In July , BBC Music Magazine carried a column suggesting some punchy ideas for reforming the Proms, given the unique circumstances presented by coronavirus. ‘With massed choirs and a packed flag-waving audience ruled out on medical grounds,’ Richard Morrison wrote, ‘there will never be a better moment to drop that toe-curlingly embarrassing anachronistic farrago of nationalistic songs that concludes the Last Night of the Proms.’ He was referring to ‘Rule Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. The Daily Mail dutifully lost its rag the next day, helpfully pointing out that Morrison had studied at Cambridge, and reporting the reaction of the leading men’s rights activist Philip Davies MP, who declared the article evidence of the ‘extremist, virtue-signalling … metropolitan left-wing politically correct drivel which is so prevalent at the BBC’. The day after, the Daily Express ran a poll to find out whether its readers wanted the songs to be ‘banned’, which to nobody’s surprise discovered that 96 per cent did not. And that was that – or at least for the next six weeks.
But on 23 August the Sunday Times hit on further treasure. This time, the offending view allegedly belonged to Dalia Stasevska, the Finnish conductor of this year’s Last Night. ‘Dalia is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter,’ a ‘BBC source’ told the paper, ‘and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change.’ The fuse was now successfully lit, and the British media spent the following week showcasing a series of increasingly outraged opinions in defence of ‘Rule Britannia!’ and against the BBC, escalating via Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, and up to the prime minister.
The volume of headlines and op-eds railing against the corporation’s ‘woke’ agenda seemed to grow with each passing day. While Nigel Farage called for the BBC to be scrapped altogether, others focused mostly on the licence fee, which the Johnson administration had first taken aim at immediately after last year’s general election. Stasevska explained that, as a mere conductor, she had no responsibility for the Proms programme, but her point couldn’t be heard above the abuse and threats she faced following the Sunday Times’s ‘scoop’. In all likelihood, the story grew from the discovery that Stasevska had once posted a tweet in support of Black Lives Matter.
It soon transpired that the BBC was planning to play the usual tunes, but (for the reasons Morrison had identified) without any singing. The Sunday Times’s achievement was simultaneously to associate this prosaic decision with the Black Lives Matter movement and to unleash a torrent of anti-BBC sentiment, which coalesces online around the ‘Defund the BBC’ agenda and has become one of the primary cultural frontiers of Brexitism. On 1 September, the new BBC director general, Tim Davie, took up office. The next day the BBC issued a statement that the songs would now be sung by ‘a select group of BBC singers’.
Why did this story gain so much more traction in August, having already petered out in July? Some of it comes down to the scramble for news in the ‘silly season’, except that where once August was the month when newspapers relied on celebrity gossip or dug up curios about unusual pets, now it’s a time to let rip the angry cultural controversies that still (just about) get overshadowed when Parliament returns from the summer recess. But the suspicion remains that things were being heated up in readiness for Davie’s arrival, especially given a more ominous revelation that appeared the weekend after the Sunday Times Proms piece.
‘Top Tory launches TV rival to “woke wet BBC”’, the Mail on Sunday splashed on 30 August. The paper reported that a new channel, GB News, to be led by Robbie Gibb, a former adviser to Theresa May, was granted a preliminary Ofcom licence in January, and hopes to launch next year. Gibb, who before working at Number Ten had held senior roles in BBC politics programming, has since become a dedicated critic of the corporation’s alleged cultural and anti-Brexit bias. The Mail on Sunday’s report also referred to Rupert Murdoch’s renewed efforts to launch a UK version of Fox News (most likely through a streaming service such as Netflix), under the umbrella of his company News UK. All this was couched as a response to the BBC’s alleged unwillingness to stand up for popular national traditions, as evidenced in the ‘Rule Britannia debacle’.
Davie spent his first week in post seeking to reaffirm the BBC’s commitment to ‘impartiality’, a cornerstone of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. The problem illustrated by the manufactured Proms controversy is that in the ‘culture wars’ that have escalated since the EU referendum, virtually any editorial or critical judgment can be represented as ‘biased’ in some way. In his first major speech, Davie informed BBC staff that they would have to stay off Twitter; earlier, the Daily Telegraph had been tossed the exclusive titbit that he planned to axe ‘left-wing comedy’ shows. It seems reasonable to expect that in a nation bifurcated along Remain-Leave lines, the national broadcaster will give equal recognition to both sides. But Davie surely realises that the organised forces pitted against the BBC are not fundamentally interested in song lyrics or panel shows.
‘Impartiality’ towards mainstream political parties, during election campaigns, say, can be exercised in a roughly scientific fashion, though it would be easier to persuade people that the principle was being upheld if there weren’t a revolving door between the media and politics (the door through which Gibb walked). But ‘impartiality’ with respect to culture is a trap, as Gibb, Murdoch and the right-wing press understand very well. Davie may be able to answer demands over patriotic songs or individual shows, but resentment towards the ‘cosmopolitan elite’ can always be topped up with fresh outrages and insinuations. The monster he is now feeding cannot be – and does not want to be – satisfied.
It seems that because the pandemic hits cultural institutions harder than most, it has evoked passions around traditions that usually rumble along unnoticed. I haven’t stepped foot inside a nightclub for years, yet in ways that doubtless draw on nostalgia for my youth I find news of the threats to Britain’s night-time economy upsetting. Similarly, people who no longer ever watch the Last Night of the Proms were easily stirred once word got out that in 2020 it would have to look and sound different from the way they remember. With so much of day to day public life on hold, we turn to imagined cultural communities based on some past we want to save. This presents an enticing opportunity for those seeking to profit from a legitimacy crisis for the BBC.
The BBC has been fending off attacks from Murdoch and other free marketeers for decades, but the populist assault on the corporation’s cultural ‘biases’ is a new type of threat. The argument for introducing new broadcast platforms with evidently conservative sympathies is that the BBC can’t, by its nature, ever be impartial. No amount of flag-waving will compensate for the fact that, as an employer, the BBC privileges liberal, cosmopolitan graduates, blind to their own prejudices. Since the EU referendum and Johnson’s election victory, senior Conservatives feel emboldened to call out the biases of individual BBC journalists, to an extent that would have been considered authoritarian just a few years ago. A senior Downing Street source was quoted in February as saying that Number Ten planned to ‘whack’ the corporation. Davie’s in-tray on day one included a letter signed by 15 Conservative MPs which made the now standard accusations about the BBC’s bias and disrespect for national traditions, but also singled out two ‘former Labour activists’, Lewis Goodall and Rianna Croxford, for special criticism. Goodall, Newsnight’s policy editor, who pursued the story of the government’s school exams fiasco with unusual tenacity, is a particular bête noire for the Tories: Gibb tweeted to ask whether there was ‘anyone more damaging to the BBC’s reputation for impartiality’.
Another tactic, finessed by various sections of the right over the last few years, is to toy with the jargon of liberalism until it loses all meaning. For several years Murdoch’s Fox News ran with the almost sarcastic slogan ‘Fair and Balanced’. In a leadership debate during last year’s general election campaign, the Tory Party briefly rebranded its Twitter account as ‘Factcheck UK’. And the Mail on Sunday’s story about GB News reported that ‘impartiality’ would be the new channel’s distinguishing trait, in contrast to the incurably ‘woke’ BBC. The net effect of this mischief is to demolish the very idea of an objective or politically independent view of the world, to the point where only the market can sort things out.
The challenge the BBC poses to its enemies comes from its remarkable popularity, credibility and value for money, which have held up surprisingly well in the digital age. The licence fee, at £157.50 a year, is half the cost of a year’s digital subscription to the Times and Sunday Times – though, as Conservatives like to point out, nobody gets threatened by the state for refusing to buy the Times. The BBC remains the most trusted source for the majority of people who follow the news in Britain, though this majority has shrunk in recent years. These strengths, combined with Ofcom’s oversight of broadcasting, have been sufficient to repel attacks on its funding model and size over the years. But in the post-2016 political landscape, cultural logic overpowers economics, and the BBC now looks ready to concede that a new funding model is unavoidable.
Media convergence over the past two decades, facilitated by broadband and mobile internet, has made it progressively harder to distinguish ‘broadcasters’ from other kinds of content creators and distributors, be they newspapers, blogs, streaming services or the ordinary users of social media and smartphones. It was in anticipation of this that Ofcom was established in 2003. The argument of free marketeers is that this explosion of choice renders the established ‘impartial’ broadcasters an anachronism: let everyone consume the content they want. Pressure is growing in this direction, with the launch in June of the Murdoch-owned Times Radio, set up as a direct rival to BBC Radio 4 – its inaugural interviewee was Boris Johnson. Murdoch’s intentions were further confirmed by a recent job listing on the News UK website referring to the company’s plan ‘to launch a new TV station, which will run through primetime evening hours’.
It’s clear that the lobbying campaign will no longer take the form of economic critiques of the BBC’s monopoly power but will instead generate wave after wave of cultural controversies. These could eventually engulf Ofcom itself if it comes to be seen as the main obstacle to the establishment of a truly ‘patriotic’ broadcaster. Anything that stands in the way of new opinion-led news providers will be represented as ‘elitist’, ‘woke’ and an affront to ‘free speech’. YouTube and Facebook are already on hand to help fuel rage and paranoia about a censorious cosmopolitan elite; there is now a deep well of potential viewers for any media company in a position to channel the opinions of the nationalist or libertarian right onto television screens.
Where does all this lead? It’s easy to imagine a smaller, more cautious version of the BBC, focused on delivering its most popular and dependable offerings, with at least some of its services funded by subscription. The Johnson administration has made it clear that something of that sort is expected, and Davie has already been reminded of that. But from the perspective of the new right, this is just a staging post on the journey towards a deregulated ‘market’ for cultural politics and opinion. Murdoch and the Tory Party must realise that their shared cultural platform of the past forty years – the press – isn’t going to prop up their interests for much longer, given the age of readers and dwindling sales. Circumventing or busting open Britain’s tight regulatory constraints around broadcasting and news is both a commercial and an ideological imperative.
The US offers a disturbing model of what can happen when political and media interests converge. As the investigative journalist Jane Mayer detailed in a piece for the New Yorker last year about the relationship between Fox News and the present White House, Murdoch and Trump found common cause in the creation of eye-catching and lucrative news content. What Murdoch wanted from Trump wasn’t policy favours or ideological conformity – the main fear surrounding Murdoch’s influence in the UK over recent decades – but higher ratings, something that Trump has resoundingly delivered. In return, Fox has given Trump an endlessly supportive platform and sure-fire lines to take.
As America teeters on the edge of authoritarianism, with barely a murmur of protest from the Republican Party, one wonders at what point the seeds of the current disaster were sown. When did the American right first take the path that has led to a third of Republican voters believing the QAnon conspiracy theory that the president is battling a global network of Satanic child sex traffickers that connects Hollywood, the Clintons, Pope Francis and the Rothschilds? What went wrong, to allow a Republican president to claim without fear of censure that his electoral opponent is controlled by people in the ‘dark shadows’, that ‘anarchists’ are now governing major US cities, and that nobody is going to ever know the real result of the election (but that he’ll definitely win)?
Various origin stories could be told, but the middle years of the Clinton presidency – when Newt Gingrich declared a permanent war of attrition against the White House – stand out as a moment when a new madness was unleashed. It was in 1996 that Fox News was launched, feeding the rage of the American right with a daily catalogue of the damage their liberal, atheist, cosmopolitan enemies were seeking to inflict on the traditional American way of life. This rage has been a resource available to every Republican politician since, whether or not they chose to exploit it. The difference with Trump was that he didn’t just exploit it: he amplified it.
Britain may comfort itself that it is a long way from the political abyss that America is now staring into. But elements of the same delirious conservative resentment are nevertheless at large, invigorated by Brexit and accelerated by social media. A British equivalent of Fox News, wherever it may come from, would have its own distinctive character – less evangelism and more Elgar, fewer guns and more poppies – but the commercial and political logic would be the same. The ratings for Fox News’s live coverage in October 2018 of what Trump referred to as the migrant ‘caravan’ travelling from Mexico exceeded the peak pre-election ratings of October 2016. This year in the UK, Nigel Farage, by dint of the zero-budget method of tweeting from the White Cliffs of Dover, managed to lure teams of news reporters out into the English Channel to capture live footage of asylum seekers in dinghies. Think what could be done with a dedicated TV news team.
The conservative press and its online outliers (such as Breitbart and Spiked) have already done the job of establishing the issues that suck in attention: traditions being ‘banned’, identities ‘threatened’, histories ‘rewritten’. The notion of a ‘woke’ conspiracy linking universities, the BBC, the Remain campaign and what the Home Office recently referred to as ‘activist lawyers’ is too popular and too lucrative to be abandoned, no matter what policy reforms may be made to broadcasting, higher education or immigration. If anything, this monster thrives on an absence of effective policy, which nourishes the sense that ‘the people’ are still having their wishes obstructed by unelected elites. The thought that has taken hold among the new generation of conservative gurus, such as Tim Montgomerie and the former May adviser Nick Timothy, is that liberalism (sometimes confusingly equated with Marxism) is so powerful a force in British public life as to be impossible to dislodge, despite Brexit and ten years of Conservative government. Cultural defeats are intoxicating, politically potent and, above all, great for ratings.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Fox now belongs to Disney. In fact, what is now Fox Corporation was excluded from the sale last year of 21st Century Fox to Disney.