Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Happy Birthday, BBC?

Today, the blushing birthday girl keeps reminding us, she's 90 years old. That is, on 14th November 1922, the first radio broadcast was listened to simultaneously by what I heard described by Professor Jean Seaton as 11,000 radio "nerds". I don't like to be a party pooper, but....

I have to confess that I have not only changed my default news page on my laptop from BBC to The Independent, but also my default news channel on our television from BBC to Sky News. It reflects my growing sense that, for all its much-touted objectivity, one is on shifting editorial sands with the BBC. It's rather like the sensation of being on what you believe to be and what looks like solid ground only to find it's the treacherous Grimpen Mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles. At least with The Independent and Sky News you know what stables they come from and can make the appropriate recalibration. The BBC has, I know, a fine history of news presentation. But I was recently provoked to look at the BBC's charter, and was impressed (or not) by what a utilitarian document it now is, as redrafted in 1996, its object defined by its purposes, which include such things as sustaining citizenship, promoting education and "creativity", bringing the UK to the world etc. Nowhere is the ideal of telling the truth upheld. I suspect that's because those drawing up the revised charter said to each other, 'What is truth?' and couldn't come up with an answer - other than, "Well, there's my truth, and there's your truth, and everyone has their own truth" - truth doesn't exist.

However the idea of objectivity and impartiality depends on some universal concept of truth. This year has seen the myth of the BBC's objectivity finally exploded. I say "finally" because it's clear from the Savile saga that objectivity has not been defining the corporation's news coverage for some time. Whether it stretches as far back as the wartime demands for news restrictions, and, as some would regard it, propaganda, it is certainly not the case that it has broadcast unvarnished or unslanted versions of the news. Recently, for example, it is clear that it mouths the government line on such events as the Arab spring or Syria, where the "goodies" are the opposition and the "baddies" are the Assad regime. It is clearly true, as I observed before, that that regime has committed and is committing atrocious acts of repression. It hardly takes a great leap of imagination to understand how we in the UK would feel if "the world's most respected news outlet" were making that sort of moral judgement about our political parties, whoever was in power. It also had the practical effect, for better or worse, of encouraging the opposition to believe that West was on their side and would shortly arm and even assist them, and thus to plunge into a horribly costly conflict with a vastly superior government military machine.  Similarly Israeli activity against the Palestinians is reported whilst there is silence about rocket attacks the other way round. There is, whether we like it or not, an editorial stance at the BBC - which is largely that of the mouthpiece of the liberal establishment.

I wish Lord Patten and Mr Davie every success in reforming this aged lady whose care is now their unenviable charge. I'm not sure that it's not too late to teach an old dog new tricks. I'd suggest one area they might look at is the practice of outsourcing news programmes or items. It seems fairly obvious that there is a strong incentive for private production companies to come up with as sensational news stories as possible in order to obtain a contract as it appears the "Bureau of Investigative Journalism" did in the case of the shoddy Lord McAlpine Newsnight programme.  It seems that the BBC has quite sufficient news correspondents, chief reporters and ordinary reporters of its own not to need outside help and therefore extra levels of editorial supervision. 

Meanwhile, I'll be watching Sky News tonight. I fancy I won't be missed from the party.

PS Apologies to those who were puzzled by the rogue entry that popped up from two years ago. My mistake!

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