From the archive: Why should we defend the BBC?

Michael Harris /   July 19, 2015 at 6:03 PM 4,394 views


The Tories continue their campaign against the BBC. But does this mean that the left should automatically leap to defend it, and what does this say about left politics if they do?

So like an increasing number of many people, I’ve pretty much given up on watching TV and listening to radio, and not just as-it-airs programming. The internet, Netflix, DVDs, video games, streaming music, podcasts and the rest offer virtually unlimited range of information and entertainment. In an age of choice, the idea of sitting down at a predetermined time (or even a few hours or days later via ‘catch-up’) to watch something that some channel controller hopes might be appealing to the greatest number of people seems increasingly antiquated.

But even as I’ve consumed less and less of its content, I’ve still vaguely defended the idea of the BBC as an independent and impartial voice against corporate domination of the media by the Murdochs and the Daily Mails. Except that defending Auntie has become more and more difficult over the past few years.

When I was younger, Conservative governments regularly railed against the BBC over what they saw as its consistently ‘left wing agenda’. In the 1980s, under the Thatcher Governments there were successive ‘controversies’, invented or otherwise: the Real Lives documentary on Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries, the Corporation’s coverage of the Falklands War, Kate Adie’s reporting on the American bombing of Libya, investigations into the British secret state, and even allowing an ‘ordinary member of the public’ to question Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano. But these had the effect of making people like me appreciate the BBC even more. If the Tories screamed, the BBC must be doing something right.

The problem is of course is that the Tories’ attacks over the years have worked exactly as intended. The BBC has become successively blander, ever more afraid to ask difficult questions and tell the truth about the state of modern Britain after 35 years of Thatcherite policies. Its news and political coverage remains fairly impartial in the narrow but still important sense of seeking balance between the main political parties and providing ‘for and against’ on issues. But what these issues are is largely determined for the Corporation by others, principally the Tory press – notably, the ‘strength’ of party leaders, economic ‘credibility’, tax and immigration – all of which more naturally favoured the Tories at the last election.

Further, the BBC has relied on aggressively rude presenters – Paxman, Humphreys and their successors – to depict itself as robustly holding the political class to account, when in reality this style of interviewing has mostly served to narrow political debate and understanding, and typically mocks any views or perspectives not regarded as being ‘mainstream’. More often than not, it’s fear desperately masquerading as fearlessness, as bullies are wont to do.

Both the BBC and the Government claim that the debate over the Corporation’s future is not about individual programmes, rather that the charter review process is about the BBC’s remit, its scope and ‘distinctiveness’. But of course it ultimately comes down to the programmes. Unless the BBC can prove its worth, day-in, day-out, with content that couldn’t possibly be made by anyone else and which represents genuine public service broadcasting – meaning programmes that represent the real public interest and not what the political class are comfortable with – then what is it actually for and why should we support it?

It seems inconceivable, for example, that today’s BBC would make topical satirical political programmes like The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher or Last Week Tonight, or challenging dramas such as The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Orange Is The New Black – all of course the products of for-profit US cable channels. We can trade back-and-forth our own selection of favourite programmes as an argument for or against the licence fee. What we can’t claim anymore is that requiring everyone with a television or radio to pay £145.50 a year is the only way to produce high-quality, creative, distinctive television or radio. Indeed, it seems obvious that the BBC’s long-standing Reithean strategy – that it depends for its legitimacy on mass audiences – has increasingly resulted in ever-decreasing circles of safety-first programming that is not only available elsewhere but is actually considerably worse than what can be produced when you aim for a smaller audience that really wants what you’re selling.

So perhaps the BBC should be subscription-funded, or perhaps it should be smaller and more focused. Or perhaps it should just be protected from politicians. But the question here is, why should the left – by which I really mean the centre-left and the Labour Party – reflexively defend a cowering, fundamentally conservative, overwhelmingly white and middle class, rather elitist broadcaster funded by a regressive tax, in which the public lack any real say and which fails to reflect the actual diversity of opinion and experience in modern Britain?

Just because it’s nominally public and statist doesn’t mean we should defend the BBC blindly. As on so many other issues, the Tories have led the argument, creating the conditions for the current debate. But the public might be more inclined to believe that the left is on their side if it demonstrated that it recognised how the world has changed, challenged elites whoever they are, spent money wisely in the public interest, gave people more choice, and was unafraid to point out what’s wrong with our institutions. Isn’t that what being on the left should be about, after all?

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