What do you do with a problem like ‘news’?

The BBC Trust has a new chair but the problems of the BBC’s constitutional position – problems which centre on news provision – are scarce likely to be solved by this appointment.

Brian Winston
4 September 2014

Rona Fairhead. FT Group/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.So the BBC has a new boss whose appointment has evoked a widespread response: ‘who?’ On the other hand, she is a woman which has to be a good thing, although she appears to be a Tory and so perhaps ex-miners in Ollerton, say, might not so easily assume this to be the case. Rona Fairhead, in the fashion of her predecessors at both BBC Trust and on its old Board of Governors is a political appointee of a person, her background and family suggests, sympathetic to the appointers’ (i.e. the government’s) point of view. This remains unstated, of course, as the process is entirely opaque. There can be no assumption of party-political neutrality, however. Nor does the appointment hint, as does the role of the Speaker for example, of even a ‘turn-and-turn-about’ process between the two main parties. Neither was there, as usual, any presumption that some knowledge of broadcasting – beyond being a viewer/listener – was required. She apparently lives in the grounds of the actual ‘Downtown Abbey’ but it is nowhere suggested this gives her any special insight. But this lack, Sir Peter Bazalgette – for example – opined, could be a good thing: ‘If she speaks for the licence fee payers and Tony Hall speaks for the BBC, I think it might work’.i And, indeed, at this stage, Ms Fairhead must not be prejudged. An activist role in one direction or another is, after all, hers for the taking.

But the question is what might this be? What, beyond her personal relationship with the Corporation’s executive, ‘might work’? ‘Speaking for the licence fee payers’ carries whiffs of vox populi, vox dei, a jolly good democratic thing; but the audience does speak already, and most powerfully. They switch off if they don't like what it is on offer. Giving them only what they do like in effect totally removes the need for a publicly-funded broadcaster because the market place efficiently does that. Reith knew exactly what he was doing when, in 1924, he blithely dismissed the need for popularity on the grounds that ‘few [licence payers] know what they need and very few what they want’.ii

Anyway, when Ms Fairhead was the finance director of the Pearson Group her legal responsibilities were not to the readers of the Financial Times, which it publishes, but to the company’s owners, its shareholder. Reading across from her previous experience makes for rather uncomfortable analogies. The BBC licence payer is not a ‘share-holder’ in any way the Companies Act recognizes – no articles of association exist, no dividend is ever declared, no vote is ever taken. Ms Fairhead will never be required to chair an AGM. Her abilities with a balance sheet are to be welcomed but that this might be her only pertinent expertise does not instill much confidence. The Corporation, in fact, is nocommercial corporation. Rather it exists to correct commercial, market failures. Ignoring this does not address, never mind answer, the fundamental issues of independence raised by its Charter. If the BBC is not ‘owned’ by its audience, then who does ‘own’ it?

It is an obfuscation to see the audience in any meaningful way as doing so. It is an obfuscation brilliantly captured, I must say, by our title here: ourBeeb. It is, exactly, not ourBeeb and believing that it is, or that it might be without a radical rethink, is a species of cognitive dissonance – that wonderful human ability to hold two contradictory positions at once.

Cognitive dissonance suffuses everything said about the BBC’s governance: funded by government fiat but not government controlled in ways that impinge on its ‘independence’. In this instance, they who pay the piper don't ever call the tune – oh no! And it is this ‘independence’ that, it is widely hoped, Rona Fairhead, among other things now an advisor to the civil service minister Francis Maude, will uphold.

It would be, in normal circumstance, to put hope above experience to expect this of a political place-person. But she could be an exception and has to be allowed time to demonstrate that she is…. or isn’t. After all, the BBC is not, in this sense, normal. A time-honoured rhetoric of the right of free expression underpins its operations and without doubt constrains any who would abridge that freedom. And in normal circumstances none try – at least not in public. And if they are known to be doing so, they are quickly silenced. Ask Grant Shapps, the chair of the Conservative party whose public threatening of the licence fee last October was met with pretty universal opprobrium.

But such incidents make the problem of BBC independence quite clear. The structural threat, however, is specific. Not everything the BBC does is contaminated (as it were) if politically influenced. It is not a question of authority improperly suggesting, publicly or behind the screens, that the next Dickens novel to be dramatised should Edwin Drood not Bleak House; or that there should be more Mahler and less Birtwistle at the Proms; less Strictly, moreBake-Off. And even if such unlikely pressures were to come to light, it is the case that defence of the BBC is nowhere on stronger ground than when its current programming provision and record is prayed in. Who determines overall programming in what circumstances and what conditions of governance is not the problem. The problem in this regard is, quite clearly, the news – and only the news.

The BBC believes that the news is something of a jewel in the crown of its programming but from the point of view of the long tradition of the press it is rather (change of cliché, sorry) a poisoned chalice. As a nation we have always taken a dim of official news -- from Sir Roger L’Estrange’s Intelligencer, published ‘With Privilege’ in the 1650s, through the Government’s Anti-Cobbettin the last years of the Napoleonic Wars to The British Gazette, Churchill’s black-leg newssheet during the 1926 General Strike. To this day, the municipal ‘paper’ that flutters down (seldom hefty enough to thud) onto the doormat is scarcely regarded as a meaningful source of local news.

Yet, despite Charter and Agreement, licence fees and fallback oversight by the Minister of Culture and the historic take-over powers of the Home Secretary, Lord Hall trumpets the BBC as a bastion of journalistic independence: “It has its own ethos, and the hard discipline of BBC training and neutrality”, as he put it in his City University speech in July.iii While he used that occasion to announce a plan to flog off the rest of BBC production, he also insisted that: ‘It would be hard to contract [the news] out without losing control of our voice’. And that voice, he is not wrong to suggest commands respect. This summer past, for example, the BBC proudly announced the international success of BBC news as its audience outside Britain reached 73.5 million: ‘the BBC has retained its position as the most trusted international news broadcaster’.iv

Disputing this triumphalism is hard as even those who disagree are often pressed into service as de facto supporters of Lord Hall’s ‘neutrality’. 5000 protestors showed up at New Broadcasting House complaining about the BBC’s failure to report that ‘Gaza is under Israeli occupation and siege [and] that Israel is bombing a refugee population.’v On the other hand, any news-watcher or listener with a taste for linguistics could note how easily the Israelis always ‘killed’ Palestinians while Israelis just ‘died’, cause unreported. Result: everybody upset and ergo (as usual) ‘neutrality’ on the part of the BBC proved.

This is, of course, a very poor defence. Were the matter not so serious in this instance, one would call up the old joke about the three statisticians who go duck shooting. One fires above the bird, the second below and the third shouts: ‘It's a hit’. The point, though, is not neutrality or bias; the first is unachievable and the second, not least because it lies in the eye of the beholder, is inevitable. But if it’s a Dacre or a Rusbridger doing the reporting that doesn’t matter. We know who they are and who owns them. We can work out with what authority they speak. The point is that this in not quite the case with the BBC. If it speaks for itself, then who is it? One wants to say ‘us’, but clearly, constitutionally, that is meaningless. Clearly, constitutionally, it is a creature of government which is constrained only by the ‘conventions’ of the free speech right.

Take, then, James Harding, the newly appointed DNCA – Director of News and Current Affairs. As one of his decisions when editing The Times – the pursuit of the Rotherham child-sexual abuse scandal – bore dreadful fruit, Peter Preston asks: ‘Will James Harding be allowed to edit ‘fearlessly’ in his new job: ‘Harding is an editor. The challenge for him amid the forests of Broadcasting House – a challenge for the BBC itself as MPs gather to have their say on stories that raise their hackles – is making sure that he can edit effectively’.vi This is a serious point and we should pause to consider why so.

Preston puts his finger on the problem – political hackles. We mere mortals know as much about these in this context as we know about the processes whereby Ms Fairhead comes before us.vii But the BBC’s history does show, albeit rarely, precedent.

Most famously, Reginald Maudling, Tory Home Secretary, threatened to use his powers to ban coverage of British army activities in Ulster in 1972 when the Troubles where just starting. The then chair of the Governors – this was before the Trust -- was Charles Hill, Lord Hill of Luton, beloved of the nation as the wartime BBC’s Radio Doctor. The BBC in general, it can be argued, still has a measure of public support and affection because of its conduct in the face of Mr. Hitler and Hill, 40+ years ago, was no little protected by his connection to this history. He simply faced Maudling down by threatening to make such censorship known. So, hackles rise, pressure happens.

What is interesting is that Hill too had been a Tory MP and was ex-cabinet minster. But when push came to shove, the principles he had defended when at war were more important to him than the party line. A consequence of this incident is that written into the Charter is provision that, in like circumstances, the BBC has a right to make the government’s censorship public. The question is, given the political stranglehold over the Corporation – not least because it fixes the licence fee level – how often does it choose to exercise this option? Never again – thus far. In fact, on the contrary:

Official papers came to light in 2011 revealing that Ian Threthowan, then D-G, volunteered information on a Panorama progamme about the Secret Service to the Thatcher government and then ordered it be slashed by half in line with official demands.viii He said nothing.

This is the ultimate challenge facing Ms Fairchild. It is the only one that really matters. And, crucially, it only concerns the news. Absent the news and the entire constitutional difficulty of the BBC is solved.ix It stands clear to make good the market place deficiencies of commercial broadcasting provision. And, where it does compete, it brings an edge to their performance – exactly as Lord Hall suggested in his July speech. But in a democracy it is too close to government structurally to offer a news service. That it can claim to be the world’s most trusted might be good news for the Foreign Office but it scarce matters to me. (Except, of course, it’s my licence fee that part allows for this outcome.) That it is the most trusted within Britain is, from this standpoint, exactly the problem.

The matter is ideological – it’s about a free press. As was once said, after we had escaped from any whiff of government interference beyond the general law protecting us from harm: ‘we never promised you a fair press, a balanced press, an honest press, a truthful press, a sober press. All we ever promised you was a free press’. The quality of the BBC’s news operation is, therefore, entirely beside the point – except in so far as the ‘better’ its trustworthiness quotient, the greater its ideological dubiety. Conversely, the dreaded bogey of Fox News is equally irrelevant. For centuries, sometimes as the result of much struggle, we have insisted on a marketplace of idea as expressed through a press subjected to no-prior constraints. Publish and be damned – not: publish and hope the political paymasters don't get too het up and exert improper pressure. There can be no case for news in any medium which emanates from institutions that can be so directly threatened by authority, That a question can be asked of DNCA, BBC whether or not he can be ‘fearless’ is itself a signal at red. 

Once upon a time DNCA was ENCA –Editor, News and Current Affairs. Ms Fairchild could begin to win golden opinions by suggesting to Tony Hall the restoration of that title. Working out what to do with a problem like ‘news’ though requires more, much more. Solving it solves the entire problem of the BBC’s constitutional position.

i Josh Haliday & Jason Deans, ‘Former boss of FT to be first female chair of BBC trust, The Guardian, 1 September, 2014, p.3. 

ii John Reith, Broadcast over Britain. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1924, p.34.

iii http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/speeches/2014/dg-city-university

iv http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/worldnews/2014/bbc-com-stats

v John Plunkett, ‘BBC defends coverage of airstrikes in Gaza after http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/16/bbc-defends-coverage-israeli-airstrikes-gaza-palestinian

vi6 http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/aug/31/james-harding-allowed-edit-bbc

vii Rona Fairhead is due to appear before the Common’s Culture, Sport and Media select committee next week where, inter alia, the process is to be examined.

viii http://arcre.com/archive/oss/90-bbcpanorama

ix Not, of course, the question of its financing. I do not here take sides as between my friends Steve Barnett and David Elstein. However, if a news-less BBC is deemed unworthy of the licence fee that implies, logically, that the principle of the licence fee turns on news provision. Ergo, its is then, after all, the ambiguously independent news source that underpins and justifies the entire edifice.

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