The BBC has not covered itself in glory in its handling of the scandal at the News of the World. In an interview recorded on July 13th the Labour MP Tom Watson pointed out that the corporation’s political correspondents ignored the significance of what was going on at News of the World for far too long. In February 2010 a six-month parliamentary inquiry had concluded that it was ‘inconceivable’ that knowledge of phone hacking was limited to Mulcaire and Goodman. None of the major media felt the need to publicise its findings. According to Watson this presented ‘quite a big challenge back to the British media and that includes the BBC’.
Others expressed concerns about the BBC’s approach in the months before the story assumed its current dimensions in the mass media. Writing in April of this year the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, wondered why the BBC seemed so uninterested in reporting Hugh Grant’s stint as an undercover reporter at the magazine. Grant, working for guest editor Jemima Goldmsith, had secretly taped a former News of the World employee Paul McMullan saying all sorts of newsworthy things about the culture of surveillance at the paper. Though the story was picked up all around the world and featured on ITV news the BBC remained ‘curiously silent’. This does seem strange in a media culture that is supposed to be obsessed with celebrity. A film star working for his glamorous ex, wearing a wire in a country pub … Leaving aside the content of what Grant uncovered, at first glance it looks like it could be quite interesting.
Cowley was moved to ask:
What is going on? What is it about this story that makes the BBC so anxious? Could it be that independent BBC editors are operating a form of self-censorship because they fear ... what, exactly? What is that our licence-fee-funded, "impartial”, public-service broadcaster fears about the Murdoch family and its tentacular grip on power in Britain? Or has an edict come down from on high?
It seems reasonable to conclude, along with Tom Watson, that the BBC was, at the very least, ‘slightly intimidated by News International’. But the lack of enthusiasm for robust journalism about Murdoch’s empire has parallels with its coverage of other, even more consequential, stories. Tom Watson complained that Nick Robinson had missed ‘the story of his life’ in his dismissive treatment of the hacking scandal. The corporation’s security and foreign affairs editors missed the story of their lives in their coverage of the so-called War on Terror. The corporation’s business and economics editors missed the story of their lives in the run-up to the crash of 2007. This last group are busy missing the significance of offshore finance now.
(For an illuminating note on the BBC’s attitude to this most consequential of subjects, see Nick Shaxson’s piece on the Treasure Islands blog – full disclosure, I was Nick’s editor at Random House.)
There is a problem at the BBC that extends beyond its coverage of News International. I would argue that it is a problem that derives from the structure of the institution, rather than from the shortcomings of individuals. We can learn something about this structure if we look at what the BBC thinks it is doing and how well it thinks it is doing it. On June 10th the director of BBC news, Helen Boaden, gave a speech at the BBC College of Journalism and POLIS conference on power and the media.
Asked to talk about holding power to account, Boaden began by saying that ‘at one level it’s a statement of the obvious – it’s what journalists do’. On another level, though, she conceded that things get complicated. The BBC has to balance its confidence in holding power to account with the right degree to openness to criticism. Otherwise, she warns, ‘the alternative might be an organisation which holds power to account without being properly accountable itself’.
Notice what’s going on here. Implicit in her recognition of the need to be accountable is the claim that the BBC effectively holds other forms of power to account. She offers two kinds of evidence for this. Firstly, the BBC has been subject to unremitting criticism from the ruling elite:
In each decade, from its inception to the present day, the BBC bears the scars of its entanglements with those in power […] Believe me, I bear the scars.
Secondly she mentions a number of examples of the BBC’s recent journalism. It is a record, she says, that ‘speaks for itself’. So what has the BBC done in recent years to hold power to account, ‘to shine light in dark places’, as she puts it? Well, Panorama investigated the management of FIFA. It also investigated patient abuse at a care home near Bristol. And it ‘mounted a brave, thorough and forensic examination of what went wrong’ when the Israelis boarded a boat headed for Gaza.
What other journalistic scoops can the BBC point to? Boaden gives us a list:
The suspension of an IOC official ahead of the 2012 Olympic vote after Panorama's allegations of bribery.
The use of white asbestos in China, India, Russia and Brazil – revealed by BBC Global News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Vote rigging and violence explored by the BBC Hausa service in Nigeria.
The BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight investigation which revealed the financial and emotional affairs of Iris Robinson.
So, to sum up, the BBC quite likes investigating wrongdoing in international sporting bodies; It is like a bloodhound when pursuing public interest stories in places that aren’t Europe or North America; it fearlessly inquired into ‘the financial and emotional affairs’ of the wife of a politician in the devolved government of Northern Ireland; and heaven help you if you are a negligent or cruel employee at a care home.
If that is the sum of the BBC’s investigative achievements in recent years then the record does indeed speak for itself. But it doesn’t say what Helen Boaden thinks it says. It says that the BBC is absolutely hopeless at shining light in dark places when the monsters of effectual power are hiding there.
Consider the credit Boeden couldn’t claim. The BBC played no part in breaking the MPs’ expenses scandal or in uncovering systemic problems at News International. The first was driven by a single freelance, Heather Brooke, the second by Nick Davies at the Guardian. The BBC’s scoop in revealing abuse at a care home is to be commended. But let’s be serious for a minute. It doesn’t bear comparison with Hugh Grant’s undercover work.
Even when it is clear that something of monumental and lasting importance has taken place our national broadcaster has shied away from throwing its considerable resources at the story. It has shown almost no interest in describing how the financial sector secured its interests at the public expense or the deeply corrupting influence the banks have had on the political class, the state administration, the media and the academic establishment. And so the causes and sheer scale of the financial disaster remain a mystery to most license payers. The timidity of the investigations after the fact is even more astonishing than the witlessness of economic coverage before the bubble burst. (It is a story largely missed by all the other major media, it must be added.)
The weakness of investigative journalism at the BBC runs parallel with structural problems in its coverage of the public sphere. The BBC defines political journalism in terms of the relationship between broadcasters and elected representatives. At the POLIS conference mentioned earlier Carolyn Quinn was asked whether the BBC should perhaps do more to facilitate a debate between citizens. It was a question that left her visibly and sincerely baffled. She seemed to have no idea what the questioner meant. When the leaders of the major political parties have reached a consensus on a controversial matter the controversy all but vanishes as far as the BBC is concerned. To take one example familiar to regulars at Our Kingdom, when the Convention on Modern Liberty’s tried to initiate a national conversation about the growth of the database state and the accompanying erosion of civil liberties, it received no publicity at all from the home service of the BBC. The Russian arm of the World Service thought it worth covering, as did a number of national newspapers. But the country’s public service broadcaster didn’t think the issue newsworthy. It was an insouciance they shared with both the Labour government and leadership of the Conservative party.
The public service ethos of balance and professionalism has a place, an important place, in broadcasting. But it is unrealistic to expect the BBC’s institutional dynamics to sustain a confrontational investigative culture at the same time. New knowledge about the antics of the powerful is, in its nature, destabilising. The really powerful, the powerful in Britain, say, do not like being investigated and they will try to strike back when they feel threatened.
The BBC is a political actor of considerable importance. It is in some ways central to the operations of the British state and as such it has a stake in the existing constitutional settlement. Its reliance on revenue from the license fee means it is vulnerable to pressure from the political class and from the privately owned media. It has interests about which it cannot be entirely candid. When its interests overlap with those of other powerful actors the social silence is likely to be deafening. For these reasons it is also unrealistic to think that the BBC can be left with so much discretion in decisions about whether and how debates in civil society are covered.
The BBC would like to give the impression that, if anything, it has been too vigorous in its coverage of the News International scandal. It bears the scars of its clashes with power, it says. I am sure it feels like that. Perhaps it should stop trying to exercise monopoly control on the license fee and let the public have a greater say in what gets investigated. That way BBC journalists won’t have to worry about calls from apoplectic thugs in the Downing Street press office. Let Panorama investigate FIFA and care homes, by all means. There are other, bigger, fish to catch and fry.