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Alastair Campbell: The BBC should do its job

Thursday 28 January 2021

The government has presided over a national disaster – but you wouldn’t know it from watching the news


The UK has the single highest Covid death rate of any country in the world, but, even after a day’s “grim milestone” coverage, you would be hard pressed to know it if you have been relying on the BBC for news.

Nor, 100,000-plus deaths behind us, are you likely to hear too many suggestions that the sort of “world-beating” record that nobody wants is too closely related to government decisions taken over the course of the past year.

Instead, viewers of the main BBC news bulletins are all too often served a mix of what amount to public information films about the need for vigilance, genuinely moving interviews with tearful staff and patients in hospitals, and then “uplifting” items about the success of the vaccination programme. Often the lead story is a promise or prediction from Boris Johnson, without any mention of previous promises broken and predictions unmet. 

And though there was an emotional power to some of the TV and radio tributes to the dead as we passed that “grim milestone”, it was heavy on lighting candles, and light on analysis of how we got here.

BBC timidity on the true story of the pandemic was even more striking in the days running up to Joe Biden’s inauguration, when we had Jon Sopel telling us how failure on Covid was one of the reasons why Donald Trump lost power, and that part of his lasting legacy is the awful US Covid death toll that Joe Biden is promising to cut. But that death toll is, per head of population, lower than that of the UK. By the measures used for the BBC’s US political analysis, Trump has done a better job than Boris Johnson. So too the leaders of India, Mexico and Brazil which our media continually present as pandemic basket cases.

I say all this as someone who, for all the scar tissue from my fights with the media over the decades, does like and respect the BBC. I admire much of its output and many of its journalists. There was an excellent Panorama earlier in the crisis. Outside Source on the News Channel does some detailed, hard-headed analysis. 

But they are exceptions, and in any event the media outcry should be louder in this the third, delayed lockdown – because ministers no longer have the excuse of not knowing the consequences of their decisions and indecisions. Besides, it’s not just me who has noticed the problem. If I have missed the incisive, inquisitive bulletins, so have a lot of you.

If Tony Blair or Gordon Brown were still prime minister in the current circumstances, I have to believe – from experience – that their Labour governments would be getting ripped to shreds by the media onslaught. Just imagine it. Every death laid at the door of Downing Street. Grieving families being encouraged to speak out. The fiscal interventions denounced as the worst form of socialist overspending. The endless cock-ups and sheer incompetence weaponised to say Labour can never again be trusted with the health of the nation.

It would not have begun with the BBC, yet attacks by the Tories and the right-wing papers would have been picked up with gusto because the Corporation always feels the need to overcompensate in the face of routine accusations of liberal bias.

One of the many myths the right successfully peddled about New Labour was that we somehow had the media eating out of our hands. My God, I cannot imagine what it must be like to have the supine coverage that has emerged after this government’s failings on both Covid and Brexit.

I think back to the “scandal” of former Labour aide Derek Draper boasting of knowing all the key people in the New Labour government, and being able to get access to them. The media went on about it for weeks. He even got his own “-gate” suffix. As Derek Draper lies in hospital with Covid, as he has done since last March, this government has seen off scandals far more real, far more serious, with barely a “-gate” to mention.

Yet we can categorise them without the media’s help. Let’s start with just the Robert Jenrick scandals. Jenrick and Richard Desmond. Jenrick and the extra money for his constituency. Jenrick and his rule-breaking to flit between his homes.

Then the Jacob Rees-Mogg folder. Rees-Mogg and his rule-breaking to go to church. Rees-Mogg shipping his millions to Ireland. Rees-Mogg shutting down the Brexit scrutiny committee. 

We can go on. Priti Patel’s bullying and Johnson’s decision to junk the code on ministerial standards. Matt Hancock’s mate down the pub getting a big Covid contract. The Tory- and Leave-donating firms with no experience relevant to the crisis landing multi-million pound contracts, often for work never done. Dido Harding and the billions spaffed on test and trace. Leak inquiries that lead the news when they are announced, never to be followed up again. Johnson stuffing the House of Lords with relatives, donors and cronies, including in defiance of the independent commission on appointments. Jennifer Arcuri. The many loose ends arising from Dominic Cummings’ time in Number 10. Johnson’s Caribbean holiday, and its funder. The ignored Sage advice. The missed Cobra meetings. Hand-shaking. Cheltenham. Three late lockdowns. Tearing up an international treaty. Schools fiasco. Exams fiasco. School meals fiasco. Christmas farce. Care home infection.

In fact, we could go on and on and on. The point is that the media is not – they’re leaving so many unanswered questions behind.

It’s not just the BBC that seems cowed by this Conservative government – although, as our main public service broadcaster, they matter most – but most of the media and much of the Labour Party do too. There are a few honourable exceptions to this, including some good investigations by the papers earlier in the crisis, and Tortoise with its own excellent inquiry into the pandemic. But it says something about the state of our country’s media that it took the New York Times to expose fully the waste, negligence and cronyism that has seen so many Covid contracts being handed out to Tory donors and chums of key figures in government, and that so few in our media – here where the story is happening – seemed to care. 

On Labour, Keir Starmer has, overall, made a more-than-solid start as Labour leader. But it is harder for an impartial BBC to play a role in holding the government to account if the main party of opposition at times seems to be pulling its punches on such matters of life and death. Britain is being governed by the most dishonest, dissolute, corrupt and incompetent British government of our lifetime – MPs need to do far more to call it out. Of course, people do not want to see petty squabbling. But they want, and deserve, to see feet held to the fire, corruption exposed and punished, incompetence rooted out through change in personnel.

The entire Dutch Cabinet resigned recently, over a scandal that would not even register on the moral compass of the current political-media ecosystem. If Jenrick, Patel or Gavin Williamson were Dutch, they’d have resigned several times over by now.

Yes, Covid is stretching governments across the world and it is unfair to blame this one for every problem. I’ll give them credit when they get things right, like working with local authorities and health providers to roll out vaccinations, rather than outsourcing them to Serco as they might have done a few months ago.

But, for some time now, daily death tolls in four figures are dealt with in a line or two. And the economic calamity of Covid for which the government cannot be entirely blamed, but which is exacerbated by mismanagement, cronyism and incompetence for which they most certainly can, rarely comes under the spotlight of hard questioning.

So whether it is on Johnson’s multiple and lethal mistakes on Covid, the self-mutilation he is inflicting on our economy with his Brexit, or his endless lying – the fishing and music industries are but the latest in a long line of victims – both the opposition and the media need to stir themselves. Fast.

Last Wednesday, there was a story running second on the BBC’s early morning bulletins about Theresa May denouncing Johnson for “abandoning Britain’s moral leadership”.  I thought it would be pretty big news on any day. By 9am – although some outlet, somewhere, will probably claim that they were still running the story – it had disappeared entirely from the bulletins I heard. Later, there was no trace of it even on the main page of the BBC News website. There was, however, a prominent story about the “BBC facing financial risk over licence fee income”. Now, there’s a broadcaster that knows its priorities.

The Tory right has long had the BBC in its sights, and the fears aroused over threats to BBC funding and the licence fee are unlikely to have been lowered by the appointment of a banker friend of Chancellor Rishi Sunak as chairman. It may be that a little too much self-censorship is going on as a result. If so, it needs to stop.

I have had my battles with the BBC over the years, but I recognise that, at its best, it is one of the guardrails of our democracy, and one of our most important soft power assets. In its effort to survive this government, it must not forget why it exists, or play into the hands of those who would seek to defund and destroy it, in favour of an American model that has done so much damage over there.