Ignore the BBC bashers: the Corporation has had a good, old-fashioned election

It’s taken grief from all sides, just as it should. But not only has the national broadcaster learned a few new tricks, above all it has proven the value of a well-prepared interview

December 12, 2019
It is fair to criticise the BBC—but overall, they have had an undeniably strong election. Photo: PA
It is fair to criticise the BBC—but overall, they have had an undeniably strong election. Photo: PA

Who would have thought it? The big media story of the election revolved around a 70-year-old white male BBC interviewer presiding over the most traditional of formats—the extended one-on-one interview with a party leader in prime-time on BBC1. All very retro.

For all the pre-match hype about killer moments in TV debates, it was an abrasive, well-qualified interviewer brimming with a lot of facts, figures and research that drove fear into the party media managers.

Their assessment was right. The hoopla around the debates derives from American political experience; we have a much shorter history of them, and they are yet to produce any real drama. The BBC’s Nick Robinson and ITV’s Julie Etchingham chaired them admirably, but they were mildly diverting moments compared to what Andrew Neil was about—and indeed Andrew Marr gave the leaders a punchy testing.

The BBC had every reason to believe the Prime Minister would ‘do’ Neil along with the others, but there was no nailed down arrangement by the time Jeremy Corbyn came on and fumbled his way through the experience—with big and bad knock-on effects for him and Labour.

The Neil monologue—reciting to the audience the questions he would have asked Johnson, plus the wide shot of the studio with an empty chair—has now been seen 5 million-plus times on social media platforms and was palpably justified by the context. OFCOM, if called upon to judge, will not give the matter more than a second of its time.

Some things have changed, however. At last, the BBC has begun to insert its fact-checking capability properly into at least some mainstream programmes. An hour or so after a politician has circumnavigated the evidence, or ignored it, there is a temperately expressed corrective—but, of course, the politician has then escaped the studio and, probably, the consequences. The BBC's own fact-checking operation Reality Check isn’t quite the same as stopping an interviewee dead in their tracks until the dodgy statistic has been sawn to pieces, but that is easier said than done when an interview often has so much ground to cover.

This BBC election campaign this time was shorn of Humphrys as well as Paxman. Those two did many valuable things in a previous era but the BBC has flourished without them. I heard many good interviews in different styles, with what I thought was a tougher, but not ruder, edge than in recent elections. It might be that the willingness of the American mainstream media to call Trump a liar has been refracted back here—although if you use the word “lie” for every variation of a politician ducking and weaving the word would lose its force.

It might also be that what was taken to be the public mood—of even greater than normal exasperation and contempt for the political class—emboldened broadcasters to be more persistently assertive about some of the nonsense. The Conservatives’ absurd fiddling with some Keir Starmer footage early in proceedings, and the risible subsequent defence, was a case in point.

The BBC’s short constituency-based pieces around the country, as per usual, did not work. Little context, no data, and far too many nano vox pops. I have argued before that vox pops need to be longer and more intelligent. If the BBC can’t do them properly, they should think of not doing them at all.

Laura Kuenssberg, as Political Editor, was the spearhead of the daily reporting and analysis, and she has been superb.  The job requires her to make almost instant judgments about stories which are often freighted with nuance and complexity but still need to be distilled into something accurate and authoritative for many millions. The Twitter abuse against her—a minority phenomenon—is not only wrong, but it is also shameful.

During the course of the campaign, Labour complained about BBC lack of impartiality and the Prime Minister tried to sound threatening about the future of the licence fee. So the BBC still matters—as do other serious broadcasters. But the Prime Minister was suggesting, with not much subtlety, that a BBC that was smaller, because no longer a universal service,  would be a very reasonable development. The current licence fee settlement lasts until 2027 so it’s not easy to see how he can do rapid damage, but there’s a mid-term review of BBC governance in 2022 and you would wager that if he had the chance he would go on the attack.

The irritated public in our disgruntled United Kingdom still tells the pollsters that they trust the broadcasters more than the debris that floats on social media platforms—and by orders of magnitude. They are right.