BBC’s new director’s plans are being seen as a reaction to a perceived prejudice in these shows against the Conservative Party, Brexit and US President Donald Trump.
The new director-general of BBC, Tim Davie, who took over on 1st September this year, is reported to be planning a crackdown on the broadcaster’s comedy output. According to a report in The Telegraph, Davie is expected to chart out his plans for the broadcaster in the coming weeks, making impartiality a key focus. Quoting senior sources, the Telegraph says the plan involves ‘a radical overhaul’ to tackle the ‘left-wing bias’ in the coming months. It is believed that some programmes could be axed altogether, while others will have to ensure they project a wider range of views on issues such as Brexit and leaders like President Trump.
The broadcaster’s new chief has made a lot of headlines in the last week as he took over the reins. Facing claims that the BBC is too London-centric and anti-Brexit, he warned that staff need to ‘represent every part of this country.’ It is believed that BBC anchors and journalists will be asked to refrain from sharing their political views on social media as well.
Watch: Tim Davie on BBC Comedy | ChorletUK
In his introductory speech to staff as director general, on 3rd Sep, Mr Davie set out plans to restore “trust and confidence” in the BBC by better reflecting all sides of the political divide. Laying down four key priorities in his speech, published online, Davie stressed that the number one priority was “to renew our commitment to impartiality.” He said that impartiality was the corporation’s bedrock and there would be new rules around employees’ use of social media which will be ‘rigorously enforced.’
Davie, however, also clarified, ‘To be clear, this is not about abandoning democratic values such as championing fair debate or an abhorrence of racism. But it is about being free from political bias, guided by the pursuit of truth, not a particular agenda.’
He added, “If you want to be an opinionated columnist, or a partisan campaigner on social media, then that is a valid choice but you should not be working at the BBC.” Since taking over, Davie has also cut down his senior management team “to streamline decision-making and work as one BBC.”
Davie went on to say that he thinks this “moment marks the end of linear expansion for the BBC”, and that he “will not hesitate to close channels if they do not offer value to our audiences.”
BBC’s Bias Against Donald Trump
The BBC has often been accused of a bias against the right. Recently, the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) gave a ruling on a complaint against BBC journalist Nick Bryant, the BBC’s New York Correspondent. Bryant had written an article titled “Coronavirus: What this crisis reveals about US – and its president”. Acting on a complaint by a reader that the article reflected a bias against President Trump, the ECU noted that the journalist had used his knowledge and experience to provide informed and considered analysis and “sought to support his assessment of President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis with evidence”.
However, the committee accepted that there were issues with the “approach and tone” of the item at certain points. The ECU noted the language–which included phrases like “ridiculous boasts”, “mind-bending truth twisting”–“was closer to the language of personal views than that of professional judgement and, in terms of impartiality, was not offset by the limited, and relatively restrained, criticism of the Democrats, Joe Biden and Congress.”
Watch: Justin Webb on Impartiality, BBC bias and Trump | The Update
In the ECU’s judgement, “the article could have been brought into alignment with the BBC’s editorial standards without a great deal of alteration, as would normally have happened as a result of the process of editorial oversight applied to such pieces. As it stood, however, and whether or not Mr Bryant was in fact expressing a personal view of President Trump, some of his observations were couched in terms which might well have led readers to conclude that he was, resulting in a departure from the BBC’s standards of impartiality.”
In the past too, some of the BBCs comedy shows such as BBC1’s Have I Got News For You, Radio 4’s News Quiz and The Mash Report on BBC2 have been accused of poking more fun at right-wing political figures and issues as opposed to those on the Left. According to an analysis by the Telegraph —Boris Johnson, Brexit and US President Donald Trump appeared high up on the scale of jokes, much more so than Labor, its leader Sir Keir Starmer, and Mr Trump’s rival Joe Biden. Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week have also attracted complaints about perceived bias against Trump.
It appears that BBC programme creators will be asked to balance their jokes rather than constantly poking fun at right wing figures.
Conservative MPs welcomed Davie’s initiative to make BBC comedy more balanced and inclusive of right wing views. Tory MP Ben Bradley said: “I’d like to see more right-leaning comedians given a chance rather than being effectively blacklisted for their views.” He said, “Tim Davie appears to be talking a good game on sorting bias at the BBC, but whether it’ll lead to real change, time will tell.”
Bringing Back Andrew Neil—the ‘Scourge of the Woke Brigade’
In another move, seen as a step towards establishing BBCs reputation of impartiality, Davie spent the second day as Director-General trying to engage with former BBC host Andrew Neil. Neil, often accused of being pro-Brexit, has been one of the most vociferous critics of BBC comedy output. In 2018, the anchor called out The Mash Report, BBC Two’s satirical late-night show, as “self-satisfied, self adulatory, unchallenged Left-wing propaganda.”
In a tweet Neil wrote: “When it comes to so-called comedy the BBC has long given up on balance, on radio and TV. I’d just like comedy. Which is in really short supply. On TV and radio.”
The Andrew Neil Show was taken off air earlier in the year following the pandemic to much chagrin amongst conservative supporters. Labelled as ‘scourge of the woke brigade’ by The Telegraph Neil’s proposed return is being seen as a move to balance the BBC’s so-called left bias. The move is being welcomed in pro-Brexit circles.
For Tim Davie, “The vision is crystal clear: a BBC that is utterly obsessed by its audience, focussed on what it does uniquely, and indispensable to modern Britain. Utterly impartial and alive with programming ideas.”
Whether Tim Davie, through his reforms in BBC is able to re-establish its reputation as a trustworthy and balanced source of global news remains to be seen.