Jean Seaton’s feisty reply to critical reviews of her book invites us to reflect on history when we think about the future of the BBC. It’s a challenge that deserves a wide response.
BBC archive, Windmill Road. Image: Flickr/ Andy Armstrong
The vigour and extent of Jean Seaton’s response to criticisms of her book, Pinkoes and Traitors, make it a welcome addition to the ourBeeb debate. It gives a deeper perspective to her narrative choices, and adds a present-day dimension to her analysis of the past.
Seaton is not alone in underlining the lessons to be drawn from the BBC’s history – Brian Winston regularly reminds us of the myth-making that crops up so often in the BBC’s own version of its past (the “brave resistance” to Churchill in 1926, or to Eden in 1955, and so on).
Seaton’s new volume of the BBC’s history exposes the hidden extent of one story the previous five volumes by Asa Briggs failed to tell fully: the deep complicity of the BBC itself in the vetting of its staff (more than a thousand every year) by MI5, from the 1920s through to 1984. She is also honest about the BBC’s struggle in Northern Ireland to reconcile its obligations to impartiality with reporting the civil and armed struggle against partition that burst into renewed life in the late 1960s and persisted right through the period she covers. The BBC’s instinct (with which Seaton is seemingly in some sympathy) was to support the forces of order seeking to uphold the constitutional settlement of 1922 (the year – perhaps coincidentally – of the BBC’s own founding), whereby the six counties of Northern Ireland were separated from the new Irish Free State.
She also sympathizes with the depth of the BBC’s relationship with the royal family: a relationship placed under some stress during the period when the royals became unpopular with the British public, and came close to fracture as the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana publicly disintegrated (Seaton is clearly alarmed by the platform given to Diana to vent her grievances in the most widely-viewed episode in the history of Panorama).
Pervading her narrative is a steady sense of how and why the BBC has entrenched itself in the hearts and minds of its audience. Very much part of the story she tells is the defence against attacks on the BBC’s status, its precious licence fee and its independence (or pseudo-independence as Brian Winston would term it), whether launched by dogmatic politicians or by ill-willed critics.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Seaton has chosen to frame her riposte to my own many criticisms of her book in that language. I am, apparently, “in favour of anything that damages the BBC”. My “agenda” has been visible for 30 years. Anything negative I have to say about her book, she implies, must be seen in that light.
It is welcome to have apologies for the two mis-attributions of famous ITV productions (to the BBC and Channel 4 respectively), and an explanation of a puzzling reference to Stewart Purvis and ITN in the text. The scores of other errors pointed out in my review (and elsewhere) – names, titles, dates, facts and spellings – are not individually regretted, but as a second edition of the book is apparently planned, I am more than happy to offer the publishers a comprehensive list of needed corrections. But first, let me try and rebut the charge against me of hostility to the BBC.
Seaton’s critique of my “agenda” has three prongs. First, she thinks my several references to ITV’s parallel existence with the BBC in the period she covers is evidence that I believe ITV was/is “better, first, superior”. Second, she thinks I want to see the BBC “smaller or broken up or re-organised”. Thirdly, she thinks my espousal of the idea of funding the BBC through subscription “would be the end of the BBC”, insofar as it “crushes its universality”, especially if different charges applied to different services.
The first issue is puzzling. If Seaton had not made some basic errors in her text, I would never have mentioned ITV at all in my review. And although it is true that ITV – during the years of the duopoly, before the launch of Channel 4 – often compared well with the BBC (as Seaton acknowledges), I am fully aware of the shared public service values of those years, and corrected her errors, not out of any self-serving motive, but precisely because I subscribed to those shared values (the ones she thinks I ignore and which I think she ignores).
And although I chided her for claiming that only “the independent means provided by the licence fee” allowed series such as “Life On Earth” to be made (citing the advertising-funded The World At War, and not even mentioning The Jewel In The Crown or Brideshead Revisited), I went to some lengths in my 1991 MacTaggart Lecture to place support for the BBC – even if that meant sustaining the licence fee – as a key priority for the commercial sector:
There is no-one in ITV who fails to understand that the bedrock of quality television in this country is a securely-funded, well-managed, broadly ranging BBC. The BBC keeps ITV on its mettle: whatever the pressures from satellites, as long as BBC1 can sustain a strong audience share with a schedule that contains peak-time factual series, ambitious drama, authoritative news and reporting, and home-grown children’s programmes, ITV must compete in kind.
Every indication is that the BBC will want to keep the licence fee, and that a post-Thatcher Downing Street will permit this. My own view remains that subscription is the safest, most socially equitable and most politically insulated form of funding the BBC. All that said, if the BBC concludes that it wishes to continue the licence fee, we should unhesitatingly support it. And just as important as the BBC’s funding is the principle that it covers the full range of television programming. For the BBC to retreat into a public affairs ghetto might temporarily enrich ITV, but it would permanently impoverish the nation’s viewers.
As it happens, I made the same points nearly a decade later when I was interviewed for the post of BBC Director-General (Greg Dyke was appointed). The BBC chairman at the time was Sir Christopher Bland, who subsequently described me as the “best DG the BBC never had”: scarcely a description he would apply to someone dedicated to damaging the BBC.
This is where the difficulty arises in imputing motive rather than arguing the actual merits of the case. Seaton believes that “separate fees for separate services” would be “the end of the BBC”. Yet that is how the BBC has been funded for most of its existence. To the original radio-only fee was added a TV fee after 1945, with a “colour” added when BBC2 launched in the 1960s. Eventually, in the 1970s, the radio fee became too expensive to be worth collecting separately, so radio became a free service (on the assumption that nearly all households were by then paying at least for a black-and-white TV licence).
The BBC planned a satellite service in the 1980s: that, too, would have been paid for by a separate subscription. In the 1990s, BBC Select was offered as a subscription service, using the transmission hours in the middle of the night, and a “smart” box. In 1999, a panel under the chairmanship of Gavyn Davies (later appointed as BBC chairman) recommended that all the BBC’s planned digital channels be paid for by a separate “digital licence fee”: a proposal accepted by the BBC (though over-ruled by Tony Blair after he had been lobbied by ITV and BSkyB, who thought such a fee might act as a barrier to take-up of their own digital services). So that is 77 years of “separate fees for separate services” being BBC policy, without being “the end of the BBC”.
Then there is the “crushing of universality”. Without wishing to rehearse all the arguments set out in my OurBeeb article '40 lies the BBC tells about subscription', it should be pointed out that universal access is a function of transmission systems, not ideology. For decades, BBC radio, then television, then colour television, and then digital television, were not available universally. That virtually all households can, now, physically receive BBC signals does not confer any moral value on them (or on the other terrestrial channels enjoying similar distribution). Nor is there any moral value in forcing households to fund the BBC, or risk court proceedings, criminal sanctions and fines of up to £1,000, rather than allowing them to choose whether to pay for the BBC or not.
Plurality, creativity and efficiency
Seaton and I obviously disagree on these points. Where Seaton is quite right is in pointing out that I want to see the BBC “re-organised” (which, by the way, is not synonymous with a desire to see it “smaller” or “broken up”). My concerns here are entirely to do with plurality, creativity and efficiency.
The only facet of the BBC I actually wish were smaller is its alarmingly large share of news consumption, all controlled from a central editorial point in London. That share is well over 60%, measuring TV news and current affairs, radio news and current affairs, news in national newspapers, and online news. In any other hands, such dominance would be highly controversial. Even in the hands of a trusted, publicly-owned broadcaster, this is simply too large a share, which has grown to that level more by the inactions of others (a steady decline in the viewership of ITV news, and of newspaper circulation) than by design.
My modest suggestions for reducing the impact of this dominance are structural: borrowing the Annan Committee’s minority recommendation to separate radio and television editorially (a proposal recently endorsed at an ourBeeb seminar by a former Managing Director of BBC Radio, Liz Forgan); reversing the recent integration of BBC World Service into the single editorial news structure; and devolving much more editorial authority downwards to the nations and regions (something the SNP may force through anyway after 7 May). Another option is to allow the BBC News Channel to operate as a stand-alone editorial entity.
For the last ten years, I have advocated separating BBC TV Production from BBC TV Broadcast, so as to allow the creative teams and individuals within Production to provide content for the full array of UK and international broadcasters, not just the BBC. The current waste of the potential within this huge creative resource is hard to justify: and this year BBC D-G Tony Hall has finally come out in support of the idea (though he has yet to put forward a structure that clearly prevents licence fee income from subsidising Production as it starts to compete with all the other programme suppliers in the UK).
And in the same vein I have suggested spinning off BBC Worldwide, so that all would-be distributors of BBC programmes can compete on equal terms, and so that BBC Worldwide can demonstrably be independent in bidding to distribute non-BBC programmes. Worldwide could also then escape the borrowing constraints associated with public ownership, thereby enabling coherent investment in the international TV channel business as well as the many other opportunities that flow from its strength in content ownership.
As I said: all this proposed “re-organisation” is in the interests of plurality, creativity and efficiency – not in order to make the BBC “smaller”, and least of all in pursuit of a “world without the BBC”, as Seaton unsubtly implies.
Seaton’s misunderstanding of my views goes deeper: she imagines she “can still hear the anger [he] must have felt in 1986 when the [Peacock] report came out and recommended against advertising on the BBC”. As I was strongly opposed to advertising on the BBC and was also virtually the only person who gave evidence to Peacock suggesting replacing the licence fee with subscription (which is what the report recommended), “anger” was the last emotion I felt. Muddling up advertising funding with subscription funding (both of which she opposes for the BBC) is sadly only too typical of Seaton’s confusion (she says in her response that my “agenda” is to propose “subscription or advertising to fund all or part of the BBC” – a basic error).
As it happens, Thames TV (on whose board I then sat) and BSkyB (where I later worked as head of programming, but without a board seat, after Thames lost its licence in 1992) were each firmly opposed to both advertising and subscription for the BBC, preferring to keep the BBC locked to the licence fee (which was no threat to their revenue streams).
ITV and Sky remain just as opposed now to subscription funding for the BBC as they were in 1986. But that is not because they have the interests of the BBC itself at heart: they have only their own. So neither offered a word of protest at the coalition’s freezing and top-slicing of the licence fee in October 2010 (what Seaton calls the “midweek mugging”). I objected strongly then (see my OurBeeb article), and still do: scarcely the behaviour of someone “in favour of anything that damages the BBC”.
Seaton accuses me of having a “blind spot” about Rupert Murdoch. If anything, she is the one suffering in this respect. She fails to notice (although Leapman documented it) my public critique in 1985 of the anti-BBC stance of The Times as too conveniently matching Murdoch’s broadcasting interests. She overlooks my fierce public battle with the Murdoch press over Death On The Rock in 1988, extracting libel damages from The Sun and admissions of dodgy journalism from reporters on The Sunday Times. She obviously thinks my four years at Sky, not on the board, more significant than my fourteen years as a main board director of companies in direct competition with Sky. She cannot have read my 2009 Beesley Lecture (available on the Guardian website) rejecting James Murdoch’s comments on the BBC and criticising Sky’s attempts to counter Ofcom’s imposition of wholesale prices for its sports channels.
She has subtly changed her original claim about Murdoch – now, it is not that “Sky had legislation written later to help it launch its service” (which she must have realised was wrong) but that “there is no doubt that the law subsequently helped him”. The only “law” that helped Sky – and a thousand other channel operators now broadcasting within the EU – was the Television Without Frontiers EU Directive of 1989: many years in the making, nothing to do with Murdoch, driven by and through Brussels.
Subsequently, there were changes to the law and to broadcast regulation, but invariably with constraining effect on Murdoch. The 1990 Broadcasting Act enshrined the 20/20/20 rule (prohibiting News International and BSkyB – and in practice no-one else – from owning an ITV franchise). In the 1996 Broadcasting Act, “listed events” were created, specifically designed to prevent Sky from bidding for the rights to eight major sports contracts. Both acts were passed by Tory governments.
Regulatory intervention had already excluded Murdoch from any control of London Weekend Television and from joining the British Satellite Broadcasting consortium, and later saw Sky ejected from the British Digital Broadcasting consortium and prevented from buying Manchester United. It was also forced to give up a 17.9% stake in ITV plc acquired in a dawn raid, and obliged to accept Ofcom regulation of its sports channel prices, third party access to its platform and its electronic programme guide. Seaton and the “many other media academics and respected industry analysts” she calls in aid need to address these facts.
Perhaps indicative of Seaton’s general haziness about Murdoch is her claim that her book “exposed the revelation” that Mrs Thatcher consulted him before appointing Duke Hussey as chairman of the BBC – “Elstein does not mention this”, she notes (implicitly, as a result of my “blind spot”). Actually, the story is seventeen years old, which is why I ignored it. The details were revealed in the first volume of “The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt” (published by Macmillan in 1998, and serialised – ironically – in The Sunday Times). Indeed, Seaton gives us only a small part of the story, as told by Wyatt, who had rung up Murdoch in a panic on hearing from Thatcher of Hussey’s impending appointment.
“I was shattered. I thought it must be Rupert trying to get rid of someone in his organisation of no value to him. Later Rupert rings in a great state: ‘Has she gone mad? What a disastrous appointment. He was quite useless here...they will run rings round him. The BBC Mafia must be absolutely delighted.’ Rupert only kept Hussey on at The Times when he took it over because he is very kind hearted and he had no money, contrary to what is reported in the press.
Further crucial questions
Finally, there are one or two other points that Seaton includes in her response I should like to address.
First, although the US networks have declined as news organisations since the advent of cable, it is foolish to describe them as “a shadow of their former selves”. I have visited the US nearly every year for the last 50 years, for up to two months at a time, and I am an avid news viewer. The main network evening bulletins still command an audience five times larger than any of the cable news shows. Their morning shows wipe the floor with the cable opposition, are formidably profitable and make their equivalents in the UK look threadbare. Likewise, the resources available for local news in the top 100 US markets are an embarrassing commentary on what passes for regional and local coverage here (has Seaton watched any of the Lebedev London station?). The notion that the BBC covers US stories with more resources than the US networks is laughable: the network news employees outnumber the BBC’s in the US by a factor of at least 20.
Seaton also misunderstands the difference between the US and UK news systems. Fox News is often hilarious in its right-wing fantasies, but it is also mocked mercilessly by the likes of Anderson Cooper on CNN, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, as well as The Daily Show on Comedy Central and Bill Maher and John Oliver on HBO.
But these opinionated news channels – along with Russia Today, Al Jazeera News and Iranian news – are all available in the UK, too: because Ofcom rules require, not “impartiality”, but “due impartiality”, which makes allowance for context and audience expectations. Channel Four News is edgier than ITV News (though both are sourced from ITN), but stays within the framework of “due impartiality”. Sky News is very different from Fox News, not because it is required to be, but because it chooses to be, for sound commercial reasons: Fox News has virtually no audience in the UK, whereas Sky News rivals the BBC News Channel in viewership and its ability to win industry awards.
Seaton is quite right to remind me of Keith Kyle’s important interview with the Enniskillen schoolteacher, Bernard O’Connor (not O’Conner, as she writes). It was brave of the BBC to broadcast it, and their doing so certainly made it slightly easier for me to transmit, a few months later, Peter Taylor’s report entitled “Inhuman and Degrading Treatment”, documenting ten such cases, and triggering the Amnesty International investigation published the following year.
The absence of any reference to the Carrickmore incident in Pinkoes and Traitors is justified by Seaton as “perhaps an omission, given the impact that even an unbroadcast event had on relations between the BBC and the government”. She says it is hard to get at the truth, and the BBC archives on Carrickmore are “venomous”. Yet Roger Bolton, in his essay collection, Death On The Rock (W H Allen, 2000) devotes two chapters to this IRA road-block saga, and Leapman (in The Last Days of the Beeb, Coronet, 1987) has 30 pages. I am confident Seaton is not implying that either account fails to “get at the truth”. And should not even “venomous” archives see the light of day 36 years after the event?
At least Seaton is frank in saying she has no idea what I am talking about in my claiming that Channel Four “closely followed a structure actually submitted to Annan but explicitly rejected by him”. Chapter 15, paragraph 7 of the Annan Report, cited in full in my lecture on Annan (“The Political Structure of UK Broadcasting, 1949-1999”, Oxford Lectures, 1999), details the exact structure eventually adopted for Channel 4, as submitted by the Association of Directors and Producers (Annan dismissed it as “novel”).
The ADP evidence was an expansion of a proposal originally made by John Birt and myself to the minister in charge of broadcasting in 1973, which was further elaborated in a similar letter that year to the minister from Jeremy Isaacs.
The key here is not whether the new channel would make room for educational offerings and programmes from independent producers (which even the plans for ITV2 included), but how it would be financed. The crucial mechanism was to allow ITV to sell Channel 4’s airtime, and charge a levy on ITV to fund Channel 4’s programming. Neither Tony Smith’s National Television Foundation nor Annan’s Open Broadcasting Authority had any credible funding arrangements: and neither was prepared to accept such a formula.
One of the most damning critiques of the OBA came from Nick Garnham – like Seaton, a professor at the University of Westminster: “The OBA is going to encourage diversity, pluralism and creative freedom by being structure-less. This improbable feat is achieved precisely, as its critics have rightly and with some well-directed ribaldry pointed out, by giving the new Authority no conceivably realistic source of funds”.
The story of how the ADP formula came to prevail – in a fashion that even Tony Smith acknowledged as a good outcome when he was appointed to the Channel Four board at launch – is fully told in Independents Struggle by Michael Darlow (Quartet, 2004), and more briefly in Stephen Lambert’s Channel Four (BFI 1982), in Paul Bonner’s volume six of the official history of ITV (Palgrave Macmillan 2002) and in Maggie Brown’s A Licence to be Different (BFI 2007). It should not be a mystery to a serious historian.
For all my criticisms of her book, her arguments and her methodology, I fully recognize that Seaton is a relevant and important contributor to the debate we are hosting on ourBeeb as to the future of our most important cultural institution and our dominant source of news and information.
How the BBC is tasked, how it is managed, how it is financed and how it is held accountable are crucial questions, the resolution of which threatens to be crushed into an impossible timetable between May 7 and the expiry of the BBC Charter at the end of 2016. Seaton is right to warn us that this period will be “one of the most contested in the Corporation’s history”.
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