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How Brexit broke the BBC

The inside story of how our national broadcaster has tried—and sometimes failed—to cover the political crisis that overshadows everything else

Ineed to begin with a confession. I am a BBC believer. Public service broadcasting, which extends beyond the BBC but has the organisation at its centre, is one of the best things about Britain. It was my teenage ambition to work for it when growing up in a north London suburb, devouring Match of the Day, Top of the Pops and also the news. My parents were not British but they were BBCshaped and the BBC represented truth, respectability and—well—Britishness.

I eventually got my BBC staff number—and ended up in charge of various news departments and then Radio 4, leaving in 2010. Five years later, I joined the BBC Trust (its then governing body) where, along with others, I had oversight of the BBC’s editorial performance during the Brexit referendum.

That referendum—and its unfolding aftermath—is, as one senior BBC presenter put it to me, “the biggest political and national story of our age, raising huge and deep questions about identity, destiny and the role of parliament.” What’s more, he added, it has raised huge and deep questions about the BBC too—questions that could become more explosive amid rising talk of a fresh public vote. “This could not be a more important, more difficult time for the BBC—heightened and emotional partisan debate, belief in fake news, distrust of ‘mainstream media,’” was the view of this famous face on the inside. So can it survive this maelstrom?

In the eye of the storm

Every senior editorial manager I spoke to believes that it has become more difficult to persuade both the public and politicians that the BBC is doing its impartial duty on Brexit. The data reflects this rising difficulty. The BBC is still way out in front of allcomers when the public is asked which news source they trust the most. But the numbers who think the BBC is biased are rising. Not hugely, but clearly enough—and the overall impartiality score is falling.

The BBC’s Director of Strategy, Gautam Rangarajan, an appropriately scholarly former Radio 3 man, is in charge of crunching these numbers. He thinks that even in the divisive Thatcher era, when the BBC was often vehemently attacked from near the top (think Norman Tebbit from one end of the political spectrum, Tony Benn from the other) more of the public understood that it was simply the BBC’s job to interrogate politicians. “The rise of polarising issues that don’t map closely to traditional political allegiances has made the job more difficult.” To much of the audience, he says, it probably “feels more personal.”

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In Prospect’s April issue: Mark Damazer, the former controller of BBC Radio 4, tells the inside story of how the BBC has tried—and sometimes failed—to cover the political crisis that overshadows everything else. Elsewhere in the issue: Playwright and screenwriter James Graham profiles John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, as he takes centre-stage in the unfolding Brexit drama and Tom Clark examines the Independent Group and argues that they could well shake up the established political tribes. Also, Jennifer Williams highlights the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in Manchester—a city that is simultaneously experiencing a housing boom and a homelessness crisis.