The good, the bad, and Corbynmania: how to defend the BBC

Not all defences of the BBC are good. What can the Corbyn insurgency teach us about how to make a progressive case for the corporation?

A.M. Poppy
29 September 2015

Image: Flickr / JasnThe threat to the BBC is being conjured up ever more fearsomely. My blood ran cold reading Will Hutton in the Observer earlier this month: “[to] viscerally hate the BBC has become a badge of what it means to be a Tory… It is a Tory’s sacred duty… to pulverise it into insignificance.” 

In response to this threat Save the BBC (Save our BBC), BECTU (Save the BBC), 38 degrees (Protect Our BBC) and AVAAZ (Save the BBC) have all issued their similarly titled petitions, and a range of creatives, celebs, and well-meaning fans have rallied to the cause.

I salute these efforts. God knows I love Auntie more than most. My problem is with how the support is expressed, and the reluctance to envisage the BBC afresh.  

The defenders tend to defend with a blind loyalty. I challenged them on Twitter to acknowledge that the BBC is great but needs improvement, but my efforts were in vain:

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 18.09.27.png

If you love the BBC, you must do so unconditionally, it seems.

Hutton himself evinces this attitude. In last week’s article he wrote: “Everyone knows that it [the Beeb] tries, however imperfectly, to get at the truth.” Wow! This from an expert whose point of view is rarely reflected in primetime BBC news coverage. Perhaps a few appearances on Newsnight debating a rabid right-wing  –sorry, centrist– commentator is all it takes…

In this year’s MacTaggart television lecture Armando Iannucci, took that opportunity to mount a different defence of the BBC. He spent a lot of time reminiscing: about growing up watching the BBC, and the early stages of his career as one of Britain’s leading creatives.

“To have a broadcaster have faith in you and leave you to get on with it, was the very essence of British television … This is the secret formula. But here’s the thing: that’s exactly how the BBC worked some fifteen, maybe ten years ago.” He laments the passing of this approach in the face of BBC executives running scared of strictures and government threats. 

Defending Auntie on the basis that she used to be beautiful will cut little ice. Denying she has faults is flat-Earthish. Acknowledging the corporation’s imperfections must surely underlie efforts to save a BBC that is worth having. Those imperfections are not the ones that the Tories have fabricated out of thin air (much like their policies): that the BBC is a citadel for leftist liberalism that rapaciously conquers as much media territory as comes available.

More helpfully Professor Des Freedman of Goldsmith University of London points to the BBC’s failings in this question:

“Who would have expected that one of the central debates about the future of the BBC would not be about its pro-business news coverage, its financial mismanagement or its alleged cover-up of the Jimmy Savile scandal, but about whether it should show Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night?”

Re-reading that question, published in July, jolts the mind back in time. Many of us have lost focus on those issues while getting carried away with the grassroots uprising that is the election of the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. This is England’s resistance to neoliberalism flexing its muscles. It is potentially a seismic brake on the market fundamentalist consensus that has dominated for the last 20 years, but not an inevitable one.  

Where will this popular uprising find its voice? Not in the mainstream media, which smears and ignores anti-austerity. The movement is to be found on the street and social media. That is not good enough, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as Owen Jones reminded us in last week’s New Statesman: “Social media is far from being an alternative; otherwise the Tories would not be in power”. To enter into the national consciousness needs more than Twitter and a damp A5 leaflet from a street-stall. 

Secondly, our national conversation (and society more broadly) is in desperate need of sane, realistic perspectives on how money, goods, and services are best created and exchanged. That need is partly evident in those perspectives’ clunky signifiers: anti-austerity; heterodox economics. Common sense is now defined against neoliberal myths!

There is a thirdly. It is in the answer to the question: Do the people have another recourse? The answer is yes, to the media that we own – the BBC!

Funnily enough, Will Hutton in that article that finds no fault with the BBC, commands it to “say loud and clear that its revenues … are designed to be the public’s”, and suggests “a sequence of citizens’ marches on Westminster and Whitehall […] The BBC belongs to the British public, not the transient Tory cabinet aiming for the country’s Torification.”

Oh dear! Where has Hutton (a hero of mine, or used to be) been?! Doesn’t he know that we’ve been marching, year after year – to assert our ownership of the BBC and protest its hostile coverage?

Because, at present, the BBC is a mouthpiece for Establishment neoliberalism. Where in BBC News is the anti-austerity perspective espoused by the greatest, most thoughtful economists and thinkers including Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz (both Nobel economics laureates), Danny Blanchflower, Simon Wren-Lewish, Ha Joon-chang, and 79 others who signed the Guardian letter in June? Where is the coverage of TTIP? Where is the recognition that the gore-porn of murders and atrocities is prurient voyeurism, and that the ubiquitous breast-beating over Islamic extremism is disingenuous?

The BBC’s own people chafe under this conformity. Robert Peston, the corporation’s economics editor has said: “BBC News is ‘completely obsessed’ by the agenda set by newspapers, and follows the lead of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph too much.” 

The BBC needs to be liberated! Professor Steve Barnett of Westminster University believes new legislation is needed to bring the Beeb under Parliament’s jurisdiction, not subject to government whim:

Two key changes are required: first, an independent body must be established which would set the licence fee in a fair, transparent and evidence-based manner; second, Parliament must have a statutory role in protecting the BBC from malicious and whimsical political interference.

Is this enough? Before the people staged their liberation of the Labour party this month, could we have trusted Parliament to assert our will and convey our alternative message?

It’s a good start, but more is surely needed: new staffing strategies; a revived sense of what delivering public service news and current affairs means; new governance systems that manifest the people’s ownership - are all necessary, as well as the opening up of the corporation in the way openDemocracy is so usefully exploring.

The insurgency that brought Corbyn to the leadership is significant. Even those sceptical of him herald the phenomenon: 

This presence of an alternative (not just economic, I hasten to add) isn’t just good in itself; it’s good for democracy and it has the potential to reignite what for many UK citizens has become an increasingly stale, boring and irrelevant political and policy process. In other words, the arrival of Corbyn will give the British political process a kick up the proverbial.

But only if that alternative can break out of the Commons chamber, Twitter, and the street. The BBC can deliver this. We must save the BBC to perform that role, and it in turn must save our democracy and social solidarity. Our fates are linked and interdependent – we stand or fall together.

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