Speaking truth about the BBC and power

The BBC has never championed 'speaking truth to power' and its capacity for critical journalism is weaker than ever.

Tom Mills
19 December 2014

In a talk at King’s College, London on 25 November 2014, a version of which was published on OurKingdom, the former BBC World Service reporter Roger Hardy reflected on the war which during his 25 years of journalism was 'by far the most difficult and the most painful': the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Over a decade has now passed, but the people of the Middle East are still living with, and dying from, the consequences of that illegal invasion. The key culprits here remain at large, but their crimes are not forgotten. For Roger Hardy—as for those British elites whose credibility was damaged by the invasion, as well as the subsequent failure to effectively colonise the country—the whole bloody episode is remembered as a monumental 'strategic blunder'. It was certainly that. But from another (parochially British) perspective, the invasion can also be seen as one of a series of scandals which exposed, and entrenched, the public's profound alienation from, and disenchantment with, the institutions of power in this country.

The news media—one such institution which would be shaken by further crises—blatantly failed to live up to its notional role as a source of accurate information and a watchdog of the powerful. This is the ultimate conclusion of Hardy's talk. Having described the difficulties faced by media organisations in covering war, and summarised the conflict between the BBC and the Blair Government that followed the invasion, Hardy concludes that 'the British and the American media were not robust enough in challenging the case for war'. The BBC, he says, 'did not do enough to speak truth to power'. Who could argue with this conclusion? After all, as Hardy notes, the New York Times has long since apologised for its failings in the run up to the invasion. What is remarkable is that this was the conclusion of Hardy's talk, rather than the starting point of a frank discussion about the roots of this failure and the possibilities for change. 

Typically for a journalist's account, Hardy's talk focuses on the media's conflict with and manipulation by the Government. This is an important aspect of any account, but it needs to be integrated into an analysis which acknowledges the extent to which powerful interests have more subtly shaped the culture of news and current affairs journalism and the institutional context within which it is practiced. The BBC, which is the focus of Hardy's talk, has in reality never embodied the sort of oppositional, interrogatory journalism which he alludes to. Accuracy has always been taken very seriously, as has the duty to inform its audience, but this has always been circumscribed by the BBC's general orientation towards elite ideas and interests.

The tenuous space the Corporation carved out for itself within the British establishment was originally based on the support of the more enlightened members of the governing elite who understood that it would serve their purposes better if the BBC were afforded formal, but still ambiguous, autonomy. This was an understanding reached during the General Strike of 1926 and it has shaped the BBC's orientation to this day. It still maintains a precarious existence dependent in the long term on the trust and affection of its audience, on whom it ultimately relies for its legitimacy, but more immediately upon the support of politicians who hold not only the 'purse strings' but also the constitutional power of life and death. It is not surprising then that 'speaking truth to power' has never been a BBC maxim. Whilst the Corporation has at times functioned as a space for critical journalism and oppositional voices, such spaces have always been marginal and such voices have always been marginalised.  Moreover, the BBC's capacity for critical journalism appears to have been weakened in recent years, not just as a result of Hutton and the institutional inertia it created, but more generally as a result of neoliberalisation, which has reshaped the BBC as well as the broader political culture.

The most celebrated period of public service broadcasting was in the 1960s when the BBC to some extent reflected the broader democratic and egalitarian spirit of the age and enjoyed a greater degree of financial autonomy, thanks in part to substantial income from colour TV licences. However, this golden age, celebrated for its creativity and irreverence, proved short lived, and the BBC took a conservative turn towards the end of that decade as a result of both reactionary political appointments and increased funding pressures. The former Conservative Minister Lord Hill, appointed BBC Chairman by Harold Wilson in 1967, strengthened the powers of the politically appointed Board of Governors and, following a review by the influential consultancy firm McKinsey and Co., imposed new managerial structures and financial controls. Hill's successor, Michael Swann, would later recall that as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s there was both a change of mood in society and a change in emphasis in the management of the BBC. Its output had become more right-wing, and this, Swann remarked, was 'as it should be'.[1]

After a decade of conservative retrenchment, the BBC in the 1980s came under ferocious attack from the Thatcher Government and its New Right allies, a period which has received far more scholarly attention than the previous decade. It survived thanks in part to the protection of less extremist figures in the Thatcher Government, and in part due to divisions amongst its enemies.[2] But survival still came at the price of ever greater accommodation with the emerging neoliberal order. The BBC's notoriously managerialist turn under the leadership of Director General John Birt in the 1990s baffled and infuriated journalists and commentators alike, but what has been rather poorly understood is that Birt's unpopular reforms represented an institutionalisation of neoliberalism at the BBC. As was the case in other parts of the public sector, workers found themselves entangled in a debilitating web of neoliberal-inspired, market-like, bureaucratic regulations and incentives. Birt's flagship managerial initiative was known as Producer Choice, a 'quasi-market' similar to that imposed on the NHS. The other side of the 'Birtist' reforms was the consolidation of editorial power. From 1988 onwards, many of the relatively autonomous spaces for critical journalism that had developed at the BBC—galvanised by sixties radicalism and strong trade unions—were first subject to vetting and then slowly brought under centralised control.

The institutional changes the BBC underwent in post-Thatcherite Britain mirrored those of the wider society: power became more centralised, professional decision making became more marketised and working conditions were made more precarious. Meanwhile, whilst most found their freedom curtailed by neoliberal bureaucracy, a largely Oxbridge educated elite retained its decision making powers and the salaries of those at the very top sky-rocketed. This is the enduring legacy of the survival strategy developed by the BBC leadership in response to the Thatcherite assault, and it long outlived the much maligned John Birt. Under his successor, Greg Dyke, the BBC became consciously more pro-business, in effect making a concerted effort to embed itself in the very networks of unaccountable power that were eroding British democracy.

If we are to understand why the BBC has failed to 'speak truth to power'—and not just in the run up to the invasion of Iraq—we need to be aware of this institutional history and be honest about the extent to which neoliberalism and the interests it represents have influenced the BBC's institutional structure and culture. Journalism after all does not take place in a social vacuum. It is shaped by professional norms, and a particular allocation of resources, factors which are in turn shaped not only by the class origins of editors and journalists, but also by wider political struggles and their broader outcomes. Without any consideration of such factors, and the central question of under what circumstances journalists are and are not able, and inclined, to 'speak truth to power', journalistic lamentations like Hardy's, however well meaning and cathartic, will get us nowhere slowly.



[1] Michael Swann, Education, the media and the quality of life: speech to the Headmasters' Association Annual Conference at St Catherine's College Cambridge, 26 March 1976.

[2] Goodwin, Peter. Television Under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy, 1979-1997 (London: BFI Publishing, 1998).  Tom O’Malley, Closedown: The BBC and Government broadcasting policy, 1979-92 (London: Pluto 1994).


This article was originally published at New Left Project

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