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);