The BBC and public service broadcasting

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By the time you read this, "Sachsgate" - the events that culminated in the suspension of two of the BBC's highest-profile presenters and the resignation of a senior radio executive - will have, in all likelihood, disappeared from the front pages of those newspapers that used it to paint a picture of moral decay with the BBC at its epicentre.

When Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left smutty messages on the answerphone of actor Andrew Sachs, this was seen as merely the latest example of the alleged collapse of BBC editorial standards, following the discovery of faked phone-ins, the re-editing of a documentary of the Queen in 2007 and the Hutton Inquiry into BBC newsgathering in 2004.

The issues the events raise, however, will have a longer shelf life as the future of the BBC and the purpose of public service broadcasting remain very much up for grabs. "Broadcasting", as Tony Benn once famously argued, "is too important to be left to the broadcasters" and this is a debate that should not be confined to policy wonks at Ofcom, the moral crusaders at the Daily Mail, or politicians eyeing up "Middle England" votes.

There are two wholly antagonistic positions in the Brand and Ross escapade. First, that it provides further evidence of the "dumbing down" of the BBC driven by its desire to attract new, youthful audiences. Second, that the furore was deliberately whipped up by tabloid papers eager to increase sales and to continue their witchhunt against the publicly-funded BBC. Without the headlines provided by the Sun and the Mail, the two original complainants who actually listened to the show would have remained isolated and the episode would have passed without further comment. In reality both positions are correct.

The hypocrisy of some of the critics of the BBC is astonishing. Its commercial rivals, desperate to expand their market share, have long attacked the corporation, claiming that it is too big, that it distorts Britain's media market and it harms competition. The idea, however, that the Sun's coverage of Sachsgate was motivated not by commercial self-interest but by a desire to protect young women is laughable.

The BBC is also facing the wrath of Ofcom, the media regulator set up to promote competition. Ofcom is not only expected to fine the BBC, but is also lobbying hard for some of the BBC's licence fee revenue to help fund the public service provision of other broadcasters.

Finally, for all its statements that the BBC is the "cornerstone" of British broadcasting, the Labour government has constantly sought to discipline the BBC through political attacks on the (imagined) anti-government bias of its news coverage and through its insistence on neoliberal recipes for cost cutting and "financialising" its operations.

But the BBC is far from blameless in all this. Indeed, it has taken on board much of the behaviour of its commercial counterparts. It is willing to pay above-market rates for "talent" (Jonathan Ross's £18 million contract) at the same time as announcing almost 2,000 redundancies. It tries to make itself "relevant" to new audiences by aping some of the worst "laddish" behaviour of the tabloids (try listening to Chris Moyles on Radio One). It is charged with "leading a conversation" with the nation, but does this through the simplistic frame of a season on the "crisis of whiteness" or with primetime TV schedules devoted to celebrity entertainment shows.

The tragedy is that Sachsgate will lead to a more cautious and defensive attitude to programme-making and the adoption of more mainstream agendas and commercial formulae, just as the fallout of the Hutton Inquiry led to increased political conservatism in BBC newsgathering. While it will be hard not to rein in some of the expensive "talent" contracts, it is more likely that technical and programme staff lower down the ladder will be made to pay for increased financial insecurity. The episode will also fuel the anti-BBC lobby and further attacks on the BBC's independence and therefore its ability to express the voices and perspectives largely ignored by more commercial broadcasters.

The BBC, as the main exponent of public service broadcasting, ought to take risks and give a flavour of the real debates among the wider population. This doesn't mean dumbing down and treating anyone under 30 as interested only in cheap gags, casual sexism and celebrity lifestyles. But it won't be BBC executives, Daily Mail editors or government policymakers who push the corporation to make programmes that are critical and imaginative. Instead, it will be down to media workers and licence-fee payers to argue against the further commercialisation of British broadcasting and to press for a system that actually serves, rather than patronises, the public.


Des Freedman is the author of the recently published The Politics of Media Policy