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Jane Martinson: The BBC is being dragged back into 2016

Tuesday 12 January 2021

A new rival and a new Brexit-supporting chair could force the Beeb into a culture war it shouldn’t need to fight

On the same day, last week, that BBC news bulletins were dominated by an out-of-control virus and a Trump-supporting mob, there were two announcements likely to have a profound impact on the BBC itself and the way the media covers Britain and its place in the world.

On Wednesday, former banker Richard Sharp was announced as the government’s preferred candidate to chair the BBC, the same day that TV and online channel GB News revealed that it now had the money to launch a rival service. The common theme is that both Sharp and the main backers of GB News, the new media group fronted by former BBC presenter Andrew Neil, have long supported Britain’s departure from the EU. As such, they are the manifestation of the government’s ambitions for, as they see it, a long overdue rebalancing of a media dominated by a pro-European liberal elite.  

The joint arrival of a new chair and a new rival comes as the BBC faces two existential challenges, squeezed between a hostile government and generally declining audience numbers among the young and disgruntled (before the pandemic, the number of 16-to-24 year-olds using the BBC dropped below 50 per cent for the first time ever). The situation could barely be more fraught with risk for them or for our media landscape. At stake is the notion of impartiality, which is either key to the BBC’s independence and therefore the continued excellence of British broadcasting, or code for unconscious bias, depending on your viewpoint. 

From his first days in office, Boris Johnson and his team have put the BBC on notice about the perceived “liberal metropolitan” bias of its coverage and the future of its funding. It is easy enough to see signs of the early Donald Trump playbook in this, but Johnson is also aiming to ape a predecessor he credits with taking back control of the national conversation. Tony Blair did this by appointing heads of key cultural institutions, and there are lots of signs that Johnson wants to put his men (and they have all largely been men so far) to do the same.

Witness the language used by culture secretary Oliver Dowden in announcing the government’s favoured candidate. Sharp, he said, “will drive forward reforms to the BBC to ensure it impartially reflects and serves the needs of all parts of the UK”. The government is also said to be considering the appointment of Sir Robbie Gibb, the Brexit-supporting former BBC journalist turned BBC critic, to the BBC board.

Similarly, Neil and GB News have made no secret of their opinion that most of the UK broadcast media is unremittingly “soft left”. In its release last week, GB News stated that its new service will be “more representative of the values and concerns… of the British people”. It promised to tackle “issues people care about…particularly in communities outside London”.

This care for the concerns of those outside the M25 extends all the way to Dubai, where Legatum, the co-lead investor in GB News, is based. The company’s New Zealand-born billionaire founder, Christopher Chandler, caused controversy a few years ago when he applied for a Maltese passport. After US media group Discovery, the other main backer is Sir Paul Marshall, a committed Liberal Democrat until he left the party in 2015 over its opposition to Brexit. 

It is yet to be seen how GB News will fulfil the impartiality requirements demanded of holders of the UK’s TV licences. A sort of LBC News of the screen is the most obvious option, with a slate of opinionated presenters, including Neil, offering views from across the political spectrum. With £60m in funding, the competition from GB News is expected to be healthy but not overly threatening in terms of market share. The BBC, with licence fee revenues of almost £4bn is watched and listened to by more than 90 per cent of the population.

What Neil’s new venture can do, however, is not only try to set the agenda but do so by offering a more conducive outlet for politicians furious at what they consider the BBC’s “wokeness”. Some, including the prime minister, despaired at the recent, televised New Year’s Eve event for celebrating Black Lives Matter and the environment but not the historic – and, in their minds, glorious – departure from the EU.

The sort of media control the Conservative party attempted to exert for months around the last general election, by refusing to put ministers on Radio 4’s Today programme, could be strengthened by using GB News in the same way Trump used Fox, affording “favoured nation” status to a broadcaster and expecting social media to disseminate above and beyond any audience share it might have. (If this is the case for the BBC, pity poor Channel 4 News, which has been snubbed by ministers ever since its former head of news called Boris Johnson a “liar” 18 months ago.)

Even so, the impact of GB News could be less effective than that of Richard Sharp, the incoming chairman of the BBC if the parliamentary hearings go as expected this week. Will the appointment of a Brexit-supporting major Tory donor act as a Trojan horse to batter the BBC? It depends whether Sharp, who made a fortune in a long career at Goldman Sachs, will use his close relationship with the occupants of both Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street to support or snooker the corporation. 

Tim Davie, who took over as director-general of the BBC towards the end of last year, has already made moves to decommission any ammunition the government might use against it, using his maiden speech to clamp down on staff use of social media, for example, and indicating that he wants a more even balance of political views in BBC comedy.

BBC executives also welcomed the appointment of the relatively unknown financier largely because he seemed less scary than Boris Johnson’s first choice for the job: Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, who also happens to be a licence fee refusenik. By contrast, few seem to have any idea what Sharp thinks of the compulsory charge. 

Even the journalist and former newspaper editor Dominic Lawson claims to have no idea – and he is one of Sharp’s oldest and closest friends, having met him at Oxford in the late 1970s. “It would be a big mistake to make out that he is a right-wing ideologue, because he really isn’t,” Lawson tells me.

So who is Sharp? He may despise the EU for its burdensome regulation, but his outlook is also strongly internationalist. He is Jewish, pro-Israel, and spent part of his childhood in the US while his father ran Monsanto. Eric Sharp then became Baron Sharp of Grimsyke after privatising Cable & Wireless in the 1980s. 

The younger Sharp is also used to doing business in China: he was chair of Huntsworth, the PR group run by Lord Chadlington, when Chinese PR group BlueFocus took a 20 per cent stake. He had a Chinese partner after his first divorce.

Nevertheless, Sharp’s Conservative credentials are immaculate – and not just because of the £400,000-plus he has given to the party over the past two decades. He was an unpaid advisor to chancellor Rishi Sunak last year, and a member of Boris Johnson’s economic advisory council in City Hall. He still sits on the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank founded by Thatcher in the 1970s.

Those close to the prime minister see the appointment of Sharp and the licensing of a new rival as necessary for rebalancing a media that is hopelessly biased towards the left. Nervousness about upsetting the government ahead of licence fee negotiations this year cannot help but induce a sense of paranoia among senior BBC executives in the coming months.

While this game of realpolitik is playing out, possibly greater damage is being done by young viewers increasingly deserting traditional broadcasters for social media channels run by US and Chinese technology groups. More young people subscribe to Disney+ than use BBC iPlayer. This is the battle that will really affect the BBC’s future and yet, forced to keep a wary eye on a new chairman as it goes into battle for its own funding yet again, the BBC is stuck fighting the fight of 2016.