The BBC director-general has said culture wars are part of modern Britain, calling them a “tightrope” for his generation.
Tim Davie told the Financial Times’ Future of News conference on Thursday that he welcomed the impending launch of GB News, a Fox News-inspired broadcaster that promises to go against the perceived “wokeness” of its UK rivals.
“On culture wars . . . welcome to modern Britain,” Davie said on Thursday. “Listening to different perspectives, being comfortable opening up different opinions, that’s the game now.”
“And I think everyone of my generation is walking a bit of a tightrope,” he added.
His comments follow the recent scandal surrounding a report that found BBC journalist Martin Bashir had lied to secure an interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, 25 years ago. The controversy has cast a shadow over the future of the BBC, as it negotiates its future funding agreement with the Conservative government.
But No 10 has been accused of trying to undermine the BBC, as it wages a culture war aiming to reset the balance of opinion at the top of the UK’s cultural and media institutions.
Last year, Andrew Neil, a prominent former BBC political presenter, left his role to lead the new right-leaning GB News channel. Neil, who also spoke at the FT event, said its planned “woke watch” segment was not intended to stoke culture wars. “The fire has been stoked by the woke warriors,” he said.
Neil said he viewed “cancel culture” — the ostracism of people that express views offensive to large groups on social media — as “a total turning of the enlightenment on its head”.
He added that he would evaluate the success of GB News by monitoring whether “we were correct in identifying that there was a gap in the [media] market”.
A BBC-commissioned investigation into Bashir’s conduct, which found that senior leadership had tried to cover up the incident, prompted the broadcaster to launch another inquiry into its culture and editorial practices last month.
“I think the truth is that you can manage these scandals, but the worry for us is that our system is based on trust,” Davie said.
Davie argued it was difficult to compare the most recent crisis with previous scandals, such as that of the BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile, who raped and abused children by using his position at the broadcaster.
“It’s really difficult to benchmark these things, because they’re asymmetric . . . they’re different shapes,” Davie said.
On the future of the corporation’s funding model, he said the BBC would have to strike the right balance between “reach and financial return”, adding that BBC Studios, the commercial production arm that Davie used to run, is already a profitable operation.
Davie said the organisation was facing “real choices now around the paywall” in foreign markets such as the US. “I am interested in the paywall around some of the news products and also our factual programming.”