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Saving broadcasting for democracy

With the BBC suffering a post-Hutton savaging and Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black and many in the Labour Party keen to see British broadcasting mimic the monopolistic, right-wing US model, it's time the left leapt to the corporation's defence.

February 1, 2004
7 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).


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The Hutton report was always going to disappoint anyone who thought its prime focus would be on the cat’s cradle of mendacity that the inquiry revealed was at the heart of government policy-making. The inquiry showed a group of political ‘aides’ and civil servants -Alastair Campbell, Number 10 chief of staff Jonathan Powell, Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) chairman John Scarlett and various titled officials – working flat out to mislead Parliament and the public ‘as per TB’s discussion’ (to quote one of Campbell’s memos). But Hutton’s remit was to examine the events that led to the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, not the events that led to the decision to invade Iraq. He was never likely to stray far beyond that remit, let alone call for radical reforms in government accountability.

Instead, what is much more likely is permanent and probably irreversible damage to the BBC and public service broadcasting generally. November’s ruling by the BBC governors that their journalists will no longer be allowed to write freelance articles for newspapers is a significant straw in the wind.

The policy was clearly prompted by the government’s honing in on Andrew Gilligan’s article in The Mail on Sunday on 31 May, which made the allegation that the notorious ’45 minutes’ claim had been inserted into the government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction by Campbell. Gilligan had not fingered Campbell in the earlier Today programme report that started the row that culminated in Kelly’s death. And in fact the 45-minute claim had been inserted at the last minute by the JIC, albeit under heavy prompting from Number 10.

The significance of the new policy is that the BBC is clearing the decks for a fight for its life. The corporation’s charter is up for review, along with its claim to the more than £2 billion annual revenue raised by the TV licence fee. The BBC knows that New Labour and its friends in the commercial media, including Murdoch, want to clip its wings. In its struggle to prevent this happening it can no longer afford to risk having its reputation for objective reporting compromised by letting well-known BBC reporters write articles in the press unchecked by its own internal editing processes.

The threat to the corporation already looks extremely serious. Tessa Jowell, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, has instituted what she calls a ‘root and branch’ review of the BBC in the run-up to the hypothetical renewal of its charter in 2006. She has appointed Lord Burns, a Thatcherite economist, to ‘advise’ her on the charter renewal process, and has not denied speculation that it is he who will have to be persuaded to endorse a continuation of the BBC’s existing monopoly of the licence fee.

The government has also appointed pro-market figures to run the new communications regulator Ofcom, which is currently producing a definition of what ‘public service broadcasting’ should mean in the new broadcasting environment. And it has re-appointed Gerald Kaufman, an obsessive BBC-hater, as chairman of the House of Commons select committee that will also pronounce on the charter.

Another key New Labour policy change means that the soon-to-be-merged ITV companies Granada and Carlton are expected to be sold to a US corporation in the coming months. (Previously, UK TV companies could only be owned by Europeans.) Once ITV is US-owned few commentators expect its existing public service obligations – which are still quite strong by international standards – to remain intact. This is partly because no British regulator would be likely to take on a giant US media corporation backed by Washington, and partly because the new bosses and staff at Ofcom have pro-market views anyway. So if and when ITV becomes foreign-owned the only assured source of honest, objective news and commentary and serious programming in the UK is likely to be the BBC.

The political context here is crucial. Rupert Murdoch, a US citizen who owns The Sun and The Times and a controlling share of Sky, and Lord Black, an ex-Canadian who owns (even if now only just) The Telegraph, are determined to break the BBC’s monopoly of the licence fee. Not only does Sky stand to make huge profits if this happens, but both Murdoch and Black want to replicate in Britain the media scene now prevailing in the US, where the press and broadcasting are dominated by a small number of far-right proprietors and hardly any news or opinion critical of the neo-conservative agenda makes it into the mainstream at all. Blair’s sensitivity to Murdoch’s press power, and his sympathy for the US way, do not predispose him to resist this particularly vigorously.

If Murdoch, Black and their sympathisers in New Labour get their way and the BBC is significantly weakened, the media in Britain, like its US equivalent, will finally be defined as primarily something to make money from. Service to democracy will be a distant afterthought – if that.

What is amazing is that so few senior figures in the Labour Party have spoken up for the prior claims of democracy – for high-quality, objective media as a political right, as indispensable to democracy as the right to hold public meetings (which the media have largely replaced). If this case had been made as forcefully as it should have been, a strong public service media regime would now be seen by everyone to be as important as elections, the judiciary and Parliament itself.

So, the left needs to take up the fight for the BBC’s charter and licence fee as an urgent issue of principle. But we should not get drawn into the minutiae of the debate. What we should assert ­- and challenge the government to refute if it dares -is the core principle at stake: that genuine democracy needs publicly-owned, publicly-accountable and regulated media. The media should serve democracy first, and profit-making a clear second. With unprecedented competition for readers, audiences and viewers driving down journalistic standards in all the media, what happens to public service broadcasting is of critical importance to British democracy, or what is left of it.

In other words, we should be talking about the kind of media regime a true democracy, as opposed to the skin-deep kind favoured by New Labour, requires. A good model was outlined a few years ago by James Curran, professor of communications at Goldsmiths College University of London, who drew on existing practice in other democratic countries as well as new ideas.

In Curran’s model an advertising- and subscription-funded commercial sector would remain, but it would be subject to serious public service regulation. The argument that no regulation is needed if people choose to watch what they like should not relieve commercial broadcasters from being objective about issues of collective concern. There would also still be a tax-funded sector (like the BBC today) with strong public service obligations and a remit to maintain the widest possible audience reach. Unlike the current BBC, the governorship and internal structures of this tax-funded sector would be democratised. A professional sector of channels and radio stations financed from a tax on advertising would serve the traditional idea of a ‘fifth estate’. It would provide fiction, drama, music and current affairs, and would be run by journalists and governed by professional journalistic values. And a ‘civic’ sector would consist of state-assisted channels, stations and publications owned and run by a variety of parties, community organisations and interests, catering primarily to these bodies’ internal communication needs, but facilitating their ultimate inputs into mainstream debates. On top of this, we need a constitutional right of reply to misleading or false statements in the media, and public service obligations applied to newspapers as well as to radio and TV.

All this should in fact be part of the country’s constitution. For the moment, though, let’s concentrate on the first two elements in Curran’s model – a strengthened, not weakened, BBC, and tough public service regulation of the commercial sector (ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and Sky). In the current atmosphere of mindless obeisance to market forces this may sound Utopian. But what is really Utopian is to imagine we can have any genuine democracy if we continue to surrender the media to commerce.Colin Leys is the author of Market-Driven Politics: neoliberal democracy and the public interest (Verso, 2002)

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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).


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