Can the scandal-hit BBC endure another 15 months?

Can the scandal-hit BBC endure another 15 months?

The BBC is encumbered by scandals over Israel-Gaza war coverage and scathing criticism from Conservatives.

In the era of huge stories, small but subtle developments can go unnoticed unless you are paying real attention.

There is only one thing to say about the media coverage of the war in Gaza, and that is the remarkable courage of the men, and particularly the many women, standing in front of the cameras as full-scale hostilities break around them in the Gaza Strip and nearby.

Are there words enough to praise the Al-Jazeera journalist Wael al-Dahdouh who has continued broadcasting from Gaza even though he lost his wife, children and grandchild in an attack on the Nuseirat camp?

Meanwhile, the Covid inquiry is building up a head of stream which is exposing the long-suspected multi-faceted inadequacy of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Sun, to its credit, managed an unambiguous “Boris Blasted” story quoting Cabinet Secretary Simon Case complaining that Johnson “cannot lead.”

Naturally the Daily Mail had its own take on the proceedings, emphasising Case blasting weak ministers in the Cabinet, Matt Hancock, Sir Gavin Williamson and, last but hardly least, Boris Johnson.

Nothing quite like trying to spread the blame around, just about within the facts of the case apparently to protect their enduring hero, Johnson.

This huge story will rise to a crescendo with the appearance of the man himself before the inquiry later this month.

Probably honourable, if counter-productive

Away from the thunder of the guns and the flock of Covid chickens coming home to roost, a BBC leitmotif has been running, involving relations with the Government, impartiality and the handling of complaints. It has also, inevitably, spread out to complaints about BBC coverage of the violence in Israel and Gaza and the terminology used.

The present little spat in the never-ending battle between the BBC and the Government came to a head last week when director-general Tim Davie attended a meeting of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee. This is the Committee whose main role these days is to sack Conservative Prime Ministers, but they have also always had a keen interest in broadcasting.

Unlike a multi-party Commons Select Committee, Davie did not actually have to attend. Some may think it was a foolhardy thing to do with no chance of winning before such a singular audience at a time of world crisis.

He must have known from BBC history that when controversial predecessor Alasdair Milne appeared before the Committee during the Falklands War the event ended up a shouting match.

The BBC line that the meeting was merely part of the BBC’s continuing willingness to engage with Parliamentarians across the political spectrum is probably honourable — if counter-productive.

So it was that Davie ran into to headwinds, not least from Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, whose wife is Jewish.

Jenrick said he had never been more disappointed in the BBC and he was worried that it had lost the confidence not just of many people but also the Jewish community.

Uncritical coverage

The issue, of course, was the BBC’s refusal to describe Hamas as terrorists, instead preferring the weak, inadequate and po-faced term “militants.”

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar went on the attack by criticising a BBC report which “cited uncritically that Israel had struck the Al-Ahli hospital.”

A BBC reporter did express the opinion at the time that because of the scale of the damage it was more likely than not that the attack had come from Israel.

The BBC has apologised for that, although coverage of the attack on the hospital will become a case study in journalism schools around the world, as many news outlets repeated, uncritically, Hamas’ claims that at least 471 had died in an Israeli attack.

It now looks as if the number of dead was much fewer and the cause more likely to have been a malfunctioning Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.

Davie stood firm on Hamas descriptions and claimed that nobody had banned the word terrorist, although it appears that what Davie means is that the BBC can quote other organisations calling Hamas a terrorist organisation but cannot actually apply the definition itself.

There has at least been some progress. The dreadful cop-out word “militant” has belatedly been binned and the BBC approach is now to describe Hamas as a designated terrorist organisation followed by using the term Hamas to describe individual actions.

Against the background of the Middle East crisis, endless debates about the meaning of impartiality, or due impartiality as cognoscenti have it, continue to rubble on.

There were reports that Tim Davie is being advised on impartiality by none other than Sir Robbie Gibb, BBC board member and Theresa May’s Number 10 communications director.

You can be sure that Sir Robbie, described by Emily Maitlis as “an active Tory Party agent” in the BBC, will have his own particular feel for impartiality.

Play the long game

The latest development in the structural organisation of the BBC and its relations with the outside world is for Davie to take charge of the complaints procedures of the BBC.

At the moment, Peter Johnson, director of BBC’s editorial complaints and reviews, reports to the phlegmatic David Jordan, director of editorial policy.

Jordan, a former Panorama producer, has seen it all in terms of BBC scandals and has watched them come in waves and then subside.

Davie taking control of complaints, when he has no journalistic experience whatsoever, looks like a pointless gesture and a small surrender under political pressure.

More trouble could be on the way for the BBC. The Government has promised to publish its mid-term review into the BBC’s 10-year Charter within weeks. Although Nadine Dorries is mercifully a fading memory, that does not exclude the potential for pandemonium.

Yet the BBC may be missing the biggest and most obvious trick of all.

Channel 4 decided to play its opposition to privatisation long, and it worked spectacularly well.

If the opinion polls have not taken leave of their senses, the BBC only has to endure another 15 months before the arrival of a much less hostile Government.

A Labour Government may not be able to send much new money in the direction of the Corporation, but at least it will be a government that is not ideologically opposed to the very existence of a national public service broadcaster funded by a universal licence fee.

And as for impartiality, new bold definitions are on the way when disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson rolls up at GB News.

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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