BBC Charter renewal: invisible actors and critical friends, Part 2 – Julian Petley

29 07 2015

BBCThis is the final part of a two part post.  Part 1 was published on 28 July 2015.

Anxiety has been expressed in pro-BBC quarters about the members of the Charter Review advisory group [pdf] set up by the DCMS.  Thus Broadcast stated that ‘the consensus is that the group are talented and experienced but lack obvious empathy or sympathy for the BBC. There are also concerns that they may pursue their own commercial agendas at the expense of the Corporation.

On the other side of the divide, The Times, 13 July, helpfully published a run-down on the ‘reform-minded’ members of the panel members, which suggested that they were in tune with much of the thinking behind the Green Paper. Once again, then, the debate has been distorted by the eagerness of the BBC’s enemies in the press to present the panel as a demolition crew, which, in turn, has helped to provoke the corporation’s allies into attacking them as such.

Thus Stewart Lee in the Guardian, 19 July, called them ‘a veritable human centipede of business-minded entities’ whose task was to ‘reform the BBC out of existence.’ Lord Fowler complained that ‘the advisory group advising the Secretary of State clanks with special interests and past opinions’ and the former BBC chairman Lord Patten called the panel ‘a team of assistant gravediggers’ who would help the culture secretary to ‘bury the BBC that we love.’ A much more nuanced view has been taken by Lis Howell on OurBeeb, and it would surely be sensible to wait and see what the advisory group actually advises before passing further judgement. 

‘Crushing plurality and stifling debate’

Although I suggested earlier that the reaction to the Green Paper in papers hostile to the BBC was relatively muted, it should be noted that they lost no opportunity to hone in on those aspects which suited their commercial interests. Thus, for example, The Times, 17 July, in a leader entitled ‘Slimming Auntie’ with the strapline ‘The culture secretary intends to put the BBC on a diet. A well-padded and expansive broadcaster should swallow it’, argued that the BBC cannot be all things to all people, and that:

‘in a multichannel universe in which the internet increasingly competes with television, the BBC should be ready to identify what it does best and can do better. At the same time it must rein in what George Osborne has called its “imperial” online ambitions. The corporation is a broadcaster, not a publisher. It cannot expect a renewed charter to endorse a status quo that lets it trample on private sector rivals with public funds. Technology has allowed the BBC to expand as if on steroids.’

Yet the article is remarkably ignorant about the institution which it is so keen to criticise, claiming that the public consultation ‘will be the first big debate on the BBC’s role in the digital age. It will be the first to question in earnest the basis of the licence fee in 70 years.’  But, as David Elstein has pointed out, the latter claim simply ignores previous inquiries by Beveridge (1949), Pilkington (1962), Annan (1977) and Peacock (1986), and the former writes out of history Gavyn Davies’ 1999 report on the BBC’s digital strategy.

Meanwhile, the Mail, 17 July, noted that the paper itself ‘has long argued that the Corporation’s massive website and proliferation of channels and local radio stations are crushing plurality and stifling debate. We believe its relentless expansion at taxpayers’ expense must be curbed.’

Invisible actors

The Mail was also quite obsessed by the letter written in defence of the BBC by a number of stars, a letter which, it turned out, had actually been instigated by the BBC itself. By normal journalistic standards this was hardly an earth- shattering revelation, although it would obviously have been preferable if the BBC had been open from the start about the origins of the letter. However, proving yet again that the Mail is an entirely irony free zone, the paper railed that it was ‘a crude attempt by the BBC to manipulate the national debate’ and warned its readers to expect from the BBC ‘more hysterical shroud-waving and deception as the consultation period goes on.’

Hysteria? Deception? Manipulation? Nothing, of course, which the Mail and the BBC’s other enemies in the press would ever dream of engaging in and, as always, the papers’ own role as actors in the stories with which they daily regale their readers is entirely unacknowledged and completely airbrushed out of the proceedings. However, press partisanship and self-interest are two of the main reasons why it is, and will continue to be, so very difficult to have a sensible public debate about the future of the BBC, since key sections of the media, which ought to be informing their readers about an issue of considerable public interest, are doing their utmost to influence the way in which that issue is being thought about and played out.

It was thus quite breathtakingly disingenuous of Stephen Glover in the Mail, 17 July, to accuse BBC senior management of being ‘hysterical’ and ‘over defensive’ when he and the paper for which he writes have played such a key role in helping to bring about in the first place the situation in which the BBC now finds itself.

Pusillanimity and arrogance

Of course, the BBC is very far from being beyond reproach when it comes to dealing with criticism. First of all, it has always been far too pusillanimous when it comes to facing down its enemies in the press. Thus it never takes advantage of Sections 320(3)(a) and (b) of the Communications Act 2003, which relieve it of certain of its impartiality obligations when it comes to dealing with matters pertaining to its own programming. It regularly gives a platform to those who habitually slag it off in the press, a particularly egregious example being Melanie Phillips of The Moral Maze fame, with Quentin Letts (What’s the Point Of …?) coming a close second. And finally, it gives vast amounts of entirely free publicity to newspaper stories (many of which would breach the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines if they were put out by the corporation itself) in programmes such as Today, BBC Breakfast and Newsnight. Would-be funny voices on What the Papers Say are absolutely no substitute at all for a sustained, critical and rigorous engagement with Britain’s national newspapers along the lines of Channel 4’s much-missed Hard News.

On the other hand, however, there are occasions when the BBC gets its public responses to matters pertaining to it seriously wrong. In this respect its terse and peppery response to the Green Paper seemed distinctly ill-judged – more like a reaction to the rumours about the document spread by the press in the days before its publication than a considered response to the Green Paper itself.  Charges of arrogance against the Corporation cannot conveniently be dismissed simply because they emanate so frequently from its enemies in the press.  The BBC does have friends within the Tory party, and indeed even within the Tory press (vide Peter Oborne), and, as David Elstein has pointed out, it will do itself no favours in the crucial months ahead if it acts as if faced by a united Tory anti-BBC front.

Furthermore, if it wants support from elsewhere on the political/ideological spectrum it is going to have to make alliances with what John Ellis rightly calls its ‘critical friends’, namely those who strongly support the principles of public service broadcasting but believe that the BBC too often fails to live up to them, particularly in matters of diversity, accountability, impartiality and so on. This may not be easy for the BBC, given its extreme and long-standing prickliness to criticisms of this sort, however well-intentioned.

It is crucial to realise that what will be at stake in the debates around the Green Paper and Charter renewal is actually the future of public service broadcasting, of which the BBC is but a trustee, albeit the key one in the UK. These will have to be defended against a whole range of powerful and influential vested interests, and they are going to need all the friends they can get, including the BBC’s critical ones. In return, and painful though it may be, the BBC is going to have to admit that it isn’t always right.

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen, Media and Journalism in the School of Arts at Brunel University. BBC Charter renewal: invisible actors and critical friends. He is Chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom

This post originally appeared on the Open Democracy website, Our Beeb, and is reproduced with permission and thanks.


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