If it is news to you that the government has been running a public consultation on the future of the BBC, then don’t panic. It’s already too late to take part. The consultation was quietly announced to start on the 16 July, just five days before the House of Commons broke for summer.
Even worse, some of the questions were so strangely phrased that respondents would find it difficult to know what was being asked (How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work? Very well? Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC? Eh?).
Others seemed to require knowledge to answer that few people if any would have (Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and, if so, is this justified? We need access to a parallel universe without a BBC to answer this! Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact on the market? Probably nowhere but it’s difficult to prove a negative!).
The Tories have often felt that the BBC is biased against them, unlike the national press. This is partly a matter of perspective and Labour governments have also complained of bias. Government policies tend to get more scrutiny from an independent broadcaster since they will result in something happening, unlike opposition policies. But it is also because they sometimes look at the evidence for government policies and bring in independent experts to examine this.
Actually, the BBC tends to be quite conservative (with a small “c”) and often follows the agenda of the right-wing press. For example, they seemed to follow the general “rubbishing” of Ed Miliband by the Tory press and uncritically accepted the coalition’s line that austerity (or making the people pay) was the only solution to the problems caused by the banks.
Nevertheless, the Tories felt that the BBC was too critical during the election campaign. Ed Miliband’s strategist, Tom Baldwin, claimed in a Guardian article that the Tories “threatened the BBC with far-reaching reforms,” including to the licence fee system, if they didn’t change their coverage. A senior Conservative described Baldwin’s claims as “complete and utter nonsense.” Nevertheless, some two months later, the BBC had already been handed the responsibility for free licences and the BBC Charter Review Public Consultation had been launched.
They justified this by referring to
(1) Scandals over large salaries and payoffs for senior executives (unjustifiable but clearly emulating the private sector about which there were no government complaints);
(2) The Jimmy Savile affair (neglecting to mention his support by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government of the time);
(3) The fiasco of the Digital Media Initiative which lost the BBC £98 million (admittedly bad but dwarfed by the government’s losses on IT projects — £140 million at least just on Universal Credit so far).
Clearly, there is more justification for an inquiry into the behaviour of successive Tory governments.
The right-wing press, led by Murdoch, are only too keen to reduce the competition from independent broadcasters whose output is highly valued by the public. Sky charges four times as much as the BBC for far less service; no doubt they could charge more without the competition.
Already, the Tories have announced that they are off-loading some of government responsibility by making BBC “volunteer” to fund free licences for the over-75s. If BBC income doesn’t rise to cover this, then there will be less money to make programmes. And the amount lost will increase since the aged population is growing quickly. There have been no announcements about free subscriptions for the over-75s to Sky and so on.
The BBC often gets it wrong: One example is its repeated failure to reflect the ethnic diversity of Britain. Greg Dyke, Controller of the BBC, described the BBC in 2001 as “hideously white.” Lenny Henry recently pointed out that black and minority ethnic participation in the broadcasting industry as a whole had fallen by over 30% from 2006 to 2012.
Another example is in its mistaken idea of balance between evidence-based views and their opponents. Professor Steve Jones (Emeritus Professor of Genetics at UCL), in a review of science output by the BBC, found there was an at times “over-rigid” application of the Editorial Guidelines on impartiality in science coverage, which failed to take into account the “non-contentious” nature of some stories and the need to avoid giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”. Professor Jones gave reporting of the safety of the MMR vaccine and more recent coverage of claims about the safety of GM crops and the existence of man-made climate change as examples of his point.
In another example, Professor Brian Cox referred to astrology as “a load of rubbish.” This provoked a complaint about lack of balance which the BBC did not uphold. Cox issued his own “apology,” saying “I apologise to the Astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation”! However, the BBC did say that Cox was merely expressing his own opinion when the evidence of the last 2000 years (and certainly of the last 400 years) provides no support for astrology whatsoever.
In general, Jones’ review found that science coverage was informative but not investigative and that participants tended to be male (80-90%). I suspect that if he had looked at ethnic balance, the findings would have been just as worrying.
In general, the BBC does a lot better than any other broadcaster in the world because it is largely independent of government or big business. We need to tell the Tories to keep their hands off.