Trouble at the BBC: Time to Demolish, Defend or Democratise?
Sunday National, February 23rd 2020
The BBC is in crisis. Boris Johnson’s Downing Street are floating the scrapping of the licence fee. This when the BBC need to appoint a new Director General after Tony Hall unexpectedly resigned in January against a backdrop of impending negotiations with the government over charter renewal and the funding of the corporation.
On top of this BBC Scotland’s head Donalda MacKinnon has resigned after just three years in the post when the organisation faces future uncertainty, pressures and scrutiny from all sides.
The BBC is one of the most important institutions in the UK. It is in serious crisis, buffetted and shaken by years of criticism from right and left, its funding in relative decline versus competitors such as Amazon and Netflix and its future in question. If that were not enough, the corporation is unsure how to respond to the diverse demands of an increasingly fragmented Britain.
The BBC has traditionally always paraded its independence from government, but it is not fully independent. It is reliant on government for its funding through the continuation and level of licence fee, and its top echeleons – first the Board of Governors, then BBC Trust and now BBC Board – are appointed by government ministers.
This is an organisation which is part of the British establishment. Like many other parts of British society it is a fundamentally undemocratic body whose accountability is not to audiences but to government and politicians.
Right-wingers detest the BBC because it is publically owned, not funded commercially and not driven by the needs of the marketplace. This allows them to talk of the monopoly position of the corporation when it operates in a mixed economy of the media – one with powerful private interests.
The current right-wing assault on the BBC began with Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s. She saw it as representing all that she thought was wrong in Britain – a belief in consensus and compromise, accepting of decline and defeatism, and filled with an upper class sense of obligation and paternalism.
In 1987 after the Tory Government went on the offensive on BBC coverage of the American bombing of Libya, the newly appointed chairman Marmaduke Hussey and the Board fired Director General Alasdair Milne.
This was to be a crisis of confidence from which the BBC never fully recovered. Milne’s successors – Michael Checkland and John Birt – instituted a new regime of managerial restructuring and control which aligned the BBC more fully with the Thatcherite orthodoxies of the day and which continued under New Labour.
This led to the creation of a highly renumerated BBC cadre of senior management who shape BBC ethos, attitudes and priorities, but who have little to no experience with journalism, with its Executive Committee under the Board having an annual salary bill of £4.1 million. Instead in salaries, lifestyle and outlook they see their interests as synonymous with that of the new elite class, one example being former New Labour minister James Purnell, currently BBC Director of Radio and Education on a salary of £315,000 – before being a politician he was Head of Corporate Planning at the BBC.
This has contributed to the hollowing out of the BBC from the inside and top down – a view felt by many in the corporation. One long term staffer told me that: ‘You could remove every single person above editor grade and it would make not the slightest difference to the output.’
Another BBC view of those at the top stresses how it distorts and weakens the ethos of the corporation: ‘Its single most extraordinary characteristic is that the more senior anyone becomes, the more removed [they are] from making programmes’. They continued, saying: ‘The people responsible are so distant that they have no idea how to defend the thing’ – a reality which has cost the BBC dear over recent decades with a trail of apologist Director Generals kowtowing to successive Tory governments.
Significant criticism of the BBC from the left goes back to the pioneering work by Glasgow University Media Group in the late 1970s that charted BBC and ITV news biases when covering industrial conflicts. Today left-wingers see the BBC as reproducing the economic and social attitudes and new elite groupthink which passes for the mainstream.
But left-wing criticism affects the BBC at the top less than from the right because the left do not have a cluster of well-funded ideological think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, papers such as the ‘Daily Telegraph’, and major forces like Rupert Murdoch who see the BBC as a mortal enemy to be defeated.
Increasingly the BBC hides behind the notion of ‘impartiality’. However, in the recent UK election ‘The Andrew Neil Show’ interviewed all the party leaders bar Boris Johnson who refused to appear. This caused controversy at the time and forced Fran Unsworth, Director of News and Current Affairs to respond in ‘The Guardian’ to defend the corporation’s commitment to ‘impartiality’ and lack of bias. Unsworth dismissed critics stating that ‘we are a large organisation that employs thousands of independent minded journalists … These aren’t the ideal conditions for a conspiracy’, clearly here equating criticism with ‘conspiracy theories’.
The BBC has been having a hard time of late politically. Not only did it have a poor 2019 UK election, this follows on from how it addressed the 2016 Brexit and 2014 Scottish independence votes. In both of these BBC coverage brought forth accusations of bias, and agreement from across the political spectrum that the BBC did democracy a disservice.
The resignation of Donalda MacKinnon comes at a critical time for BBC Scotland. The Scottish operation has been increasingly struggling to reflect a more distinctive Scottish political environment – but also beyond that culture, society and the many facets of public and national life. It even manages to do its main selling point – football – poorly, failing to support the game or to see much further beyond the cliches of the ‘Old Firm’.
Recent decades have seen a renaissance in many aspects of Scottish culture, from novels to theatre and the visual arts, but you would struggle to see this represented in the BBC’s coverage – with honourable exceptions such as ‘The Janice Forsyth Show’ and the new BBC Scotland TV channel now one year old – but this comes after decades of willful ignoring and the latter having a limited budget.
BBC Scotland remains a branch operation – an offshoot of London – with senior management reporting upwards to the corporate headquarters. If the BBC across the UK is an undemocratic and narrowly accountable body, this is even more true in Scotland.
BBC Scotland heads have come and gone over the years but none, with the exception of Alastair Hetherington, have tried to challenge the power dynamics and lack of autonomy – and he was forced out for his efforts in 1978. The absence of a properly autonomous BBC Scotland has meant the organisation at the top is profoundly dysfunctional, answerable to senior staff in London with no direct relationship to audiences here.
This leaves big questions for the BBC in the UK and even more in Scotland. What is the BBC’s purpose in an age of multi-media platforms? Beyond official statements, can its public service broadcasting mission be convincingly stated by their senior management?
The BBC need leadership at a UK and Scottish level. MacKinnon talked when appointed of rewinning ‘trust’ in Scotland but there were little to no visible moves taken beyond the new channel. BBC culture in Scotland and the UK remains a bizarre mix of management monoculture and competing fiefdoms and empires; as one BBC senior staffer put it ‘the BBC isn’t an organisation; it’s a loose confederation of warring tribes’.
The problems with the BBC lead many on the left and in independence circles to agree with the right’s view that the BBC needs to be torn down. This anger is very understandable; the BBC have sold us a partial view of Britain and the world that is deeply unattractive, undemocratic and unsustainable. It is one which for all its self-proclaimed liberalism is centre-left on social values such as multi-culturalism and gay rights, but centre-right on economic issues such as the economy, role of the state and future of capitalism.
Left wing and pro-independence critics have to ask what they want after the BBC. This is a point that Frankie Boyle made this week when he said: ‘For many on the left, and many independence folk, letting the BBC hang has a subtext: they can build better, more impartial media themselves, with a similar reach.’ Boyle warned of the difficulties of making an alternative media, suggesting that: ‘They won’t, haven’t, and have a shaky idea of what’s involved. It [the BBC] would be replaced by a Fox News style fuckpocalypse.’
This was in response to comedian Rab Florence commenting that ‘the cultural devastation of the dismantling of the BBC would be felt for many generations’ and would be ‘another Tory trick’. Yet if there is any future for the BBC in Scotland, as well as across the UK, it needs to start being more courageous and explicit about w Alasdair Milne Alasdair Milne hat it stands for.
Any new BBC Scotland head should lay out their vision for the organisation and the purpose and mission of BBC Scotland, define its philosophy and how it judges success – and how can it reflect better and be answerable to audiences here.
Some of those questions will be defined by what happens at a British level. Much of the current BBC debate concerns whether it should be demolished or defended. Demolishing it leaves us with the landscape invoked by Frankie Boyle. Defending lets off its present management and shortcomings too easily.
Rather there should be a third option – to democratise the BBC and develop a real notion of public service and public service broadcasting that is democratic and genuinely accountable, and sure footed of its values and mission.
Tom Mills, author of ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’ thinks this third option is the best route and that it is ‘better to draw on the promise of public media that the BBC still embodies, its accrued legitimacy, infrastructure and expertise, and to repurpose it towards genuinely public and democratic purposes.’
That BBC should reflect the growing diversity of the nations of the UK and recognise that present arrangements for BBC Scotland are long past their sell by date. Irrespective of our nation’s constitutional status we need an autonomous Scottish Broadcasting Corporation – accountable to audiences and tastes here.
Such a transformation will be resisted by BBC empire-builders in London, and by UK politicians. It is not without its challenges here, requiring a different management culture as another BBC Scotland senior staffer commented: ‘It would require independent leadership – independent of both London and political pressure. It would require a vision of what it means to be a publicly funded broadcaster working in the interests of the Scottish people.’
But it is probably the only viable way that there can be a future for public service broadcasting in Scotland. It remains to be seen whether senior BBC figures can step up and genuinely embrace change, otherwise increasingly more and more of us will turn elsewhere for our media content.