It’s the journalism, stupid: defending free expression can be the BBC’s new gift to the world

As freedom of expression and journalistic independence comes under renewed threat in eastern Europe and around the world, the BBC should be confronting censorship abroad head-on, as well as leading by example

William Horsley
14 June 2012

Mark Thompson’s successor as Director-General of the BBC will face a monster set of challenges to keep the ship afloat: navigating the age of convergence of TV and everything else online, averting corporate destruction or dismemberment by political cannon fire, and being priced out of the market for many of the big sports events.

Oh yes, and avoiding any more charges of BBC dumbing-down, like those that erupted over the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand Radio 2 phone prank episode in 2009, and again over the coverage of the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant.

But I expect much more from those who will set the strategy for the national broadcaster in the coming years. They need bold, fresh thinking to upgrade the thing that has made the BBC, in Kofi Annan’s phrase, Britain’s greatest gift to the world in the 20th century.

It’s the journalism, stupid.

Especially now. Most mainstream media have been weakened by years of dizzying technological change. And most of the world’s broadcasters suffer from direct forms of political interference. The Beeb has all the luck, and must be a showcase for journalism in the public interest -- asking the hard questions and reporting without fear or favour.

How? The BBC should invest intensively in its newsgathering capacity and skills instead of cutting hundreds of journalists’ jobs. 

And the line between “home” and “foreign” news no longer holds. The Beeb needs a global outlook that reflects the fact that we live in a more inter-connected world than ever before, for good and ill.

In March, in a speech to the Royal Television Society, the current Director-General spoke about the shock of the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Syria, and of BBC colleagues in Somalia and Afghanistan. The multiple threats to good journalism and free speech around the world were, he said, the most disturbing aspects of his time in the job.

It is high time that realisation found its way into the fabric of the organisation’s daily output. The new editor-in-chief should look hard at how it has failed so far to re-calibrate its world-class news machine to focus on a change which has darkened the outlook for future generations. 

The new approach must take into account a new twenty-first century reality which has made journalism one of the most dangerous professions: that in many states and regions the dominant media empires are themselves battlegrounds, where fierce contests for political power are won or lost. 

Some of the toe-curling evidence to the Leveson Inquiry shows that powerful folk in this country think that might be true here too. But elsewhere the battle for media control is more brutal, and can lead to state capture by those who possess the means, the iron will, and the disregard for the rule of law.  

That is what has occurred (while we looked elsewhere) in some of the states which are supposedly Britain’s partners in the European institutions set up since World War Two to safeguard free expression and democracy – namely the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  

The stifling of free media in Europe’s new dictatorships and autocracies has brought back an Orwellian-style distortion of reality in much of our near neighbourhood.

In Russia this week Alexei Navalny, the online anti-corruption campaigner, and other opposition activists and journalists were arbitrarily arrested or intimidated, their homes raided by armed police in an attempt to deter more mass protests. 

The protestors’ Twitter hashtag is #Hello1937– suggesting that Russia is going back to the Stalin era.    

The crackdown follows Vladimir Putin’s comeback as the country’s president through what were internationally judged to be fraudulent elections in March. That was a watershed moment which deserved to be flagged up by BBC news as an event of extraordinary and lasting significance.

Putin depends on his ability (via the arrest or intimidation of his most powerful critics) to control the output of state-run TV, the most influential media in Russia, providing cover for the rigged election victory and continuing abuses of the law against dissenters.

The BBC abandoned its radio broadcasting to Russia several years ago, bowing to rough Russian tactics which left the corporation without partners to re-broadcast its programmes in the major cities. 

There should only be one response to such bullying tactics: a clear and sustained effort to chronicle the realities of Mr Putin’s Russia on BBC output, with the explicit backing of the most senior editors. 

That has not happened. Even Norma Percy’s four-part TV documentary series on Putin, Russia and the West, aired earlier this year, was short on attempts to probe the kleptocratic and unlawful aspects of the regime’s consolidation of power – though the programmes contained many insights into the realpolitik aspects of the story. 

Thanks to last month’s Eurovision Song Contest, BBC audiences also heard something about harsh and widespread repression of opposition figures and the media by the dynastic regime in power in Azerbaijan – a country of importance to Europe on account of its huge oil and gas output. The BBC and all of Europe’s public broadcasters are responsible for the song contest as members of the European Broadcasting Union. But their combined efforts failed to make Azerbaijan fulfil its solemn commitment as an EBU member to uphold the right of free expression for its people. 

And thanks to Ukraine’ co-hosting with Poland of the Euro 2012 Football Championship, BBC audiences learned about the “selective justice” which condemned Yulia Tymoshenko, the defeated candidate in the country’s last presidential election, to a lengthy jail sentence.

Ukraine is a pivotal country in Russia’s quest to bring its “near abroad” back into its sphere of influence. Yet, with disarming frankness, Evan Davis began a Today programme discussion by asking “Why is it that we seem to know so little about Ukraine?”

My answer is that it’s not just Ukraine, or eastern Europe. The value we as a nation attach to civil liberties as a basis for democratic life has been eroded, as memories of the Cold War recede. That coldness may be fuelled in part by people’s fears about their our own security, but it also grows out of a creeping neglect of the rule of law, as something precious which must be protected at all costs.

A starting-point for BBC reporters, as for any properly informed journalist, is the case law arising from rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Down the years the court has established safeguards for press freedom and freedom of expression which did not exist in Britain before, such as the public interest defence and journalists’ right to protect their sources. Recently the court has emphasised the “positive obligations” of member states to take steps to protect journalists and others who face threats of violence.  

The outgoing DG says the Beeb is alarmed about the threat to our democratic way of life from the crushing of press freedom in many parts of the globe. The corporation must ask how it has framed the great debate about reining in the powers of the European Court of Human Rights and “bringing human rights home”. My observation is that much of the BBC’s coverage has allowed the scornful tone of the court’s critics, who accuse it of bringing human rights into disrepute, to go unchallenged and unchecked.

Who would know from what we see and hear on our airwaves that the UK’s initial proposals for restricting access to the court for individuals and ceding more discretion to national courts were blocked by the French, the Dutch and the Austrians because they were seen as too restrictive of citizens’ rights? Or that governments with the worst records for oppressing and locking up journalists, including Russia and Turkey, have been encouraged by the intemperate outbursts of British politicians to ignore the admonitions of the court to bring their laws, police and national courts into line with the European standards in the European Convention on Human Rights?

The Beeb gives us world-class journalism every day. It must also see its own faults and change to live up to its own high standards.

Fifty years ago another DG said the BBC could not be impartial about racial hatred. Nor can it play dumb when the foundations of free expression and the rule of law are attacked.

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