A Labour government should rise above meddling with the BBC

The hapless culture secretary Lucy Frazer has made baseless claims of bias against the broadcaster. Keir Starmer must resist the temptation to go for the same approach

January 27, 2024
Lucy Frazer. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Lucy Frazer. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Have some pity for Lucy Frazer KC, the hapless culture secretary, as she toured the studios this week to try and persuade the great British public that the BBC is biased. At the back of her mind, she must know the stats.

I don’t mean the stats about bias at the BBC—it quickly became apparent she couldn’t even define bias, let alone quantify it. No, I mean the actuarial odds of her being in her job for much longer. She’s the 11th secretary of state for culture, media and sport in 10 years. So, an average of just under 11 months. You’re more secure managing a Premier League club.

Maybe that explains why Sky TV’s Kay Burley managed to tie Lucy up in knots as she struggled to come up with any evidence of the BBC failing to be impartial. She eventually said it was a “perception”—and it was left to Burley, who, when I last looked, was not a king’s counsel, to point out that “perception” and “evidence” are not the same thing. 

But I’m rather hoping that Frazer had time to read a piece published by Prospect magazine this week, which showed real evidence that there is a problem with impartiality at the BBC—though not the problem she’s worrying about.

Oh, ok, I wrote the piece, but bear with me. 

Older readers may remember the story from last November when another former culture secretary, Nadine Dorries (she lasted 11 months), revealed that a BBC director, Sir Robbie Gibb, had conspired with two Number 10 aides to fix who became the chair of the BBC’s regulator, Ofcom. 

No one’s denied that story, so I think we can take it that it’s true. Which raised the question of why the BBC decided it was best to cover up for Sir Robbie rather than ‘fess up to what he’d been up to. So I asked more questions.

It turned out that Gibb—a highly partisan figure, as he’d be the first to admit—was put up for the role by his friend, a Number 10 fixer named Dougie Smith. Smith is habitually referred to as “shadowy”—partly because he’s not listed as working at No 10 and no one is keen to answer any questions about him. He’s truly unaccountable.

There’s a further mystery about Gibb. He is named as the sole owner of the Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s leading newspaper for the Jewish community. Who put up the cash in controversial circumstances is unknown. The Jewish Chronicle has expressed a loathing for the BBC’s coverage of Israel. Yet Gibb sits on the critical BBC committee which will eventually adjudicate any reviews of the coverage of Israel-Gaza, representing a clear conflict of interest. 

Gibb says he leaves his politics (“a proper Thatcherite Conservative”) at the door. But he intervened to try and stop the appointment of a news executive on the grounds that it would upset the government. She, tilting to the left, was deemed unable to perform the politics-cleansing tasks that Sir Robbie, tilting to the right, is supposedly so good at. 

You get the picture? An organisation we pride on being independent of government is quietly being captured by the government. More than that, they made determined attempts to get the “right” sort of person to run the media regulator in order better to control the BBC—and, some would say, give a free run to Fox News-style alternatives. 

What, I wonder, is the Labour Party making of all this? An understandable response—assuming they win office later in the year—would be to play the Tories at their own game. They have the right to appoint more than a third of the BBC board. In time, the chairs of Ofcom and the BBC itself will come up for reappointment. So why not employ a shadowy fixer of their own to get their own cronies in place—and then begin to redefine “impartiality” to suit their own view of the world? Alastair Campbell for BBC chair, anyone?

I can’t imagine the right being as quiet as the left has been if Labour embarked on such a project. They would, in short, scream blue murder. And it would be profoundly destructive of the BBC for it to be at the mercy of polarised political game-playing. Just look at what’s happening in Poland at the moment, as one party has tried to turf out the executives installed by the previous lot. 

One of the most respected former culture secretaries was the late Tessa Jowell—back in the days when you could have a six-year run at the job. Ten years ago she suggested that the BBC should become Britain’s largest mutual company, so that we all owned it. 

It’s not the worst idea, as we contemplate a dust-up in 2026 over the renewal of the current royal charter and right-wing think tanks start to agitate to replace a universal levy with some form of subscription service.

At the moment, the government can turn the BBC’s income streams on or off with barely any public debate. It can slide its own people onto the board or the regulator. It can bully and harass at will. Speak to senior insiders, as I have done over the past month, and they’ll tell you that it’s working. It’s an organisation, a former senior executive told me, “in permanent cringe.”

I very much hope Labour won’t go in for such tit-for-tat. That they consider a bold vision like Jowell’s to place the ownership of the BBC beyond government control. That they establish genuinely independent mechanisms for settling questions of funding and appointments. And that Lucy Frazer can get her head around the difference between perception and evidence before she returns to a flourishing career at the Bar.