New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
Columnists

Beeb bop a low bop

VallelyLet's begin with a declaration of financial interest. My wife works for the BBC. So half our household income comes from it. You may think that deprives me of the right to a view on the wave of attacks currently being launched against the Beeb. I beg to differ. But you make the judgement.

Now, contrast my opening with that of the lecture given by James Murdoch, son of Rupert, at the Edinburgh TV festival. His address was a broadside against the BBC and the current Ofcom state regulation of the British media. It was striking, then, that at no point in his speech did he disclose that his own organisation, BSkyB - and that of his father, News Corp - would make millions if the government ever dismantled Ofcom or shrank the BBC as his lecture proposed.

Significantly Mr Murdoch Jr did not speak of the media but of the 'media market'. An unquestioning embrace of the market was the ideological underpinning of his proposals.
Perhaps the most interesting political shift of the latter half of the 20th century was that ideology, which was once the tool of the left, became the distinctive apparatus of the right. A political movement which had once stood out against social change found itself in an uneasy yoke with those determined to accelerate it in the name of market liberalism. The money men like Murdoch won, which is why he now wants to smash a cultural jewel like the BBC which stands in the way of him making even more money, though of course he dresses up his case with talk about the best interests of democracy.

There is much that could be improved within the BBC. But at its core it embodies a key value which stands in bold contradiction to the free-market ideology that anything which doesn't make a profit is inherently wrong. The BBC at its best stands as a beacon of the fact that our society depends still on values which are not reducible to profit and loss.

Deconstruct Mr Murdoch's speech and his failure to understand that comes through again and again. He began with a religious metaphor, and a dismissive one.  UK broadcasting is run by people who embrace the media equivalent of creationism - 'the belief in a managed process with an omniscient authority - is the only way to achieve successful outcomes'. As a result the media industry was 'suffocating' under a surfeit of regulation.

He made some good points. With broadcasters and newspapers both increasingly developing websites the old rules promoting diversity, choice and competition are in need of rationalisation. Yet others things which outraged him seem entirely reasonable - like the fact that an Ofcom judgement should spend 20 pages on whether a BBC documentary on climate change was fair. We may need different regulation, but we do not need to abolish it. Over the past year we have learned the hard way what happens when you scrap regulations over the flow of finance; we don't now want to make the same mistake over the flow of the information on which a sound democracy depends.


But it was with his attack on the BBC that this US-educated magnate demonstrated his real failure to understand the mixed ecology of British society. 'Creationism may provide a comfortable illusion of certainty in the short-term' he said, but added that in the longer-term 'its harmful effects are real and they are significant'.  By way of proof he dug out some outdated Cold War vocabulary about 'central planning' and 'state-sponsored journalism' and mixed it with some modern jargon about empowerment and consumer choice.

Ideology is no substitute for pragmatism here. The BBC does not offer 'the comfortable illusion of certainty in the short-term'. It offers journalism of such scrupulous impartiality that surveys show it one of Britain's most trusted institutions, ahead of the NHS, the church and the military. Worldwide with the World Service, as well as with stations like Radio 4 within the UK, the BBC is the yardstick for journalistic quality and integrity. By contrast the Murdoch empire offers Fox TV, a notorious peddler of tendentious neo-con propaganda masquerading as hard fact, and a track-record of taking popular newspapers and turning them into celebrity-obsessed scandal sheets. Who benefits if we throw away the excellence of BBC journalism and replace it with the thin gruel of Murdochian infotainment?

In any case James Murdoch's position is shot through with inconsistencies. He says people must be given choice, and then rails against the fact that over half of the population's radio listeners choose the BBC. When he speaks of trusting people all he trusts them to do is to purchase lowest-common-denominator material which panders to their baser instincts. But there is a higher side to human nature, one which aspires, and which deposits in the state the authority to project a collective vision of public decency which transcends our economic instincts. The BBC is one of the embodiments of that. Of course it needs competition from other news sources; but they need the high standards it sets, without which economic pressures would force commercial stations to be even dumber. The BBC posts staff across the globe in places where the big US networks have made cuts since they became owned by corporations like Viacom, General Electric and Disney.


James Murdoch made no mention in his lecture of that. Nor of the fact that his attack on the free BBC website came just as his Dad was finalising plans to start charging on the Sunday Times website. Nor of the fact that Ofcom is investigating how BSkyB uses its 'market power' to limit the distribution of digital channels to its rivals. But then the final word in his lecture was not democracy or truth. It was profit.
If David Cameron wins the next election we will have a prime minister whose only job in the real world has been as a PR man for a private TV company. The BBC needs us to speak up in its defence now more than ever.