Into a quiet room a discussion grenade is hurled, and the room is quiet no more: that grenade is labelled BBC. Monopoly, bias, sniffy arrogance: all these allegations will be deployed. Yet more radical will be the solutions urged: breaking up, selling off, political purging and more will be coldly advanced by otherwise sane beings. This is an organisation about which some find it difficult – impossible, even – to make rational judgment. Why so?
The British Broadcasting Corporation, as it has been called since getting its Royal Charter in 1927, is funded primarily from the Licence Fee, which in plain terms means a payment of over 140 notes a year from every household with a television receiver. So we’re all paying for it. By law, it must eschew political association or bias, and there must be a clear separation of news and comment (a concept that most newspapers in the UK find increasingly difficult to grasp). As no two licence payers have exactly concurrent political viewpoints, it is not hard to find occasions where BBC reporting diverges from what the public would like it to say (something I touched upon some time ago). Thus the accusations of bias start to fly.
Politicians on the right accuse the BBC of left wing bias; those on the left counter with assertions of rightward drift. As I concluded previously, the BBC is on to a hiding to nothing as soon as it fails to deliver the style of reportage, content and judgment that its critics want. So a failure to promote a particular story (there is invariably competition for prominence on the news agenda), coupled with an inconvenient habit of putting more than one point of view, topped off with a lack of screaming condemnation, is sufficient for any interest group to feel slighted, and the victim of bias – which is invariably put down to an opposite political viewpoint. Therefore if the Tory Party doesn’t get a forthright denouncement of Pa Broon (or Corporal Clegg), the BBC is held to be a nest of leftist subversion.
Certainly in its past, the BBC has been directly involved in politics: the use of the Corporation, on the watch of John Reith (a man of dubious sexuality) to further the cause of Stanley Baldwin ( a Prime Minister of dubious motivation) during the 1936 Abdication Crisis is not in dispute. But in the modern era, the Beeb has been careful to steer a middle course, thus having Denis Thatcher registering his displeasure over “pinkos”, while later Alastair Campbell registered his displeasure over the unwise reliance on Andrew Gilligan. The object of their annoyance cannot have been two different organisations.
And, if the status quo is less than satisfactory, there would have to be something to take its place. What might that be? I’ll return to this one very soon.