Recent mistakes at the BBC must not overshadow the value of a still great institution, writes APRIL CUMMING
During my initial year of media studies, when my interest in politics was germinating and my primary career objective centred more on a rose-tinted notion of the crusading reporter, I recall one lecturer extolling the virtues of source-checking as a corner-stone of good investigative journalism. When you break a story, check, check and check again. Always back up your sources no matter how reliable you may conceive them to be. Always run them past your editor before publication. Always consider the consequences of running articles that may be seen as being defamatory.
On two counts over this past year I have found myself flabbergasted at the misdemeanours of our national news producers – one much-respected public institution, and one down at heel and dirty red-top rag. Both of them have influence over public opinion in fairly equal measure, and both of them have failed spectacularly to follow this basic rule of thumb. But the recent crisis to emerge around the BBC has been somewhat more upsetting as it strikes at the integrity of an organisation that has always held my respect.
The BBC at present is weathering a perfect storm of bad circumstance: there is a crisis of management where the roles of high-level staff and the responsibilities of each office have been poorly defined. There are jobs being cut from various departments. There are issues involving competition as the broadcast media market in the UK becomes more crowded, with the Murdoch army ever present on the horizon. In such circumstances each programme given the go-ahead carries greater risk, and more niche topical broadcasts which fail to achieve high ratings generally fall to the wayside. There are also criticisms from all quarters that the producers of BBC news are in some manner politically biased.
The creativity of the BBC, an immensely powerful tool for providing challenging social commentary and engaging stories that speak to the history and the changing values of a country, is being curtailed by sky-high wages for top brass, the dogged chase for viewership ratings, and the lack of job security for the creative individuals who give the organisation her vibrancy and flair. I remember reading about the era of Hugh Green governorship, when the term “agitational contemporaneity” was coined to describe the newly emerging “kitchen sink dramas”. These were created as an outright challenge to the old traditional values of the BBC elite. Green oversaw the evolution of the BBC’s topical programming and drama in the era of the permissive society, with Harold Wilson in office and the support of a generous budget and creative flexibility throughout the institution. For the first time the output of the BBC’s drama department reflected reality, and through dramatisation, themes that would normally have been suppressed in favour of middle-class escapism found their way onto the screens of the country. It was what a public service broadcaster was supposed to do: reflect society back through the medium of television in a way that educates, informs, and encourages one to consider the world we live in and engage in difficult issues. The ethos created within the institution allowed people like the producer Sydney Numan alongside directors like Ken Loach to make the most of our taxes in delivering genuinely challenging features like Play For Today.
Our state broadcaster has provided an invaluable service in its role as a purveyor of news that remains free from the pressures of bias through advertising interests, as a cultural medium and as a source of pure investigative journalism. The mistakes that have been made have been dire and those individuals responsible for recent major errors must shoulder due blame. Importantly, if they leave they must ensure their house is in better order than when they arrived, as the instability of the recent DG transition is just one of the reasons cited for the failure of Newsnight’s production to be properly monitored.
But the major transgressions of the BBC have been few and very far between. Most sources place the last notable misdemeanour at the time of the Iraq dossier. Personally I would highlight the failure to broadcast an aid appeal for the victims of the Gaza bombings because of supposed political bias, which astounded many. But the BBC does continue to fulfil its remit as a PSB. More recently, Panorama have flown in the face of establishment Britain with damning accounts of the lobbying system in Westminster and exposés on the failure of care home regulation. It continually challenges and often re-affirms our preconceived ideas of who we are as a nation and, in cases where we disagree with the content or the governance, we may hold it to account and demand change. It is our public institution. We own it and therefore we have a stake in it. Let us not forget this when we hear Rupert Murdoch extolling the virtues of a free press through de-regulation and the creation of a more market-driven agenda. This does not improve content; it creates a race for ratings, and it will damage or BBC. Our BBC, that even now at a time of crisis maintains a great deal of public support. That even now has such vast potential in public service as a valued cultural medium, that holds up a mirror to society, entertains and delights; that challenges the sensibilities and the ideals of both our politicians and our population at large. Fight for it. Reform it. Save it.
April Cumming works for a Labour MSP. Follow her on Twitter at @AprilCumming.