Monday, October 22, 2012

The impunity of the BBC

In a way the bombshell that has hit the BBC in the past 24 hours over the raft of allegations about the sexual conduct of Jimmy Savile- and the apparent long-term cover-up- is entirely appropriate. Yet to my mind the storm that has broken is also slightly mis-aimed. It is rather like Al Capone being convicted of tax evasion, rather than the much grosser crimes that he undoubtedly also committed. The fact is that the BBC has an ever longer charge sheet of misconduct, and the cover up of what seems, to say the least, the creepy, probably criminal, antics of one of its stars is actually a bit beside the point.

Although I believe Rupert Murdoch to be a criminal who should himself now be in gaol, his constant criticism of the Corporation was not entirely self-serving. The fact is that from the gold plated hypocrisy of its expense accounts culture to the naked bias of its news programmes, the BBC has moved a long way from the trusted, Reithian ethos that prevailed even up to a couple of decades ago. The image of the impartial reporter, epitomised by Mark Tully, Charles Wheeler or Alistair Cooke may have been a bit glamorised, but there is no doubt that to be a BBC correspondent once implied a depth of knowledge and experience that was much more than merely superficial. Yet the BBC has for some time now been trading on the respect that this previous generation of journalists had earned without, however, matching it today. In the days of Sir John Reith, the idea that the BBC would routinely allow errors of fact in its output to go unchallenged was literally unthinkable. Now barely a day goes by without my hearing basic errors of fact- often in news bulletins. Then there is the increasing and obvious editorial bias. statements are taken out of context and edited down to a point where the editorial slant becomes highly misleading. As a matter of reportage, the BBC has stooped to the simplification of the tabloids, rather than the nuanced judgements that its charter demands. The original mission: "To inform, to educate and to entertain" now focuses entirely on entertainment, and the first two aspects are widely derided as elitism. No one has remade David Attenborough's seminal Life of Earth series, despite the startling advances in knowledge we have made through understanding the genome, because the very idea of a natural history is deemed to be too didactic (and anyway US networks are more circumspect than they were about co-financing anything that deals with the theory of evolution). The other documentary series of the 1960s and 1970s- Civilisation, the Ascent of Man or America would likewise not be made today- partly for reasons of cost, but also because the BBC itself prefers to buy-in cheap entertainment like Strictly Come Dancing. For the fact is that- as Rupert Murdoch charges- the BBC now measures success solely in terms of winning the ratings battle.

The result of this constant battle for ratings has been the elimination or demotion of much that was valuable about public service broadcasting- notably children's programmes- and the creation of a cadre of frankly overpaid "star talent". 

The defenders of the BBC like to point out the hostility of Murdoch as a positive- that if the obvious villain of the British media industry disapproves, then the Corporation must be doing something right. Yet in fact the enmity of Murdoch has given the BBC immunity to even the vaguest criticism. However- as the Savile scandal shows us- such impunity has created an intolerant culture of arrogance. The British media, including the BBC, has developed its own agenda which has little to do with impartial reporting and everything to do with promoting its own vested interests. It is generally accepted that the BBC has a broadly left-wing bias, and from comedy to news, it now does not even make a pretence of denying it. The constant derision of the Liberal Democrats, for example, is not reflecting a national mood- it is shaping it. The failure to report European affairs in any mainstream way has resulted in a general ignorance of the most basic issues facing Britain and the EU. Of course the issues are complicated, but the state funded national broadcaster has a duty to inform and educate- which it consistently fails to do. The fact is that sending hundreds of staff to cover the US elections is a pure boondoggle- and precisely the kind of gold plating that an organisation that believes itself untouchable can get away with. Meanwhile more pressing domestic issues go largely unreported.

So the Savile scandal is simply the tip of the iceberg. Yet it does open up an opportunity to scrutinise an organisation that has become bloated with money and untrammelled power. As the inevitable call for inquiries gathers pace and politicians rush to join the band wagon, they should note that the license payer has, for some time now, been getting a very bad bargain out of the BBC.

In the same way that the Milly Dowler hacking scandal revealed the corruption at the heart of the Murdoch Empire, so the Savile scandal should reveal the corruption at the heart of the BBC. As Murdoch, in my view, should be held accountable for his crimes so the BBC must also lose much of the power that it has so casually and wrongly exercised over the past few years. 

The media market is changing radically as new technology increases but also fragments the content available for distribution. The time has come to break up the BBC and to drastically remake its remit. The national debate as to how best to do this is merely another strand of the wider debate about the whole nature and future of our democracy that I think is long overdue in the United Kingdom.


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