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The BBC is, and always has been, part of the problem

The News International hacking scandal has led the UK to re-assess her media. While private corporations are in the spotlight, there is also a pressing need to probe whether the BBC is fulfilling its duty to the British public.
Tom Mills
3 October 2011

Activists and scholars campaigning for a more democratic and humane media face a daunting task.  Outnumbered and outgunned by corporate lawyers and lobbyists, we must of course use our limited time and resources wisely and pick our fights carefully.  Mindful of this reality, I have great sympathy with Des Freedman’s argument that to allow the ‘BBC question’ to enter into the debates around Leveson will simply play into the hands of the commercial media.  But this is a tactical question which should not distract from the simple reality that the BBC is part of the problem and one which we are going to have confront if we are to succeed in our broader goals.

It seems to me that there are two relevant questions we could ask ourselves.  One, which I take to be Des’s starting point, is how do we best use the opportunity presented by Leveson and the phone hacking scandal to curtail the power of private media?  Another broader question, posed by Natalie Fenton, is what type of news provision will best serve the public interest and allow democracy to thrive?  This, I think, should be our starting point. 

The BBC and News International can be seen as archetypes of two antagonistic traditions within the British media. The BBC pioneered the ethos of public service broadcasting at a time when news was controlled exclusively by private corporations like Reuters and powerful ‘press barons’ like Lord Beaverbrook.  Its founding father, John Reith, successfully argued that broadcasting should operate as a public good to better the cultural and political life of the nation and should not be subject to private ownership or commercial pressures.  News International conversely appears the archetypal commercial media company; delivering populist material and thriving in deregulated, competitive markets.  Its founder Rupert Murdoch has for decades been a champion of neoliberalism, arguing for free markets as a democratising force best able to meet the wants and needs of the public.

The neoliberal model propagated by Murdoch has been in ascendancy since the mid-1980s, whilst the public service model associated with the BBC has been progressively eclipsed.  Indeed Murdoch has consciously sought to destroy, or at least marginalise, public service broadcasting, which is anathema to his politics and an obstacle to his ambitions.  In 1989 he delivered the annual MacTaggart lecture (a prestigious event in the UK media industry) and made a characteristically audacious attack on public service broadcasting as the ‘special pleading’ of an anti-democratic elite.  Twenty years later it was his son James’s turn to give the MacTaggart lecture.  He launched a vitriolic attack on the BBC before concluding that ‘the only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of [media] independence is profit’ – a diatribe which sounds even more absurd now than it did then.

With such a long history of attacks on the BBC from the reactionary right, it is easily forgotten that before the rise of Thatcherism the left were highly critical of the BBC, which was widely seen as part of the establishment; as in fact it was and is.  Indeed John Reith was very proud that the BBC was considered as such and saw the term as a compliment.[i] 

From the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s – a period of economic and political crisis with some obvious resonances with our current situation – there were calls for the democratisation of British institutions including the media.  Tony Benn became a figurehead for this movement and in 1968 made a speech calling for ‘representative broadcasting in place of the benevolent paternalism of the constitutional monarchs who reside in the palatial Broadcasting House.’[ii]  Benn later chaired a Labour Party study group which in 1973 called for the break up of the BBC and ITV and the creation of what James Curran (a member of the group) described as ‘small, dispersed democratically run programme units’.[iii]

Those calling for the democratisation of broadcasting were always marginal, but their voices had a real resonance with the public and particularly trade unionists and minority groups who were used to being vilified and misrepresented by the BBC, as well as by the commercial media.  The campaigning of the 1970s forced some important concessions from the industry, but it would be the radical right not the democratic left which would do most to reshape broadcasting.

Since then the BBC has had its limited capacity for critical journalism progressively eroded and has been compelled into accepting neoliberal ideology.  In 1987 the Thatcher appointed BBC Chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, forced the resignation of the Director-General Alasdair Milne, who was replaced by the accountant Michael Checkland.  Checkland, along with his deputy and successor, the deeply unpopular John Birt, strengthened centralised control over BBC journalism and introduced an internal market and an ‘independent production quota’ – obliging the BBC to purchase services and equipment, and commission content, from private corporations.  The anthropologist Georgina Born describes how under these structural reforms the BBC developed an ‘infatuation with markets [which] was ideologically led and politically imposed.’  This, she says, ‘generated a new value system in which entrepreneurialism was conflated with creativity,’ causing the BBC to consciously ape the output of its commercial rivals.[iv]

Further mimicking the private sector, neoliberal reforms at the BBC saw an explosion of executive pay.  In 2010, whilst the lowest paid BBC employees received £14,177, the Director-General Mark Thompson had a salary of £613,000 and a total remuneration package of £779,000.[v]  Conditions for the majority of workers at the BBC are only set to worsen following the harsh licence fee settlement with the Tory led Government, which effectively requires the BBC to make cuts of around 16 per cent.

During the same period as the structural reforms outlined above, John Birt also expanded the BBC’s business-orientated output.  In 1999 he established the BBC’s Economics and Business Centre, which was further expanded by his successor Greg Dyke.  In 1982 the BBC’s business output was the responsibility of a team of three correspondents covering economics, business, industry and labour.[vi]  In 2007, not long before the collapse of the world economy, the BBC described its business output as being produced by ‘a 24-hour, tri-media operation of around 160 journalists and support staff’.[vii]

The perspective of big business came to dominate the BBC.  In 2000 Greg Dyke recruited the BBC’s first business correspondent, the financial journalist Jeff Randall (Robert Peston’s predecessor).  Dyke announced the new appointment to the Confederation of British Industry explaining that: ‘Globalization has inevitably made national politics less important and the world of international business more so. We need to reflect that in our reporting and our programmes.’[viii]  Jeff Randall later told The Times:

I have certain attitudes forged by my working for fascinating entrepreneurs like Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay family. Those attitudes probably aren't typical of the BBC, but the Director-General said this week that he wanted the BBC to look at business in a different light. If this, my job and the new department, is to succeed, my attitude must prevail – because the old attitude has not succeeded.[ix]

The BBC’s new enthusiasm for big business and free markets coincided with the spread of financial practices which were environmentally, socially and economically unsustainable and which were driving the economy into a devastating crisis.  Yet its reporting gave the public little or no sense of the scale or significance of what was occurring.

As I have outlined elsewhere, the BBC’s history is overwhelming one of conformity to elite agendas.  But the BBC today is not just part of the ‘establishment’, it part of the neoliberal business-orientated establishment.  Whilst it is true that it has not been implicated in the sort of brazen criminality and corruption of which News International stands accused; its senior figures are nevertheless part of the same elite networks of politics and power exposed by the hacking scandal.  The BBC Director-General Mark Thompson and its business editor, Robert Peston were both present at the party hosted by Elisabeth Murdoch the day before the news broke that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone.  Andy Coulson, after he resigned as Cameron’s communications chief, was replaced by the controller of BBC Global News, Craig Oliver.  At the time of his appointment Oliver had only recently overseen the sacking of 650 World Service staff and crossed the picket line when staff went on strike in protest. 

Certainly the BBC is still nominally a public institution and perhaps should be defended on that basis, but we should have no illusions about its capacity for independent journalism or its desire for democratic reform.  Before leaping to its defence it is worth noting that according to a report in the Telegraph, Jeremy Hunt’s original plans for ‘top slicing’ the licence fee were vetoed by James Murdoch, who saw it as being in News Corp’s interests to preserve the effective duopoly enjoyed by BSkyB and the BBC.

A final important point, Des refers to the BBC’s ‘occasional crimes and misdemeanours’ and cites in particular the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza Appeal.  This was an outrageous and callous decision, but most importantly for our purposes it was not some isolated blunder but a decision taken on the basis of the BBC’s erroneous understanding of journalistic impartiality.  It occurred in the context of years of BBC reporting on the Israel-Palestine conflict which, as Greg Philo and Mike Berry demonstrate at length, simply failed to adequately explain the facts about the nature and history of the conflict to the viewing public.[x]

This point about public understanding is, I think, crucial.  If our first priority is an informed and democratically engaged public then we need media institutions capable of properly explaining the world.  Yet all the evidence suggests the BBC is not capable of doing so.  The BBC has many merits and we should not ignore them.  But it is not, and never has been, capable of the kind of independent analysis that the public needs.

How then do we move forward?  The great strength of Dan Hind’s The Return of the Public is that in attempting to answer this question it tries to move beyond the commercial and public service duopoly so beloved of the political class and, apparently, James Murdoch.  We may find that media reforms of the kind he proposes are at present beyond our reach, but we should not pretend they are unnecessary.

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde and a co-editor of the New Left Project.

This article was posted simultaneously with New Left Project.


[i] Andrew Boyle, Only the Wind Will Listen: Reith of the BBC (London: Hutchinson, 1972) p.238.

[ii] Quoted in Philip Rawstorne, ‘Political role of BBC must be reformed’, Guardian, 19 October 1968; p.1.

[iii] James Curran, ‘People, Press, TV’, Observer, 4 August 1973; p.8.

[iv] Georgina Born, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (London: Secker & Warburg, 2004) pp.177-178.

[v] BBC response to Freedom of Information request, 29 March 2011.  BBC, About the BBC > How the BBC is run > Executive Board > Mark Thompson, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/running/executive/eb_mark_thompson.shtml> [Accessed 29 September 2011]

[vi] Martin Adeney, '...But will business ever love the BBC?', British Journalism Review, 2001 12:1 51-56.

[vii] THE BBC TRUST IMPARTIALITY REVIEW BUSINESS COVERAGE, THE BBC JOURNALISM GROUP SUBMISSION TO THE PANEL, 23 JANUARY 2007; p.16.

[viii] Quoted in Raymond Boyle, 'From Troubleshooter to The Apprentice: the changing face of business on British television, Media, Culture & Society, 2008 Vol. 30, No. 3, 415-42.

[ix] Paul McCann, ‘A wolf joins the BBC fold’, The Times, 10 November 2000.

[x] Greg Philo and Mike Berry, More Bad News From Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2011)

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