How best to imagine what the BBC could be? It is difficult, of course, and regardless of your preference, the recent attacks on the corporation serve to limit the hitherto-unimagined possibilities and close off answers to this question. Unfortunately, the increasing clamour to defend the BBC against ministerial attacks has, at its heart, the acceptance of defeat.
It is worth thinking through the chess moves here.
The most eloquent example of the BBC’s defence so far has been Armando Iannucci’s rousing, funny and beautifully barbed MacTaggart memorial speech this year at Edinburgh, which was widely shared and seemed to hit a common nerve: that the BBC is in fact, pretty good, and, hey ministers, if you think about it, worth keeping.
He made the argument that shrinking the BBC is ‘bad capitalism’ when the media, communications and information industries make up a bigger share of GDP than the car, oil and gas industries put together. Strangely enough he even made a vaguely imperialist argument, citing Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s point that the BBC makes Britain the number one soft power in the world.
Iannucci’s pitch was good, strong stuff, speaking the language of ministers in the hope that they might listen and change their behavior, or at least deviate from their default setting of solipsism, which Iannucci’s wittily exemplified through Tony Blair’s Iraq War-declaring shibboleth: ‘I only know what I believe’.
It would be great if ministers paid heed. Iannucci’s delineation of the BBC is highly persuasive. But if there’s any chance of constituting the BBC as a confident, vigorous public service broadcaster rather than dithering under the rubric of liberal pluralism, it is worth understanding this in its lineage to the struggles that characterized the 2010 coalition government’s term of office. On the one hand, austerity’s manic masochism: ‘cut the damn thing! Hell, cut everything!’ and on the other the ‘Defend The…’ and ‘Stop The…’-isms of every protest marching down Whitehall, whether it is higher education, the public sector, or the NHS.
Does the BBC’s turn in the seemingly ineluctable factory belt of beheadings reveal something new about the language of austerity?
Ministers issuing amorphous and vague warnings to the BBC about a ‘balanced’ coverage of the upcoming EU referendum creates an insecure atmosphere for the BBC. Iannucci drives at this, but perhaps it is possible to go further: for example, only the actions of the already-cowed could account for the possibility of managing to simultaneously report on a global crisis of capitalism, while maintaining Osborne’s line that it was simply the previously incumbent Labour government’s poor bookkeeping wot caused it. The cognitive dissonance here is perhaps the dominant affect when watching the BBC.
But you do not need another tub-thumping leftist grandstand on recent history; perhaps it is better to stretch our political memory a little further back in time, to Dennis Potter’s bile-duct-depleting speech from the same address in 1993:
‘The [BBC] Corporation has already been driven onto the back foot by the ideology-driven malice of the ruling politicians, and its response has been to take several more steps backwards, with hands thrown up, and to whimper an alleged defense of all it has stood for in the very language and concepts of its opponents.’
This sounds familiar to contemporary ears, which begs the question, is the current persistent sniping at the BBC not simply worn-through rhetoric to force its opponents into revanchist positions? It forces a conservatism upon the BBC’s supporters, which in turn leaves its opponents free to make claims, often now fantastical, about how the future is to privatize. The elision of privatization and modernization is a well-known mode of double-speak for those in the public sector.
Are we forever to engage in this game?
In some of his thinking, Iannucci falls into this trap. What he calls ‘M for Mysterious’, Dennis Potter calls ‘Occupying Powers’. The diagnosis is the same, which in turn plays into a weak defence against the Conservative’s attacks, a defence that elects to turn a blind eye to the BBC’s faults.
It is often a high-risk strategy to cite Nick Robinson’s professionalism as really existing, whatever the purpose, never mind as a reason to continue the BBC’s mighty reign. For example: when, long, long ago, it looked likely that the Conservatives would have most seats, but that Labour could form a functioning parliamentary majority in a coalition with the SNP, Nick Robinson’s coverage on the night of the 2015 General Election was littered with slights and sly winks to ‘but what will the people at home think?’ When all the while it was never in the constitution about the number of seats but rather who could form a majority to pass budgets, win votes of confidence and the like. This was an interpretation that was, if you remember, pure incantation in the weeks before the election, where the majority of the press and Conservative HQ were ‘in lock step’ to delegitimize Labour’s claim to govern in coalition.
Pushing an inaccurate and strategically advantageous line could hardly be described as professionalism. Indeed, even in his apparently frank disclosure about David Cameron’s joke on the bus that he (David Cameron) was ‘going to close the BBC down’, Robinson adopts the posture of the whistle-blower, but it seems all in real mauvaise foi because it perpetuates the idea that the BBC is ‘under attack’. Echoing Cameron’s joke – Cameron doesn’t even have to bother to say it out loud – serves to naturalise these attacks while forcing an ancien regime defence that has no claim to modernity.
For those of us who would like to see a much more progressive media ecology this means we end up defending positions and even institutions we did not particularly like in the first place. Forced into a nostalgic parochialism ‘it’s not much, but it’s home’ or even a folksy ‘good old Auntie Beeb’, we always lose.
I mean the sub-question to all this is, when Iannucci says ‘let’s all defend it’, just what are we fighting to defend? I won’t mention the roughly 3:2 ratio of imbalance for the BBC’s reportage on the Scottish Independence Referendum, nor will I deign to pass over the furore around John Ware’s maladroit attempt at a character assassination of Jeremy Corbyn on BBC Panorama before the Labour leadership elections. Never mind the facile, ‘mediamacro’ economic mythology that occurs forever on BBC News 24. Is this what is to be defended?
We find ourselves in the same position as many of those who protested and campaigned against austerity in defence of higher education: what are we in fact defending? A top-down structure, supporting a super-white curricula, with privilege-generation written in its mechanic code, run by disillusioned professors of geography whose job – it sometimes feels – is to campaign for students to pay more tuition fees for much redacted and reduced resources. What would it be to imagine a free university? What would it be to imagine a BBC free to engage confidently in rigorous debate of ideas and values?
The current direction of travel seems to be within ever narrowing parameters for both programming and news: the rapid diminishing ice floe of ‘impartiality’ leaves only game shows on loop (all the while tacitly naturalizing competitive Hobbesianism as de facto sociality) and the news reduced to Siri repeating a three-word refrain: ‘balance the books’, forever.
Balance and impartiality here stand in for realism; in much the same way all that the talk of ‘political reality’ seems to amount to is accepting endemic corruption and the mass transfer of wealth. The elision of impartiality with conformism entails only the most benign debate. The public service broadcasting equivalent of small talk. This false choice between the BBC-as-it-is and the threat of no-TV-license-no-BBC-at-all is a specific method to curtail confidence in the BBC in order to maintain a hierarchical arrangement of influence over media and communications in Britain.
To return to our question: what could we imagine the BBC as? Positive proposals such as implementing direct elections for role of Director General and an investment programme for fostering new media actors, working with the BBC to reach a mainstream audience, will help to put proponents of the BBC on the front foot, and give credence to the BBC’s ability to engage in difficult and controversial ideas. Robust intellectual debate will have to replace ‘realist’ impartiality.
To do so, it is first necessary to reject the ‘fond thinking’ over the BBC as some kind of public good, out to help us against the forces of evil austerity. This Spirit of ’45 attitude is nothing other than a reconciliation of ideas under duress, and is easily defeated.
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