This weekend, I was out of London visiting a friend in the Nimby-haunted depths of Gloucestershire. Jeremy Clarkson’s infamous farm lay a short-distance away; a very happy 48 hours was spent walking the dog, eating excellent food, admiring ancient pubs, and commiserating over his personal collection of insane council decisions.
I was already disinclined to pay much attention to my phone. So when I briefly logged on to Twitter and found my feed had turned into that Mitchell and Webb sketch – ‘Catch the constantly-happening football here!’ – I turned the thing off.
But all good things must come to an end, and this Gary Lineker thing outlived my holiday, so here we go.
There are any number of differences between a sports presenter venting his views on Twitter and a senior civil servant joining the Opposition, but one argument I made about Sue Gray is worth bearing in mind here: polarisation is a problem whether or not you personally think the people being alienated from institutions are correct or not.
Personally, my instinct is not to get het up when some prating bore calls me a Nazi. The maintenance of their intellectual credibility is not, after all, my concern. The best response is generally to roll your eyes, perhaps take a moment to laugh at them if you’re feeling time-rich, and then crack on with whatever you were doing.
(However, it does rankle that whatever you think of them, the BBC does have impartiality rules, Lineker keeps breaking them, and he seems to be above them. It appears to rankle with other BBC employees too.)
I am also very much in favour of the BBC. This country already has too few genuinely national institutions, and the national broadcaster would be a foolish thing to throw away on those grounds alone. There is also great merit, in my view, in having a state-funded outlet which can support programming which might not survive on commercial stations.
Yet my personal feelings don’t change the fact that a lot of people clearly do get upset when they are slandered by high-profile loudmouths, and that there is a growing alienation between the Corporation and many Conservatives.
As I noted when previously writing about this question for ConservativeHome, generally rosy polling figures about attitudes to the BBC should not disguise genuinely troubling findings about a steep fall in trust in its current affairs coverage amongst Tory supporters.
If that isn’t addressed, then over the long term it is a recipe for ending up with the abysmal situation that prevails in the United States: ‘conservatives seceding from theoretically-neutral-but-realistically-left-leaning communities and forming terrible communities full of witches’.
Now Match of the Day is not current affairs, and there’s a fair argument that we ought not to expect the same neutrality from a sports commentator as we do to someone in the specific position of trust that presenting the news represents.
But I think there’s also a fair counter-argument, which is that if we want culture and sport to be arenas in which people of different political persuasions can come together to enjoy a common interest, then the political neutrality of these spaces does matter. I think I could separate my enjoyment of Match of the Day from Lineker’s musings. I can’t know for sure, I never watch it, but I enjoy broadcast content from people I profoundly disagree with on a regular basis.
However, that content is often explicitly political, so I consciously leave my ideological hat at the door. Perhaps I’d feel differently if it were just a hobby I deeply cared about. And again, my personal feelings don’t negate the fact that there might be a lot of people who don’t feel the same.
Whatever the views of the viewing public, moreover, there is no doubt that a substantial body of opinion inside the Conservative Party is increasingly suspicious, if not downright hostile, to the BBC. If this continues, it will place the Corporation in an increasingly impossible position.
A state broadcaster, funded through taxation, must command if not quite universal support, then something close to it. Otherwise, its legitimacy and that of its funding model must be in doubt. And however catastrophic the Tories’ polling at the moment, at some point they or another party or coalition of the right will form a government and oversee a renewal – or termination – of the BBC charter.
To date, this Conservative rage against the state broadcasting machine has been inchoate and ineffective; the looming climbdown over Lineker will highlight again just how woefully the Government is picking and waging its battles in the so-called culture war. But it would be foolish to gamble the long-term future of something as precious as the BBC on the hope that this will always be the case.
There are no simple solutions. But I suspect that part of the current problem – Lineker’s star power placing him above the rules – points to one.
It seems perverse that a broadcaster with guaranteed revenues, supposedly justified by a duty to provide public interest programming, to hose vast sums of money at superstar sports presenters whilst shuttering things such as the World Service’s Arabic stations or disbanding the BBC Singers. Big-name sports shows can and do do just fine on commercial channels. Given the Corporation’s budget issues, why prioritise things that are plentifully catered elsewhere?
A BBC which focused on providing things which genuinely might not exist otherwise would also be a BBC with far fewer untouchable celebrities, with huge public platforms, on very expensive contracts. Impartiality rules would thus be easier to enforce, and there would be much less fuss if an individual broke them. Having a Corporation focusing its resources on its core mission would be a bonus.
Whether we like it or not, the culture war isn’t going anywhere, because the phrase is really just a dismissive description of genuine and often legitimate disagreement about cultural change and the role of institutions that isn’t going to end anytime soon. As David Mitchell says in that football sketch: ‘There’s still everything to play for – and forever to play it in!’
If we want institutions such as the BBC to survive the culture war, let alone ameliorate it, then those who support it must take seriously the obligation to ensure it maintains its broad appeal, even when that means catering to those with whom we might deeply disagree.
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