No broadcaster is an island

The fragility of the BBC’s independence from the state cannot continue to be ignored. Nor can its overall future be discussed in a silo.

Brian Winston
29 July 2015

James Murdoch. Image: Flicker/ IAB UK

4 January 1981: a day as fateful for the BBC as 30 July 1954 when the Television Act, breaking its broadcasting monopoly, received the royal assent; or 1 January 1927, when that monopoly was established by a royal charter transforming the British Broadcasting Company into a corporation.

On that day, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, entertained Rupert Murdoch to a secret tête-à-tête lunch at which a change-making deal was struck. In the opinion of Harold Evans, it led to ‘a coup that transformed the relationship between British politics and journalism. … She was trailing in the polls, caught in a recession she had inherited, eager for an assured cheerleader at a difficult time. Her guest had an agenda too.’ He wanted to add The Times and The Sunday Times to the News of the World and the Sun, which he already owned, and was concerned about competition regulations. She assured him that he need not be. The Times could be his.

Murdoch’s control of 40 per cent of UK national newspaper circulation followed this useful lunch. Well, why not? If all competition law does is count, then 40 per cent is not a monopoly. Sky Television was added in 1983 and again, why not? Television isn’t newspapers. Any assumption that a market place of ideas with a plurality of voices was a necessity for a democracy was revealed as a shibboleth. It was not, after all, the eighteenth century anymore and such outmoded notions had no place in that brave neo-liberal dawn. And so the BBC, which was a broadcasting monopoly in 1927 and opened to competition in 1954, faces today’s death-threat.

A ‘public’ consultation

During the 2015 election that returned him to office, David Cameron had dismissed a BBC news story about him as ‘rubbish.’ ‘I’m going to close them down after the election,’ he promised. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, wondered about the threat: ‘Joke? Expression of frustration? All three? No one could be sure’. But on 11 May, 2015, it became clearer. Cameron gave the culture, media and sport portfolio to John Whittingdale, a man dubbed ‘a sound right-winger and a devoted Thatcherite’ (Anderson), once ‘Thatcher’s toy boy’ (Higgins) and now ‘the Tory minister for Murdoch’ (Holmes). 

Fifty days after that, following talks with George Osborne, the BBC’s director general, Lord Hall, was informed that the cost of free licenses for the over-75s - a Blairite pre-election bribe of 2001 now running at some £630 million a year - would, in the future, be shouldered by the corporation itself. Even for an organisation with a £3.7 billion annual income, this could not be thought small change. Then, on 17 July Whittingdale unveiled a green paper – a consultation document: BBC Charter Review: A Public Consultation.

‘Being funded by a universal hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered and obliged to try and offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market […] The scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling.’

These words are not found in the green paper, they were spoken by James Murdoch in his notorious MacTaggart lecture in 2009. Whittingdale, in introducing his report, is more emollient, but the echoes are clear:

what should the BBC be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been before? What should its scale and scope be in the light of those aims and how far it affects others in television, radio and online?’

And who but the Murdochs and their fellow media oligarchs can he have in mind when he writes of the BBC ‘affecting others in (not merely consuming) broadcasting? 

No broadcaster is an island, each is a piece of the media continent, as is every media platform – the newly electronic as well as the time-honoured press. It is now clear that the mutually beneficial relationship sealed that January day 34 years ago meant no good to the BBC – how much is only now finally becoming clear. It was damaging not only in the obvious sense that another significant percentage of its audience was about to be lost. More worryingly, Murdoch’s political hold over the politicians in turn implied that their hold over the BBC could be unduly influenced in his favour. But we choose not see that. Harold Evans told the Toronto Star he was ‘astonished by the lack of curiosity about a shocking story [e.g. the 1981 secret Thatcher/Murdoch concordat] that has been lying around on the pavement like a gold coin waiting for somebody to pick it up’. He should not be.

Shields down

Until Whittingdale, cognitive dissonance had more or less allowed us to ignore the implications of the BBC’s charter and agreement. We pay little attention to the fact that the minister is mentioned 78 times in the 61 pages of the current agreement. Among other powers, he chooses and pays the BBC’s trustees.

We, though, believed that a force-field known as ‘conventions’ protects the BBC and its ‘independence’; and perhaps even after the summer of 2015 some still do. Yet ‘constitutional conventions’ are, according to A. V. Dicey, who invented the concept in the nineteenth century, ‘fictions … the most fanciful dreams of Alice in Wonderland’. The black-letter law enables threats like Cameron’s, but trusting the ‘conventions’ is all the BBC actually has to protect it. And, long before the very public assault of 2015, our faith in the reality of the ‘conventions’ could only be sustained by ignoring all evidence to the contrary. The secrecies of power-broking - such as private luncheons at Chequers - made this easy. Things come to light but usually decades later and with the non-effect expressed by Evans. 

It is, for example, rumored that Thatcher consulted Murdoch on the appointment of Marmaduke (Duke) Hussey as chair of the BBC board of governors in 1986. His first major act was to sack the director general, Alasdair Milne. Milne was defenestrated after years of Thatcherite hostility which began, just after his appointment in 1982, with her backbenches frothing with indignation that the BBC news, in reporting the Falklands War, spoke of ‘British troops’ and not ‘our forces’. Official historian Jean Seaton describes Murdoch’s intervention as ‘extraordinary’ as, indeed, it was; but what is truly extraordinary it that all these incidents are greeted with such insouciance.

The drip of stories does not stop with Murdoch’s lunch and Milne’s fall. For example, there is DG Greg Dyke’s defenestration in January 2004 over Andrew Gilligan’s Today report on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. We knew about it quickly enough but, so far, it is hard to know exactly if, on this occasion, the BBC was pushed or jumped of its own accord. It could well have jumped. It has form in this regard. Astonishingly for an organisation that vaunts its ‘independence’, undercutting it can start with the BBC leadership itself ‘seeking guidance’ from Westminster. 

Consider DG Sir Ian Trethowan’s servile shopping of a groundbreaking Panorama on MI5 in 1981 to the spooks and then, at their behest, in banning it. Or Lord Normanbrook, the chair of the governors, running to the Home Office in 1965 to check if the vivid anti-nuclear drama, The War Game, was OK to broadcast (It wasn’t.) Or DG Sir Ian Jacob putting the frighteners on any current affairs producer tackling the nuclear issue in 1955. Or the prevention of Lord Beveridge coming to the microphone in 1942 to explain his (best-selling) report on welfare, that crucial template of the post-war social settlement. Or, the de facto neutering of the somewhat radical talks department in 1934 on the eve of that decade’s charter renewal for fear that its record might cause difficulties. Or (starting as one means to go on) the founding DG, John Reith, not allowing the unions on air for the nine days of the 1926 general strike – ‘the strike having been declared illegal.’

To be fair, there are even lesser well-known contrary occasions where the BBC is recorded as having spoken truth to power. Most notable is chairman Charles Hill’s initial defiance of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling’s attempt to stifle the reporting of the troubles in Ulster in 1972. And, no doubt, day-to-day, unreported improper interferences are resisted in, shall we say, a Paxmanesque style. But, even though it prides itself on being a ‘trusted’ news source, it is hard when reviewing such of the record as can be known not to see a thread of pusillanimity running through it.

The BBC does not seem to have within its DNA much of a ‘publish and be damned’ instinct. To say that ‘it has become pathologically risk-averse’ is, in the light of history, to give it rather more credit than it is due. It has always tended to timorous caution but, certainly since the Hitler war created the circumstances in which it was eventually allowed to shine, it has been Teflon-coated. The current DG Lord Hall need not expect to be contradicted, except by the flicker of evidence, when he talks in public of the BBC news ‘ethos, and the hard discipline of BBC training and neutrality’.

He who pays the piper

It is a mark of extreme radicalism, it would seem, to challenge this rhetoric. Yet these glimmers of impropriety smack of the relationship of politicians and the media in eighteenth century Hanoverian Britain – but, when it comes to the BBC, ‘smack’ is all we allow them to do. We no longer smell the stench that necessarily accompanies any financial bond between government and media. 

Robert Walpole, thus far Britain’s longest-serving premier (1721-1742) was a byword for corruption, not least because of his financial relationship to the press. A free press was held in high esteem: ‘the Palladium of all the civil, political and religious rights of an Englishman’. But it was utterly subverted by Walpole and his cronies through the stamp duty, manipulation of the mails and ‘subsidies’. In the 1730s, he used £50,000 – £4.25million in today’s money – to bribe toady editors and hacks. That we may be in the slightest echoing such goings with, dare one say, the licence fee is beyond the pale.

Hanoverian corruption? Do me a turn (as my father-in-law used to say)! Doesn’t happen here anymore: despite the MPs’ expenses racket, Britain is still perceived as the fourteenth least corrupt nation on earth. And, of course, at stake here is not the corruption of personal enrichment but that of power and influence. The licence fee system might involve the passing of large sums of money from the state to an organ of opinion, but any resemblance to Walpole’s recycling of taxation into subsidies is deemed merely coincidental. Nevertheless, tax money, however, hypothecated or not, is as much the Achilles’ heel of the BBC’s independence as it was of any eighteenth century denizen of Grub Street. 

And, suddenly, thanks to Whittingdale, in 2015 that truth becomes unavoidable. To the toxicity of Cameron-style attacks over news coverage is now added the faux-naïf complaint about popularity. Well, not a complaint we understand, merely a reasonable query: why use tax money to produce programming which private entities can provide? It is a question that the BBC is hard pressed to answer and before the Second World War, it did so, essentially, by not making much of a fist of low-brow programming.

‘A jam session?’ the controller of programmes, queried his staff in 1938, ‘we must introduce some sort of supervision to prevent this sort of thing.’ Hitler helped the BBC’s ‘Light Entertainment’ to have a brilliant war, only to fall back towards elitism with the peace. The head of drama in the late 1940s dismissed an innocuous radio soap as being ‘socially corrupting by its monstrous flattery of the ego of the “common man”’. ‘Auntie’ BBC was only laid to rest in the 1960s under the pressure of competition.

Ever since John Reith escaped the clutches of the postmaster general in 1928 by promising never to cause any trouble, any parliamentary non-news related complaints about programming – sex and violence, say – have been squatted away by the government of the day as not being its business. Moreover, has any MP ever risen in the House of Commons to complain that the corporation is planning yet another dramatisation of Austin when Thomas Love Peacock remains untouched? Whittingdale echoes this apparent non-interventionism, upon which rests the corporation’s political independence, when he says: ‘Even if I wanted to close down Strictly Come Dancing, which I don’t, it would be completely wrong of the government to try and decide which programmes the BBC should make and which it shouldn’t’. 

But it is disingenuous to pretend that without popularity the licence fee is not endangered. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all. Indeed, if the BBC cedes its hard won capacity for light entertainment and is forced to retreat into a Reithian elitist ghetto, as sure as night follows day, it would be ‘completely’ right for the politicians to abolish a tax on operating a receiver, which is what the license fee is, when the proceeds go only to one broadcaster who isn’t used by the majority of those paying the tax. And, whoops, there goes the BBC! 

John Whittingdale says: ‘We also need to ask some hard questions in charter review if we are to ensure the future success of the BBC, and indeed UK broadcasting’, but the agenda of charter renewal does not come close to addressing them, not least because ‘UK broadcasting’ is involved and UK broadcasters include media conglomerates. The last time we asked hard questions of them, at the feet of Lord Leveson, there followed no answers. The best we do in looking beyond the BBC silo are Ofcom’s public service reviews but even they restrict the definition of broadcasting competition to the BBC, ITV, C4, C5 and SC4. This has the Orwellian result of making the BBC the monopolist. News International, remember, is no such thing – it is not, curiously, even a public service broadcaster.

The BBC’s mission, as the BBC Charter Review reminds us, is to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. When we are assured in the consultation document that: ‘[t]he government is, therefore, committed both to the future of the BBC and to its underlying Reithian mission’ an eyebrow can surely be raised. The information function, at its heart the news service, is compromised by the public funding source being controlled by politicians – and they are themselves not truly independent of the BBC’s rivals. And it is those last who demand that the BBC cease and desist from entertaining. That leaves, in the broadest sense, education, but that function drips elitism and elitism is fatal to the universality of the licence fee. 

That need not be, of course. If we were dealing with the marketplace of ideas rather than just the marketplace, the principle of a hypothecated tax – or some other public subvention – could by defended. As it is, Tony Hall is right to protest: ‘I don’t think we are just there to be a market failure BBC’, although that role could be an honourable one. In 1927, one of John Reith’s most brilliant early moves was to save the Henry Wood Promenade concerts from collapse because of the withdrawal of commercial sponsorship. In the same spirit, in March 2014, Tony Hall announced close ‘partnerships’ with the National Theatre, the Tate Gallery, the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, the Royal Academy and Glyndebourne. To be such a hub could well justify the use of public funds. But not in today’s cold neo-liberal light. As it is, the implicit invitation to play the market failure role is a poisoned chalice. 

Despite five pages in the consultation document on ‘the BBC’s values’ and ‘the BBC’s public purposes’, there is, in truth, little here beyond lip-service about the quality and value of culture. No proposed examination of the BBC’s need to compete to protect its claim in the public purse. No inquiry into the market’s failures (how could there be?). The only thing that truly matters here are questions that ‘persist around the distinctiveness of the programmes the BBC delivers, and whether it uses its broad purposes to act in too commercial a way, chasing ratings rather than delivering distinctive, quality programming that other providers would not.’ James Murdoch would not disagree.

To talk only of the BBC’s governance, finance and management failings in a converged digitised multiplatform, internationalised, conglomerate-dominated world is to be rearranging the deckchairs. No broadcaster is an island, so how can any policy remotely pertinent to long-term realities emerge from such limited exercises as this? Above all, how can we square the market, with so limited a number of ‘speakers’, with the market place of ideas where creating a cacophony of voices is the objective? 

Unless we can answer that, the bell tolls, and not just for the BBC.

This is an edited extract of a chapter from the forthcoming book: 

The BBC Today: Future Uncertain. Ed. John Mair, Professor Richard Tait and Professor Richard Lance Keeble. Abramis Bury St Edmunds: 5 September 2015

Isbn: 9781845496562

(Copies available from mid august from [email protected] and on Amazon)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData