openDemocracyUK

The Tories and the BBC - a little line in the Manifesto points a finger at public broadcasting

The Tory manifesto in the UK's election battle signals hand-to-hand combat over the future of the BBC. OK's editor blows the trumpet for our Public Service Broadcasting Forum.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
14 April 2010

People should not scorn party manifestoes. Mock them, maybe. But they really can matter. Promises get broken, but many do not, if only to keep down the proportion that are. A line of march, an approach or what is often now called a ‘narrative’ is set out, or maybe contradictory ones. This has an effect on the way the media ‘feels’ about a party’s credibility and will to power and professionalism, and this gets transmitted to the public. Then there are the small commitments, often hard fought for, that can have a major impact.
 
The Tory manifesto published yesterday has a line in it saying that they will give the National Audit Office full access to the BBC. Public service broadcasting is hugely important for our political culture. ITV and Channel 4 were once innovative and influential providers of it, but they are no more – except for the smallest of exceptions. Now the BBC almost monopolises it, even as it decreases public service output.
 
For example, I have argued that the BBC is part of the expenses culture (as well as having, because of the extraction of the license fee, a vested interest in the database state). It therefore failed, when the expenses crisis struck, to provide sustained investigation and so failed the public. While it could never, of course, have broken the story as the legislators are in the end its paymasters. It was only the tiny remaining sliver of public service investigation on television – the Channel 4 Dispatches programme – which demonstrated the legal and everyday corruption of our politics that is still going on. Without this…. the ice would have closed over. Yet the considerable research resources of the BBC could easily have allowed it to expose, for example, the systemic movement of civil servants into corporate positions which must impact adversely on the public interest.
 
To take an extraordinary example, this Sunday’s Mail contains a story of mandarin double-dealing at the highest level that seems well researched and denounced in the paper’s editorial. Naturally, it wasn’t taken up by other newspapers who are The Mail’s competitors. It was up to the BBC to decide whether or not it was ‘a story’. Most of the country have not heard of it. It should have become an election issue as the public is tremendously exercised by the way the political elite is ripping it off. Bankers and politicians get it in the neck. But not the mandarins. Funny that.
 
So a battle is being fought out between great branches of the state that both seek to cover up and protect each other and cut each other down in size and relative strength. The sentence about the National Audit Office is one example.
 
Aware that a change of government may expose it to the influence of a Downing Street operation penetrated at its heart by the Murdoch empire, the BBC is undertaking a strategy review. In parallel, and in order to assist them in their call for informed public debate, OurKingdom is hosting a forum on the future of public service broadcasting, initiated by Frank Field MP who launched it two weeks ago.
 
The latest contribution is a brilliant dissection of the fight that lies behind the Tory commitment to unleash the National Audit Office on the BBC - and how the Corporation has foolishly exposed itself to this line of attack. It’s by David Elstein, who recently became Chair of the openDemocracy Board after Laura Sandys stepped down.

The forum also carried a witty and revealing account of the ‘shoot a small puppy’ strategy behind the BBC review, detailing how it deliberately floated its proposals to drop 6 Music and the Asian Channel to draw fire and then provide a rallying point for concerned listeners and viewers, by Richard Collins of the Open University, who is on our Forum’s steering committee. In a comment on Richard’s post, Elstein added,

The dismal litany of failed business ventures, poorly planned new launches and absence of transparency and risk management [at Channel 4] - so eloquently highlighted in last month's Commons Culture Committee's report - has been completely ignored.  It is as if all parliamentarians were professional amnesiacs, incapable of either reading or understanding evidence when placed firmly in front of them.

Ed Vaizey (the number 2 to Jeremy Hunt the Conservative Shadow Cultural Secretary) sends out a weekly email listing all the Conservative "culture, media and sport" team's activities, and relevant reports from all sources.  The Commons report on Channel 4 was duly noted.  But clearly, neither Ed not Jeremy bothered to read it; or - if they did - understood its implications.  But - hey! - there's an election on.  As the duellists do ritual battle, with blunt swords, over deficit reduction, it's our job here on the Forum to keep the issues around public service broadcasting and content sharply in focus.


We need to keep that focus because one of the emerging themes of this election is a general sense that no one is telling the truth. The media report this as if it is the fault of the politicians. But one of the reasons why we need non-commercial public service broadcasting is that we know there are deeper truths that it won’t profit vested or commercial interests to discuss. The lack of truthfulness is far more pervasive and in part is the responsibility of broadcasters, especially the BBC however much it may point to the relatively high degree of trust it has retained.

The Forum is planned to last until June when we have seen the colour of the eyes of whatever post-election government emerges. Any new government, we can be sure, will want to shape how it is presented by the BBC. But more important still, it will seek to mould the larger freedoms, investigations and seriousness of the governing instrument of Britain’s democratic intelligence.

If you think this matters you should encourage those you know with an interest in the media to follow and contribute to the Forum and to respond to the BBC’s consultation if they so wish (the BBC isn’t intending to publish the submissions it receives but the Forum will).

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