Huffpost UK Politics uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Adam McGibbon Headshot

Savile Tragedy Is Being Exploited To Attack the Very Idea of Having a BBC

Posted: Updated:

It seems this was this was the event that the phrase 'media circus' was created for. Every day, yet another revelation in the Jimmy Savile fiasco. It attracts a large, horrified audience like a firestorm sucking in oxygen.

But as the police widen the scope of the investigation, as BBC executives are hauled over the coals and the inevitable enquiry lurks round the corner, there is a nasty undercurrent developing. The BBC's predictable enemies are beginning to use the scandal to attack the very idea of a publically-funded, non-commercial broadcaster.

The conversation is slowly evolving from justifiable outrage at the BBC's apparent inaction over Savile's behaviour, to one where right-wing commentators, sensing the BBC's weakness, begin to question the idea of even having a BBC at all.

Now - I'm not saying the BBC is perfect by any means. A particular example of disgraceful behaviour from the Corporation that sticks out in my head was their handling of the 2009 Gaza Crisis, where they refused to broadcast an emergency aid appeal while the Israeli government committed mass murder of civilians in Gaza. (Tony Benn later broadcasted the appeal himself over the top of an uncooperative presenter). As well as that, each person who pays the license fee contributes money for the £3.2 million salary of the odious Jeremy Clarkson (Who, I've just noticed, has chosen people with mental illnesses as his latest victims) as well as George Entwhistle (BBC director-general)'s salary, who, despite a pay cut, is still paid £450,000 a year, a whopping £308,000 more than the prime minister.

But despite your misgivings with the BBC, there are people out there who are against the BBC for ideological reasons. Some of them perhaps believe it's biased to the left (I disagree strongly). Some of them probably think it's a waste of money that we should be busy spending on more important things, like tax breaks for the wealthiest. Maybe they are free market fundamentalists who believe that if it doesn't make a profit, it simply cannot be a positive thing. But they're out there - and they are starting to see their moment to bring down (or at least cripple) a long-standing and popular institution might just be coming.

Witness the antics of right-wing London talk radio host Nick Ferrari, who spent just seconds talking about Savile before settling for much longer on the topic of why the BBC exists at all. "What do you like about it?" He incredulously asked a caller who praised the BBC. When another caller said, "I'm concerned people like you want to bring in Fox News," Ferrari responded by enthusiastically agreeing, claiming that the BBC was "the opposite of Fox News...we should let the market decide."

Ferrari then went on to give listeners a taste of his preferred broadcasting style by allowing a climate change denier to go off on an unchallenged tangent, citing a paper they wrote for a climate denial organisation as fact, while complaining about the BBC's "biased" coverage of climate change.

Perhaps more worrying are the attempts by ministers to start a conversation about the BBC's place in our society. Maria Miller, the culture minister, has been vocal recently about the BBC's handling of the scandal, earning the ire of the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten. Ironically, it falls to someone like Patten - a former Tory minister - to defend the BBC, who delivered a rebuke for the government not to interfere with the BBC's independence.

The right-wing press are gleefully poring over every detail, every morsel or suspicion of further wrongdoing. How long will it be before the first 'Is the BBC Fit For Purpose?' headlines start to appear? It has now been largely forgotten that Jeremy Hunt, the then-culture secretary, told The Guardian in 2010 that the government intended to discuss whether the license fee is the right way to fund the BBC. Translation: "We're going to discuss creative ways to cut the BBC." And as the BBC's charter comes up for renewal in 2016, will the scandal be used as political cover to reduce funding, change the funding mechanism or bring in unsavoury private influences?

Whether you're a fan of the BBC or not, it's hard to dispute that the presence of such a well-regarded broadcaster strengthens the quality of our democracy. As its not-for-profit, it doesn't just cater to the whims of the majority. It is a crucial hub for the arts, for culture, and for public debate. It is also publically accountable, as should be obvious over the last few weeks. It has a well-deserved reputation for being (mostly) fair and free of bias. And if you don't believe that these qualities are important, just imagine how unlikely it is that a range of left-wing personalities (Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell, etc) would ever get a fair hearing for their views in the USA as they do in the UK on programmes like Newsnight or Question Time. Look at the way in which Fox News twists, alters and 'dumbs down' news coverage in the US. In fact, you don't even need to look at that. Just look at the hatred that America's own publically-funded broadcaster, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) attracts from right-wing politicians. Mitt Romney recently pledged to remove its federal funding completely - an attack widely regarded to be purely ideological and not at all about reducing the national debt.

We might be on the verge of seeing such naked hate of public broadcasting here in the UK becoming fashionable, as the scandal unfolds and a golden opportunity for rightwingers to attack the BBC reveals itself.

The presence of a publically-funded independent broadcaster is a force for good in public discourse, and helps to break up concentrated power in the media, which, post-Murdoch, seems impossible to deny is a bad thing. But in the BBC's moment of weakness, the vultures are circling. Watch it - with the BBC under attack, unless it is defended, you could soon wake up to a Fox News nightmare here in the UK.