An open letter to Lord Patten: give the people some say over how our affairs are reported

The BBC has failed to act in the public interest when addressing several of the last decade's most important stories, each of them involving corruption among Britain's elites. In an open letter to the BBC Chairman, Dan Hind proposes a radical new solution

Dear Lord Patten,

As the last Governor of Hong Kong you have unrivalled practical experience in bringing democracy to proudly imperial institutions, often in the face of intense internal and external opposition. I write to you to urge reform of the BBC. I do so confident that you have the necessary skills and experience to work the necessary transformation. The opponents of what I propose are many and shrewd. But they cannot be much more formidable than your old sparring partners in the Chinese Communist Party. 

As you know, the media in Britain have run into difficulties over the past year or so. We have learnt that some significant sections of the popular press adopted the methods and manners of organised crime and conducted a campaign of intrusion, blackmail and intimidation whose full dimensions are only now coming to light. At first glance this doesn’t look like a problem for the BBC. After all, BBC journalists haven’t been implicated in any of these disgraceful activities. But the revelations from Lord Leveson’s inquiry raise an urgent question: why didn’t the BBC expose the widespread criminality on Fleet Street years ago? Did its many investigative journalists not know? Or were they not permitted to share what they knew?

The BBC’s stated mission is to inform, educate and entertain. Yet the BBC failed to inform its audiences that public life was descending into a Sadean farce. Those who attracted the ire of certain newspaper owners and journalists would be caricatured, mocked and, whenever possible, humiliated for the unpardonable crime of being human. Yet a well-funded public service broadcaster remained silent and inactive. It left a single newspaper, The Guardian, to bear much of the burden, and take much of the risk, in exposing this long-standing and highly significant scandal.

Once this question is asked a number of others suggest themselves. Why did the BBC allow supporters of the invasion of Iraq to dominate the airwaves in the months before March 2003? To put the matter more bluntly, why couldn’t the BBC state the plain truth, that the government was lying to strengthen its case for war? Why didn’t the BBC inform its audience that the economy was turning into an unsustainable Ponzi scheme before the crash of 2007-8? Why didn’t the BBC allow professional and well-informed critics of the NHS bill to present their case last year? 

More generally, why can’t the BBC investigate and report matters that touch on the prerogatives of other powerful institutions? In its current form the BBC has proved helpless to describe the state, large corporations, the financial sector and the rest of the media. Yet the BBC is the most important broadcaster in the country and it relies directly on its audience for its funding. As such it has a particular responsibility to furnish viewers and listeners with a reliable account of what is happening. In this it is failing. Our shared life has become a succession of traumatic surprises interspersed with long periods of soporific reassurance – a soothing murmur punctuated by shrieks.

Let me offer an answer to the questions I’ve asked. The BBC is failing to inform us about consequential matters because it is forced to accept the terms of reference provided by the very institutions it is supposed to describe without fear or favour. Its coverage of politics and the economy is bounded by the state of parliamentary opinion. If much of the political class is skipping around in a poisonous wonderland of wishful thinking, then the BBC has to skip along with them. The restraints on the BBC become even tighter when much of the private media endorse the views of the political class. 

That candid and intelligent Machiavellian Jonathan Powell has written that “political power does not reside in Number 10 but is instead widely diffused in the British elite, not just in government but outside it as well”. If the British elite are wrong, the doctrine of balance condemns the BBC to error, too. And recent history shows that when calculating the balance of personal advantage and the common good, the British elite is often wrong.

So, when newspapers collaborated with politicians to promote a fantasy of endless debt-fuelled growth, there was precious little the BBC could do. Balanced coverage meant giving equal time to two shades of delirium. And to the limited extent that the BBC could register public opinion, it referred to a public opinion that was being deprived of vital information. Polling data probably told them that their audiences weren’t terribly interested in knowing more about the financial sector. But popular incuriosity was eloquent only of how much we didn’t know - because we hadn’t been told. 

Once the illness is understood the remedy suggests itself. We must do away with the BBC’s internal scholasticism of balance and give the public the means to discover its own opinions through open and unconstrained inquiry and debate. 

Let me sketch one way of doing this. There are others, but this has the merit of being able to benefit from the tremendous knowledge and public spiritedness of the BBC. Take a small fraction of the BBC’s budget – let’s say 3% of the licence fee revenue in 2010-11, about £120 million – and distribute it to BBC subsidiaries in each English region and devolved nation. So each of these subsidiaries has about £10 million credited to its bank account every year. 

The people who live in each area control the dispersal of the money through regular voting. Everyone can post a short proposal. The BBC subsidiaries then publish these proposals online, and distribute them in print to the region’s libraries. Applicants can produce more detailed applications themselves and publicise them as best they can. Only named individuals can ask for the funds and they will be required to publish the findings of the work funded in this way, again on the BBC’s website. They will also have to abide by a code of conduct, perhaps drafted by the NUJ. At regular intervals the public votes for the projects it wants to fund. Those that receive sufficient support are given the money.

(I am sketching this in very broad terms. I go into more detail in The Return of the Public: Democracy, Power, and the Case for Media Reform. I suggest a year or two of BBC pilot schemes that try different voting mechanisms, and that explain the principles and aims of public commissioning to general audiences.)

Everyone will also be able to vote on how useful they find the published reports. Those that score highly will be reworked for national or regional broadcast. Private media groups would also be able to use the material. In this way those who can find a constituency of support for their work will be funded to do the public interest journalism that interests them. And they will work in the reasonable expectation that the results will find an appropriate audience. 

Journalists will no longer depend exclusively on editors. They will be able to appeal directly to the public. And £120 million a year is enough to keep 5,000 journalists busy full-time, working away at subjects that their audiences are willing to support. Imagine what this new body of publicly-funded investigators would be able to discover on our behalf. Corruption at every level would be subject to scrutiny. New knowledge would provide the fuel for the great work of democratic reform, as the state and the economy became comprehensible at last to the citizens of the country. Other media companies would spring up to build on this new body of information and the BBC itself would re-establish itself as a public service broadcaster on new, and more plausible, grounds. 

It is easy to reject proposals like mine out of hand, I know. Some people are convinced that the system I propose will be used to fund trivia and gossip. But we are perfectly well served by the existing media if we want gossip and trivia. More seriously, malicious proposals will sometimes receive sufficient support. But slanted reporting, of which there is plenty at the moment, will not long survive in the free-for-all I propose. Though people love their prejudices, they love the truth more, if truth is tied to the prospect of effective self-government. There are other pitfalls, and many details that need to be worked out in practice. But the BBC has all the skills and resources necessary to make the scheme work.

Perhaps people will support projects that aren’t journalism at all. Perhaps they will prefer to have a 3% percent discount on their next licence fee. This will be interesting in itself, and it will be a decision that each of us will have to make every year. Each objection and obstacle can be met, if we bear in mind the two key principles:

  1. Everyone, in virtue of their being a citizen, should have some equal power to support an investigation.
  2. Everyone should have some equal power to give the information discovered a higher public profile. 

Of course the well organised, the well established and the well connected will have an initial advantage in such a scheme. But groups that are subject to all kinds of slander and abuse in the current system will see the benefits of supporting journalism that challenges stereotypes about them, and represents them more accurately to other audiences. Such a system will be wasteful and messy. But it is the only way I can see to shine light on matters that the powerful prefer to keep in darkness. 

You will be used to fending off raids to the BBC’s budget. But note how the reforms I propose will do away with the expensive business of discovering balance through expert deliberation within the BBC. The public itself will repeatedly indicate what it wishes to know and the spectrum of publicly expressible opinion will change over time in light of new information. There will be no need to produce ever more elaborate formulas to reconcile what government and opposition are willing to say with events in the wider world. 

Instead, the public will find out what is going on, and will commission help to understand the significance of what it discovers. As this approach to forming public opinion becomes more familiar, it will provide a guide to the rest of the BBC’s journalism. It will no longer have to defend itself endlessly against accusations of bias. Its efforts to inform will respond to cues from those who are to be informed.

Reform along the lines I propose is coming, one way or another. It will come sooner if it comes from you. And think, what a sequel for the last Governor of Hong Kong, to become the first Chairman of a post-imperial BBC.

Yours sincerely,

Dan Hind