BBC: cut the crap

The BBC is a broadcaster, not a political opposition.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Culture

One of the more unnerving sights to emerge from the Hutton Inquiry has been the BBC reporting on the crisis of the BBC. That Lord Hutton’s slating of this institution was followed by the immediate resignation of chairman Gavyn Davies, followed by the rather more grudging resignation of director-general Greg Dyke, is no surprise in the circumstances. But the degree of self-obsession, self-delusion and self-importance that has surrounded these resignations is more shocking – even coming from the BBC.

There is something deeply disturbing about the fact that the opinion of a law lord can be taken as some kind of holy truth, and used to censure a news organisation in such a way. The spectacle of Hutton’s establishment contempt for journalists, followed by the grovelling apology issued by BBC governors following Greg Dyke’s resignation, looked almost as though the UK government had gained a victory in the libel courts, with Tony Blair simply waiting for some defamation damages. As Tessa Mayes argues, there are likely to be chilling consequences of this carry-on for investigative journalism in general, which is a dangerous thing in a democracy (see The chilling of investigative journalism).

But the media discussion that has followed Davies’ and Dyke’s resignations has very little to do with press freedom, journalistic standards, or the principle of the Hutton Inquiry. All of this has been buried beneath an obsession with the institutional future of the BBC – not as a news outlet, but as a political opposition to the government. For a while now, the BBC has tended less to report upon the news than to become the news itself. Now, it seems that the BBC sees itself less as a means to providing political commentary than as part of the process of formal politics.

We have all become familiar with the way that John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, veteran anchormen of the flagship BBC Today and Newsnight programmes, today do a far better job of hauling government ministers over the coals than any ineffectual parliamentary opposition member. The depths of public cynicism is such that the BBC can get away with levels of contempt about politics and politicians that would have been unthinkable in previous decades. In this sense, it’s not really surprising that the BBC can casually dismiss the government as liars, as in the Gilligan affair, and be surprised when this blows up in its face.

Yet as the Gilligan affair also shows, the BBC is not wholly to blame for its delusions of political grandeur. It is the government’s own insecurity and isolation, faced with no credible opposition within parliament and a sea of cynicism outside, that fuels the media’s inflated role in the first place. The government’s much-talked-about obsession with media spin is a product of its desperation to connect with the public through the media, and its tendency to overreact to media criticism is a product of its defensiveness.

Now, the fear rumbling around the airwaves is that the upshot of Hutton will mean that the BBC somehow loses its independence, its essential ability to act as a critic of the government. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell, in whose hands the fate of the BBC charter apparently lies, was careful to stress how she, too, valued the BBC’s ‘independent’ role. ‘A BBC that is nobody’s lapdog, that challenges government and raises debate – that is in all our interests’, she said (1).

That the BBC should be independent from government censorship or prescription is of course right. But that is different from imagining the BBC to be some kind of independent political force, there to act as an active opposition to the ruling political party. For not only is the BBC a media outlet rather than a political party – it is the BBC.

The BBC is not just some independent news-and-views outfit. It is a publicly funded institution set up by the British state, designed to provide what has long been known as public service broadcasting. Crudely speaking, this has always meant that the political and cultural elite uses the BBC to get across to the public the message it thinks they should hear – whether that was Churchill’s broadcasts during the Second World War or last year’s carefully planned series of programmes designed to raise awareness of domestic violence (2). The very fact that so much airtime and print space can be devoted to the BBC’s current crisis indicates that this institution has a distinct role from other broadcasters, which hinges on its particular relationship with the elite.

The Gilligan affair is not the first time that the BBC has come into conflict with the government of the time for its news reporting. It famously came to blows with the Tory government in the 1980s over its coverage of the Falklands War and the bombing of Libya. But while rows between the government and BBC are not new, the depth of animosity between the two over recent months indicates that this is not just another spat that will be absorbed and contained within the elite.

Nor is this a battle between New Labour and the BBC old guard. It is a tension between the same kind of people, and represents the unravelling of the new elite. It indicates the deepening crisis among Britain’s institutions, in which the common values, loyalties and sense of identity that such institutions once took for granted are no longer understood, let alone obeyed. If the government cannot rely on the BBC to act like the BBC, it is because the BBC does not really know how is should act itself.

This was painfully clear in the response to Greg Dyke’s resignation. As Alan Hamilton points out in The Times (London), ‘Had the dourly Presbyterian Lord Reith ever been obliged to fall on his sword, the BBC would have announced it with a man in a dinner jacket speaking faultless gravitas into a microphone the size of a small wardrobe’ (3). By contrast Greg Dyke – the wide-boy boss whose attempts to promote a corporate culture were much ridiculed, and whose management techniques included waving yellow cards labelled ‘Cut the crap’ – had his resignation greeted by ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations of ‘hundreds’ of BBC staff outside the TV studios, while the governors were grovelling to the government upstairs.

It was hard to see the demonstrations, which looked like a few dozen twentysomethings smiling for the camera, as the authentic expression of disquiet at the heart of the BBC. But that was the way it was spun, as if it were really important for the public to know that a handful of researchers were still putting two fingers up to the governors and government. Greg Dyke, meanwhile, said the demonstrations made him feel like a ‘mixture between a politician and Madonna’ (4). Which is an apt metaphor for how the BBC, as an institution, sees itself – as a sexier, glitzier political opposition.

But it is not. The BBC has no responsibility for politics or policy, and it is not accountable to the public. It is a media organisation, whose responsibility is to produce good news and other programmes. If it could talk about something other than itself for once, it might even be worthy of our attention.

Read on:

The chilling of investigative journalism, by Tessa Mayes

spiked-issue: Hutton Inquiry

(1) Dyke warning over Hutton report, BBC News, 30 January 2004

(2) See A licence to indoctrinate, by Jennie Bristow

(3) Dyke takes a final spin in the Beeb’s revolving door, The Times (London), 30 January 2004

(4) Dyke warning over Hutton report, BBC News, 30 January 2004

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Topics Culture


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