by Ian Stewart
“The only way to strengthen the morale of the people whose morale is worth strengthening, is to tell them the truth, even if the truth is horrible”
R.T.Clark, head of news, BBC, September 1939 in a speech to journalists
Amid the awful revelations relating to the abuse of the young by Jimmy Savile and others we can see a deeper problem for all of us. I don’t mean the toleration of under age sex by the media and music industries, although it is plain to see that sections of the entertainment industry that rely upon the gullibility of teenagers have been getting away with some truly disgusting things for decades. And not just in Britain. What I fear is happening alongside the terrible saga of cover up-investigation-cover up-expose at the BBC is the evisceration of Auntie herself.
Something long-cherished by Harold Wilson, Margaret “lets have Jimmy round again for Christmas” Thatcher, New Labour hacks, James and Rupert Murdoch, could well be completed with a cheering chorus of leftists – the final creation of an abject, cowed BBC, fully responsive to the wishes of Westminster, ripe for breaking up. While they cheer, it may be time to pause and remember just what it is that we will be losing, and with whom the cheerleaders are siding in their attack on public service broadcasting.
The BBC has been on the defensive ever since Andrew Gilligan’s slapdash reporting methods led to the death of Dr David Kelly and the subsequent Hutton Inquiry. Whatever the stated aim of Hutton, the result was a disaster for those of us outside Westminster who value a proudly independent news broadcaster.
That’s right – independent – of both government and commercial concerns, allowing it to investigate and expose wrongdoing without the fear of commercial sponsors pulling the plug. Politicians of all stripes loved it, as I suspect did plenty of people in authority.
After all, this began to reverse the trend started by Mr Clark in 1939, taming the journalists and forcing out Greg Dyke. All governments wish for a compliant media, equally no government should be granted this wish. I am of course imagining that readers have no great enthusiasm for a privatised media State, such as Italy under Berlusconi. I could of course be wrong in this.
After Hutton, the high-ups in the corporation got the message. Do not rock the boat too much, or else. The spectacle of Labour MPs joining Tories in veiled threats over the renewal of the BBC charter whilst Lib Dems looked the other way was sickening to behold. It was also so obviously short term in its aim that it would be laughable were the consequences not so serious for the rest of us.
Once again, the village idiots of Westminster lined up and did the wrong thing, unthinkingly and with malice, aided and abetted by a press almost wholly in the hands of some very rich men indeed.
True enough, there were faults enough to criticise – unbelievable salaries, expensive new buildings, the existence of Jeremy Clarkson, failure to fully report the effects of NHS “reform” and failed IT projects – but the core of the critics’ argument was never these. It was always the supposed “liberal” bias, or the tasteless moronic remarks of some overpaid fools, or support for some self-appointed offence lobby that our national broadcaster was supposed to pay obeisance to.
Recently the left has joined in – it is fairly easy to have a go at Nick Robinson – I love to do it once in a while. Then there is the question of economics – for some on the left the idea of impartiality seems to mean that the BBC should not only report all sides of an argument, but should actively pursue an anti-cuts economic agenda.
This has recently been the view expressed over at the Think Left website, where attacks upon the BBC are developing into a cottage industry. Comrades, I may agree that austerity simply does not work, but that does not mean that my voice should be the only one heard.
Then came the coalition – and in just 48 hours, in private and with no consultation a bad situation was made a whole lot worse. In October 2010 culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, director general Mark Thompson and BBC Trust chair Sir Michael Lyons took all of two days to stitch up the BBC by freezing the licence fee until 2017, whilst the BBC would also take on an extra £340 million in new spending commitments per year, mainly in funding the world service.
You should know that there have been cuts at the BBC every year since 2004. You should of course remember who frequently enjoyed Murdoch hospitality before Leveson, and who invited Rupert and James into Downing Street.
This deal means that there will be job losses totalling at least two thousand people. It means that the BBC now has to stump up for The world service, S4C, the rollout of superfast broadband and BBC monitoring. The first 140 jobs in news have already gone – there will be losses in services and jobs to local radio, in Scotland and Wales.
The existence of the BBC as a major sponsor of arts, entertainment and creativity is under threat, and more sports coverage will be interrupted by adverts as a result. The BBC will continue to lose out on potential revenue from BSkyB, as the retransmission settlement has lost the BBC an estimated £96 million. Obviously Rebekah Brooks must have been simply sparkling company at Christmas time.
A coalition of trades unions (NUJ, BECTU, UNITE, MU, EQUITY, the PFA plus the writers’ guild) has posed a workable alternative to this scenario. It involves prioritising spending on its core public purposes, that the extra £340 million that the BBC now has to be stumped up annually for non-BBC projects should be reversed.
They call for a properly worked-out long term financial strategy, and for an end to expensive consultancies, and for the curbing of executive pay. They demand that BSkyB no longer gets that sweetheart deal on BBC content, and pay a fair price. I wish that I could say that the Labour party in Parliament has energetically pushed these proposals. I wish I could, but I can’t.
The BBC is part of what makes Britain civilised. It will never be perfect, but it was never supposed to be. It has a commitment to local and regional broadcasting that shames the identikit stations of local independent radio. With such a wide range of programmes and channels, no wonder Rupert and James want to see it finished off.
Of course, they also back Mitt Romney in the USA, who has vowed to wage war on PBS and Sesame Street. If no one takes a long term view and stands up for the Beeb, if you tolerate this blatant skulduggery, then your children will pay a whole lot more for Charlie and lola than forty pence a day.
Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs at http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/