Two cheers for the BBC: Roger Mosey’s book on TV news

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Two cheers for the BBC: Roger Mosey’s book on TV news

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Roger Mosey had a long and distinguished career in broadcasting. He was editor of PM and the Today programme on Radio 4, controller of BBC Radio 5 Live and head of BBC television news. He is also one of the most interesting writers about television, especially TV news, along with Mark Damazer and David Elstein.

He has now brought out a book on TV news, 20 Things That Would Make The News Better (Biteback, £18.99). There is much to admire here, as in most of Mosey’s writing for the New Statesman. He is surely right to say we should cherish public service broadcasting and the “values of tolerant, evidence-based discussion”, accuracy, reliability and impartiality — perhaps especially impartiality.

Mosey quotes approvingly the present BBC Director-General, Tim Davie: “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media, then that is a valid choice. But you should not be working at the BBC.” This matters at a time when a number of well-known BBC personalities and presenters have decided that impartiality is not for them and when according to a recent poll only “slightly over a half of the UK population – 55 per cent – believe that the BBC delivers impartial news on television”.

Mosey is also right to say that broadcasting should cover “the stories and issues that really matter”. I read 20 Things just as the BBC news was still leading with the story of two footballers’ wives and the aftermath of Partygate, at a time when war crimes are being committed every day in Ukraine, a second major economic recession in just over a decade looms and there are growing crises in British health, education and social care.

He is especially good on the lessons BBC News should have learned from Brexit and the 2019 election. Too many news editors, reporters and presenters seemed happy in their metropolitan bubble, oblivious of the views of voters around the country, from Cornwall to the North-East. They didn’t spend enough time outside London and were caught by surprise by the results of the two most important votes in Britain in the last twenty years. Put simply, they were out of touch with the public mood and many licence fee payers have not forgiven them. Mosey quotes a recent BBC executive, sadly anonymous: “The unconscious tone from the top made it quite hard to raise pro-Brexit views as something to be taken seriously and explored.” He also quotes Helen Boaden, Director of BBC News for almost a decade, who referred to an “extreme liberal bias” at the BBC on immigration. He doesn’t point out, though, that Boaden was Director of News from 2004 to 2013 and that this bias still persists, almost twenty years after she assumed her post.

Born and brought up in Yorkshire, Mosey is acutely aware of this regional bias. “The simple fact is that we didn’t know as much about Carlisle as we did about Chiswick,” he says of the BBC. As he writes, “there’s an ever more demonstrable need to burst the metropolitan bubble.” And yet he doesn’t say what he did as one of the BBC’s Great and Good to deal with this problem. Perhaps he too went native, living as he does in affluent Richmond (London, not Yorkshire), spending much of his later career in W1A 1AA and now as Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. Mosey is very good at raising important questions about TV and radio news, but is less good at the solutions or, rather, at the reasons for the BBC’s failure to find solutions.

Unfortunately, at times Mosey’s book is symptomatic of the problems he discusses. There is a fine chapter called, “Diversity, Definitely”. But nearly all the BBC news executives and DGs he refers to are White. He talks a lot about the decision-makers at the BBC: John Birt, Richard Sambrook, Helen Boaden, Mark Byford. Mark Damazer, Jenny Abramsky, Tony Hall. All White. Of these seven executives, only two are women. There are remarkably few non-White presenters, reporters and programme editors mentioned in the book. Samir Shah, Trevor Phillips and Sir Trevor McDonald are not mentioned.

Mosey rightly complains about the insularity of BBC News programmes. “The contest for a successor to Angela Merkel was barely covered,” he writes. Again, the point is unarguable. TV and radio news is far more interested in America than in Europe. But this is the only reference in the book to Merkel; there are only three to Putin and none to Macron. More worrying, there is only one reference to India, only a few to Russia or China. Why is TV news so parochial? What’s being done to change it?

Of course, news editors would rightly point to the excellent coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But his point stands. Where was the TV coverage of Germany when Merkel made her disastrous decision to make Germany energy dependent on Russia and why are so many German intellectuals tacitly supporting Putin? This insularity was crucial to Brexit. Where were the news reports regularly telling us about the benefits of EU membership? Or even explaining what EU membership meant?

This is part of a larger pattern in the book. There is also only one reference to Israel, none to anti-Semitism and the word “Jew” only comes up once. There are no references to the Balen Report, commissioned by the BBC to investigate allegations of anti-Israel bias in its programming. Commissioned in 2004, the Balen Report has still not been published. In the meantime, there are almost daily criticisms of BBC anti-Israel bias and the failure of the BBC to properly document anti-Semitism in the trade unions and on the Labour Left is a stain on its reputation. Mosey doesn’t address any of this.

There is a famous cartoon showing a New Yorker’s perception of America, with Manhattan looming large and the rest of the country getting smaller and smaller the further you get from Midtown. A similar cartoon of Mosey’s book would show the Today programme, The Guardian, Newsnight and The World at One centre stage. Former BBC executives and news executives are mentioned frequently. Critics of the BBC less so. David Elstein’s devastating review of Jean Seaton’s recent volume of the history of the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s is not mentioned, nor is Elstein himself, one of the most interesting critics of the BBC. Andrew Neil, who might be expected to have interesting views of the BBC past and present, only gets two mentions. Mosey is more than happy to discuss BBC news executives, and to make fun of Nadine Dorries, but is less keen on quoting historians, journalists and intellectuals who might have interesting views on TV news, especially if they are from the Right.

Mosey is also surprisingly reticent about bad appointments at the BBC: Tony Hall and George Entwistle, both disastrous DGs, or Sarah Sands, a poor Editor at the Today programme, but is happy to have a dig at Martin Bashir (“it is hard to imagine a dodgier appointment to that role [religious affairs correspondent] than Martin Bashir”). Steve Hewlett, who played a significant role in the scandal about Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana, doesn’t get a mention. Indeed, the more disreputable moments in the recent history of BBC news programmes – the Jimmy Savile affair, George Entwistle’s disastrous interview on the Today programme, which led to his resignation after less than two months, the ongoing story about Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana, back in the news yet again last week – don’t appear. Perhaps Entwistle missed this when he read the manuscript (for which he is thanked in the Afterword). Jeremy Vine, Julie Etchingham and Justin Webb write approvingly on the back cover, calling the book “brilliant”, and “fascinating”. Perhaps they too missed these absences.

Roger Mosey’s book is full of good things. He is on the side of the angels in his call for accuracy and impartiality, for fewer Vox Pops and clichés and for redressing the imbalance between London and the regions, for the lessons the BBC needed to learn from 2016 and 2019. These are excellent points, all well argued and backed up with interesting evidence. But the gaps are troubling and are typical of larger problems in the BBC’s news coverage. That may explain why so many, especially among the young and ethnic minorities, are losing faith in the BBC as a provider of impartial news. The BBC, not Nadine Dorries, is its own worst enemy and Mosey should have been the perfect person to explain why.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 68%
  • Interesting points: 75%
  • Agree with arguments: 59%
38 ratings - view all

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