There was a superb moment on US network MSNBC’s news/entertainment programme, The Rachel Maddow Show, this week, where Maddow delivered a polemic disabusing the conspiratorial position of Republicans and Republican commentators. It went like this:
The point she captures is so simple, and so obvious upon hearing – that so long as one half of political representation is obsessed with conspiracies, lies and misdirection, it entirely fails to serve the reality of the country it purports to represent. And this notion reflects directly onto how so many scandals are covered in the UK press, and by the government.
The BBC is not in crisis. That Newsnight failed to broadcast an investigation into Jimmy Savile is very problematic. Revealing the systematic failure to protect the vulnerable in hospitals, care homes, and indeed BBC premises, seems an important story that merits coverage. While Savile is dead, and thus his exposure was not going to protect anyone else from him, the systems he was able to exploit remain in place until highlighted. That there are now multiple enquiries taking place into how such abuse was possible is, I think, proof enough that the report at the very least merited further investigation, and not being spiked. And if there were internal cover-ups at the BBC, then it’s important this be exposed and dealt with.
That Newsnight then broadcast an interview with an individual claiming a senior Conservative politician had sexually abused him, without identifying the former politician, is not the BBC in crisis either. It’s a mistake. In light of the Savile story, Newsnight was in an odd position. They’re being loudly castigated for failing to report the actions of a dead child abuser, and now have testimonial about a live one. They had to be considering the reaction had they not reported this one as well. However, it’s pretty bewildering that with the situation being what it was, the reporter didn’t think to load a picture of the former MP in question on their phone and show it to the interviewee. I hope, as a result of all this, Newsnight will ensure reporters do some pretty basic checks in future. But the BBC is not in crisis. Newsnight’s in a mess, and some of it may be to do with any number of the layers of management on which the bloated corporation spends far too much of its money. But the BBC remains the most extraordinary broadcaster in the world.
It remains the advertising-free network of television and radio channels that produces the finest content available in the UK. It’s the corporation that brings us the utterly phenomenal Radio 4, with its peerless news coverage, fantastic science and arts programming, surprisingly decent standard of drama, and even occasionally puts out some comedy that isn’t awful. (In fact, sometimes the comedy can even be great! Although more often it’s Rudy’s Rare Records.) It brings us Radio 3 – a channel that when the presenters bloody well shut up plays an eclectic mix of classical and contemporary music, never bowing to an ill-perceived stupidity in its audience (as with the wretched Classic FM), but instead striving to expand people’s musical awareness. It brings us BBC 4, that provides a televisual space for programming of a significantly higher standard than can be found on any other channel, whether it’s a documentary about a subject you were previously convinced you didn’t care one jot about, or the touching beauty of Nigel Slater’s reminiscing about sweets, or the impossibly difficult and limitlessly charming quizzing of Only Connect. It’s the network that provides the world with BBC World Service (albeit in a devastatingly cheapened and more limited form, thanks to the cruel and selfish intervention of the government), providing relatively unbiased news coverage to countries where none other can be found. It’s the reason why we have the excellent BBC News website, which of course while having issues – some significant – is an extraordinary worldwide provider of news.
I’m not delusional. I recognise that the BBC has significant problems. I’m aware that its mainstream channels churn out ludicrously commercial rubbish that directly competes with ITV – something that isn’t in its remit. It needs to be freed from the shackles of needing to out-perform in ratings, while still finding the balance of representing the viewers that pay for it. I’m aware of its deeply problematic biases when it comes to news reporting, and its institutional habit of not publishing internal reviews. I know from extensive Private Eye coverage just how much waste there is, the idiocy of maintaining and increasing bureaucracy at the expense of frontline staff, and its frightening habit of repeatedly giving contracts to Siemens despite their having wasted hundreds of millions on broken and pointless technology. And most of all, I’m aware of its endemic habit of self-flagellation every time the competitive press find fault.
And this is where the Maddow clip comes in. What’s now being reported about the BBC, including by the BBC, is a conspiracy. And it’s a conspiracy with motivation. It is in the significant interests of most of the rest of the press that the BBC be harmed. They’re direct competitors, deeply resentful that the BBC is a publicly funded corporation. The worse the BBC fares, the better things become for them. This is especially the case for News International papers – The Times, The Sun – who are owned by the owners of BSkyB – one of the BBC’s largest competitors. Their culture of spreading conspiratorial misinformation about the BBC, and their savage attacks every time a mistake is made by the corp, is self-interested, driven by the desires of owner Rupert Murdoch. Oh, who of course also owns Sky News, BBC News’s main competition. He makes no secret of this desire to see the BBC destroyed, and his outlets swiftly obey their master in waving his flag. It’s also in the interests of Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell – owners of commercial competitor, Channel 5. Who also happen to be the owner of the Daily Express and The Star, papers that also become turgid with excitement whenever there’s a chance to swipe at the Beeb.
Oh, and there’s another group that don’t like the BBC and want it broken down, license fee removed, and made commercial. The Conservative Party. This is no conspiracy, no secret. It has been the open desire of the party for many, many years, to see a corporation they perceive as left-leaning to be taken out of the picture. Then right leaning papers follow the same desire – the Daily Mail, the Telegraph. And clearly ITV has no interest in the BBC’s success, thus ITV News, providers also of Channel 4 News, have a strong interest in anti-BBC rhetoric. And so now you have a majority – a huge majority – of the British press undeniably interested in seeing the BBC fail. And so rather than reporting what’s actually happening – a concern about Newsnight’s editorial process, and the concerning possibility that some senior staff were complicit in a cover-up about Savile – instead the story becomes about a BBC in crisis.
And the BBC, so paranoid, so terrified, and so determined to appear as if it’s not exhibiting any internal bias, joins in. Rather than reporting the facts, it too starts asking if it is itself in crisis. It overblows the stories in a determined effort to ensure no one thinks they’re ignoring the severity of the situation. But in doing this, they’re forced to cover the fictional version of events, less the rest of the press condemns it for “covering up” their own fiction. And in doing so, they create the strongest impression that fiction is fact – if even the BBC is saying the BBC is in crisis, then the BBC must be in crisis!
The BBC is now being sued by the MP whom they did not identify, which would be an interesting case were the BBC not whipping their own backs. And that happens. When you’re a massive corporation with a vast front-facing news presence, you’re going to report some news that is incorrect. You’re going to make mistakes, some of them severe. And you’re going to get sued. The hypocrisy of the rest of the press in reporting this as if it’s a unique poison within the BBC is beyond belief, but the BBC joining in is idiotic. BBC Director General George Entwhistle’s pathetic appearance on the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning ably demonstrated that he’s the perfect scalp to remove at this point – not because he did anything wrong at any point, but because his embarrassing willingness to be punched and kicked by Humphrys proved he is no man to be leading the corporation. His complete refusal to stand up for the BBC, his wriggling weakness, plays a significant part in allowing the fiction to be accepted as fact. His final admission that this is actually just something that happened on Newsnight comes so late, and is so heavily qualified, that it has no impact whatsoever.
We have allowed ourselves to become embroiled in a conspiratorial fiction as idiotic as those that have the Republicans in so much trouble. But here it is as if the Democrats were publicly castigating themselves for planning to force abortions on unwilling mothers or ordering an inquiry into whether Obama was born in Kenya. The BBC is so terrified of not appearing to be taking the lead in questioning the BBC, so adamant that it be beyond scrutiny, that it confesses guilt to crimes that haven’t happened, endorses arguments based entirely in the minds of those who would see the BBC dismantled, and refuses to stand up and defend itself when it should be damned proud of what it is.
And so it is that we all must now spend months questioning the crisis at the BBC, the institutional failings of a corporation that is so riddled with editorial failure that, er, it reported a mistaken belief by an individual, and didn’t report on Savile possibly after it believed its evidence was not strong enough. They are serious issues – while not naming McAlpine they certainly initiated the witch-hunt that did, and the simplest scrutiny would have established that mistake before it happened. And the Savile story, whether it was Newsnight’s error or not, is of enormous concern and certainly should be intricately investigated. But these are isolated incidents, not proof that the corporation must surely be a seething mass of corruption and deceit. That’s a story, an understanding of the events, that is hugely in the interests of the BBC’s competitors to spread. But not the BBC’s. And certainly not ours.