Is Norman Smith, the BBC’s assistant political editor, set to become a sort of modern-day Gavrilo Princip?
After weeks of tension Smith’s comments about the autumn statement on the Today programme provoked a howl of protest from the chancellor which in turn set off the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. “Tories go to war with BBC over cuts” the Mail front page shrieked.
It was only a matter of time. Five months before a general election and with the prize of renewing the BBC’s charter for the winning party, skirmishes have been getting closer for a while. Yet with even some senior Tories surprised by the reporting of the story by the right-wing press – there has been no official complaint against Smith’s report – all the battle does is underline the fact that if the Tories really have gone to war with the BBC, some of the party’s most effective generals would have been featured in the newspapers themselves.
This is nothing new of course. The BBC’s guaranteed £3.6bn licence fee income under a settlement to be renegotiated by 2017 has long irked the newspaper industry (including the Guardian whose chief executive Andrew Miller recently used a speech to criticise the corporation’s expansion into Australia).
Accusations of bias and financial profligacy underline most criticism of a corporation that has a remit to remain impartial and to spend licence fee money wisely. All week, the Sun has been running stories and editorial comment critical of the BBC which it sees as elitist and wasteful.
The difference this time appears to be the way the BBC has dealt with the complaints. Led by a former press officer at the Department of Work and Pensions, John Shield, the BBC team has decided that simply “letting things go” at this stage in the phony war ahead of the election is not good enough.
One BBC insider pointed out the irony of a double page spread in the Mail on Friday whose huge headline “Fury at BBC’s doom-mongers” included a story about the experts warning of the “colossal” size of the cuts needed, just the thing Smith was talking about when he talked about the “book of doom”. However, this war will not be about facts but about opinion.
Many Tories genuinely do think the BBC wastes money and many in the right-wing press agree with them. Both parties also want every BBC reporter, especially those who find themselves quizzed in the early hours by John Humphrys, to be so conscious of accusations of bias that they think twice if not several times about criticism.
The other noticeable change is the corporation’s use of social media to get its message across rather than using the traditional methods of phoning to complain. After the Sun editorial urged director general Tony Hall to “slash the number of fat cats” earning more than the prime minister, the BBC posted its rebuttal on its own media centre, a website that to date was only useful for endless press releases about upcoming shows. When, the following day, the Sun accused the BBC of cronyism the press office did it again, citing public polls which show overwhelming support for the corporation.
BBC insiders were cockahoop that this line was retweeted 2,000 times. Recognising the futility of phoning the editors of the newspapers involved they said the BBC would increasingly resort to “using our own tools”.
This is a relatively risky strategy. The Sun’s circulation adds up to almost 2 million and, as politicians on both sides admit, the front page of the Daily Mail is a far more effective way to slap the BBC than complaining to any industry regulator.
It may have been more than 20 years since a national newspaper could claim it had “won IT”, but if nothing else the coming election could be just as interesting for what it says about the British media as it does about politics.
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