We should be very worried about the BBC, but not because of its real or alleged failings. It is a remarkable institution, one of the few British organisations known throughout the world, and known everywhere simply by its initials. It is by some measures the largest and most trusted international broadcaster. It is a class of institution, which we might call ‘public’, that Britain does extraordinarily well: its universities are another example. For a country more dependent for its standing on ‘soft power’ than most, these are very ‘soft powerful’. And they are now all under attack. They are disliked and sometimes hated because they are both public and successful. None of them fit Britain’s now dominant ideological values. Cable and Willetts, for instance, will ruin the universities rather than admit that their historic structure is the reason for their success, since that success is a reproach to these values.
Of such institutions the BBC is probably the most vulnerable. When it was founded, the great newspaper empires favoured a public broadcasting system financed by a licence fee because it would not compete for scarce advertising revenue. The Conservative Party also favoured that system because it seemed to obviate an American free-for-all and to guarantee a broadcasting network freed from a subversive democratic popular culture. The Tories therefore accepted its independence, as long as it was not too independent. During the general strike (1926) or the abdication crisis (1936) the Conservative Party leaned heavily on the Corporation to ensure that it reported the ‘correct’ news; and the BBC’s director-general, John Reith, readily accepted that.
Although by international standards the BBC has had remarkable freedom, its relationship with government has never been entirely easy. Nonetheless, both sides used to accept conventions which favoured the Corporation. These conventions, however, are, no longer recognised by governments. The newspaper empires are now almost always hostile; not least the Murdoch press which has been unremitting in its hostility because, unlike the press empires of prewar days, it is now a direct competitor. The licence fee is today regarded as an illegitimate advantage, and the BBC’s extraordinary commercial success thought also to be illegitimate, based as it is, so runs the argument, on a government-arranged monopoly. The right-wing of the Conservative Party has always thought of the Corporation as a ‘government’ institution and any backsliding as treachery. To their credit Cameron and Osborne have not openly joined the BBC-baiting, but their ‘austerity’ works just as well. It has damaged the World Service and by freezing the licence fee has significantly cut the Corporation’s future income – so making it even more dependent on its commercial operations, which further maddens the Murdochs.
The Labour Party, especially New Labour, however, has not been staunch in its support; constantly seeing malice and ill-will where the Corporation sees independent reporting. Old Labour worried much less, partly because it accepted that media hostility was a law of nature, partly because it was less concerned with news-management. But a party obsessively preoccupied with management and spin and governing in an increasingly paranoid atmosphere was never going to be an uncommitted ally. Most Labour MPs probably still think that the Corporation got what it deserved over the Andrew Gilligan/David Kelly affair even though to most outsiders those who should have resigned were not the chairman and director-general of the BBC. As long as the Labour Party remains so tepid in its support of the public sphere, so Blairite in its attachment to the market, the BBC can expect little encouragement from Labour and any future Labour government.
The present ‘crisis’ of the BBC has, therefore, come at a particularly difficult moment for it. That the BBC has some explaining to do it admits as easily as anyone else. Indeed one half of the BBC has been pretty remorseless in its treatment of the other. That George Entwistle mishandled things even he has not denied. His insouciance, his apparent failure to read the papers (and the seeming failure of anyone else to tell him what was in them), is astonishing. And doubtless the BBC Trust’s decision to allow him to retire with a golden handshake of £450,000 will make things worse. (Though it ill becomes politicians who have done nothing about the grotesque levels of pay in the private sector to criticise the BBC.) In fact, many of the Corporation’s managerial problems – too many managers, too highly paid – developed precisely because it was encouraged to corporatise on the private sector model.
Furthermore, we need to know exactly where the BBC has been at fault. The extent to which the Corporation knowingly connived at Jimmy Savile’s behaviour has yet to be revealed. But if it did, it was certainly not alone. The most astonishing disclosure, indeed, of the whole affair is that Savile, totally unqualified, should have effectively been put in charge of Broadmoor. But I am not aware that the health ministers responsible for this extraordinary decision have been put to the rack. Nor was Broadmoor the only institution, it is now clear, that gave Savile free rein. What needs to be explained is why the culture of the period was so relaxed about the activities of someone like Savile or why he was so popular. That is a much harder question to answer, which is why it is so easy to blame the BBC and forget all the rest. That the Corporation feared exactly this is presumably why it rushed out its mistaken claim that a senior Tory figure was involved in the North Wales scandals. It wished to demonstrate that it too will now expose paedophilia, as the politics of the situation seems to require. That the BBC needs to restore effective editorial authority is obvious. But it is also obvious that institutions and individuals that are just as culpable will not be expected similarly to account for their actions over the last thirty years. The BBC, in spite of its faults, needs defending because increasingly authoritarian British governments of all parties will not defend it, any more than they will Britain’s other great public institutions.