No, the BBC is not government-funded, Elon (even if its chairman gives that impression)

No, the BBC is not government-funded, Elon (even if its chairman gives that impression)

Elon Musk was wrong to designate the BBC as ‘government-funded media’, but Richard Sharp is doing it no favours when it comes to perceptions of impartiality.

Not many Americans, even American media executives, have much of a clue about the funding and constitutional structure of the BBC.

Years ago when Americans were sniffing around ITV, thinking of a possible takeover, some asked what share of the TV advertising market was held by the BBC?

It is therefore completely unsurprising that Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and Twitter, should have got the funding of the BBC fundamentally wrong. After all, his ownership of Twitter has been a catalogue of the most egregious errors.

Downright wrong

The latest Musk spat involves the BBC being designated as “government-funded media.”

This is, in the most obvious sense, downright wrong, as the BBC has explained to the great entrepreneur. The BBC is governed by a Royal Charter, which commands the organisation to be independent. Although the Government sets the level of the licence fee and appoints the chairman of the board, the funds come directly from every UK household that owns a television receiving device.

There is a long history of the BBC protecting its editorial independence from overt political interference, from Winston Churchill during the 1926 General Strike to Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War of 1982.

Leaders of the BBC World Service, when in the past it was funded entirely by the Foreign Office, report few if any attempts at political interference in editorial matters other than specifying which languages we’re served and for how many hours.

After initially sticking to his guns, Musk has now decided to U-turn on calling the BBC “government-funded”. Even before this decision was made late last night, he conceded that he follows BBC News on Twitter and considers it among the least biased of news sources.

He even did a surprise interview overnight with the BBC in which he admitted the pain of all the criticism he has faced. He also revealed that Twitter’s workforce now stands at just 1,500 — down from around 8,000 when he acquired the business.

The “government-funded media” leads to a Twitter description that defines outlets it considers to be “state-funded media.” This is where a government “exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures and/or control over production and distribution.”

The UK Government does not exercise control over editorial content through financial resources, although lack of financial resources is a powerful lever over how much editorial content can actually be produced.

Control through direct or indirect political pressures? Certainly many attempts have been made but usually they have been rebuffed — in some cases such as the Real Lives documentary only eventually after initial pressure on the board of Governors seemed to have worked only too well.

Usually the Board of Governors, or whatever the body is called at any particular time, acts as a buffer between the government of the day, and the editorial decision-making process, even when obvious Conservative appointees were in the chair such as Stuart Young or Marmaduke Hussey.

It is difficult to explain such separation of powers to outsiders like Musk, who by the way had no compunction about accepting nearly $2bn from a Saudi Prince when paying an inflated sum to buy Twitter.

Mini-media version of the country’s unwritten constitution

The only justification for such a system is that for most of the Corporation’s 100-year lifespan the untidy structure has muddled through in a very British kind of way.

It is a mini-media version of the country’s unwritten constitution, dependent on a high degree of trust, precedent and the fact that most people involved understand there are lines that should not be crossed without the most significant of justifications.

Alas the last decade has seen such a cosy, benign story we have been happy to tell ourselves come under pressure as never before.

It can be dated quite precisely to the EU referendum that split our country like no other, and if anything it is a split that is deepening and becoming more bitter over time.

The BBC has been rightly criticised for its he said, they said coverage of the referendum campaign and even more since for mainly averting its gaze in reporting the continuing damaging consequences of Brexit.

There is no evidence however that this has been because of Government pressure. The likelihood is that the BBC has shot itself in the foot and applied the fallacy that the people have spoken and therefore we have to get on with Brexit — in a media variant of the myopia of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

In such a divided society it is very difficult to hold on to any stable definition of due impartiality when there are several versions to choose from; a challenge made immeasurably worse by the divisive Premiership of Boris Johnson.

Undermining trust

Into this maelstrom wandered a rather naïve former merchant banker Richard Sharp whose chairmanship makes it ever more difficult to sustain the founding BBC myth of independence from government.

There is little direct evidence, if any, that he has abused his position in office although because of his few public appearances and even fewer interviews it is difficult to know what he has actually done.

It is the manner of his appointment and what he stood for before coming to the BBC that not only undermines trust in his chairmanship and almost by definition undermines trust in the political independence of the BBC.

Anyone vaguely interested in such matters knows that Sharp is a former boss of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and a friend and advisor to former Prime Minister Johnson. The charge sheet also includes £400,000 in donations to the Conservative Party and acting as a go-between in the arrangement of an £800,000 loan to Johnson, just before he was appointed BBC chairman — by Johnson.

Crucially Sharp neglected to mention the £800,000 loan issue when he appeared before the Commons Media Select committee prior to his appointment — matters that are now being investigated.

Snoddy: BBC chairman’s days are numbered

It gets worse. According to the Byline Times, Sharp donated £20,000 on two separate occasions to the Institute For Policy Research which in turn, like Russian dolls, has financially supported two organisations which are notoriously anti-BBC — the Taxpayers “Alliance” and News-Watch, a body not to be confused with the BBC viewer-response programme NewsWatch (which I used to host). The “Alliance”, in particular, has called for the privatisation of the BBC.

Overall, Sharp was a strange sort of cove to bowl up as chairman of the BBC.

Again according to the Byline Times, the Charities Commission is now having a look at whether The Sharp Foundation broke any charity rules in donating money to the IPR.

In the media, as in politics, perceptions are almost as powerful as reality. The perception in the case of Richard Sharp’s chairmanship is that it is damaging the BBC’s already difficult to defend reputation for impartiality.

Sharp should go and on the way out muse on the amazing coincidence that almost everyone who allows themselves to get close to Boris Johnson suffers serious reputational damage as a result.

His departure might also help to persuade Elon Musk that the BBC should not be put in the category of government-funded or state affiliated media.

This article was amended shortly after publication to reflect Twitter’s decision to reverse the “government-funded” tag.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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