality Check to the bigger picture (“there’s so much content mistakes will happen”) helps. The BBC also needs to learn that when you’re on the ropes, it is wise to avoid smacking your own face.
Even before this weekend it was a mistake to edit out the laughter that greeted Johnson’s answer in the Question Time election debate and the BBC took too long to admit it. Forced to trot around the campaign trail to avoid being denied fuller access, the BBC should have thought twice before sharing Boris Johnson’s jam-before-cream scone habit. There have been other errors, foolish retweets and overly chummy interviews, all of which are seized on by social media.
As for the Neil cock-up, one former and still supportive BBC news executive told me he could hardly believe that both interviews had not been put “in the can” ahead of transmission. It is too easy to see the Corbyn interview in which Neil pressed him again and again on antisemitism and spending as a bit of a stitch-up by the BBC, especially as there is now unlikely to be a Johnson version.
While #BBCimpartiality started trending on Twitter, the Corbyn-supporting website the Canary said it was “time to stop paying the licence fee”. BBC insiders call the hardball process being played by the Conservatives “worrying”, “frustrating” and “demoralising”. One talked of bullying emails copied to senior executives as well as programme producers from the Tory campaign team. With just two weeks to go, one said the “government has all the cards in their hands”.
Outside the circus of politicians, journalists and producers, the effect of all this is corroding public trust. According to Ipso, just 26% of those surveyed trust journalists to tell the truth. Mind you, politicians rank even lower at 14%. The BBC also consistently tops the polls for most trusted news source, but, as we know, polls don’t tell the whole story. The numbers paying for its licence fee are falling, largely because of the digital-only young but also because of refuseniks who are less and less minded to trust and respect it.
Channel 4 had been on the government’s blacklist long before Thursday night’s extraordinary scenes, when Michael Gove attempted to force his way into a leadership debate and brought his own camera crew to record the incident. A speech by its news chief Dorothy Byrne was well received by all but the government, whose minders have more or less refused the channel access.
For evidence of this antagonism, just watch Michael Gove ignore a Channel 4 journalist’s attempt to ask questions and, instead, accuse him of launching a “rigorous leftwing case for a particular point of view”. He ended with a chilling appeal to the public: “They know that’s what you do.”
The interview may be used on college courses as the moment the definition of truth lost all meaning.
The threat towards the state-owned commercially-funded broadcaster’s licence came as no surprise. An earlier culture secretary, John Whittingdale, argued in the Cameron years that selling off the broadcaster was the best way to secure its financial future, a future now even more uncertain given the difficult advertising market. Is it really such a stretch to see the BBC scared of annoying a possible government keen to make it suffer over the cost of free licence fees for over-75s for a start?
Ben de Pear, editor of Channel 4 News, told Tory party chairman James Cleverly via Twitter to “stop behaving like Donald Trump” and “stop playing games”. “Don’t refuse to participate and then threaten our licence, it’s a slippery slope,” he added.
Down the slope has already gone the sense that questions from journalists can be the best way to hold the powerful to account. So instead of a grilling from a seasoned broadcaster such as Emily Maitlis, we have a series of questions from the public, as seen in at least two of the BBC’s leader debates.
I talked to Whittingdale last week who, as Margaret Thatcher’s political secretary, spent hours preparing her for a grilling by ITV’s “interrogator-in-chief” Brian Walden.
“A succession of questions from the audience is not nearly as tough as someone who is grilling you, like a Walden or a Neil!” he said.
Yet the BBC continues to trumpet the success of its Question Time format as though the only way to speak up for the people is to just hand over the mic.
Of course, no broadcaster can kidnap a politician and make them speak. There needs to be an understanding that being held to account is part of the job.
Walden is now dead, of course, and the understanding has gone with him.