Some nicknames fit so perfectly, they almost eclipse the real one. The BBC has long been known as Auntie, a name that came originally from the phrase ‘Auntie knows best’. It became especially widespread on the arrival of brash commercial upstart ITV in 1955, providing an instant contrast with the Beeb’s matronly tones. It has stuck ever since.
At times of crisis, and this one is no exception, we run to Auntie. Of course we do. Like children with a sniffle or a grazed knee, we skitter headlong into her comforting arms, whimpering for her warm fireside, soothing voice and store cupboard of sweet treats. She placates us, tells us we are special little soldiers and puts us quietly to bed with a glass of warm milk.
Auntie Beeb is both the very best of us, and the very worst. At best, she is cultured and authoritative, wise and witty, and always striving to see both sides of an argument. At worst though, she can be a stubborn old boot, slavishly in awe of authority and stuck in ways of thinking and behaviour that were already looking distinctly old-fashioned a generation ago.
For it is a full generation – twenty-one years now – since the advent of devolution; the BBC’s inability to get to grips with it is a wound that they just cannot stop reopening. And in a health crisis, a policy area that is fully devolved, it is nothing short of terrifying. BBC Wales and BBC Scotland news being dropped in the mornings is a gross dereliction of duty, as is the scant investigation into the Welsh government’s testing woes.
This is not, as some would have it, an inevitable result of the inequality in the size of the UK’s constituent parts (Channel 4 News manages to report from them all with great aplomb, and gives each due weight and gravity). Some of course are playing that line for explicitly political reasons, even – as Ifan expounded here – as a sneaky way of undermining devolution itself. We see you, Mr Retweet-Davies, a man with the unmistakable demeanour of that lad at school whose main contribution to class was guffawing at his own farts.
The BBC must not do their job for them. Right now, of course we want to feel reassured, and Auntie always does her best at that, but we also need to know that the right questions are being asked. I spoke last night to my sister, an A&E consultant in London, who has been locked in isolation for a week now since contracting Covid-19. Others on her team have tested positive too; one is seriously ill in intensive care.
The scandalous lack of PPE (personal protection equipment) was what infected them all, but the testing was repeatedly botched too, and just last night, desperate to get home to her family, her hospital sent some thermometers to see if her temperature had stabilised. As she put it in proper medical parlance, all of the thermometers were “completely fucked”. She sent me a photo; they truly were. She dipped one in a cup of near-boiling water, and it registered nothing.
There has been action, she says, but mainly in the areas of buck-passing and ramping up – the phrase of the moment – the PR. That is painfully obvious from listening to the BBC reports. They have allowed themselves to be spun into a corner by the government, out of a toxic cocktail of terror (it was only in February that No 10 were hinting at a Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks as new BBC Director-General), sudden imposition of war-like conditions and the forlorn hope of all bullying victims, that if they only show their torturers how nice or submissive they are, the bullies will ease off or change their ways. They won’t. Johnson and Cummings have not re-hired the adolescent attack dogs who won them victory in December to make anyone’s life better, save their own.
I love Auntie, I really do. But she is such a sucker for a posh boy brimful of bluster. If she wants to make it through this crisis, she needs to find her mojo, and fast. Time to start listening to some real doctors, not the spin doctors.
Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below: