It's open season on the BBC and, given its performance over the last month, perhaps that is to be expected. Any news organisation which decides not to run a programme investigating accusations of paedophilia against one of its star presenters just before a Christmas special devoted to him, but then does transmit a report making unsubstantiated allegations of paedophilia concerning a senior politician probably deserves a roasting. It has certainly contributed to a perception that the BBC is out of touch with ordinary people and, according to recent polling evidence, its behaviour has seriously undermined public confidence in the organisation. A Com Res survey carried out carried out after the Savile scandal emerged found that only 45% of the population now agree that the BBC journalism is trustworthy.
How should we respond to this?
First, we should point out this is still significantly above public trust in newspapers which, according to YouGov research in November 2011, found that only 38% of the Briitsh public trust the press (and remember that this figure includes all the press so confidence in some specific titles will clearly be much lower). This is the result of public disgust at the newsroom culture that brought us the phone hacking scandal and the evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry of unethical, corrupt and criminal behaviour at the heart of some of the country's leading titles. Those newspapers that are now revelling in the BBC's discomfort are in no position to do so and are motivated less by a commitment to rigorous and independent journalism than by the opportunity to make life difficult for their publicly-funded rival.
Some of the hypocrisy is astounding. In its response to the resignation of director general George Entwistle, the Sun on Sunday (a News Corporation title) raged against his high wages and the fact that more than 100 senior BBC managers are paid more than the prime minister. There is no mention, however, of the $30 million paid to News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch in 2012 or the $16.8 million earned by the deputy chief operating officer James Murdoch - this after the disastrous performances by both men during the phone hacking scandal.
The Mail on Sunday wasted no time in using the BBC crisis to make a case for stronger regulation of broadcast news while ensuring that no such obligations are placed on the press. 'Surely', the paper commented in its editorial, 'there is a far stronger case for BBC regulation than for placing legal chains on the press?' Well, not really when you consider the amount of comment, investigation and general soul-searching that is now sweeping the BBC in contrast to the total lack of self-reflection or regret that marked, for example, the Sun's fabricated coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, the Daily Express' witchhunt against the parents of Madeleine McCann or the vilification of Chris Jefferies, accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates, who won substantial libel damages from eight newspapers in 2012. How many editors, reporters or even chief operating officers resigned after these escapades in contrast to the fairly swift decision taken by George Entwistle to accept full responsibility for the BBC's recent problems?
What is also absent from the vast majority of the coverage lambasting the DG's wages and the BBC's breakdown in editorial standards is any mention of the huge cuts that were imposed on the BBC as part of the government's austerity agenda. Remember that in 2010, a secret deal was reached by the then director general, chair of the BBC Trust and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt which froze the licence fee until 2017. This followed James Murdoch's high profile attack on the 'chilling' ambition of the BBC at the 2009 Edinburgh International Television Festival and Jeremy Hunt's article in the Sun shortly afterwards which called for a freeze in the licence fee. Given what we now know from evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry about the number of meetings between Jeremy Hunt, the Murdochs, News Corp lobbyists and Culture Department special advisors, a harsh climate for the BBC was hardly unexpected.
The licence fee deal equated to a cut of some 16% in the BBC's budget and led to sweeping job losses in newsrooms up and down the country. Instead of focusing simply on the collapse in the BBC's 'moral fabric', the corporation's competitors would be better off reflecting on their own role in lobbying for a reduced licence fee settlement that has certainly contributed to recent editorial crises.
We should also make the point that the errors which the BBC has made are not on the same scale as those which led to the government's setting up of the Leveson Inquiry. The BBC appears to have made serious editorial misjudgements which have now led to a series of inquiries, at least three high-level resignations and the perception of a cover-up over Savile (though with no 'smoking gun'). Leading sections of the press, on the other hand, have been accused of systematically hacking into people's phones, blagging information, doing shady deals with the police and doggedly pursuing political influence and favours. With thousands of victims of phone hacking and dozens of arrests in relation to the three investigations that have been set up to examine illegal practices involving the media and the police, their crimes certainly appear to be of a different order.
However, none of this means that we should excuse the BBC for its failings and romanticise its record. It has long been used as a political football by different administrations and has reacted with coverage that is aimed to minimise harm rather than maximise impact. It has always been an extremely politically cautious institution that is far more at home with an agenda dominated by official sources and 'consensual' politics, since it believes that will best insulate it from the attacks of both antagonistic governments and embittered rivals. The impact of the Hutton Inquiry into the corporation's reporting of the Labour's government's campaign to secure public consent for the Iraq War has only intensified this caution. Its bureaucratic mindset (and accompanying structures) runs deep, in part simply to ensure that radical and innovative voices are kept in check.
There is no point in blaming the BBC's commercial rivals alone for the problems that the corporation has brought upon itself. It needs to change: it needs to democratise its governance structure and ensure a more active role for the public (for example through viewers' councils or democratic elections to key positions). It needs to re-connect with the interests of its listeners, viewers and users (even though the extent of this disconnection is most likely overstated) by adopting agendas that don't always sit comfortably with official frameworks and it needs urgently to boost its production staff and programming budget at the expense of a bureaucratised management structure.
In doing all this the BBC does not need to listen to lectures from its commercial competitors who have their own less than honourable and transparent agendas and who, when criminal investigations into phone hacking are concluded, need to put their own houses in order. The whole episode shows that we need to take democracy seriously not just in relation to economic and political questions but also to the media institutions that play such a major role in our daily lives.
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