Defend the BBC!

Ross McKibbin

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.


  • 14 November 2012 at 11:52am
    streetsj says:
    You say the universities are disliked because they are successful and public. I think this is completely wrong. In general private and successful enterprises come to be hated (Shell makes £xm a minute and look at the price of petrol! Etc). And we tend to get a bit soppy about private, failing institutions (Woolworths, Jaguar, newspapers).
    The dislike of universities, to the extent there is any, probably comes down to their isolated smugness. And their unwillingness to move with the times. Why is so much of university teaching still dominated by the lecture. It is just about the most useless way to learn anything. Very few lecturers are actually good at lecturing and those who are good are limited to a tiny live audience. Since the lecture precludes (generally) interactivity, nothing is more suited to being recorded and being distributed to students to study at their own pace and in their own time. The little bit of teaching that actually goes on in tutorials is also of massively variable quality.
    In a few years time, now that students know what it costs for this service and will have to pay for it, the numbers applying for university courses will fall drastically.

    I disagree, for different reasons, about the BBC too.

  • 14 November 2012 at 5:11pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Surely if universities are to become popular, they will need lively presenters who can touch the hearts of their customers with stories of their charity work, for instance. Then the customers, or more likely their well-off parents, will be glad to pay for someone with his finger on their pulse thus.

    In my day, however, lectures, as long as you could stay awake after your own nocturnal fieldwork, were interesting and revealing. I remember when the elderly linguist Roman Jakobson came to talk to us, we hung on his every word.

    What money can't buy, though, in this country, is children. These must be somehow pied-pipered in via the charity sector which is aptly geared to step in wherever government has failed to find suitable commercial stakeholders.

  • 15 November 2012 at 12:19pm
    outofdate says:
    At least since Rageh Omaar invaded Iraq in full combat gear, going yee-ha, the BBC's been known throughout the world for nothing worth preserving. Whatever does it, this current trivial crap, the Tories, Labour, a high wind: let it come the fuck down.

  • 15 November 2012 at 4:25pm
    patrick hutchinson says:
    Fight Merdoque, in plain English! Couldn't agree more, especially as one who depends on the already mutilated, ideologically abated World Service for regular access. Off shore, the Beeb is (was until recently?) still omething we could be proud of (almost the last?!). Les violons long de l'automne...

  • 15 November 2012 at 6:16pm
    Donald Graham says:
    I am sick and tired of Brits talking about how the BBC is the greatest. It isn't and it hasn't been for quite a long time. It's the last vestige of the Raj, and the announcers still pronounce the country's name as nik-a-rag-u-a, like they've never been exposed to Spanish. It's stuffy, elitist, and seldom fun to watch (more often fun to listen to). I won't say who I think is better (because then you'll jump all over me for whatever faults they have--I know you), but let's just say there are at least three. Cambridge may be the best university in the world (for now) but the BBC isn't the best anything.

    • 16 November 2012 at 3:38pm
      alex says: @ Donald Graham
      And the Nicaraguans say 'Londres'. Is that stuffy and elitist too?

  • 15 November 2012 at 9:39pm
    Jane Bryce says:
    The point about the double standard being applied to the Beeb is well-made. As an overseas British listener to the World Service - since the 50's - it has been the soundtrack to my life. But it's more than ex-pat nostalgia that makes me tune in. It is quite simply the only news source I can bear to listen to. Despite the awful phone-in programmes it has been reduced to, its journalists are still cheerful, brave and thoroughly admirable. If there is a way to defend it, I'd like to hear about it.

  • 16 November 2012 at 3:16pm
    streetsj says:
    "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"

    This sentence seems to me to encapsulate what the left misunderstand about the private sector - both the author and the BBC.
    I don’t want to get into an argument about overpaid private sector managers (this is undoubtedly true and wrong and needs to be corrected); it's the point that you need a lot of them: that's not how the private sector works. A for-profit organisation is interested in profit, if you stuff it full of overpaid managers it won't make enough profit and so the managers won't be overpaid enough.
    The principal objection from the "right" is that the consumptive state is overstaffed, over bureaucratic, and inefficient. The taxpayer can accept that taxes are useful they just don't want them wasted.
    Back to the BBC: the problem is that its remit has not been well redefined. Everything about the world it operates in has changed and little about its raison d'etre has. In the early days broadcast capacity was strictly limited and there were no alternative mass visual/audio media. Now there is almost infinite capacity. The BBC is now no different from a state sponsored theatre/opera house/museum. We can argue that it is worth doing but it shouldn't be competing directly against commercial enterprises that can pay their own way. You have a national theatre because it is difficult for theatre to make money out of Shakespeare/Chekov/Shaw etc and it is accepted that these things are worthwhile. The argument may be tougher with Wagner/Verdi/Britten but it is the same.
    Where the BBC falls down is feeling it needs to justify its mammoth cost by aiming for the popular. the popular will be provided by commercial enterprises very happily. The BBC's role is surely to provide the unpopular; the worthy; even the dull.
    The dull is perhaps the most important. Not last because most of the time no one will be watching. But every now and then it is crucial to have your news unpsun, desexed, and simply factual. The time allotted to explaining important but dull things. The turnout for the police chief elections has been miserable mainly because nobody knows what they are voting for, how it will work, who is standing. The BBC has failed miserably here. It should be its job to educate us all at this. If it has done I missed it.
    Like the University argument, it always amazes me just how conservative the left is. They don’t want anything changed. The BBC’s remit needs to be radically updated and the organisation massively downsized. We don’t need the BBC for good drama, or sexed up news/comment (al Jazeera anyone?) or sport; we need it to do the things that are worthwhile but no-one is prepared to pay for until it’s too late, they’ve gone. Like defence.

  • 17 November 2012 at 8:40am
    John Cowan says:
    I agree with streetsj: the BBC's attempt to compete with commercial media on popular entertainment is misplaced. In particular, their science news has been a disgrace for many years: muddled, sensationalist, and often utterly at variance with the facts. PBS shows in America like _Nova_ have shown that it can be done, and that there is an audience: the worthy need not be dull.

  • 22 November 2012 at 9:35pm says:
    I could not agree less... Rupert Murdoch would love to see the BBC shrink to a highbrow ghetto. The tabloid press does all it can to undermine support for the licence fee - imagine how much popular support there would be for a service modelled on the current BBC4 and Radios 3 and 4 (much as I find to admire in the output of all three). "Popular" doesn't have to mean trashy - the BBC gave us comedies like Steptoe and Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, it gave us first-class dramas like Edge of Darkness, The Boys From The Black Stuff, Our Friends In The North and State of Play. I can find a lot to criticise in the current output, but if the BBC is to retain widespread public support it has to continue to produce a range of high-quality POPULAR programmes.

    • 26 November 2012 at 5:07pm
      streetsj says: @
      I suppose we should ahve a state owned popular newspaper too, to compete with Murdoch.

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