Free-market vultures are circling round the BBC – but their media offerings don’t compare to it, writes MICHELLE STANISTREET
“PAYBACK time,” screamed the Sun on the announcement of John Whittingdale’s new job as Culture Secretary.
There was unalloyed glee among the right-wing press, which found selective quotes to show the “hard-line critic” of the BBC would be weighing in to “sort out” the corporation for its anti-Tory bias. The Daily Mail said the appointment was a “shot across the bows at the BBC ahead of the charter renewal.”
Sun on Sunday columnist and former Conservative MP Louise Mensch continued her regular BBC baiting by challenging BBC head of news James Harding, who had robustly rejected accusations of political bias.
The corporation’s charter and the future of the licence fee are now being decided. So we can fully expect the open season for BBC-bashing to gather momentum.
In fact, Whittingdale, as chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, said he saw “no realistic alternative” to the licence fee in the short term and that it should be amended to cover catch-up television as soon as possible. But that will not stop Nigel Farage, Tory backbenchers and the many enemies of the BBC having a pop at every opportunity.
Rupert Murdoch will be doing all in his power, on the pages of his national papers and behind the scenes, to do down his rival broadcaster. We know how he works. The Leveson Inquiry uncovered the unfettered access he had to the prime minister and the many text messages between his lobbyist and the Culture, Media and Sport Department during the £8 billion bid by his company, News Corp, to buy the 61 per cent share of BSkyB that it did not already own (dropped once the phone-hacking scandal broke).
With the Conservative Party now in power, Murdoch may well have another go at making a bid. Apparently, Frederic Michel — his former lobbyist who called the former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt “Daddy” in text messages because they both had children born at the same private hospital — is back working for James Murdoch in Europe.
Despite the right-wing press’s best efforts, the BBC remains one of the most-trusted and liked British institutions. One of the reasons it is trusted is because it plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage which does not depend on the personal prejudices and foibles of media moguls or commercial pressure to appease shareholders.
The Tories think it is full of “pinkos” (even though James Harding was a former editor of the Times and Cameron poached the BBC’s Craig Oliver as his communications chief). The Labour government had its spats and said it was biased against the government. There were accusations of pro-Israel bias during last summer’s bombings of Gaza. The BBC’s coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral came under fire, but it turned out it received 268 complaints that its coverage was biased in favour of Thatcher and 227 claiming it was biased against her. So its opponents span the political spectrum and no-one would suggest the BBC is unimpeachable.
But what’s the alternative? Can we leave the coverage of news to the free market and the highest bidders? How would democracy be served if our diet of news and current affairs coverage was determined and presented by the shock-jocks of Fox News or was in the hands of media moguls such as Silvio Berlusconi? Anybody remember News Bunny, mascot of Kelvin MacKenzie’s short-lived L!VE TV?
At the BBC the standard of journalism is high and its staff, despite the pressures caused by job cuts and poor management, are firmly committed to the public service ethos. Very many of them are union members and adhere to the NUJ’s code of conduct.
The BBC is by far the biggest investor in news. Ofcom allowed ITV local news to be reduced by a third in the new 10-year broadcast licences for ITV, STV, UTV and Channel 5. From local radio to the World Service, listeners are assured of quality journalism, reported from their front door to the darkest and most dangerous corners of the globe.
Organisationally it is by no means perfect. The way its management has behaved has made it easy meat for its detractors. The NUJ will be supporting the BBC and will lobby for a properly funded licence fee deal, but we will also be calling for reform.
The BBC has had its budget cut by more than a quarter under the so-called delivering quality first programme, and because its former director-general agreed — in a behind-doors deal — to freeze the licence fee until 2017. Panorama, its flagship current affairs programme, no longer has dedicated reporters.
We will argue for more funding, but for quality journalism and programming — not for executive pay. Even BBC Trust head Rona Fairchild acknowledges her organisation is a dead duck — the model of governance under the Trust is clearly toast. There needs to be much more accountability and transparency in any successor. We cannot allow the scenes seen at the public accounts committee, when the BBC and BBC Trust nabobs passed the buck and dissembled to a man and woman, to happen again. We need to have NUJ members on the board.
How could the IT programme Digital Media Initiative spend £100,000 to no avail until Tony Hall, director general, pulled the plug?
The BBC also needs to make better progress on diversity and equality. An NUJ survey discovered men are getting paid more than women — even when they are doing the same jobs — and a House of Lords inquiry into women in broadcasting came to the conclusion there are “simply not enough women.” There are still too few BME and disabled people in front of and behind the screen.
That is why the NUJ and its colleagues in the Federation of Entertainment Unions (FEU) are launching a campaign to fight for the future of the BBC. The corporation plays a huge role in our nations’ cultural lives. It has its orchestras — can you imagine a broadcasting organisation run by the likes of Richard Desmond running the Proms? It produces high-quality drama. It hosts the Open University. It provides award-winning children’s programmes at a time when advertising rules have made commercial stations less keen to commission them.
It is also a major trainer for all broadcasters. It sets the benchmark for the commercial sector to follow.
The FEU is looking to form an alliance with other supporters of the BBC to defend well-funded, well-managed public service broadcasting. We will be opposing moves by the BBC to privatise production as a sop to the government during charter negotiations.
On Wednesday June 10 the FEU is holding a lobby of Parliament. At 6.30pm there will be a public meeting hosted by Broadcast Magazine in the House of Commons, Committee Room 10. All those prepared to join our fight to preserve public service broadcasting are welcome.
- Michelle Stanistreet is the National Union of Journalists general secretary.