Focus on the BBC

Posted on September 3, 2009


The BBC has been the subject of two excellent articles this week, though both approach the topic from different angles. Jonathan Freedland blogs on the importance of the Beeb as a national institution at, while the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan challenges oft-repeated claim that the BBC is left-leaning by nature.

Both articles are, to my mind, excellent. Freedland highlights the extraordinary nerve displayed by James Murdoch in arguing against state interference in the media as if he were not somebody that stood to gain to the tune of billions should the BBC be privatised. Murdoch’s father, media mogul Rupert, has been a constant critic of the BBC, and it seems that his son is a chip off the old block. Freedland, though, notes that Murdoch junior is destined to fail where his father also failed. The BBC will survive, regardless of whatever David Cameron claims he will subject it to upon his likely accession to power. It is popular and respected in the eyes of the public enough to withstand the attack of any politician.

The free market has already shown itself to be unsatisfactory in giving people what they need, and the recent recession has further demonstarted its incapabilities. Further extending it into areas such as health and the media, therefore, would be nonsensical and deeply unpopular. Institutions such as the NHS and the BBC are welded onto this country’s soul, and rightly so. We should be tremendously proud of them. Yet the BBC must do more to help itself stand up to attacks from the right, as Freedland notes. Director General Mark Thompson and his colleagues cannot possibly justify their astronomical salaries. The BBC needs to reconnect with licence-fee payers, whom it is there to serve. It will survive rightist attempts to dismantle it, but it needs to work harder in order to justify its survival.

On a slightly different note, a common rightist bleat with regards to the BBC is that it has a Liberal bias. I myself have read a book on the subject, the interesting but fatally flawed Can We Trust The BBC? by Robin Aitken. As a leftie myself, a left-leaning BBC is by no means repulsive to me. But that is not the point. The BBC is supposed to be neutral, and it is important it fulfils its remit in order to justify the continuation of the licence fee. Yet the fact that the continued complaints of numerous right-wingers tend to obscure (though perhaps this is the point) is that, if anything, the BBC has a bias towards the right. I will restrict myself to quoting the following from Hasan’s article, but reading it in full is extremely illuminating:

‘Can you imagine, for example, the hysterical reaction on the right if the BBC’s political editor had been unmasked as the former chair of Labour Students? He wasn’t – but Nick Robinson was chair of the Young Conservatives, in the mid-1980s, at the height of Thatcherism. Can you imagine the shrieks from the Telegraph and the Mail if the BBC’s editor of live programmes had been deputy chair of the Labour Party Young Socialists? He wasn’t – but Robbie Gibb was deputy chair of the Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980s, before it was wound up by Norman Tebbit for being too right-wing. Can you imagine the howls from the Conservatives if the BBC’s chief political correspondent had left the corporation to work for Ken Livingstone? He didn’t – but Guto Harri did become communications director for Boris Johnson within months of resigning from the Beeb.’

The BBC must improve, of this there is no doubt. Like Parliament, its purpose is to serve the country. Ridiculous salaries and unnecessary ventures do not fulfil this remit. But it is also time that the left started standing up for the BBC, both by defending it from claims of bias that are so palpably untrue and by helping it find itself a constructive role in modern society. Like the NHS, it is a great institution that retains the support and affection of the general public. It will take more than support and affection, however, to protect the Beeb from the greedy fingers of capitalism and conservatism.

Posted in: Media, Politics