Comment: A moment of truth for the BBC?

With today's headlines piling yet more pressure on the BBC, Ed Straw looks at whether or not this is a moment of truth for the broadcasting giant.


Ed Straw is the author of the forthcoming book ‘A Treaty For Government’

The BBC has had a glorious past: the world’s first broadcaster, setting high standards for production, honesty, and innovation.

This is the organisation that somehow simultaneously allowed and nurtured both newsreaders in bow ties and the Goon Show. It was establishment and anti-establishment. Many of its radio and television productions have, through the test of time, become classics.

But today’s BBC no longer delivers such consistently high standards, is living off of its past, and has a self-belief out of all proportion to its actual quality. It remains a valuable institution, but it could be so much better.

The BBC, or more accurately its news operation, is exhibiting sure signs of an organisation without a purpose. Is it in the business of education and information? Or entertainment? Or something else?

It does not know and so it has no inner certainty when tricky decisions arise. If you don’t know why you are there beyond turning up for the pension, attention, or status, you have no guidebook of values.

The extreme results are pulling an evidenced programme about a celebrity and under-age sex followed by an attempt at atonement by broadcasting an unevidenced programme on a Tory peer and child abuse.

But the random acts of journalism, drive-by writings, four legs good two legs bad interviews, and a tabloid set news agenda continue every day.

In practice the BBC is a me-too news business, a follower of whatever has legs that day, fully signed up to the ‘news as entertainment’ world of most commercial media organisations, and consequently subject to the same high-spin interactions with governments, corporates, and others. It has drifted into this role as part of its strategy to be popular and mass market in order to justify and satisfy the universal license fee.

The alternative strategy is to fill gaps left by the market, specialize in minority interests, and so on. Clearly the mass market strategy is essential. It has been a pleasant relief to find this in successful practice once more with light drama – a genre it had exited for many years.

But just because the populist strategy applies to much of its output, for news the consequences are dire: manufacturing stories; personality knockabout; scalp hunting; ready-fire-aim; pillory first; statistical illiteracy; hyperdrive hyperbole; and anything goes to make it exciting, shocking and entertaining, all playing to our base instincts.

Content-free interviewers, arising at 4am, being fed a speed-reading researcher’s brief and a list of adversarial questions to avoid the need for substantive knowledge of the subject, are an insult to the listeners’ intelligence.

What and where are the news values in all of that, pray?

Do I want John Humphrys scoring points off an interviewee, even proving black is white, but doing nothing to trace the essence of a multivariate issue? Or do I want an acknowledgement of complexity, expertise in the subject matter, and razor sharp analysis. Which is a public service and which is entertainment?

The only time skinning an interviewee is a public service is when the Today Programme does what Parliament should do but doesn’t and pursues politicians who have broken essential rules.

But there are plenty of other scalp-hunters out there to fill in for a defective constitution, and too few truth seekers. And scalp-hunting for its own sake inevitably terminates or smears for life the innocent.

The unconscious move to news as entertainment was completed about ten years or more ago, exampled by a well-established journalist who left the BBC because he became a story stacker. He used to go to a location and identify and report on the news. But after the change he was sent by his editors with a pre-prepared story simply to embellish it.

The BBC now occupies a curious space: attacked for being a monopoly so Murdoch can extend his satellite and newspaper monopolies; defended by most including me as a vital bulwark against a very modern tyrant; a much loved British institution with many classics to its name; it sells its classics to overseas broadcasters (good) but in the UK too (mad) thus building its pay TV competitors and denying license payers content previously paid for; instead of a mass audience for a classics channel it fills its new channels mostly with passable dross, playthings for the long-term luvvies; and has rested on its laurels for so long the once truism of the BBC being so much better than US TV is a very distant memory accessible only to the over-50s.

Most terminal of all, as one TV producer close to it said:

“They don’t want anyone’s advice but their own.”

So we end up with an organisation held in stasis by the equilibrium formed from external attack, earnest defence, and internal smugness, the latter not helped by its cashmere terms and conditions.

What then should be the purpose of a public service news organisation? Well first, not to entertain. Second not to be me-too.

The popular and mass market objective works for entertainment but not for news and current affairs, particularly in a world with so many problems, so many of them caused or allowed by systemic government failure.

Surely public service news and current affairs should be shedding light on some very tricky problems? Should be forensic interviewing from a position of knowledge? Should have the confidence itself to judge what is today’s news and should reinvest its faith in its thoroughly trained, statistically literate journalists to source news? Should re-establish standards for accuracy and proof?

Thus having confidence from its integrity, it would plough the independent and objective furrow secure from government and political pressure.

Of course, those organisations that have innovated – as the BBC did up to the 80s – and pursued a non conventional path but with sound reason, often find their fresh offering in demand, popular, and even mainstream.

Is the BBC going to continue to be part of the bollocks or part of its reduction? Is this the moment of truth?

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.