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BBC Lost a Battle Over British Songs, and the War Is Far From Over

LONDON — It had all the ingredients for a juicy skirmish in Britain’s simmering culture war, so when the BBC announced last week that it would strip the lyrics from two popular patriotic songs in its telecast of a beloved annual concert, Conservative leaders predictably lined up to express their outrage.

“It’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reporters, adding with an indignant flourish, “I wanted to get that off my chest.”

On Wednesday, the BBC reversed itself, announcing it had decided to have a small choir sing the words to “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” after all. Critics say the lyrics evoke a British colonial, imperialist past that is at odds with the values of the Black Lives Matter movement that has spread across the Atlantic.

The BBC insisted its original decision had been driven less by politics than by its inability, because of the coronavirus pandemic, to gather an audience to sing along. But after a backlash fueled by the government and pro-government newspapers, it said in a contrite statement, “We hope everyone will welcome this solution.”

Score another point for the government in its feud with Britain’s revered, but embattled, public broadcaster. And though the BBC’s viewer numbers have been as strong as ever, the decision was only the most visible setback for the broadcaster, which faces commercial as well as cultural headwinds.

In Parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson hinted that the government would soon roll out a plan to overhaul the BBC that would address the compulsory license fee that finances much of its operations. Critics would like to see the fee abolished, which would throw the BBC’s future into question.

Meanwhile, two billionaire media moguls are hatching plans for 24-hour news channels that would be politically opinionated, bringing the model of Fox News to a market dominated by the BBC’s studied impartiality.

“The BBC is uniquely vulnerable at this moment,” said Alan Rusbridger, a former editor in chief of the Guardian newspaper. “There is a convergence of interests between the government and media owners in damaging the BBC. For them, this story is almost too good to be true.”

The Proms, as the series of BBC-sponsored classical music concerts is known, ends on Sept. 12 with an evening that has become famous for its rousing rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory,” sung as part of a performance of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March,” as well as the anthem “Rule, Britannia!”

Thousands of spectators in Royal Albert Hall, as well as in Hyde Park outside, wave Union Jacks as they belt the chorus, “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”

Such jingoistic appeals give some people pause at a time when crowds have marched in Britain’s streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis. Demonstrators in Bristol tore down the statue of a 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston; others vandalized a memorial to Winston Churchill. The British Museum moved a bust of one of its founders, Hans Sloane, from a plinth in a main gallery to a display case because he was a slave trader.

Mr. Johnson and other critics have struck back at those who defaced Churchill and banished Sloane, saying they are erasing British history and surrendering to the pressure of a “woke” mob. The BBC is high on the list of those they accuse of political correctness — or, in British parlance, of being “wet.”

In such a febrile atmosphere, analysts said the BBC should have anticipated how its decision would reverberate. “Was it naïve not to think it wouldn’t play out as part of the culture wars?” said Meera Selva, director of the Reuters Journalism Fellowship Program at Oxford University.

But Ms. Selva said the real threat to the BBC would come if the government followed through on a proposal to stop prosecuting people for failing to pay the license fee. Officials argue that nonpayment of other such fees is handled in civil, not criminal, proceedings. They say the fee, which is currently £157.50 ($209) a year, falls disproportionately on older people, who can least afford to pay it.

Despite its hostility toward the BBC, the Johnson government has yet to move on this proposal — a delay that may reflect its preoccupation with dealing with the coronavirus rather than any softening of its views. Some analysts said the government’s botched handling of the pandemic had weakened its ability to go after an institution that, for all its detractors, remains enduringly popular.

“You have to have a lot of vim for this,” said Claire Enders, a London-based media analyst. “The government is on its back foot. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were sustaining a lot of this, but they have lost a lot of steam,” she added, referring to Mr. Johnson’s powerful chief adviser.

The pandemic also served to remind Britons of the value of a credible public broadcaster. Viewership of BBC’s news programs spiked at the height of the outbreak in March, though its ratings have returned to more normal levels since. The BBC remains far more trusted than the rest of the British media, drawing high marks across the political spectrum and with viewers of all ages and income levels.

That ubiquity and credibility makes it a daunting target for rivals. Rupert Murdoch, who started Sky News in 1989 to compete with the BBC, is backing one such video venture, though its ultimate form is not yet clear. The other, GB News, is backed by executives with ties to the American cable television tycoon, John C. Malone. It has recruited Robbie Gibb, a BBC alumnus who was head of communications for Prime Minister Theresa May.

Mr. Gibb, writing recently in The Telegraph, said the BBC had been “culturally captured by the woke-dominated group think of some of its own staff.”

Displacing it, however, is another matter. Ms. Enders pointed to a landscape littered with well-funded interlopers like Al Jazeera, and said it was unlikely that either channel, whatever their politics, would draw more than a fraction of the BBC’s audience. To some extent, talk of Fox-like competitors is just another way to torment the service affectionately known to many Britons by the nickname “Auntie.”

The BBC recently changed its leadership, elevating a marketing executive, Tim Davie, to be its director general. Mr. Davie, who was active in Conservative Party politics in the 1990s, has told colleagues he wants to overhaul the BBC’s lineup of comedy programs to right what he views as a bias against Brexit and the government. By making cosmetic changes in programming, some analysts said, Mr. Davie could actually shield the BBC from more dangerous attacks on its financing.

Still, as the reflexive outrage over “Rule, Britannia!” and the Proms shows, picking a fight with the BBC will always be tempting to the Johnson government. And in the end, it is an unfair battle.

“The BBC can’t really fight back because of its commitment to impartiality,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford. “That makes it quite a useful punching bag for old, mainly white, men who want to make a point by punching it.”

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