A note on the ourBeeb Steering Group: gate openers not gatekeepers

Anthony Barnett, Chair of the ourBeeb Steering Group, responds to a question about transparency and the goals of the project.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
25 May 2012

In his first Editor’s blog post in ourBeeb, the new six-month debate section we have launched on the future of the BBC, Dan Hancox included a photograph of the Steering Group members, of which I am the Chair. It was taken at our first meeting on 22 May. The 14 members of the group are currently listed, with links, on right-hand side bar. The picture itself included ourBeeb’s three-strong Editorial team and openDemocracy’s new Editor-in-Chief and eight of the fourteen Steering Group members. The image brought forth some comments: who are these people? How were they appointed? What are they up to – and what is OurKingdom up to with them!

Fair questions. But also the suspicion misses the central point and purpose both of ourBeeb and the role of the Steering Group. Policy debate over public service broadcasting in general and the BBC especially is imprisoned by an unholy alliance of gatekeepers. Our aim  is to open the gates. It is not to become another set of gatekeepers, or to issue collective edicts on what people should think.

First, the power structure. openDemocracy is a federal publishing space. The way it works – this was not my idea but I can tell you it is tremendous for releasing energy with very modest resources – is that each Section of oD is editorially independent while working within the framework of openDemocracy’s principles.  Inspired by this, OurKingdom, which is itself such an independent Section, operates the same principle when it comes to the debates we host. In this case, ourBeeb has an Editor, Dan Hancox, who has complete editorial independence. The rest of us can make suggestions, and he can delegate as he decides, and like all good editors he creates a team and a collegiate spirit, but what goes into ourBeeb is his responsibility not the Steering Group. 

Perhaps ‘Steering’ was not a well-chosen word to describe the role of the Group I chair, therefore. Our role is to encourage, suggest, inspire, criticise but not direct. It is more like saying to Dan "try to fly" rather than "turn right, or left". In technical terms we are advisory not executive and aiming to meet three or four times over the six months. Certainly we are not trying to produce a Group Report or Findings. Perhaps, also, therefore it is more accurate to say we are the opposite of a Leveson type hearing and when we met with Greg Dyke we were trying to engage with the future not examine the past.

Why have such a group at all?  

The BBC is one of the most important institutions in British culture and public life, funded by the public, influencing the public, shaping what we are. We want there to be a strong, robust debate over its role that is open and influential. A debate that is not a prisoner to the prejudices of the Murdoch press or the Daily Mail but which also is not captured by the high-thinking cultural elite led by the BBC itself. A democratic debate, then, in the best sense of the word: open-minded, tolerant, listening, vigorous, inventive, mind-changing. The kind of debate that will influence the BBC for the better: not by lobbying but because it touches a nerve with programme makers and critics, thoughtful policy makers and broadcasters and interested members of the public. 

The next question is how to get interest and coverage, when whatever the quality and originality of what we do, the rest of the media is quite understandably very uneasy about letting in any such debate get the ‘oxygen of their publicity’. I’ve quite some experience at how hard this is and I want to give one dramatic example. In 2003 openDemocracy joined forces with Demos, then arguably the most original think tank in the era of early New Labour and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign affairs to launch People Flow. Based on massive expert investigation and even including contributors such as David Blunkett and Trevor Phillips on the UK, it lasted for a good six months. Its core argument was (although I’d like to say “is” as it is not over yet): that migration is constantly treated as ‘problem’ or state of exception, generating hysteria and very bad, short-term policies that do not work. Instead, it should be seen as an ongoing reality, hence “People Flow” which will always will be with us. It needs to be governed and managed and the policy proposals that follow can be quite radical. But it has to be seen as basic, human reality not a problem to be solved. Otherwise, we argued, nearly ten years ago in one of openDemocracy’s first great debates, the whole of Europe will continue to be wracked by vile, bad-tempered and dangerous panics, while the positive energy of migration will be marginalised. How right can you be?

Three things are relevant to the ourBeeb initiative. First, the basic approach of People Flow was and is clearly justified and most certainly important, it deserves to be an ongoing reference point. Second, it included influential people and official partners, was grounded in massive research, was launched with a generously funded event, and was debated in an exemplary, open fashion. Third, it was completely ignored.

Can we avoid the same fate for ourBeeb? 

The Steering Group was created with this in mind, to bring experienced and potentially influential people together who shared the view that we need an independent debate about the future of the BBC to help Dan Hancox and OurKingdom make this happen. Jeremy Fox asks how they were chosen. I’ll take responsibility for this. The first thing I wanted was to support Dan who is a young music critic with voices of experience from a range of perspectives. I wanted people who could advise with the authority of experience, with different views and with independence of mind and spirit - who shared a feeling that there is a problem to be opened up and addressed and didn't seek to support the status quo. Second, I wanted gender parity, meaning I wanted women of experience and potential influence. Third, I wanted ethnic diversity rather than Scottish, Welsh and Irish presence, partly because the budget did not stretch to lots of fares. (So I am very conscious of a weakness in the Steering Group on the national question in the UK, although this has prominence in the issues ourBeeb is setting out to address). There is not as much as I wanted, partly because so few declined my invitation the Group has grown from 12 to 14.

'Neil' asks why there wasn’t a "democratic style process" to select the Steering Group rather than Anthony scratching his head and phoning up Dan and Niki. We need a touch of realism here. The real question should be addressed to the BBC Trust. How did they get there? After all, they have power. The practical answer here in OurKingdom with our one full-time Co-Editor but lots of brilliant contributors is that the idea and some funding was suggested in April and we had to get cracking by May. I had to put together some editorial advisors ASAP to give Dan support and boost the project. There may have been better ways, of course. But the aim is to open up policy debate.

One of the responses Greg Dyke made whichI hope will come across in the short video of the meeting when it goes online is that what really matters are "structures". It is these that determine the reach and role of the BBC, not specific programmes. But if structures are what matters - and I think we need to understand this better - how are they decided?

I claimed at the start that there is an unholy alliance of 'gatekeeprers' when it comes to the BBC. On the one hand there is the BBC itself and a liberal establishment that says 'we know best and will protect the good' and resists the accountability of its policy making. On the other there is the 'Beeb bashing' of ths press with its populist prejudice that is equally opposed to any constructive debate based on non-commercial values. A symbol of this for me is the opposition of James Murdoch to top-slicing the licence fee and using some of its revenues to fund other public service broadcasting. You'd have thought that the Murdochs would like the idea of competition! But for them it runs the danger of increasing the self-confidence of public service provision and enhancing the principle of non-commercial content, which at the moment is entirely instutionalised in the easy target of the BBC. Of course, if wrongly, the BBC also opposes such an expansion of public service providors. In the Steering Group discussion James Curren raised the idea of drawing on other revenues than the licence fee (for example a charge on internet providers) to fund non-commercial content. Like the debate on the constitution, looking at structures in this way is incredibly important and for that very reason deeply opposed in British political culture.

I hope the Steering Group will be able to encourage Dan and his contributors to release the energy we need to open up this debate. The Group is certainly is not going to be another circling of the waggons of prejudice.

PS: I updated this and added the argument about 'gatekeepers' on 26th May.

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