Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Broadcasting mouse

Colin Leys describes how the Hutton report has left the BBC dangerously exposed to the demands of its corporate and Westminster enemies

March 1, 2004
11 min read


Colin LeysColin Leys is an honorary professor at Goldsmiths University of London. He is the author of Market Driven Politics: Neoliberal Democracy and the Public Interest and, with Stewart Player, The Plot Against the NHS (Merlin Press, 2011).


  share     tweet  

The story so far: a prime minister who gambled away his country’s honour and safety in an unprovoked war sets his personal attack-dog Alastair Campbell on the BBC. Campbell savages the corporation to the point of near collapse. The public is shocked. Blair, defence secretary Geoff Hoon, foreign secretary Jack Straw and the rest, their credibility in tatters after the revelations of the Hutton inquiry, equivocate and wriggle, and try to blame others. But the damage done to the BBC remains. It looks like a wounded animal, with the hounds baying for its blood.

How did this happen? Unlike the US news media, the BBC was determined to maintain its reputation for objectivity during the Iraq war. It declined to be “on message”. Campbell was encouraged to bombard it with angry letters (as many as 12 in a single day), but failed to browbeat the corporation into submission. Then, after the war, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s carelessly worded Today programme report about the misleading nature of the government’s WMD dossier, and his later Mail on Sunday article, gave Campbell an opportunity for revenge. In a statement to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (which the BBC’s lawyers would later say was full of false statements), he accused the corporation of lying and demanded an apology. Exasperated by Campbell’s bullying and anxious to show they were not the New Labour patsies the Conservatives had claimed, the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke responded with justified but incautious vigour. Following their lead, the BBC governors backed Gilligan’s story to the full. Campbell then succeeded in focusing attention almost exclusively on a single, arguably inaccurate, phrase in Gilligan’s broadcast.

What followed was the tragedy of Gilligan’s source David Kelly thrust into the ring to refute Gilligan (or “fuck” him, as Campbell put it). But the Ministry of Defence weapons expert couldn”t really refute him, since the essence of the story was true. Kelly had also told it to Newsnight reporter Susan Watts, and other journalists had picked it up, too. Kelly killed himself.

Blair then chose a reliable judge and gave him a narrow remit to investigate Kelly’s death. But this proved a serious case of overkill. Hutton put the evidence given to his inquiry online on a daily basis, so that everyone could evaluate it, but came up with a bizarrely partisan judgment – condemning the BBC and totally absolving the government. The effect was counterproductive. However much Blair, Peter Mandelson and others bang on about “drawing a line under” the affair and “moving on”, it turns out that a judge’s opinion no longer carries weight with the public just because he is a judge – even (or perhaps especially) if he is also a lord. Everyone could see it was a stitch-up.

But Davies resigned as chairman and the rest of the governors panicked. Ignoring the advice of the BBC’s own lawyers, they issued the further, abject apology that Campbell and Blair were demanding, and accepted Dyke’s resignation as well. The BBC was left without leadership. The acting chairman, former Tory chief whip Lord Ryder of Wensum, enjoys no confidence anywhere (except perhaps in 10 Downing Street); and acting director general Mark Byford is a lifelong “Beeb” manager without distinction. It will apparently take at least three months to appoint new leaders at the corporation; in the meantime, it faces its enemies in a position of extreme weakness.

To assess the current danger, we have to begin by realising that no one in any position of influence today – in the Cabinet, in Parliament, in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, or in the new broadcasting regulator Ofcom – now conceives of broadcasting as anything but a market matter. This point cannot be overemphasised. No one in authority starts out from the proposition that there should always be a big publicly owned and financed broadcaster as a necessary component of democracy. That is not the framework within which policy will be made.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell’s advisers in the review of the BBC’s charter, which expires in 2006, are Thatcher’s former economics adviser Lord Burns, and the chair of Channel 4 Barry Cox. Both are old friends of the Blairs and champions of market-based broadcasting. (And right there in Number 10 is Dyke’s predecessor Lord Birt, now a government strategy adviser and smarting from his successor’s unceremonious dismantling of his brainchild – the BBC’s “internal market”.) Most, if not all, of these people see the current BBC as an anomaly, a residue of pre-market media history. The only question for them is how fast it should be reduced to being a “market player” like other broadcasting companies.

Here, different interests and standpoints do come into play. BSkyB, for example, in which Rupert Murdoch owns a controlling 34 per cent share, would like to see the BBC reduced to pioneering “difficult” programmes that Sky could then take over and make money out of; it would also be quite happy to see the BBC forced to take advertising, since Sky depends predominantly on subscription income. ITV plc would also like to see the BBC forced to give up all audience-maximising programming, but does not want it to have to rely on advertising, since that would reduce ITV’s dominant share of TV advertising revenue. Channel 4 wants a definition of its own public service broadcasting obligations that will leave it able to hold onto its current share of advertising revenue. Independent programme makers want the BBC to be obliged to outsource more of its total output for them to produce. The online and digital niche channel companies want the BBC forced to stop running websites and channels that compete with theirs.

In Westminster the Conservative broadcasting spokesman John Whittingdale, advised by former Channel 5 chief executive David Elstein, wants to see the BBC “lose its dominant position in television broadcasting”. Whittingdale argues that the licence fee is “more regressive than the poll tax” and should be cut. As for Labour, its media select committee chairman Gerald Kaufman is violently anti-BBC, and fellow committee member Derek Wyatt even more so. All three main parties, however, include many backbenchers with a soft spot for the corporation (Radio 4 has a devoted following in “middle England”).

In the charter review process a temporary compromise seems likely. The licence fee will probably be slightly reduced, and some of the revenue from it offered to other broadcasters for “public service” (eg, current affairs, educational, religious, regional) programming. The BBC will also probably be required to outsource a significantly higher quota of its non-news programmes (currently 25 per cent), which would lead to heavy cuts in its in-house production teams. And it will most likely be made to sell off its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide (which currently provides 10 per cent of the BBC’s revenues), and give up some of its websites and digital channels that compete most directly with commercial interests. Even a few of these steps would involve drastic reductions in the BBC’s budget and staff.

This isn”t to say that a slimmer BBC couldn”t still be a big player. Dyke’s strategy of expanding into new digital niches of all kinds was smart, so long as ITV’s advertising revenue remained buoyant. But when ITV got into financial difficulties with a slump in advertising revenue and massive losses from its ill-fated digital broadcasting venture ITV Digital there was bound to be a reaction. The BBC was seen as using “taxpayers” money” to become dominant in the new media at the expense of its hard-hit commercial competitors.

The fact is that the BBC could lose half its staff and still be the biggest broadcaster in Britain. Indeed, BBC television could probably even do quite well as a subscription-only service, charging a lot less than BSkyB. But in either case the BBC would no longer be able to set the pace in British broadcasting in the way it does now, and, unless its position were more or less constitutionally secured, later governments would be likely to downsize it still further – if not privatise it completely.

What is likely to happen in the longer run is becoming painfully clear. After analogue switch-off all broadcasters will be operating in a digital market in which scarce spectrum capacity no longer acts as a barrier to entry. Competition for audiences will be stiffer than ever, and the existing commercial broadcasters with public service mandates – ITV, Channel 4 and, to a lesser extent, Channel 5 – are already saying that they will need to be paid to undertake public service obligations. The message is: give us some of the licence fee revenue, or leave us alone to broadcast cheap shows that attract mass audiences.

Anticipating this, Ofcom is already conducting a review of what “public service broadcasting” is, or should be. And since Ofcom is an “independent regulator”, what it decides is what will happen. The chances are that the concept will be reduced to a series of measurable obligations laid on some “free-to-air” channels in return for tax-funded subsidies of some kind. Jowell has already indicated that Ofcom’s views will play a significant role in informing her department’s thinking about the future role of the BBC.

Moreover, even these obligations are likely to be progressively reduced over time. This is because they will still be seen as cutting into shareholder profits – and as restricting the channel owners” freedom to broadcast news and current affairs programmes that reflect their political views. Ofcom’s predecessor, the Independent Television Commission, failed to penalise Fox News for blatantly biased reporting on Iraq. The chances of Ofcom preventing a future US-owned ITV from flouting its remaining public service obligations are surely modest.

As the BBC’s director of factual and learning John Willis said after a year spent studying television in the US, the really good American shows we see in Britain (like The Sopranos and The Simpsons) are rare exceptions to the “wasteland” that US television has become, as successive governments, responding to intense lobbying and election contributions, have progressively scrapped regulation. And US news programmes are, to say the least, uncritical of Washington. While a scaled-down BBC may remain, it will no longer be a force capable of withstanding the pressure of the competition for audiences that will then prevail, or of setting standards that commercial channels find they have to match.

Following their pathetic recent performance as regulators and defenders of the corporation’s independence, the immediate focus is bound to be on the role of the BBC governors. The Communications Act provides for Ofcom to become the BBC’s regulator if the charter says so. In the long run this seems inevitable, though some interim fudge may well be made. But if the governors or anyone else are to be effective defenders of the BBC’s freedom to stand up to governments in its news reporting and investigative journalism, they will have to be chosen in a different way and be people with serious broadcasting backgrounds and public credibility, as opposed to today’s feeble placemen and women.

Now that Parliament has become so subordinate to governments, the BBC has assumed the role once played by public meetings and the penny press: quizzing ministers and officials unscripted, and digging for information governments want to hide. Its role in our democracy today is hugely important. Yet we face a shameful fact: today this role is completely without a real champion in any position of influence.

There is a huge gap here between the political leadership of all parties and public opinion. The post-Hutton polls showed that people trust the BBC more than the government, even though they also tell pollsters that the BBC is less good than it was (they would surely say the same about ITV and Channel 4 if they were asked, since all of them have “dumbed down” in the latest ratings war). People make a common-sense distinction between the BBC’s political role, which they admire and value keenly, and its role as a provider of entertainment.

Any hopes for the future of public broadcasting in this country now lie in public pressure. We need an alliance of the NUJ and other unions and a wide range of other organisations, plus a mass expression of opinion by individuals calling and writing to MPs and newspapers, the BBC and other channels, lobbying and intervening in elections, all demanding that the corporation not be treated as just another broadcaster, but be constitutionally entrenched as a vital element of our democratic system.Colin Leys is the author of Market-Driven Politics: neoliberal democracy and the public interest (Verso, 2002);

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Colin LeysColin Leys is an honorary professor at Goldsmiths University of London. He is the author of Market Driven Politics: Neoliberal Democracy and the Public Interest and, with Stewart Player, The Plot Against the NHS (Merlin Press, 2011).


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency