Sunday, November 11, 2012
BBC has failed to meet the moral standards it demands from others
It's gone like this...
Late TV star Jimmy Savile was a recidivist sex offender. This was broken by ITV, following a report that the BBC chose not to broadcast a report about the very topic late last year, preferring instead to broadcast a tribute to the man.
The BBC denied it suppressed the report for any specific reasons associated with the content of the report. The BBC also denied it had received complaints about Savile and that it had nothing on file.
Subsequently tens, then hundreds of people came forward with their stories of Savile. One woman, who was molested on air under her dress by Savile, said she complained and was told "that's just how he is". It is now clear that during the 1970s and 1980s, the BBC essentially had a culture of suppressing complaints of sexual abuse against high profile stars.
There are now at least two investigations into behaviour of BBC staff over this affair. Of course, the question has been raised as to how the BBC can investigate itself. After all, a core principle of the Leveson Inquiry is whether newspapers (which, it is important to emphasise, are not state owned, not state funded and not creatures of statute) can hold themselves accountable. The BBC apparently can, so it thinks.
All of this did blow open the obvious questions. Why didn't the press take on Savile when he was alive? Why didn't the BBC? What are the implications of the Leveson Inquiry, which may propose regulating the press in order to avoid overly aggressive behaviour in pursuing people for stories, on journalism in the UK?
Since then, the scandal widened. Labour MP Tom Watson, the MP who has been the key protagonist in taking on NewsCorp in the Leveson Inquiry and who firmly believes in regulating the press, has been alleging that there is a pedophile conspiracy involving senior Conservative politicians and officials from the Thatcher era.
The BBC didn't dare question Watson as to his motivations.
However, it did listen to one man, who told the BBC that a senior Conservative politician had sexually abused him. The BBC reported this, without saying who it was, but the description and the internet saw Lord McAlpine identified within 48 hours of the broadcast. The man who made the claim then withdrew it late last week because once he saw a photo of Lord McAlpine he confirmed that he had not been the abuser. Apparently the BBC had not inquired of Lord McAlpine before issuing its report, and had not probed the man who made the claim, even though it has subsequently been revealed that the same man had made a false accusation against a policeman some years ago and has a history that should have given cause for the BBC to not proceed.
Of course some have implied that the BBC chose to jump at the chance to take the story away from its own inadequacies and cover ups, to blaming a senior Conservative ex.politician, especially after a Labour MP had talked about it.
The allegations against Lord McAlpine mean he is likely to sue for defamation, it has shown the BBC as not meeting the standards it thinks it embodies, by reporting the most damaging allegations that can be made against any man today (be clear, to be labelled a child rapist is worse than murder today) based on the testimony of one man, without giving the accused the right of reply or even, off camera, talking to him.
Yet this is the BBC that claimed it did not broadcast a programme recorded about such allegations against a dead former BBC celebrity, because the evidence wasn't good enough.
BBC Director General - George Entwistle - who only took on the job in September - has resigned over it all, not least because his performance when interviewed by BBC Radio 4 presenter - John Humphrys - was farcical.
Of course it isn't just the BBC that stuffs up. On ITV, Philip Schofield handed David Cameron a list of alleged pedophiles live on TV. However, he's been excoriated and ITV now subject to an OfCom investigation.
Yet the BBC is not subject to scrutiny by OfCom - the regulator of the broadcasting industry. It is subject to regulation by the BBC Trust - a body which is mean to provide oversight, but has no real sanctions against the BBC when it misbehaves. It is hard to see how the BBC Trust can possibly address the fundamental failings of the BBC to confront Jimmy Savile, let alone be honest about what happened.
What is needed is an independent inquiry.
However, what it raises is more fundamental than the poor judgment of BBC management, which is getting to be rather too frequent.
It is the basis for the BBC's special status, as the only broadcaster completely protected from the recession, the only broadcaster legally entitled to force the public to pay for it, whether or not they consume its services.
The BBC is quite possibly the most powerful institution in the UK. It is difficult to overestimate the pervasiveness of the BBC in British life, its profound influence on politics and culture, and its status within broadcasting and media more generally.
It holds this position because of legislation and its primarily funded through compulsion. Indeed 140,000 people each year get criminal prosecutions for not paying the TV licence, an archaic, arbitrary poll tax for owning a TV. A system that in itself particularly penalises the poor, those home during working hours and those who do not live behind gated homes or tower blocks.
It broadcasts 9 TV channels in the UK and 10 national radio stations with 40 local ones. It is the dominant broadcaster and asserts impartiality and balance as central to its ethos. It also claims scrupulous political impartiality and separation from politics. Yet it is a creation of politics.
Those of us on the liberal right (and those on the conservative right) regularly claim this impartiality does not stand up to close scrutiny. There are some on the left who claim the same.
The honest truth is that it is contradictory to the core for a state owned broadcaster, funded through a specific tax on TV owners to not have an institutional bias that at its core is about defending itself, and the philosophy that justifies the maintenance and growth of that broadcaster. When did the BBC last have a programme where it invited BBC critics to put forward the view that it should be reformed, broken up or disbanded?
So how credible is the BBC in policing itself?
There needs to be a fundamental look at what the BBC exists for. At one time it was the sole broadcaster, in part because of the scarcity of radio spectrum, but also because the state wanted to control what people heard, and later, saw.
None of these arguments make sense today. The classic argument for public broadcasting by supporters of it is that it can produce programming that would not be broadcast by TV and radio stations beholden to commercial imperatives. Yet the BBC does much much more. It produces a vast range of mass market programming that would be seen on any commercial network. From EastEnders to Strictly Come Dancing to live sports coverage, to Radio 1, the BBC broadcasts programming aimed for everyone.
Its competitors have to win either advertisers (audiences it can sell) or subscribers. It need not. It faces no financial sanction for failing to deliver what people want, indeed it would argue that unpopular programmes are proper public service broadcasting, and popular ones prove the BBC is delivering for everyone.
Yet, its role in being the leading provider of news and current affairs is never questioned. Its regular leftwing bias in how it carries out that activity is palpable (I complained about one presenter who said stock traders don't produce anything, with a dismissive head shake, as if they didn't do anything value, and that complaint was dismissed. I have yet to see the BBC say that about newsreaders), and is seen in how the Guardian now actively defends it. The line it takes, and was taken on TV by Chris Patten today is that "Murdoch will cheer on the BBC being harmed", as if the News Corp empire is evil and the views expressed in the Times can be dismissed as malignant. Yes, the impartial BBC thinks this.
A libertarian is always going to think that the idea the government should own a broadcaster and threaten criminal prosecution against any members of the public who refuse to pay for it, whether they watch it or not, is fundamentally wrong.
However, the UK hasn't even had the debate and discussion about the role of the BBC in media policy in recent years. The Labour Party sees itself as guardian of the BBC as a national institution, not least because the existence of the BBC fits in with its philosophy that treats the state as being activist whenever politicians think it should be. The Conservative Party has been too scared to take on the BBC, not least because it would mean the BBC had every chance to take on those wishing to reduce its role.
Those on the left who think newspaper proprietors can't police themselves should ask themselves how well the BBC can. The difference is that people who can read are not forced to pay for newspapers, but people who own TVs are forced to pay for the BBC.
Former Labour man Dan Hodges thinks the problem is the BBC convinces itself it is the world's best, when it is not, and so surrounds itself with a culture of superiority and immunity from criticism.
What else could justify the latest report that the BBC - which has made a point of taking on celebrities and politicians who avoid tax - is now handing its outgoing Director General a golden handshake of £450,000 - more than the Prime Minister's salary - after only 45 days in the job.
Where is the moral authority in that?
Where is the moral authority in denying that it had had complaints about Jimmy Savile when he was alive?
Where is the moral authority for the BBC to ever claim it is above politics, when it is a creature of it?
In an age when more and more media is consumed online, and by mobile devices. In an age when networks can carry over 1,000 parallel TV channels by cable and satellite, and anyone can set up Youtube channel, podcast and blog, what role can the BBC have?
Should it continue to be all pervasive, dominating local radio and competing like a commercial broadcaster but without the disciplines of one? Should it just broadcast content that is not commercially viable? Should it continue to be funded through a poll tax with criminal sanctions for non-payment, or should it tout for donations, should it be funded from general taxation, or should it be subscription funded (given all TV in the UK is now digital, making it feasible to do so)?
That is what should happen next.
If not, it is time that people deliberately failed to pay the TV licence fee.
It is a complete travesty that every year hundreds of thousands of people get a criminal record because they wont pay for a TV broadcaster.
It is about time that that debate was had, on all media, and the BBC finally felt it had to carry the debate too.