Oliver's Smarmy: Feckless flag fan Dowden batters the BBC in the culture war rumpus

They should be more patriotic, he says, while patriotically asserting that Britain should keep all that stuff we stole.

It’s almost two weeks since Charlie Stayt’s joke about Robert Jenrick’s flag sent the right into paroxysms of rage, most of which focused on Stayt’s co-host Naga Munchetty. And still, they haven’t let it go.

Not satisfied with the government’s demand that all public buildings fly the Union Flag every day or the Tory nurk for North-West Norfolk interrogating BBC Director-General, Tim Davie, about the lack of flag pictures in the corporation’s annual report, right-wing commentators refused to let this culture war shibboleth drop for even a moment.

The human centipede-like arrangement between Times Radio and The Times bears fruit again today as Steven Swinford swallows an interview from Gloria De Piero and Tom Newton Dunn’s show and expels it into the paper, under the headline BBC sneers at patriots, says culture minister Oliver Dowden after Union flag rumpus.

Dowden told Times Radio:

[BBC presenters] do need to reflect all different parts of the United Kingdom, not just the Brightons and the Bristols and the Hackneys of this world but also the Leighs and the Dudleys and the Boreham Woods of this world. Sometimes comments like the ones in that interview begin to stray from banter into a sneering . . . against attitudes that are held by many people in this country.

We know what Dowden means when he says Brighton, Bristol and Hackney — he means people of colour, LGBT+ people, and — most terrifying of all — ‘lefties’.

Despite the howling absence of left-leaning comedy on the current BBC — besides Frankie Boyle’s New World Order which goes out in a late timeslot on BBC2 and is surely not long for this world — and BBC News supine attitude to the government, ministers and their outriders still act as though the broadcaster is a nest of commie infiltrators. If only.

Dowden’s comments follow those by the Prime Minister to a meeting of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee — repeated in Swinford’s article — that the BBC best be more deferential to the Right:

We need to recognise on the whole that there is a great deal of instinctual metropolitan bias in the BBC Newsroom. Let’s hope they learn from what their viewers and listeners want. It’s pretty clear from the whole Brexit experience that the BBC was pretty detached from a lot of its viewers and listeners, and I hope they move more into line.

It all has a bit of a Mafia ring to it — if the Mafia had nannies as children and a predilection for spouting half-remembered Latin when they whacked people. ‘Nice BBC, shame if anything were to happen to it…’

Since his appointment to the Culture brief last year, Dowden has been in the habit of hitting the BBC. It’s an easy win with the base and pleases his bumptious boss who has long since forgotten when he used to cosplay as a ‘liberal’ while Mayor of London and the dancing bear performances on Have I Got News For You that helped boost his national profile in the first place.

In November 2020, he used an article in The Daily Telegraph to question the entire premise of public service broadcasting, putting both the BBC and Channel 4 on the block. It was a curtain-raiser for his public sector broadcasting commission — a Suicide Squad of the usual villains — designed to come to the conclusion that the BBC would be better off privatised.

That group includes Sir Robbie Gibb, Theresa May’s former director of communications and a former of BBC Westminster, who was heavily involved in the early conversations to get GB News off the ground, Conservative peer Lord Grade (!), Baroness Bertin, David Cameron’s former press secretary (!), and Conservative MP Andrew Griffith (!). Mmmm, taste the impartiality.

In the same month, Dowden turned up in The Mail on Sunday assuring its red-faced readers that he would write to Netflix to complain about inaccuracies in The Crown. The UK’s creative industries, absolutely rat-fucked by the pandemic, must have breathed a sigh of relief that the minister of state in charge of helping them was focused on the important things.

Still, at least Dowden inspired a new wave of culture war wailing. Just today, Zoe Strimpel in The Telegraph files a screed about ‘history being trampled over’ because the new film Ammonite presents a story in which fossil-finding femme fantastique Mary Anning is a lesbian. And of course, she harps on about The Crown again too:

… many reviewers, especially in the lefty press, have mooned over Ammonite. But for people like my parents – interested in history, science and extraordinary women – it was a disaster.

My father wrote to me after hearing Lee interviewed on the radio. “Who knows or cares what he was thinking?” my father wrote. “He has written the fake history and that will now forever occupy the landscape.”

Oh for the easy life of the right-wing columnist where “my dad didn’t like a film because gay characters make him feel uncomfortable” is easily enough material for a whole article.

Strimpel will no doubt have been delighted to read Dowden’s interview with The Times on Saturday. Yes, he was in The Times on Saturday, on Times Radio on Sunday, and is slurpingly quoted in The Times today.

Dowden told David Sanderson, The Times arts correspondent, that he supports Boris Johnson’s view that we stole the Elgin Marble legally and that we’re keeping them:

Once you start pulling on this thread where do you actually end up? Would we insist on having the Bayeux Tapestry back? … There is an exceptionally high bar for this … because I just don’t see where it ends. You go down a rabbit hole and tie up our institutions. I think it is just impossible to go back and disentangle all these things.

So, as I understand it, the official position of the Conservative government — tough on crime, remember? — is that theft is alright as long as you keep the stolen goods for long enough.

Dowden’s ministerial brief puts him in the perfect position to push the government’s most deranged culture war initiatives. It was him who announced the ‘flags all day, everyday’ policy and he’s best placed to make things difficult for the BBC and easier for new (presumably) more government-friendly outlets like GB News and the as-yet-unnamed News UK channel that’s in the works.

But Dowden is far from the organ grinder. A former chief of staff to David Cameron whose previous employment experience was in the Conservative Party’s Research Department, he was tipped to be a minister by The Spectator before he’d even become an MP. His purpose is to parrot the establishment line and do what the boss tells him to do.

And his boss is Boris Johnson, who — despite the daily claims by right-wing commentators to the contrary — is decidedly comfortable with authoritarian posturing. Johnson and therefore Dowden will not be satisfied until the BBC is done and dismantled for parts.

There is no amount of right-wing contortionism that the corporation can do to escape that fate, despite how committed former Conservative Party council candidate Tim Davie is to seeing the BBC bend over backwards to accommodate the government. Suggestions last week that the Licence Fee might survive for another 10 years are, at best, a temporary reprieve.

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