Crisis at the BBC - should we care?

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After the appalling revelations about child abuse by Jimmy Savile and others the BBC has been plunged into crisis. Yet some of those attacking the BBC are media magnates and newspapers who would profit from its demise. Sue Sparks asks, should socialists defend the BBC as a public service broadcaster?

The BBC is facing one of the most serious crises in its history. This article is not about the facts or causes of this particular crisis; rather I want to look at the response of socialists to the attack on the BBC.

Some people on the left argue that there is nothing to distinguish between the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media. On this view, the BBC plays a central role in suppressing critical voices and forming a consensus against radical change. In some ways, they argue, it is even worse than other media, since it dresses its bias in the clothes of balance and impartiality. It invariably sides with the bosses in strikes and has given platforms to the BNP and the EDL.

The BBC's coverage of the Israeli attacks on Gaza in November will understandably only add to the sense of outrage felt by many people towards it. What's more, the BBC has in the past operated as part of the state machine. For example, as has been documented, the BBC has cooperated with the security services in selecting and dismissing staff and suppressing programmes critical of the state.

But I want to argue against the idea that the BBC is just another part of big media. Looking around the world, it is possible to distinguish different broadcasting models: public service broadcasting (of which the BBC is an example, but also ARD in Germany, NHK in Japan, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and others); state broadcasting (for example, RTE in Ireland, RAI in Italy); and private broadcasting only (the US).

These models, of course, vary in their national and historical contexts. So the appropriately named CCTV, the state broadcaster in China, differs considerably from the Irish RTE, as one is operating in a one-party state and the other within bourgeois democracy. Private broadcasters will usually coexist with public or state ones, though these have sometimes been recent arrivals (in post-Franco Spain, for instance). There are also different regulatory regimes. So for example, the Federal Communications Commission in the US regulates the national, free to air, networks such as ABC and NBC differently from cable television, while in Britain different rules apply to BSkyB than to Channel 4.

The point of making these distinctions is that although the BBC is definitely (and especially in its news and current affairs role) part of the instruments available to the ruling class to reproduce its ideology, it is not necessarily available to the particular government of the day to propagate any specific policy. Whereas in some countries the top personnel of a state broadcaster will change when a different party wins an election, this does not happen in public service broadcasters.

So what? It matters because both the formal position of the public broadcaster as "neutral" and "accountable", and possible conflicts between elements of the ruling class over policies open up a space for struggle. This was clearly demonstrated during the conflict in Northern Ireland and over the Iraq war. Such spaces allow the public and the media workforce to play a role in influencing the content of programmes.

One example was a one-day strike by BBC staff in 1985 against the governors' decision to abide by the request made by the then home secretary, Leon Brittan, not to broadcast a Real Lives programme featuring an extended interview with Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness. Solidarity strikes were also planned by journalists in other broadcasters. Eventually the programme was transmitted.

These instances are not unique to the BBC - other critical programmes have been made and broadcast in defiance of the government of the day by other broadcasters, such as Death on the Rock by Thames Television about the shooting by the SAS of unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988. But the BBC is the core part of the eco-system in which these programmes are made. As Michael Grade, then of Channel 4, used to say, "It's the BBC that keeps us honest."

Accountability
That the BBC is more publicly accountable than private media has been demonstrated recently. News Corporation, which committed far more outrageous and deliberate journalistic (and actual) crimes during the phone hacking scandal than the recent mistakes by Newsnight, has done its best to protect Rupert and James Murdoch and has only very slowly and reluctantly sacrificed senior henchmen and women, such as Rebekah Brooks.

By contrast, it took only a few days for the BBC's director general to resign. The hypocrisy of the newspapers, which, having felt the heat of the Leveson Inquiry, turned their self-righteous ire on the BBC's journalistic standards, is breathtaking.

Unlike newspapers and commercial television, or the whole of the US media, the BBC is not run by managers who are only answerable to shareholders for the profits they can deliver each year. The BBC is funded very substantially by a special tax - the licence fee. It differs from most other state or public broadcasters, which rely on direct state funding and usually on advertising as well.

That gives the BBC a degree of independence from both the state and the market. Of course it is only a degree of independence, since ultimately the existence and level of the licence fee are up to government and many governments, especially Tory ones, have considered getting rid of it. So the continued existence of the BBC depends on public support to deter any government from killing it off.

The BBC management undoubtedly failed to learn the correct lesson from the 2003 Hutton Report into its reporting of the government's "sexed-up dossier" on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction: that its staff and the public wanted it to fight, not cave in. Most polls then suggested that the public believed the BBC, not Blair and Campbell, and saw the Hutton Report as a whitewash. Greg Dyke, the BBC director general at the time, was right to say in his book, Inside Story, that after he was forced to resign the BBC "ran for cover". No one in the BBC was allowed to argue the case that it had not made any serious mistakes over the dossier. Dyke goes on to say that the BBC's failure to counter the myth that it made such mistakes was out of a desire "not to reignite the battle with the government". It has continued to run for cover ever since. It would be in a far stronger position now had it fought Blair and stood by the BBC's journalism over the dossier.

Private enterprise and profit
If we want to understand the true motivation of the media bosses who attack the BBC it is worth quoting from James Murdoch's Mac Taggart lecture at the prestigious Edinburgh International Television Festival in 2009: "Creationism [by this he means the idea of a central authority] penalises the poorest in our society with regressive taxes and policies - like the licence fee and digital switchover; it promotes inefficient infrastructure in the shape of digital terrestrial television; it creates unaccountable institutions - like the BBC Trust, Channel 4 and Ofcom; and now... it threatens significant damage to...the provision of independent news, investment in professional journalism, and the innovation and growth of the creative industries... The right path is all about trusting and empowering consumers. It is about embracing private enterprise and profit as a driver of investment, innovation and independence. And the dramatic reduction of the activities of the state in our sector."

Aside from the hypocrisy of one of the Murdoch clan describing the BBC, Channel 4 and Ofcom as "unaccountable", the key part of this statement is "private enterprise and profit". The "inefficient infrastructure of digital terrestrial television" means the free digital television which prevented Sky from using the transition to digital delivery to relegate the BBC's channels to around numbers 320 or so on Sky's electronic programme guide.

It is also important to remember that the BBC produces much more than news and current affairs. The BBC's commercial enemies mainly want to destroy the licence fee because the free provision of what remains high quality, popular, UK-made, programming aimed at the majority of the population limits their ability to make profits. News Corporation boasts that nowadays it invests in UK programming, such as Sky Arts. But would it continue to do so if the BBC were reduced to a ghetto for the elite, consisting mainly of BBC Four and Radios 3 and 4? And, of course, without the licence fee, these would become shadows of their former selves, probably worse than the limited PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in the US, which can currently at least show BBC programmes.

Then there is the question of impartiality and "balance" - something that has, rightly, attracted searching critiques from media scholars and campaigners. The notion of impartiality does indeed marginalise critical voices by imposing a narrow range of "acceptable" opinions, which leads to the classic establishment-dominated line ups on Question Time, for example. Ordinary people, if they ever get on air, are often made to look ridiculous. The terms of the debate on complex issues, such as Palestine or Northern Ireland, are drawn so tightly as to exclude the possibility of proper analysis, often focussing instead on whether an interviewee does or does not "condemn" terrorism.

On the other hand, where there are powerful radical forces on the ground, such as the anti-war movement, or when the left makes electoral breakthroughs, radical voices can often get temporary access to current affairs programmes because there is an official need to represent different views. They would never get access to privately-owned newspapers unless their views were seen as in accord with at least part of the particular readership (for example, in the Guardian or the Independent). The internet may be seen as an alternative, and has great value, but the fact is that the news agenda is still set by big media, which has the resources for news gathering.

Selecting stories
It is therefore interesting that in his speech, James Murdoch borrows some radical-seeming clothes: "The system is concerned with imposing what it calls impartiality in broadcast news. It should hardly be necessary to point out that the mere selection of stories and their place in the running order is itself a process full of unacknowledged partiality. The effect of the system is not to curb bias - bias is present in all news media - but simply to disguise it. We should be honest about this: it is an impingement on freedom of speech and on the right of people to choose what kind of news to watch."

He is right to point out that regulation does not eliminate bias. But think for a minute about the news channel News Corp owns in the US, Fox News, and the one it owns in the UK, Sky News. Sky News is in many ways indistinguishable from the BBC or ITN. But that is because of the regulation - and more fundamentally due to the long established ethos of public service broadcasting in Britain - that the Murdochs would like to sweep away.

Media in an unregulated capitalist free market means media that people pay for, either through advertising (which means programmes targeted at consumers worth selling things to through sheer numbers or through income levels) or through paying a subscription, or in some cases media owned by very rich individuals willing to lose money to peddle political influence, like some of the Russian oligarchs. It is obvious there would never be a socialist channel in this situation.

Italy provides an example of what happens when there is a totally free market in television. After the end of RAI's monopoly in 1976 there were hundreds of private broadcasters, including some run by the Communist Party. But very soon all the commercial networks came under the ownership of Silvio Berlusconi. His company, Mediaset, still dominates the TV advertising market, with a 62 percent share. Its major private competitor is Sky Italia, owned by the Murdochs.

More fundamentally, do we want to go along with James Murdoch's notion of people "watching the kind of news they want to watch"? Or, with all its very real flaws, would we rather have "news" that most people watch and which we can argue about?

Do we really believe that the demise of the BBC, or its relegation to a rump of a subscription service, would leave the media landscape in Britain - including the loss of the provision of programmes for less numerous or affluent sections of the population - no poorer?

Defend and criticise
We can't afford to say, "We support public service broadcasting in principle, but not the BBC." It is the BBC that exists and that is under attack. If it is destroyed it won't be replaced with another public service broadcaster that might be a lot better. It is important that, in principle, good, high quality media for everyone, including minorities, is provided free to use by a not for profit organisation. The BBC is, like it or not, the terrain over which the struggle is taking place. It is the BBC we have to both defend and criticise. Let us be very clear about this question of defending the BBC. It is a question of when we defend it and against who. We should defend it against the privatisers and the profiteers.

I have personally sat in any number of meetings with trade associations representing newspaper and book publishers, lobbyists for News Corporation and officials from government departments and Ofcom, where the BBC has been under attack. It is attacked by educational publishers for giving online resources free (such as foreign language materials and GCSE Bite Size) which the publishers think they have a divine right to extract profits from providing. It is attacked by newspaper publishers for providing a free comprehensive news website, using public funding, which the newspapers find it hard to compete with.

That is the truth of what is going on all the time behind closed doors - a long running and well-funded campaign by the private media and its associations to influence government to cut the BBC's funding and reduce the scope of what it does. We should defend the BBC against these people.

However, we do not defend it against the viewers and listeners who are angry that it does not represent their voices, for example on the question of Palestine. We do not defend it against its own trade unions, when they resist cuts and attacks on their working conditions, which are coming as part of the promised "overhaul". We do not defend it against creative staff and writers who want to push the boundaries of programme making. We do not defend its structures - we want them to be much more democratic and accountable.

On the other hand, we should not denounce media workers at the BBC as a "producer interest" or refuse to support them because we don't like the programmes they produce. On the contrary, we should see strong workplace organisation at the BBC and in the media generally (and unionisation at the BBC is relatively high, whereas casualisation is rife in the rest of the sector) as fundamental to resisting censorship and self-censorship.