If the current media debate about the future of the BBC is anything to go by, the corporation seems to be facing the gravest crisis of its 92-year history. Indeed, this week a book with the title: “Is The BBC In Crisis?” has been published with scores of hard-hitting critical and analytical essays from past BBC chiefs and luminaries, the brightest “hackademics” and authoritative historians from the traditional plains of cultural history.
The book launch featured a panel discussion with Cardiff University professor and former ITN editor Richard Tait, Westminster University’s Steve Barnett, Suzanne Franks of City University, and David Elstein who held the tiller at Channel 5, Sky and Thames.
Professor Franks’ analysis of how the BBC lost the plot on executive pay, with devastating results for staff morale is uncomfortable to digest in reading and public discussion.
The gathering of the book’s authors was haunted by fraught speculation over director-general Tony Hall’s anticipated decision to axe BBC 3 to save £100m in the interests of “putting quality first”.
The Guardian is planning its own book on the BBC’s woes and lamentations later this year. The media chatter has the tone of wailing. Howard Davies described the post-Hutton creation of the BBC trust as “a kind of son of Saddam Hussein.”
I personally have contributed to the growing brouhaha for I have a chapter in the book called BBC Radio censorship rows: lessons from history. I argue that the BBC seems to be losing its ability to withstand collateral damage from political crises detonated by controversial programmes. My conclusion could not be described as particularly optimistic:
Mistakes are not permitted, rarely forgiven, and the future is less certain and secure for the BBC than it has ever been in its 92-year history.
The BBC’s part in my downfall
This is the point at which you would expect me to declare an interest - and any brief foray on Google might give you the impression that I am a cheer-leader for the BBC. The barbed roasting I got for going on BBC 5 Live to analyse strategies by which the BBC could deal with “Savilegate” challenged my partiality, pointing out that for 22 years I had been a visiting lecturer to the BBC in media law and ethics. Ipso facto says the blogger: “Pretty clear where he stands.”
But although lively and entertaining as a blogger, “Biased BBC” was unfortunately unaware of the fact that my attempts to challenge the BBC’s hegemony of radio drama more than 20 years ago did not exactly further my career prospects. I criticised what I perceived to be unethical abuses of their powerful dominance of broadcasting and commercial media markets.
The grief arising from the consequences of this cat-fight is best buried in archives beyond the reach of search engines, but a taste of the frisson can be sampled via a subscription to Nexis UK and a 1993 article in the Observer where I was delightfully characterised in quotation by the late Russell Twisk as one of those boys “across the River”.
It’s impossible to rationally prove the extent of the reach then and now of the BBC’s power, but to say that I was well and truly kyboshed is an understatement. A colleague in independent broadcasting once sympathetically observed: “Tim, you are Don Quixote charging a Panzer division with a broken lance, sitting astride a lame donkey.”
In my parallel career in academia, my future prospects appeared destined for the deep freeze. I was the “lecturer who was anti-BBC”. I had the pleasure of being heckled at academic conferences and when I grappled with BBC apparatchiks in print, the disapproval of my superiors was made palpably clear.
Anybody reading my academic analysis of the wide panoply of BBC history in the Fitzroy Dearborn Encyclopaedia of Broadcasting published in 2003 should observe an aspiration to impartiality on all matters to do with the BBC. Anybody involved in any aspect of BBC audio drama creativity and production would find it very hard to trace any evidence on my part of personal hostility and lack of respect. What happened to me has happened to many others. And I suspect this may be a factor in the current hyper-vulnerability of the BBC.
I was taught by a father who survived the horrors of the World War II and embraced the consensus of equality of opportunity post 1945, and a Tory to boot, that forgiveness, compromise and the British national interest are everything.
As the late writer Alan Plater once poignantly remarked to me: “There’s nothing intrinsically awful about people in the BBC who behave dreadfully. Sometimes the BBC makes them awful. Something happens to them.”
Individuals and the institutions they lead and work for make mistakes and errors of judgement. Sometimes these are catastrophic, unjust, unfair and indeed illegal. But there is something intellectually and philosophically lacking in the argument that in ensuring that “something is done”, institutional and structural change is imperative.
Canada, New Zealand and Australia are three commonwealth cousins who have diminished and scaled back the funding and power of their BBC equivalents. We do so at our peril. Longstanding and successful public and private bodies do not deserve to be terminated because they foul up from time to time. When corruption has been exposed at the heart of the Metropolitan Police, what purpose is there in liquidating the organisation? When a Royal Marine is court-martialed for the worst crimes, do we really need to merge them with the Rifles?
Great Britain plc
The BBC is not just a national cultural journalistic, entertainment, education and information indulgence. It is Great Britain plc in terms of global soft power. When our hard-edged military, trade, economic, industrial and manufacturing position has declined, our political, cultural, information and media position has expanded; largely through the BBC’s eccentric and anachronistic arrangement of distance from government influence through royal charter and licence fee.
The BBC seeds and contributes an extraordinary fostering and conceptualising fusion of intellectual, creative and communications goods and products. These disseminate positive human values of tolerance, democracy, liberty and humanitarian fairness through its journalistic and dramatic programming.
I really don’t mind if the BBC people who turned me over and squashed me flat on the hard-shoulder decades ago have prospered and profited. Good luck to them. But as a smudge in the tarmac, I would whole-heartedly support a continuation of BBC licence-fee funding, closely index-linked to inflation, and a continuation, indeed enhancement of independent governance.
Competitive angst, slights and disappointments, the perception of unfairness, need to be put aside. Enduring, continuing and indeed expanding BBC multimedia publication in a pluralistic and global media market is in all our interests.