Knotty independence: who guards the BBC

The Director General of the BBC was photographed coming out of Downing Street with notes about how the national broadcaster will cover the government's unpopular spending cuts. To understand the BBC's reaction, you need to think of it as a business
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
3 September 2010

When the editor-in-chief and Director General of the BBC goes to Downing Street and is apparently caught in flagrante with the government of the day, how can, and how does, the BBC report on the story? Mark Thompson, the DG, was photographed coming out of Downing Street with scribbles on his note-paper describing how the corporation was going to be covering the government's program of cuts.

Veena Radia [senior assistant at the Director General’s Office]

From: Helen Boaden [Director, BBC News]-PRIVATE

Sent:  01 September 2010 15:59

To: zzJohn Tate [BBC Director of Policy and Strategy]; Mark Thompson-and-PA; Janet Goggins [Senior Adviser to Director of  Policy & Strategy at BBC]

Cc:  Mark Byford [Deputy Director General of the BBC] & PA

Subject: Briefing for Steve Hilton [David Cameron’s Director of Strategy] meeting

For background which may help...I had lunch with Andy Coulson [...]
concerned that we give context to our Spending Review Season (I[...]
Birt...). I said that’s what we always try to do and part of the reaso[...]
inform the public about the whys and wherefores...though I did exp[...]
a range of voices on all the issues.
Over the summer, we have mostly been driven by news lines and [...]
leaked letter from the Justice dept. Philip Green being brought in,[...]
milk being axed and then resotred, criticism of the OBR and the[...]
the poorest would be hardest hit by the Spending Review implic[...]
tried to put in a broader context.

If you want examples of self commissioned journalism,[...]
Easton filmes (one to go out next week) from Nottingh[...]
(voices from people trying to save the library and ca[...]
of the council saying the public sector is too large)[...]
the private and public sector respectively and N[...]
impact of cuts in an area highly dependent on[...]
private businesses 

Five Live Drives Down the Deficit: a s[...]
across the country where the network’[...]
local people joined by guests from[...]
be cut and how
Today: three apperan[...]
general background[...]
Nick Clegg a[...]

Today, the flagship morning radio news program was instructive. First, John Humphreys made a pretty good impression of the naughty schoolboy owning up to letting off the stink-bomb in chapel. Second, he passed the story straight on to the BBC's media correspondent. There was a telling, jovial, handover: Humphreys, notes that their editor-in-chief had come out of Downing Street holding his note-pad the wrong way around (i.e. the visible way around –  the implication is that transparency is wrong); the media correspondent has the same jovial tone picking up the story with the words: "people will eventually learn [to properly hide]".

The joke is about how not to get caught. If I were the headmaster, I would now double their punishment: they don't even understand what they have done wrong.

And just to be quite clear, this is what they have done wrong: one of the most powerful justifications for the existence of a very large, very broad BBC is that widespread popular support built through commercial-style programming gives the BBC the political independence that allows it to pursue the truth in the face of political pressure. (See David Elstein's brilliant take-down of the editor-in-chief's McTaggart lecture). But here we have the truth of that relationship: not content to use its power through popular support, the BBC also goes and cosies up to its ultimate paymaster, the Cabinet.

Any business man will tell you that when you are re-negotiating the contract that your business depends on, you get all over the client, at every level. The "client", in the Thompson view of things, is Britain. Getting all over us means giving special deals to the executives at the top (soft treatment on the cuts) as well as handing out so-called freebies – popular programming – to everyone else. That is how you build feel-good and run a sales campaign.

And as every business man knows, the thing most stretched in a sales campaign is the truth.

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