The price of freedom
4 February 2004
The knives are out for the BBC. Knives of all races, colours and creeds. Today, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow has attacked the corporation for its "increasingly cavalier attitude" - and for fostering a "tabloid culture." And in a Washington Times commentary this week, the BBC gets a right old kicking:
As the corporation's news programs digested the findings of the Hutton Report, the tone of the TV and radio coverage veered from the hysterical to the self-pitying. If ever there was proof the BBC needed reform, it came in the slanted reporting of its own failures...
What happened last week was the culmination of years of arrogance and high-handedness. Where it once used to be a reasonably objective public service broadcaster, the organization has turned into a shrill offshoot of the Guardian editorial page, its left-wing worldview disseminated through an increasingly tabloid-based style of reporting
The Daily Express, still smarting over the Kilroy episode, is baying for BBC blood and are gleefully announcing the scrapping of the licence fee. And Mark Steyn, writing in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, says:
There is something repulsive about a subsidy culture so secure that a publicly funded organisation can pay its chief executive £500,000 a year off the backs of widows and spinsters. If the BBC wants to throw away million-dollar salaries, it should do so on its own dime.
Now, regardless of what The One Man Global Content ProviderTM might think, it is vital that it is, and that it is free to use that funding as it sees fit.
On Wednesday of last week, Tony Blair promised that recent events would not effect the BBC's charter renewal - but now Tessa Jowell is hinting that they may scrap the license fee. Let's hope the alternative has better figures than the Government's top-up fees proposal, or the Beeb may join the NHS and education as another crumbling under-government-funded body. Then what - foundation radio stations...?
The Beeb, more than most media outlets and rightly so, is a product of its time. Where Sky cannot help but be aware of who owns it, and that biting the hand too much or too often probably isn't a good idea, the BBC - owned and run by a government from which it is formally independent, on behalf of a country that can't agree on anything above that red is different to green (unless you're colour blind, or the lights are against you) - can have no unifying bias to fall back on. The closest it comes to a personality, as shown recently by the support for Greg Dyke within the corporation, is its fiercely-defended independence from government. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that it sometimes seems biased against that government. More importantly, it means that if everything is working properly, it will let the public lead much of what it does...
People want reality-style TV? Let's start filling up prime time. Bring back Dr Who? We're listening. You want more UK politics? BBC Parliament has more than is healthy. And if a sizable, and vocal, part of the population is concerned about the war in Iraq, are dubious over claims of WMD, and secretly believes that Blair has a penchant for telling lies, the whole lies, and perhaps nothing but the lies - well, it's not really surprising that we end up with 'that' report, and 'this' mess.
Was Andrew Gillighan right to report doubts over the dossier? Of course. He may have fluffed the presentation, but there were doubts - if nowhere else, doubts in the hearts and minds of Britain's voting population. And were the BBC governors right to support his reporting without making sure of the facts? Probably not - but let's remember that these are just men and women, and that the government had called into doubt their independence, the very cornerstone of how the BBC was run - not for the first time that year, or even the first time that month. For all we know, Alastair Campbell was already composing that day's letter of complaint when the Today report went out.
Think about how much it upsets you when someone calls you fat. Now think how much worse it would be if they called all your friends fat. And that it was your boss, and there was the hint that maybe you'd lose your free cookies at work. The BBC, smarting from repeated accusations of partiality over its coverage of the government, went defensive. It was unfortunate that this time their coverage had indeed gone too far. It is tragic that subsequent events led to the death of Dr David Kelly. Certainly, had Gillighan been more careful with his words, this wouldn't have spiraled out of control. If the governors had investigated fully before defending the institution, it would have been contained. But if I keep calling you fat, one day you'll fight back - and maybe it'll be when you've got your hand in the cookie jar.
If the BBC was sometimes too harsh on the government, it is only as a reflection that some of their constituency are harshly critical themselves. If it reacted poorly on making a mistake, it's because it had been under siege from Number 10 and other members of the cabinet, hounded by Alastair Campbell, castigated by Tony Blair, threatened by Tessa Jowell, far more and for far longer than is right for a public institution. And we must not forget that its own coverage of the news is only one of the BBC's many functions. So yes, let's look at its editorial controls, yes let's make the BBC better, but please for God's sake, let's not over-react, and let's not risk throwing away the most successful British public institution of recent years.
And while we're here, what's wrong with the license fee? It's simple, it brings in enough money, and we should feel proud to help pay for something world-class. Why can't the government feel the same?