Friday, 28 February 2014

Media Quotes of the Week: From media has ball as Piers Morgan falls to Sky's Alex Crawford on bravery in journalism via Harman versus Mail

Robert Peston ‏@Peston on Twitter: "Can barely hear myself think amid din of schadenfreude in UK media at cancellation by CNN of fellow Gooner @piersmorgan's show"

Piers Morgan ‏@piersmorgan on Twitter: "Humbling to bring such happiness to so many people today. Coming 3rd, as I've always said, is not a trophy. #MorganOut #CNN"

Jeremy Clarkson ‏@JeremyClarkson on Twitter: "I understand that Nigerian TV is looking for a new chat show host. Anyone got any suggestions?"

The New York Times: "There have been times when the CNN host Piers Morgan didn’t seem to like America very much — and American audiences have been more than willing to return the favour."

Jonathan Freedland ‏@Freedland on Twitter: "Unfashionable I know, but reckon it was admirable @piersmorgan maintained his stance on guns even though it clearly didn't help his career."

Metro md Steve Auckland in the Guardian: "There are a lot of people rushing out of print to go online. But I'm quite happy to rush into print because there's a lot of money to be made out of print, and I'll take as much as possible. And you know what – the agencies are crying out for that message. Everyone I've talked to has said it's refreshing to hear somebody who is actually willing to innovate in print."

Harriet Harman in a statement: "In recent days I have been the subject of a politically-motivated smear campaign by the Daily Mail. They have accused me of being an apologist for child sex abuse, of supporting a vile paedophile organisation, of having a relaxed attitude to paedophilia and of watering down child pornography laws. These are horrific allegations and I strongly deny them all of them."

MP tom_watson ‏@tom_watson on Twitter: "Reducing it to a row between Harman and the Daily Mail misses the point: kids were abused by members of PIE and investigations thwarted."

anne mcelvoy ‏@annemcelvoy  on Twitter: "We're in for another "Labour versus the Mail" moral high-ground competitions. Those who like real news may prefer to look away."

SubScribe: "Does it matter? Or is it, as an old journo friend says, 'all showbiz'? Yes it does matter. Not because of its effect on the career of one politician or because it will make a jot of difference to any police investigation or to the treatment of any child. It matters because the bully has triumphed. And so will carry on bullying. And the victims are not only politicians and celebrities. The Mail does not discriminate. It is happy to pour its bile and innuendo over anyone."

Hazel Blears talking to the Hansard Society, as reported by Guido Fawkes: “Until political blogging ‘adds value’ to our political culture, by allowing new voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.”

Ray Snoddy on this blog from new book Is the BBC in Crisis?: "In the wake of current scandals facing the BBC, the up-coming licence fee negotiations, coinciding with the re-negotiation of a new ten-year royal charter, could be the most difficult and unpredictable there has ever been. The march of technology, the current political terrain and an unprecedented raft of scandals could all combine to create a perfect storm for the BBC. Certainly the BBC will never before have entered a licence fee round surrounded by the debris of such a number of internal embarrassments, many of them shrieking managerial incompetence."

Peter Preston in the Observer: "Lord Justice Laws's judgment, in short, doesn't just disappoint Miranda, Greenwald and the Guardian. It says, in effect, that any security service type – maybe after a chat with PM Tony Blair, once he's finished helping Rebekah with something – can present "compelling", if studiously vague, evidence and see passing dossiers, however dodgy, enjoy portentous protection. It can, seemingly, declare media workers potential "terrorists" in a schedule 7 trice. It balances the right to be informed (article 10 of the European convention) against the security right to be forcibly shut up – and declares no contest."

Culture Secretary Maria Miller at the Oxford Media Convention: "The internet isn’t a ‘Second Life’, it isn’t something where different rules apply, where different behaviour is acceptable – it isn’t the wild west.  To put it simply the rules that apply offline are the same rules that apply online."

Alex Crawford, speaking at the St.Bride's thanksgiving service for the Journalists' Charity:  “I'm often asked about bravery and the courage of foreign correspondents who travel to wars and disasters. To me bravery is taking on the establishment and the expenses department, as much as dictators abroad.

"Bravery is not - as some people seems to think - the defining quality of the war correspondent. Bravery comes in little acts achieved in every job or life, every day.

“Bravery in our profession is the editor who trusts his or her journalists in the field when everyone else is screaming otherwise. It's standing up to the accountants who say we can't afford to cover that genocide, or that natural disaster.

“Bravery is being prepared to go head to head with not only your own Government but that of several others by exposing the real extent of one nation's surveillance and snooping.

“Bravery is knowing you're guaranteed unpopularity but printing or broadcasting anyway because you KNOW it is the right thing to do."

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Ray Snoddy: Scandal-hit BBC is facing its toughest and most unpredictable licence fee negotiations

Media correspondent Ray Snoddy argues in the wake of current scandals facing the BBC that the up-coming licence fee negotiations, coinciding with the re-negotiation of a new ten-year royal charter, could be the most difficult and unpredictable there has ever been.

He claims it would be 'crazy' to try to close down BBC Four and BBC Three, describing Four as "the best thing the BBC does" while Three provides a link with younger audiences.

Snoddy, contributing to a new book Is the BBC Crisis? also suggests the Irish may well have found the ‘least bad’ system for funding public service broadcasting.

There has been an unvarying pattern with BBC licence fee negotiations over the years. Once the vested interests and differing shades of political ideology have been stripped away it has usually come down to horse-trading over money.

The BBC asks for more than it expects to get and implies that the end of civilisation is nigh if its ‘entirely reasonable’ demands are not met. The government of the day lops off a noticeable percentage so that it can appear to be tough and, above all else, not seem to be a patsy of the BBC, or to pay the Corporation back for previous sleights.

Labour governments tend to be a little more generous because of a warmer emotional attachment to concepts of public service broadcasting. This always has to be tempered by an appreciation of the impact of what is essentially a poll tax on the poorer voters. In general, a deal is done, the BBC makes some short-term cuts and then somehow, as if by magic, the Corporation finds enough
money to continue expanding. 

The ‘magic’, of course, has included an increasing population, or more precisely, a growth in the creation of new households, each liable to pay the fee. Two licence fee campaigns, however, stand out from the general run. The first was the award in 1985 of a £58 licence fee accompanied by a fundamental review of the financing of the BBC under the chairmanship of the free market economist Professor Alan Peacock. 

While the then-Home Secretary Leon Brittan emphasised that the purpose of the Peacock Committee was to come up with options rather than recommendations, it was widely seen as Margaret Thatcher’s revenge on the Corporation. The BBC may have been given a relatively generous settlement for now, but that would certainly not be the end of the matter. Opening up the BBC to advertising and greater competition was the obvious longer-term solution.

Peacock, supported by another economist, Samuel Brittan, of the Financial Times, realised that advertising on the BBC would devastate the economics of commercial television. They, therefore, came to the ‘wrong’ political answer – that the licence fee was the ‘least bad’ system and that it should be indexed to inflation, though pensioners dependent on benefits should be exempt. It was a process that lasted 14 months and had the effect of putting to rest, at least for a generation, some of the more extreme theories about the financing of the BBC.

They included everything from abolishing the licence fee to privatising the Corporation or even breaking it up.

The 2010 licence fee settlement was ‘by far the most exciting so far’

Peacock clearly made an impact and in retrospect can be seen as rather forward looking. But in terms of sheer drama, the 2010 licence fee settlement was by far the most exciting so far, the most compressed in time there has ever been – a settlement where pragmatism and pressing financial realities largely swept aside ideology. 

Those close to the process say that George Osborne’s Treasury would have welcomed a ‘scale and scope’ investigation into everything the BBC does and into whether it provides value for money or not. There was the implication that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to explore options for a much smaller BBC, reduced to a more tightly defined range of overt public service responsibilities.

All such-longer term thinking was thrown out of the window by the fast approaching Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), the attempt to cut the budget deficit by reducing public spending drastically. During the negotiations the BBC, and the then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, thought a plan to force the BBC to pay the free licence fees of the over-75s had been rejected. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, desperate to get the £600 million cost (and rising) off his departmental budget, had apparently persuaded Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron to his point of view. There were implicit threats of resignations from the BBC Chairman Sir Michael Lyons and Director-General Mark Thompson in the face of what was seen as a crude threat to the BBC’s independence. 

Apart from the initial £600 million a year bill, in an ageing population, the BBC would face an open-ended call on its finances. The Lib-Dem media spokesman Don Foster played an important role in alerting his leader, Nick Clegg, to the scale of the possible crisis. The entire BBC Trust was on the verge of resigning en masse.

It was a gloomy Thompson who headed for home in Oxford by train on the evening of Monday 18 October 2010 believing the game was up and that the battle of the over-75s licence fees had been lost. And then the call came that something was changing in the mood of Downing Street and could he get back to London as soon as possible? Thompson got off the train at Slough, crossed platforms and returned to London and straight to Hunt’s office at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport for what turned out to be a night of negotiations. 

The pensioner’s plan was dropped but Thompson had to decide whether to enter last-minute negotiations of the sort that would give horse trading a bad name, or risk a prolonged ‘traditional’ round of licence fee negotiations that could have spread out across 2011 with unpredictable consequences.

Thompson and the BBC Trust choose the bird in the hand – a licence fee frozen until 2016 while at the same time taking over the BBC World Service, Monitoring services and most of the cost of the Welsh Fourth channel. In addition, the BBC would have to find £40 million for Hunt’s pet project – local television. There had been nothing like it before, but despite cost cuts of 16 per cent or £700 million and 2,000 job losses, Mark Thompson insisted that the deal was ‘the best of the available outcomes for the BBC and actually a pretty good outcome’.

How scandals created 'a perfect storm' for the BBC

In the wake of current scandals facing the BBC, the up-coming licence fee negotiations, coinciding with the re-negotiation of a new ten-year royal charter, could be the most difficult and unpredictable there has ever been. The march of technology, the current political terrain and an unprecedented raft of scandals could all combine to create a perfect storm for the BBC. 

Certainly the BBC will never before have entered a licence fee round surrounded by the debris of such a number of internal embarrassments, many of them shrieking managerial incompetence.

The Pollard inquiry into the Newsnight affair found executives functioning in silos and communicating poorly with each other. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) may have almost wilfully misunderstood the role of the BBC Trust – setting strategy rather than getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the organisation. 

But the PAC, under Margaret Hodge, did ruthlessly expose the fact that a number of departing senior executives left with more than their contractual entitlement, creating an impression of both waste and cronyism a the top of the organisation.

In terms of managerial competence the fiasco of the nearly £100 million wasted on the Digital Media Initiative is probably the most serious. Consultants Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) found that the system designed to share digital and audio content across the Corporation had shown serious weaknesses in project management. 

The BBC had also taken too long ‘to realise that the project was in serious trouble and was unlikely to deliver its objectives’. There will almost certainly be further embarrassments to come for the BBC from the inquiry into the activities of Jimmy Savile. Each of the scandals is very different but they appear to share several things in common – complacency, arrogance and a lack of openness. Naturally the political vultures have already been circling with the Conservative Party Chairman, Grant Shapps, warning that the BBC could lose exclusive rights to the licence fee unless it tacked what he described as a culture of secrecy, waste and unbalanced reporting. 

Culture Secretary Maria Miller suggested that without urgent action on governance, negotiations on a new royal charter could be brought forward. It is difficult to predict what influence the electoral timetable will have on the future of the BBC. If talks are brought forward to this year (2014) then the Lib-Dems could have a restraining influence on gut Tory desires for a smaller BBC that would represent a lesser interference with the workings of the media market.

Wait until after general election day on 7 May 2015 and the Conservatives could have free rein over the future of the BBC if they win an absolute majority. The need for a further round of Conservative-Lib-Dem Coalition cannot be ruled out entirely.

Calls for a smaller BBC

Meanwhile a couple of off-stage interventions have, deliberately or not, fed into the emerging Conservative agenda for a smaller BBC, or one that no longer has access to all the proceeds of the licence fee. In an interview on Radio 5 Live, the BBC’s most senior presenter, David Dimbleby, who ran unsuccessfully for the director-general’s job in 1987 and equally unsuccessfully for the chairmanship in 2004, outlined his vision for a very different Corporation. 

Dimbleby wondered whether the BBC had become too big and too powerful and asked if some licence fee money could not be used to help fund other commercial broadcasters so that a greater diversity of voices could be heard. BBC Four and BBC Two could be merged and then cut some of the gardening and cookery programmes. The corporation’s online presence could also be reduced to prevent the BBC crushing local newspapers.

At around the same time, Roger Mosey, former Editorial Director and Head of News at the BBC was making similar points in an article in The Times. The scale of BBC News and its dominance in the market made BBC executives uncomfortable, argued the executive who had recently taken up the post of Master of Selywn College, Cambridge. He added, in the Murdoch-owned newspaper which has campaigned for years for a smaller BBC, that two good TV channels might be better than four with resources spread too thinly. If implemented this would mean the closure of BBC Three and BBC Four. Mosey also advocated an element of ‘top-slicing’ the licence fee to give to other broadcasters.

Other ideas already circulating is one from Steve Morrison, the former Chief Executive of Granada, now Chairman of All3Media, the independent production company. Morrison believes the BBC should be allowed to hold on to all of its licence fee – but on one condition: that independent producers should have the right to compete for an extra 25 per cent of programme budgets.

ITV later went further by arguing that all BBC output, apart from news, should be contestable in return for keeping all of its licence fee. The independent sector is already guaranteed 25 per cent of BBC output and can already compete for an additional 25 per cent. If the Morrison idea were adopted, the BBC would have absolute control of only 25 per cent of its non-news output.

Technological change, and the fact that more and more homes have a wide range of devices able to receive high quality online video from the internet and from OTT (over the top) suppliers such as Netflix, could raise questions over the wisdom, and even practicality, of continuing to try to impose a compulsory licence fee to watch television up to the year 2026. 

What if more and more people say they do not watch live television and only use computers and tablets to watch recorded material and, therefore, believe they should be exempt from paying the licence fee? There will almost certainly be a fundamental examination of the scope, purpose and funding of the BBC in the next few years whether it takes the shape of a formal inquiry or not.

The best hope for the BBC is that all the scandals will finally be out of the way before then, and that a nearly new management under Director-General Tony Hall will have put in place structures to try to ensure nothing of the like happens again. In the meantime a few concluding thoughts might help.


First, the idea that the BBC is too large and powerful seems misplaced. By definition the frozen licence fee and the 2,000 lost jobs means that the Corporation will become smaller in absolute terms. Even more important the BBC will inevitably continue to become smaller in relative terms given the
growing competition in the market from satellite broadcaster BSkyB, the arrival of BT in the television market in a serious way and the impact of new players such as Netflix. 

It would also seem crazy to try to close down BBC Four and BBC Three. Four is the best thing the BBC does and Three provides a necessary link with younger audiences. People like cookery and gardening programmes and there seems no good reason to reduce their number if you want to justify a universal licence fee.

Top-slicing of the licence fee seems like a reasonable idea but actually isn’t. It was thoroughly considered last time in the context of Channel 4 and rejected. The problem revolves around issues such as what new programmes should be funded by such methods, where are they going to be shown and who should benefit?

Should money go to multi-millionaire independent producers or swell the profits of ITV or Richard Desmond’s Channel 5? It is obvious that as a society we can decide to have any shape or size of BBC
we want. But remember that public service broadcasters across European are  facing an increasing squeeze on their finances and if such institutions are  irreparably damaged or lost they will never return. The signs are that the public,  despite everything, is broadly satisfied by the current range of services provided  by the BBC, and within reason, can be persuaded to fund them. All hell breaks loose when the BBC announces the planned closure of even an obscure, minority music station.

But if the decision is to continue with the licence fee system, and it still looks like the ‘least bad’ way of funding public service broadcasting, then the issue of  who pays in the internet age should be clarified. The government could do worse than look at Ireland where the issue has been tackled and action taken.

The Irish have gone for a ‘public service broadcasting charge’ which is ‘device independent’ and does not rely on the television set. It also will apply to ‘occupiers’ rather than owners which should help to eliminate the free-rider  problem – the one-in-five Irish households who do not pay the licence fee at present. It could be part of a comprehensive licence fee and Royal Charter settlement that draws on the wisdom of Sir Alan Peacock – index the licence fee  while taking pensioners on benefit out of the equation.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Media Quotes of the Week: Trebles all round at Private Eye to Brooks and Blair via Newsquest

Editor Ian Hislop, after  Private Eye announces an ABC of 224,162 copies for July to December 2013 , maintaining its position as the biggest selling UK news and current affairs magazine: “Thatcher’s death, Prince George’s birth, Rebekah Brooks’ trial – we’ve done well in a quiet year…”

The Co-ordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organisations, in a letter to David Cameron: "We note that the unprecedented pressure on the Guardian comes at a time when the British public is engaged in a fierce debate over media regulation. We believe the issues are linked, as together they create the impression that British authorities are seeking to constrain and control the work of the media."

Phil Harding on this blog, from new book Is the BBC in Crisis?: "While an editor might receive the most vigorous complaints about his or her programme they are never accompanied by a threat to cut the licence fee. That was what made the recent intervention by the current Conservative Party Chairman, Grant Shapps, in which he explicitly linked the future of the BBC licence fee to political coverage by the BBC’s Home Editor, Mark Easton, so remarkable and why it provoked such a storm (Ross 2013). Shapps was, in fact, the fourth front-bencher to pick on Easton for his reporting. While some think that is because of the controversial nature of Easton’s journalistic beat, others think the Conservatives are now calculatingly taking a page out of the Labour Party spinbook of dark arts, by singling out one individual journalist and then picking on them at every opportunity."

David Lloyd on this blog, from new book Is the BBC in Crisis?: Is the BBC in Crisis?: "The BBC has devoted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of radio and television to the ‘Lord Rennard Affair’ on the justified ground that it goes to the heart of attitudes – even a possible schism – within the Liberal Democrat Party and its credibility and governance. But did anyone think to ask how it was that the mighty cohorts of BBC Westminster, numbers far in excess of any other parliamentary team, failed to break that story in the first place, but that was left to Channel 4 News?

Jeremy Clarkson@JeremyClarkson on Twitter: "So Piers Morgan was interviewed under caution re phone hacking. But do remember people that he is innocent until a court decides otherwise."

Robert Booth@Robert_Booth on Twitter: "Prince William to Guardian:' Why don't you put the notebook down and give us a hand with the sandbags?' I offered but was told no by minders."

John McDonnell MP, secretary of the NUJ Parliamentary Group, on the Newsquest dispute:
"The great strength of local newspapers is that the reporters, subs, and editors who put them together are rooted in their communities. The idea that they can be put together remotely from another country without this impacting on the quality of the product is absurd. The Newsquest staff who have been forced to take this action in defence of local journalism deserve our full support and solidarity."

Roy Greenslade on his MediaGuardian blog on the Newsquest strike: "There is a human cost to rational cost-cutting decisions taken at head office which, in Newsquest's case, means Virginia USA, home of its parent media conglomerate, Gannett. That is surely the reason, at least in part, for the reaction of the NUJ chapels. They just don't feel it fair for a company that has no interest in the fate of their newspapers beyond squeezing as much a profit as possible from them to treat staff so poorly."

on Twitter: "Please fellow journalists do not agree to the absurd conditions for covering . I've even just been told what I should tweet. No."

Helena Kennedy in the Guardian: "Yesterday's Miranda judgment has worrying implications for press freedom, race relations and basic justice. We always hope our judiciary will be the restraining hand on this kind of state conduct, but too often the very mention of national security also has a chilling effect on the courts."

Rebekah Brooks email about advice from Tony Blair re-hacking scandal:

1. Form an independent unit that has a outside junior council, ken macdonald, a great and good type, a serious forensic criminal barrister, internal counsel, proper fact checkers etc in it. Get them to investigate me and others and publish a hutton style report.
2. Publish part one of the report at same time as the police closes its inquiry and clear you and accept short comings and new solutions and process and part two when any trials are over.
3. Keep strong and definitely sleeping pills. Need to have clear heads and remember no rash short term solutions as they only give you long term headaches.
4. It will pass. Tough up.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

What should James Harding do at the BBC and what memos should he send himself ? By the former Channel 4 Head of News David Lloyd

James Harding: BBC Director of News

David Lloyd, former head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, ponders the thoughts that may have crossed James Harding’s mind (and the memos he may well have wanted to send to himself) over his first paper cup of BBC coffee – on starting the job of Director of News. This is an article headed: 'A clear case of journalistic underperformance: The house that Birt (and Hall) built' taken from 'Is the BBC in Crisis?' edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble, and published by Abramis on 1 March.

I would like to have had a camera at James Harding’s shoulder on his first morning in office, documenting his demeanour and teasing out any clues to his detailed prospectus as the incoming Director of BBC News. Did the former editor of The Times make straight for the galleys of the newsroom and gaze upon its sheer size to confirm him in his decision to enlist, or did that unwieldy behemoth, and every correspondent, stringer and freelance stretching out beyond it, lead him to ponder, yet again, how it could be that an output not noted for its enterprise – let alone boldness – had shunted his two predecessors sideways out of office in circumstances of some ignominy?

This was clearly his most immediate conundrum – how not to lose his head – but beyond the instinct of simple self-preservation, any experienced and intelligent outsider could surely spot a fundamental flaw of culture, identified by the solipsism of those who had inhabited it for any length of time – and the higher up the ladder, the more self-defensive and damaging it no doubt seemed to him.

Over his first paper cup of BBC coffee there was an opportunity to reflect on the sheer size of public funding that keeps this news and current affairs ship afloat. With his Murdochian hat on, he remembers, no doubt, that the newsroom was designed and paid for, out of public funds, twice, installed – first under a certain Tony Hall in an expensively extended Television Centre, before being located, presumably for keeps, at Broadcasting House. Certainly, anyone taking on this mantle would need to study recent broadcasting history, he  reflected, particularly if they were new to those media, and – so awesome was the task – perhaps even some illustrative historical parallels as well (vide Arrian: Life of Alexander, Loeb Classical Library for parallel English translation if – disgracefully – possessing no Ancient Greek).

When John Birt was appointed as Deputy Director-General to ‘sort out’ BBC journalism in the mid-1980s, he lit upon Tony Hall as his most likely and willing lieutenant – let us compare Alexander the Great accompanied by his faithful general Ptolemy looking to topple the 4th century BC Persian empire, which will fall not so much to superior intellect or tactics but from the sheer dysfunction and demoralisation of that empire.

Terminal rows with Thatcher’s government

It is customary now to regard what preceded Birt’s conquest as something of a barbarian ‘dark age’ but the more terminal rows with Mrs Thatcher’s government had tended to brew in departments other than the then separate BBC satrapies of News and Current Affairs. Indeed, while the News department, in either radio or TV, could hardly be described as the leading edge of broadcast journalism, (TV News had been headed by a succession of unlikely characters, not every one of them able to boast much news pedigree, and the senior figures in the newsroom tended to be long-servers from the days of Alexandra Palace, and almost exclusively male). In old-fashioned style, as on the newspapers of the day, the reporters – many of them notable mavericks – led the journalism, and to them was obeisance paid, yet the system could still deliver notable ‘coups’ such as Michael Buerk’s superb report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984 which not only prompted Bob Geldof’s Band Aid but set the tone for the North-South dialogue for a decade.

In short, there were parts of both news and current affairs that truly worked: on Radio 4, the Today programme, then as now, set the agenda for the day and was a ‘must hear’ among politicians and opinion-formers alike. Later at night on BBC 2 Newsnight was a new kid on the block but, with the recruitment of Peter Snow and John Tusa and the enlisting of Charles Wheeler and even Joan Bakewell to the colours, had succeeded in forging the first news and current affairs alloy, just in time for distinguished broadcast service in the 1982 Falklands War. Thus equipped, it was giving ITN’s News at Ten, then the acknowledged ‘news leader’, a proper run for its money.

At the same time, while the geographically and culturally distinct current affairs department was probably better known for its production skills than its original journalism, Panorama retained a high authority and reputation among the audience at large. Even so, Panorama was be shoehorned into a new purpose, discussing through documentary film the detail of contemporary policy, rather than follow the proper role of current affairs – to report narrative storylines or arguments that drive to a point of policy (it was only under the guidance of the now forgotten and maligned George Entwistle, when Head of TV Current Affairs, that Panorama was allowed to re-discover its proper role).

Hall himself had worked on both Today and Newsnight but they were not to be the blueprint for the original, agenda-setting pro-active news journalism that would speak of a national broadcaster’s obligation. For Birt himself had arrived, shrouded in the so-called ’mission to explain’, which was at best an elaboration of only one leg in the Reithian triptych to the overshadowing of the others (much education, some information, no entertainment). 

John Birt now set upon journalism of exposition, and – to a degree – of some analysis, which very quickly came to dominate the mainstream bulletins and, after those, the 24-hour news channel and, later, the news website.

But behind this expository approach lay a particular attitude to its intake of material – a journalism of ‘process’ rather than enquiry and initiative. As a result, some years into the pursuance of this mission it is common for the BBC’s only advancement of a running news story to lie not in further journalistic enquiry but in the excerpting of clips of interviews from the so-called ‘news programmes’ (those that include interviews, such as World at One on Radio 4, or the Andrew Marr Show on a Sunday morning). 

That is ‘process’ in action, from which in recent years, on a domestic agenda, only Robert Peston – an incomer from the Financial Times – has been immune.

News generated by the ‘power centres’

Not surprisingly, it took some time for this approach to settle with BBC journalists: at the time of the first Big Storm (the Michael Fish one) they were heard to a man complaining that they were being despatched not to report on the damage done but to discover when was the last time anything comparable had occurred. 

Over time this caricature came to sophisticate in favour of a more accurate description of the approach as it bedded down but this Birt-ist ‘makeover’ has never shed a preference for exposition of news stories generated by the ‘power centres’ of politics, government, business, finance or organised labour than for those discovered through the BBC’s own free-standing skill, ‘self-start’ initiative and resources. And therein has lain a major lacuna, of both coverage and ambition.

By now Harding has attempted a croissant and is resisting the temptation to compare its over-solid dough with the consistency of his directorate’s output; it occurs to him that, over time, many BBC bulletins on television or radio are not so different from illustrated or sound-described news diaries, aside – of course – from the truly unexpected occurrences of happenstance, at home or abroad, and that-even for a broadcast tyro-this must be surely be to underuse both media.

First Harding memo to self: ‘Newsgathering to be less mechanistic – needs restructure.’

Across the journalism profession as a whole his reasoning will be seen as in no sense idiosyncratic; some years into its conversion the average BBC news day has indeed taken on an undemanding rhythm of simple ‘process’, where too often the only means of advancing a running news story lies not in inquiry or lateral thinking of any kind but in excerpting brief interview clips garnered from those so-called ‘news programmes’ (those that contain interviews).

 It has to be of concern that enlarging a story is so dependent on the preparedness of people to speak on-the-record. And since the mainstream news is the epicentre of any broadcaster's journalism – the most watched and most influential part of its output – that is surely where the focus for change must lie. And that comes from someone who has devoted the majority of his career to Current Affairs!

Before long, word is out that their new director is in the canteen and now, bearing down on his table, is one of the brighter and bolder young journalists of his inheritance. ‘There is a rumour around,’ she smiles sweetly, ‘that you favour more “scoops” in the mainstream news coverage but, if I might suggest, this is a dangerous route, and a chimera: the audience wants to know what’s happened of importance, not what we journalists wish to foist upon them as significant – for how do the viewers or listeners know the journalist’s agenda? News has to begin from events of acknowledged importance, or the announcements of the powerful or influential, and it is for us to bring our informed analysis and explanation to bear.’

Like any experienced manager, Harding will keep his counsel but, no doubt, reflect on how deeply embedded this culture now sits at the BBC, and among its brightest and most ambitious practitioners – an attitude that you would be unlikely to encounter in any other newsroom, whether at Sky, ITN or indeed The Times. But isn’t the idea that you can truly strip news down to its purest essentials itself something of a chimera?

Second Harding memo to self: ‘Would like to see the audience research that supports this austere approach – need to set something fresh in motion.’

How long this Socratic dialogue can sustain is unclear; had I the opportunity, I would have made the following distinction, which Harding could probably make better than I, but could also quote just a few of the more dynamic broadcast examples which might elude him. And here goes:

Taken at its most basic, news itself can be described – in whatever medium or form it is presented – as a collection of items of information or ‘stories’ which document how the world is different today from the situation of yesterday, placed in an order of importance suggested by a mix of factors including the number of people affected, the proximity (sadly) of the news provider, the predictable or unexpected nature of the occurrence, and the recognised importance of the people involved.

Class, are you still with me, paying maximum attention?! Now, if you accept this description – or even if you don’t – it follows that those very ‘power centres’ or institutions of government, politics, finance, business etc. possess enormous leverage in being able to turn the news agenda, and it is how the journalist relates to this leverage that lies at the heart of the BBC’s post-Birt approach.

Two distinct traditions of journalism

One could argue that there are two distinct traditions of journalism in a free society – one passive, one active or, if you prefer, reactive and pro-active. The latter looks to respond to the actions or announcements of authority, assessing them fairly at the moment of that authority’s choosing; the former expects journalists to enquire of their own volition, assembling evidence from which to construct a storyline or argument, fairly and in the public interest. There is nothing incompatible or irreconcilable about these two traditions, they can and do co-exist in a single news programme or newspaper; what is unusual is to prefer the latter to the near-wholesale exclusion of the former. 

Certainly, The Times could not have survived or prospered for any length of time on such rigidity of input. An example: we all no doubt remember the murder of Jo Yeates, the young landscape architect student in Bristol in December 2010, for which a Dutch neighbour was finally convicted. Early in their inquiries the Avon and Somerset police would appear to have briefed journalists against her landlord, wrongly, as the prime suspect. This led the ITV news at ITN to run a report questioning the competence of the investigation, in which – of course – the police were given the opportunity to respond but which, in turn, had them banned from the police’s press conferences. A single example, but one of many available, of journalists using their instinct and trained method to important effect (vide David Mannion, then Editor-in-Chief, ITN, on Radio 4’s The Media Show at that time).

Now, is it conceivable, one must ask, that such a report – of justified, ‘selfstart’ journalism – fairly conducted and ‘duly impartial’ to the guidelines of the statutory broadcast regulator, Ofcom, could ever be likely, under the Corporation’s current mindset, to have any place in a BBC news bulletin or channel, except perhaps if an MP or someone else of authority were to criticise that investigation? Otherwise, the only opportunity for a news audience to see such a thing would be as a trailer for a forthcoming Panorama!

But I am not the only journalist, present or past, who would see such omissions of coverage as, at best, an undershoot, and, at worst, a betrayal of public funds. Another, more recent, example if you need: The BBC has devoted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of radio and television to the ‘Lord Rennard Affair’ on the justified ground that it goes to the heart of attitudes – even a possible schism – within the Liberal Democrat Party and its credibility and governance. But did anyone think to ask how it was that the mighty cohorts of BBC Westminster, numbers far in excess of any other parliamentary team, failed to break that story in the first place, but that was left to Channel 4 News?

(Back in Channel 4 days we used to enjoy a joke that the Beeb’s favoured presenter ‘lead-in’ – ‘The BBC has learnt that ...’ was a coded euphemism for ‘Just how did C4 News discover that ...?’)

In Harding’s interview with the Director-General for the job (the kind you entertain when you are the only candidate and all internal competitors have somehow fallen away), it is likely that Hall urged him to consider pro-active journalism as more naturally the province of current affairs or hybrid programmes such as Newsnight, while Harding urged him to consider the weight of proper journalism being lost to the Corporation under the current approach.

Hall countered by asking Harding to reflect on the political damage likely to be done to the corporation by a return to the more eclectic news agenda of the 1980s, but Harding retorted that, as it was, the BBC had been no stranger to that recently!

Perhaps. But we are unlikely to find out, and even a well-framed Freedom of Information request is unlikely to yield this. One day the principals will have to be questioned. However, subsequent correspondence between them ought to be more discoverable, and it is to be expected that Harding raised the role of the Editorial Policy department, also introduced by John Birt and today serving as something of a ‘belt and braces’ advice service to editors in a quandary. It’s likely that Harding regarded this, from his own experience, as strictly unnecessary for any competent editor and may even have suggested that its very existence had led the BBC to appoint less able and authoritative editors. Perhaps a compromise was arrived at, whereby the functions of ‘Ed Pol’ were to be retained over time, but not as a separate directorate? That, at least, might save staff numbers.

Authority and range of Corporation’s international coverage 

Of course, one of the things that will have drawn Harding to the job in the first place (well, aside from the fact that he was out of work and available) was an admiration amounting to envy shared among his peers for the authority and range of the Corporation’s international coverage; some of its senior on-camera performers are major figures of global journalism and reporters down the line display enormous bravery and courage, especially in war zones. Yet he still has an instinct that, on more everyday, mundane assignments, BBC reporters tend to be less alert to the unexpected within their locations than their rivals at Sky, ITV or Channel 4; he puts this down to an over-oppressive newsgathering desk in London – fine as long as it retains a sense of strategy in the deployment of public funds, not so fine if it stifles reporters’ initiative, and the output with it.

There is also the canard that he picked up when first enquiring about the job that some of the more senior figures are almost beyond the control of production, travelling and reporting pretty much where they choose.

Third Harding memo to self: ‘Need meeting asap with X, Y and Z; sort out bad blood, can’t continue.’

It is now some months since Harding’s first foray into the BBC canteen when, one must assume, he had finally to be bundled out by security to forestall further, untimely dialogues but let us hope that, now he is beyond his ‘honeymoon’ phase, even for a novice – he can soon turn to the ‘value for public money’ equation and liberate the journalism under his command.

At least, the early signs of a coming ‘Journalism Spring’ are encouraging, as a whole new raft of editors and managers has been introduced, even at the risk of over-staffing and a top heavy management structure (cf. Broadcast Magazine, passim), whose experience lies – at least in part – outside the BBC and who will be less likely to prove out of their depth, shorn of ideas and bare of background, and cocooned in a ‘bubble’ if or when the next controversy strikes – as it inevitably will.

The public funding equation is crucial here and one must believe that Harding will address it, if for no other reason than from his background at News International, for consider the probable sums: True, the BBC faces a frozen licence fee but one that has risen exponentially over recent years, yet even that is not the only financial under-pinning for its journalism; its World Service radio and TV operation is now fully integrated with the domestic service available to a British audience, yet it is still funded directly by grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office. That, at any rate, is the current position at the time of writing (January 2014).

However, it’s important to point out that, from April 2014, perhaps seizing on this anomaly, the government will require the BBC to maintain its World Service coverage no longer out of grant-in-aid but from the licence fee.

 On the face of it, this could reduce the resources available to journalism as a whole, but in truth the funding horse has long since bolted, and the sizeable World Service infrastructure was built on many years of grant-in-aid. Now it is only its running costs which will have to be sustained on whatever share of the licence fee Harding can bid for but as the incumbent, he ought to be in a strong bargaining position, and it is other departments across the BBC which are most likely to feel the chill of a frozen licence fee.

Most urgent Harding memo of all to self: ‘Discover how Byzantine funding system actually works before going in to bat, and playing up new boy status; important not to start new job with staff-demoralising defeat.’

There is, also, the share of income from BBC Worldwide, reliant on the historic branding of the BBC, even if little Higher Education Funding Council money, arriving through the OU, actually reaches its journalism.

The precise figures are – admittedly – hard to nail down, or fillet from published totals, but I would nonetheless wager that the full resources available to the BBC’s journalism far outstrip the wealth of Araby or, more specifically, the market value of natural gas under Qatar which powers al-Jazeera, and certainly dwarf, for sheer dependability and consistency, the income of any broadcaster reliant on the vagaries of the commercial advertising market, in the UK or USA.

Of all news broadcasters with aspirations to be a world player, the BBC must surely be, far and away, the richest. And Harding’s challenge is to match the Corporation’s impact to its income. It will only develop into a crisis if it proves undeliverable. Or, rather, it may be that the next crisis of BBC journalism will not be political, stretching to Westminster or social media but will be internal, a struggle for the soul of its public mission between Harding and Hall, but one that will define Hall’s term as Director-General: is he Tony, Lord Hall, who ran the Royal Opera House with such distinction and took an instinctive and justified chance on Antonio Pappano or is he the faithful Ptolemy?

In the event of a stand-off or stasis between the two men, it would perhaps be for the BBC Trust – assuming it survives – to arbitrate, but I’m not sure I would advise anybody to hold their breath.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Ex-BBC executive Phil Harding: 'Turning up the temperature: The BBC and political pressure'

Spin doctors have replaced shouting and swearing at BBC news editors by bombarding them with text messages, former BBC executive Phil Harding reveals in a chapter in a new book Is the BBC in Crisis?

He also says the "crass incompetence" of the Corporation in handling both its internal crises and the public’s money has put it right in the firing line. But that’s only part of the reason for the bad press. There have been two longer-running and deeper-seated causes: a growing commercial clash between the BBC and the press groups over its online operations; and political attacks in which the BBC is accused of being "institutionally left-wing."

Harding, a former editor of the Today programme and controller of editorial policy at the Corporation,  argues a BBC willing to lay down  stricter rules about its political accountability while  opening up a more open relationship with the public would become stronger and less prone to political bullying:


The BBC shall be independent in all matters concerning the content of its output, the times and manner in which this is supplied, and in the management of its affairs.
(BBC 2006)

Editorial independence is at the very heart of the BBC’s existence. It is part of the reason for having a public broadcaster in the first place. At the same time, the BBC receives a very large amount of money from the public. It has to be accountable for that and it has to be open to public scrutiny for the way it discharges its responsibilities as a public broadcaster. There is a fine but important line between accountability and editorial independence.

In this chapter I want to suggest that in the midst of all the recent BBC’s self-inflicted crises there has been a subtle but important shifting of that line away from editorial independence and towards political interference. The run-up to the next general election in 2015 will coincide with the negotiations for the next BBC Charter and licence fee. It’s a politically toxic period and one full of dangers for the BBC.

Editorial pressure/institutional pressure 

There are two types of political pressure on the BBC. There is the pressure about editorial coverage and there is pressure on the BBC as a public institution. The latter includes how well it is managed, the scope and scale of the BBC and whether or not it should exist at all. I will explore each in turn.

Usually the two types of pressure are kept separate. While an editor might receive the most vigorous complaints about his or her programme they are never accompanied by a threat to cut the licence fee. That was what made the recent intervention by the current Conservative Party Chairman, Grant Shapps, in which he explicitly linked the future of the BBC licence fee to political coverage by the BBC’s Home Editor, Mark Easton, so remarkable and why it provoked such a storm (Ross 2013).

Shapps was, in fact, the fourth front-bencher to pick on Easton for his reporting. While some think that is because of the controversial nature of Easton’s journalistic beat, others think the Conservatives are now calculatingly taking a page out of the Labour Party spinbook of dark arts, by singling out one individual journalist and then picking on them at every opportunity. 


Pressure modern and ancient

Political pressure on the BBC is nothing new. Almost from its inception, relations with politicians have rarely been cosy, usually bracing and often abrasive. The BBC is usually under political pressure of one sort or another. After all, applying political pressure is what politicians do. It’s their job. It’s not the pressure that matters as much as what the BBC does in the face of such pressure. Part of the reason the BBC comes under so much political pressure is because it is so influential in public life. It has large audiences for its radio and television programmes.

It has a high readership for its web and mobile services. It has a high reputation for providing quality coverage. It is the most trusted media source in Britain. Public and politicians have high expectations of it. It is also just about the only media outlet these days where politicians will receive extended coverage.

Neither is political pressure on the BBC necessarily a bad thing. If politicians complain about the coverage and seek to correct it, then it may just be that they have a point. Executives and editors should always listen. Political complaint and pressure can on occasion act as a necessary corrective to thoughtless or bad journalism.


A bit of history – the ‘back channel’

In the 1970s and 1980s relations between the BBC and politicians were handled by two different routes. There was a front door and a back door. The day-to-day contacts and skirmishes over individual programmes were usually handled – as they are now – at a programme editor level. Sometimes a particularly fierce row would reach the head of department or the director of news but most were dealt with that day and forgotten by tomorrow. When I became the BBC’s Chief Political Advisor in 1995 I became aware that there was a second parallel system in operation.

It worked between the upper echelons of the BBC and the Chief Whips of the three main parties. This ‘back channel’ was where the big editorial disagreements between the BBC and the parties were discussed. It acted as an unofficial pressure valve for serious political discontent with the BBC. It wasn’t a channel that was used often but when it was the BBC took it seriously.

One of the other main functions of this channel was to deal with the allocation of party election and party political broadcasts. This mattered because the allocation of air time for the election broadcasts formed the basis for deciding the rough allocation of time for the BBC’s news coverage during a general election campaign. (For many years the ratio was 5-5-3/Conservative-Labour-Liberal Democrat).

As I discovered, the whole system of negotiation was liberally oiled by very large glasses of malt whisky in the office of the Government Chief Whip at No. 12 Downing Street.
The back-channel was a useful conduit – and helped avoid several potential clashes – though, of course, it didn’t stop some of the big rows between the BBC and the Thatcher government over coverage of Northern Ireland, the Falklands war (of 1982) and the Panorama special, Maggie’s Militant Tendency (broadcast on 30 January 1984).

In the mid-1990s, this back-channel system had to be abandoned. Firstly, the allocation of party broadcasts was coming under increasing legal challenge – especially from the fringe parties. The keen advice of the BBC’s lawyers was that the system would not withstand any serious legal challenge under Judicial Review.

The second reason, which was to have even wider consequences, was the revamping of Labour’s media operation – firstly under Peter Mandelson and then even more sweepingly under Alastair Campbell. The arrival of Campbell and his successful demand for full control and command of Labour’s media relations meant that all issues about coverage were, in future, to be channeled through him – and only through him. As a result, any discussion with the Labour Chief Whip about media coverage was swiftly referred on.


The Campbell era

This change in Labour’s media tactics – first in opposition then in government – meant that everything from the launch of campaigns to appearances on programmes to complaints about coverage minor and major all went through one route: Alastair Campbell.

While this concentration of power doubtless had the effect of making Labour a much more disciplined campaigning force, it also meant that from the BBC’s point of view it was no longer clear which complaints were being lodged because they were serious complaints and which were being lodged for party advantage. As the level of ‘noise’ increased so did the temptation for editors to ignore the complaints whether they were legitimate or not. This eventually culminated in the row about Andrew Gilligan’s reporting of the Iraq dossier on 29 May 2003.

In this case, the removal of any ‘back-channel’ for taking some of the heat out of situation meant the row escalated without check. When a senior cabinet minister approached the BBC and offered to mediate in the dispute his approach was rejected. There was no longer a back-channel, trust had broken down. In the end, the Campbell approach of constant badgering and intimidation became counter-productive. Labour over-played its hand. Editors developed cloth ears.

Pressure today

These days a lot of the shouting and swearing has died down to be replaced by intensive texting. News editors at the BBC can expected to be bombarded two or three times a week by the new generations of spin doctors. Phrases such as ‘totally inaccurate’, ‘lazy journalism’, ‘that story is far too prominent’, ‘totally unfair tone of that interview’ will fly around. Conscious of the agenda-setting role of the Today programme, particular targets are the 6, 7 and 8 o’clock news bulletins.

The BBC News website is increasingly important too. The government media operation complains more than Labour. Often the battle is over language: the ‘bedroom tax’ versus the ‘spare bedroom subsidy’ is a classic example.

In the run-up to the next general election the BBC can expect to start receiving even more texts and phone calls. Some editors say it had started before the end of 2012 already. At the same time we will have the negotiations for the next charter and licence fee. It’s going to be a particularly febrile political time for a debate on the future of the BBC.


The licence fee and top-slicing

Even if the BBC were not such an influential political broadcaster, the fact that the level of the licence fee is set by the government of the day means that the negotiations over money and the BBC become intensely political. Often the final deal is only done with the Chancellor or the Culture Secretary on one side of the table and the BBC on the other. There has been a revival of talk in recent months about top-slicing the BBC’s licence fee, perhaps even making all of the licence fee open to competition from all broadcasters (along similar lines to the Arts Council).

Already part of the licence fee has been quietly diverted. Starting in April 2015, the BBC will pay the Department of Culture, Media and Sport £12.5m a month for two years (£300 million in all) to pay for the funding of the roll-out of broadband to rural areas across the UK. This pattern of using the licence fee for other public purposes was started with the 2006 licence fee settlement when part of the licence fee was allocated to the television digital switchover programme. From that point on the genie was out of the bottle.


The role of the National Audit Office

The BBC receives nearly £3.7 million of the public’s money via the licence fee. This means there must be proper external scrutiny of the BBC’s expenditure. The self-proclaimed vision of the National Audit Office (NAO) ‘is to help the nation spend wisely’.

The NAO has taken an increasing role in the scrutiny by parliament of the spending of the BBC. It was first given access to the BBC’s books in 2006 but with strict limitations. These restrictions have since been gradually removed until a new agreement in the autumn of 2015 has given the NAO the right to go where it chooses to go without seeking the prior permission of the BBC provided only that the NAO does not involve itself in editorial matters. It is a controversial role.

Recently, the NAO was described by the former BBC Chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, as being ‘the most politicised auditor you can imagine’, too focused in its reporting on ‘whether they get a headline’ (Plunkett 2013).

The argument about the BBC and the NAO crucially centres round the point that the BBC is not just another government department under the control of a minister. In order to keep its editorial independence it’s important that it should not be treated as just another ministry. The line between legitimately assessing what is value for public money and allowing the NAO and MPs to decide on the BBC’s editorial priorities is a thin one.

For example, where would an examination of the BBC’s spend on sporting rights fit? What is value for money if you are comparing the spending on say the Football World Cup versus the Ashes series? Though the current BBC Chairman, Chris Patten, professes himself to be relaxed about the new arrangements, others are less sure. This comment is from the BBC’s former Director of News, Richard Sambrook:

The worry is that a disgruntled MP might demand some immediate review of the BBC in retaliation for difficult questions being asked on Newsnight or Today – and the BBC would be powerless to resist. Or a competitor could raise questions for an MP to pursue in aid of its commercial advantage. A Daily Mail story on the number of staff sent to cover the World Cup, for example, might prompt calls for a hard look at value for money – surely commentators could do both radio and TV? If other broadcasters manage with one morning presenter, is that awkward one on the Today programme really necessary? Hard to imagine? No, not really (Sambrook 2013).

Each NAO report is, of course, laid before parliament which means there is then a grilling for the BBC by the Public Accounts Committee.


Select committees

Appearances before parliamentary select committees are seen as being an important part of the BBC’s duty of public accountability. In 2013, the BBC has appeared before select committees at Westminster no fewer than 14 times. Of course, some of these appearances have been in response to the various self-inflicted crises: the Savile/Newsnight affair, the resignation of George Entwistle, the senior staff pay-offs and so on. By comparison five years ago there were three appearances, in 2002 there were two appearances. In addition, BBC executives and Trustees are now expected to appear before the relevant committees of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies.

Even allowing for the fact that the past year has been an exceptionally bad one for the BBC, full of self-inflicted crises, there is clearly a longer-term trend here. Politicians are calling the BBC to give evidence more often and are taking a closer and closer interest in the internal workings of the BBC. The increasing numbers of appearances before select committees was recently described by one senior BBC executive as being ‘totally out of control’.

Many of the BBC’s recent appearances before select committees have been marked by very aggressive and hostile questioning. The BBC, of course, has not been alone in this. In recent years, some of the committees seem to have come to see their job as holding the wider world to account by hostile grilling of people who hold no governmental role. This represents a significant extension of the select committee’s powers which thus far has not been subject to much public debate. It certainly marks an increase in the powers that select committees think they have over the BBC.

There have also been some very singular lines of inquiry by MPs. A lot of the appearance by Lords Patten and Hall before the Culture Media and Sport Committee in October 2013 was occupied by detailed questions about the differing accounts given to the Pollard Inquiry by Mark Thompson and Helen Boaden. Elsewhere, an appearance by three senior BBC editorial figures before the European Scrutiny Committee in February included questions about the make-up of a panel for one edition of Question Time and why their committee did not receive more coverage on BBC Parliament (European Scrutiny Committee 2013a).

It appears to have been increasing concern about the amount and scope of political scrutiny from select committees that led Chris Patten to write to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, Bill Cash, turning down their invitation to appear before the committee in the following blunt terms:

I have consulted my colleagues on the BBC Trust and this letter reflects our collective and unanimous view. It is incumbent upon the Trust under the terms of the royal charter to stand up for the independence of the BBC and, in particular, its editorial independence. We are bound to weigh this as of paramount importance when viewed against a request to appear before your committee which we believe to be inappropriate. Accordingly, I must decline your request. As part of our role I and my colleagues appear quite properly in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, and neither attempts to engage with us – as you are proposing to do – on the editorial decisions of the BBC. Since becoming BBC Trust Chairman in May 2011, I myself have appeared before these two committees a total of six times … We wonder if you have considered that the result of you asserting your right to call me before your committee on this issue is that BBC Trustees could in future be required to appear before any select committee to discuss the coverage of the BBC in its particular area of responsibility. It is not, therefore, beyond the bounds of possibility to conceive that in quite short order we could be expected to answer to say the Home Affairs Committee on the BBC's coverage of that area, or the Foreign Affairs Committee on international stories. We can’t believe that is what was intended when the royal charter was drafted and we do not believe that it is consistent with the ideal of an independent Trust protecting the BBC from undue political interference (European Scrutiny Committee 2013b).

But this exchange looks unlikely to end there. The committee has repeated its invitation to Lord Patten and the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, has now intervened in support: ‘…..anybody who’s invited to appear before a committee in this House should do so. No-one, no matter how senior, should imagine him or herself above such scrutiny’ (Jeory 2013). This exchange could well turn into an important battle about the balance between the BBC’s editorial independence and its proper accountability to politicians.

The BBC and the press

In recent years there has been a growing tension between sections of the press (the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Murdoch’s News UK groups, in particular) and the BBC. There are more and more critical stories often coupled with open contempt in the editorial columns. It’s also perhaps no coincidence that two of the fiercest periods of attack by the press on the BBC have been at crucial times in the Leveson/royal charter press regulation debate.

The crass incompetence of the Corporation in handling both its internal crises and the public’s money has of course put it right in the firing line. But that’s only part of the reason for the bad press. There have been two longer-running and deeper-seated causes.

First of all there is a growing commercial clash between the BBC and the various press groups. As media consumption and advertising spend moves more and more online and as newspapers have struggled to find a business model to fit, there have been increasing complaints that the BBC with its large online presence has been squeezing the living daylights out of the online operations of the commercial press. Secondly, there has been a growing line of political attack on the BBC. This comes from claims by the political right that, far from being the impartial editorial organisation it claims to be, the Corporation is, in fact, institutionally left-wing. This argument was expressed most fruitily by the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, in his 2007 Hugh Cudlipp lecture in an attack on what he saw as the subsidised liberal media:

… the Subsidariat, dominated by the BBC monolith, is distorting Britain’s media market, crushing journalistic pluralism and imposing a mono culture that is inimical to healthy democratic debate .... what is in front of one’s nose is that the BBC, a behemoth that bestrides Britain is, as Cudlipp might have put it, TOO BLOODY BIG, TOO BLOODY PERVASIVE AND TOO BLOODY POWERFUL … What really disturbs me is that the BBC is, in every corpuscle of its corporate body, against the values of conservatism, with a small ‘c’, which, I would argue, just happen to be the values held by millions of Britons. Thus it exercises a kind of ‘cultural Marxism’ in which it tries to undermine that conservative society by turning all its values on their heads … Thus BBC journalism is presented through a left-wing prism that affects everything – the choice of stories, the way they are angled, the choice of interviewees and, most pertinently, the way those interviewees are treated  (Dacre 2007).

The press and the politics

For some years the various press groups have been lobbying the government of the day over the size and scope of the BBC. The days of Rupert Murdoch being able to pop into Downing Street at will may have gone but the political pressures on the BBC from the press persist. Added to this is a new self-reinforcing alliance between some newspapers and some MPs who want to prune drastically the BBC (the latter described to me by one BBC executive as the ‘tea-party faction’). This alliance sometimes takes the form of the newsdesk going to a particular MP for an attacking quote, sometimes the MP tabling a question which follows the particular agenda being pursued by that newspaper at the time.



The BBC will always be at the heart of political rows; it’s almost part of its job. But as this chapter has argued, the political pressures on the BBC are mounting insidiously. It’s been lots of small things: increasing pressure from MPs, the increasing numbers of appearances before select committees, the increasing acceptance that parts of the licence fee will be used for bits of national infrastructure, increasing scrutiny from the NAO, increasingly strident criticism from the press and the linking of editorial pressure with corporate pressure. It’s been a bit like the story of the frog in the boiling water. The changes have been subtle and have taken place over a long period of time so that no one has really noticed how hot the water has become. So what is the way out of this dilemma? If the BBC is not to lose its editorial independence two things need to happen.

First, there need to be some new, clearer ground rules for appearances in front of select committees. The BBC has given ground on the activities of the NAO. In return it is time that MPs agreed that the BBC should normally only have to report to two select committees the Culture Media and Sport Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, perhaps at fixed times of year and with a clearer understanding from the chair of the committee on the limitations of the questioning. At the moment, the balance is shifting dangerously close to editorial interference by MPs.

The second corrective is much broader and goes to the heart of the nature of the BBC as a public broadcaster. At present too much of the public’s perception of the BBC is mediated by MPs and the press. The BBC needs to start building a much more direct relationship with the public whom it serves. It is a theme Tony Hall has started to develop:

A central part of my vision for the BBC is that it is not just paid for by its viewers and listeners, it belongs to them, to you … Digital technology now means that we are able to hand to our listeners and viewers a huge amount of control that 30 years ago we kept to ourselves ... Services like the iPlayer bring you the programmes you want to watch and listen to whenever you want them. Start The Week in the middle of the week. In Our Time, in your time, the Today programme – tomorrow. The BBC you can have is catching up with the BBC you want … There’s a fundamental shift happening. I want a BBC that feels different, where our audiences are on the inside, helping us to be the best we can be (BBC 2013).

But this new vision needs to go beyond words and beyond what can be done with the iPlayer. The BBC needs to fully embrace the idea that the public own the BBC not just pay for it. That demands a big cultural shift. One of the ways that people have talked about involving the public in running the BBC is by instituting some sort of membership structure. Some in the Labour Party have talked about the ‘mutualisation’ of the BBC. There are some interesting ideas in Tessa Jowell’s article for the Third Way booklet Making it Mutual (Jowell 2013). The idea here would be something along the lines of a National Trust with TV licences; every licence fee payer would become a member of the BBC. The BBC Trust would become accountable to the membership.

There is certainly something to be looked at here. But with the new technologies on offer the BBC could go much further. The BBC could become a truly open and porous organisation in which the boundaries between its professional operations and those of the public become increasingly blurred. There could be partnerships – real partnerships not token ones – with other bodies that provide public service value: local communities, councils, commercial media, production companies, cultural and educational bodies. The BBC may be a national treasure but at the moment the citizen has little engagement with how it is run. If every licence-fee payer felt they had a real personal stake and involvement in the BBC, then it could become a truly public broadcaster in every sense.

Some parts of BBC management, especially those who still think in terms of commanding fiefdoms, could find all this rather uncomfortable; so might some members of the BBC Trust. But a BBC that was willing to lay down much stricter rules about its political accountability while at the same time opening a more open and direct relationship with the public who own it would become a stronger, better BBC and one much less prone to political bullying.

  • Is the BBC in Crisis? is edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble and published by Abramis on 1 March.
  • Phil Harding is a journalist and broadcaster. He is a former BBC executive and editor and held a number of jobs while at the BBC including Chief Political Adviser, Controller of Editorial Policy and Editor of the Today programme.