I was invited to write for a new website by a group of politically engaged 15-year-olds. I volunteered to write about the BBC. After some delay they managed to upload the piece, but in the process lost the notes and the quotes. So I am uploading it in full here. All of what’s below is much more in sorrow than in anger.
We all have opinions on the BBC – right? Because we’re all invested in a news story, a BBC-generated viral video, the Archers, Top Gear, or a BBC recipe when we go online looking for culinary ideas (more about this later…)
And it seems we’ve all been giving voice to our views as the corporation is said to be under threat (The Tories go to war on the BBC ), and a Green Paper is heralded as the greatest threat ever to the BBC, conjuring the desolation of a post-apocalyptic, post–BBC landscape1.
My problem is not with backing Auntie – God knows I love her more than most. My problem is rather with how the support is expressed, and more importantly with the beeb’s own short-sightedness that could bury it.
The defenders defend with a blind loyalty. I challenged them on Twitter to acknowledge that the BBC is great but needs improvement, and was firmly squashed:
The need to save the BBC prompts a wagon-circling mentality that sets up a Manichaean world. What is inside the circle is Good. What is outside is Evil. However, when the facts don’t support that duality, to assert it looks flat-earth-ish.
No! nothing in the BBC needs improving, say its defenders. Really? It loses us credibility when we refuse to engage with the criticisms of the BBC, and more importantly when we fail to sound the warnings to the BBC that only critical friends can offer.
So can we dispense straight away with the notion that the BBC’s place is not to make popular shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and the Voice? The consultation paper distinguishes between the two shows. Strictly is praised for being a format developed by the BBC and sold abroad (bouquet). The Voice was a format developed elsewhere and bought in for approximately £20m (brickbat). Yes – that’s £20million of your and my licence fee.
But hey, that’s actually £5m less than the payouts made to 150 of the BBC’s top executives (which was £2m more than the contracts stipulated). MPs extracted that admission from the BBC’s top brass in 2013. They were brazen. Former director general Mark Thompson said the “sole reason” for making the severance payments “was so that the BBC could rapidly reduce the number of senior managers and make far larger savings on behalf of the public”. That is monumental casuistry. His next statement is insulting: “”Despite some inflammatory language in the Public Accounts Committee report, there is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing by anyone at the BBC in relation to these severance payments.”
The belt-tightening that this prompted inexplicably, and inexcusably cut into the news budget. Now, managers are at last to be cut. The culture that sees no wrongdoing as exculpation for gross profligacy with public money is déjà vu of the MPs’ expenses scandals: we recognise the Establishment feathering its nest heedlessly and self-righteously.
This brings me to my main point – my biggest beef with the beeb (and I’m vegetarian!) – its establishmentarianism, which will be its undoing; and here’s why.
The BBC is losing the support of those it most needs: activists outside the armchair who campaign for the public realm. In Scotland that support is said already to be lost2. All because of the corporation’s national news and current affairs coverage, which has failed signally to reflect our concerns.
Where in BBC News is the anti-austerity perspective (espoused by the greatest, most thoughtful economists and thinkers including Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz (both Nobel economics laureates), Danny Blanchflower, Simon Wren-Lewish, Ha Joon-chang, and 79 leading economists who signed the letter in June)? Where is the coverage of TTIP? Where is the recognition that the gore-porn of murders and atrocities is prurient nonsense, and that the ubiquitous breast-beating over Islamic extremism is disingenuous?
“BBC News is ‘completely obsessed’ by the agenda set by newspapers and follows the lead of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph too much”. That’s not me speaking – that is senior BBC journalist Robert Peston!
What is the point of an independent news broadcaster that just echoes the world-view and priorities of the corporate media?3
Watch this: BBC News’s craven toeing of the Establishment line (and its happy adoption of the Establishment’s culture of entitlement) will leave it bereft of defences when the neoliberal repo man comes with his thugs to strip the joint. Come he will – that seems clear. Although the danger is not imminent – the settlement for the next decade or so is done. But thereafter, the signs are not good. The Establishment itself is out to get the BBC.
The Secretary of State for Fun’s advisers on the consultation paper are all private sector figures hungry to take BBC territory for their corporate profit.
“Private good; Public bad”, the Establishment bailiffs will say. “True,” the BBC Trust will have to admit, if it still exists. “You are encroaching on private profit,” the neoliberal homunculus will charge. “Undeniably,” the BBC will have to concede as it moves aside to let the removers in.
In the depths of the corporation, makers of programmes such as Analysis, File on 4, freelancers like Jacques Peretti, and a few commentators will be staffing the barricades of good sense, social democracy, and the mixed economy. But what will they have left to defend, and where will their cavalry come from?
Public Service Broadcasting must above all be able to do what the commercial ones can’t. In tacitly adopting market fundamentalism, the BBC could be nurturing the seeds of its own destruction.
1) From Twitter Ian Morris @IanMorris78 Jul 10 — Here’s something I wrote on what happens if we don’t treasure the BBC and keep it safe from government: http://www.t3.com/features/if-we-dont-save-the-bbc-well-regret-it-forever …
2) Many quotes from Twitter
CarolineJMolloy @carolinejmolloy Jul 14 — I’d be more inclined 2 fight to save the BBC if it hadn’t betrayed our *actual* NHS so badly https://opendemocracy.net/ournhs/david-wrigley/panorama-and-nhs-perfect-missed-opportunity …
3) My answer is (of course) : BBC Radios 2, 3, 4, 5, London, i-player and the podcast facility. Not the recipes (honestly, leave it out!).