On the day of a Budget, the Prime Minister’s Question Time that immediately precedes it is often an instantly forgettable affair. With a packed Commons impatient for the main event, it’s a fool’s errand to try and say anything interesting.
And given that by convention, the Leader of the Opposition has the nightmare job of responding to the Chancellor 90 minutes later, they can be forgiven for keeping PMQs deliberately dull while they prep for the fiscal fireworks.
But this week, Keir Starmer did something different with a particularly pointed set of questions to Rishi Sunak about the BBC, the row over Gary Lineker and the appointment of Tory donor Richard Sharp as the Corporation’s chairman.
Sensing the Government was on the back foot over both controversies, Starmer accused Sunak of failing to stand up to “snowflake” Tory backbenchers who were “waging a war on free speech” with their “laughable” attempts to get Lineker cancelled from Match of the Day.
The Labour leader enjoyed making the PM squirm, not least because of strong hints from within No 10 that it wanted the whole thing to go away. Voters of all stripes just wanted to see their beloved football show, while liberal Conservatives worried Lineker’s criticism would bleed into wider worries that their party was obsessed with culture wars.
Yet because this PMQs would never actually get much airtime in the shadow of the Budget, it wasn’t Sunak, Tory MPs or even the wider public who were Starmer’s intended audience. No, it was the BBC’s boss class itself.
I understand that Starmer views pre-Budget PMQs as an opportunity to send a message to “stakeholders”. In 2021, he used it to reassure President Biden and human rights groups that he wanted to ban the sale of UK arms used in the Yemen conflict to Saudi Arabia. This year, he used it to send a warning to the BBC about political impartiality.
When he talked about “the national broadcaster being accused of dancing to the Government’s tune by its own employees”, it was more of a challenge to New Broadcasting House than Downing Street. So too was his line about “a BBC leadership that caves in to their demands”.
Starmer asked a pointed question which got no reply: had the PM received assurances “that no one with links to the Tory party was lobbied by Tory MPs or involved in the decision that saw Match of the Day effectively cancelled?”
The appointment of Robbie Gibb, Theresa May’s former communications chief, for a three-year term as a member of the BBC Board, makes such questions all the more tricky.
The New Statesman reported that Gibb amazed some members of Newsnight last year by directly lecturing them on a programme about Channel migrants that he said was “dripping with revealed preferences”. Some felt like he assumed the role of a manager, a role he used to occupy at the BBC, rather than a non-executive board member.
As he asked his PMQs this week, Starmer was also more than aware of a story in that morning’s Guardian that revealed a string of leaked messages from BBC bosses to staff, that appeared to show the Corporation bowing to pressure from the Government.
One email showed BBC staff being asked to comply with a request from No 10 early in the pandemic not to use the word “lockdown”, even though that was precisely the word used by several newspapers.
Another message read: “D St complaining that we’re not reflecting Labour’s mess” on its Covid-19 policy. Yet another passed on warnings from No 10 against “misinterpreting” Boris Johnson’s controversial comparison of Ukraine’s fight against Russia with the UK people’s vote for Brexit.
More broadly, Starmer and his team are keen that the BBC are scrupulously impartial during the next general election campaign, and do not blindly follow and echo agendas propagated by certain right-wing newspapers critical of Labour.
In the here and now, however, the big question mark is over BBC chairman Richard Sharp. Starmer described Sharp as Sunak’s “friend”, the “Tory donor with no broadcasting experience”. That was a less than veiled reference to the fact Sharp was Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs and an unpaid advisor on the economic response to Covid-19.
The PM rightly pointed out that an independent review had been launched into Sharp’s appointment to the BBC job following his failure to tell MPs that he had a role in arranging an £800,000 loan for Johnson.
Sunak stressed that Sharp had been appointed through “a rigorous, independent and long-established process”. But the bigger problem is that ultimately the appointment of the BBC Chairman is approved by the Prime Minister of the day.
Under the BBC’s Royal Charter, the PM recommends who gets the job to the Monarch. There is now a very strong case for ending this whole practice, which is a needless and outdated politicisation of the Corporation.
An Order in Council, a device used by ministers, could be used to amend the Charter and strip out any role for the PM other than to pass on to the King the name decided upon independently by others. Failing that, the Charter itself could be amended by legislation.
It’s surely in the interests of all our political parties to end the current farce of a Prime Minister having a say over who chairs the BBC. Simply swapping Tory appointees for Labour ones, and vice versa, whenever there’s a change of government helps no one, least of all the Corporation’s valiantly impartial news teams.
The current BBC political editor Chris Mason, who admirably shows no fear or favour towards politicians of any colour, is typical of an impressive array of journalists that staff its Westminster unit. In my quarter century covering Parliament, I can tell you they treat their duties very seriously indeed.
With the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War looming, those with long memories should also remember a Labour government itself clashing with the BBC. Its chairman at the time was Gavyn Davies, who had been appointed to the job despite his links to senior Labour figures; his wife was Gordon Brown’s political secretary.
Starmer said this week that “an impartial public broadcaster, free of Government interference, is a crucial pillar in our country”. Sunak said “I care about the integrity and impartiality of our institutions”. Both could put their policies where their mouth is and end for good the game of political, musical Chairs of the BBC.