The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, September 26, 2003

BBC bleaters out already

Apart from the pretty execrable performance of Andrew Gilligan's mouthpiece [1], the BBC side did less badly than might have been expected on closing remarks day of the Hutton Inquiry yesterday.

But a piece in the Guardian today by John Kampfner has the Corporation already done for, as a news organisation of independence and verve. Although...

The truth seems to be that it never was. It may come as something of a surprise that, both on radio and then on TV, news came very late as a function. On radio, there was an unbelievable cringing attitude taken by the BBC towards the newspapers, who for some years from its formation (as the British Broadcasting Company) in 1922 succeeded in imposing embargoes on news items being broadcast, for fear that a speedy broadcast news service would hit circulation. Only with the invasion of Normandy in 1944 was there something like the sort of news operation (with full news bulletins and a cadre of correspondents) one might have expected of the British monopoly broadcaster.

On TV, into the early 1950s, news used voice-overs with material from newsreels - when they'd finished with it!

And, as far as independence from government is concerned, the occasional worm-turning success [2] does not really make up for a general tendency to self-restraint.

Kampfner rightly points out that
The BBC is, in reality, a risk-averse institution.
It's a bureaucracy: it's prime objective is its own survival. The names of erstwhile BBC mavericks one might throw out - James Cameron (not that one!) and Ken Loach, say - stand out for being few and, well, erstwhile.

He goes on to suggest that
It hates accusations of bias.

That's wrong. What it hates are surprises. For example, it is constantly being accused of bias in its coverage of the Israel/Palestine issue. But that's fine because it's constant - it's factored in, processes deal with it, no heart attacks for senior execs opening their morning paper and seeing one of Sharon's attack-dogs mouthing off.

Similarly, those combative interviews of politicians by John Humphrys of Today and Jeremy Paxman of Newsnight will get the likes of Alastair Campbell effing and blinding down the phones - but, again, that's expected, discounted, planned for. Both the interviews and the off-air backchat are stylised, contentless - and have about as much to do with imparting information as the Japanese Tea Ceremony has with quenching thirst.

It's the loose cannons like Gilligan - especially if they're firing at ungodly hours of the morning (in other times, the time of choice for raids by the secret police) - who give the BBC brass headaches. And managers like former Today editor Rod Liddle, who brought Gilligan in to man his present, now very provisional, post. An organisation like the BBC is not equipped, culturally or organisationally, to deal with guys who don't even themselves know what they're going to say or do next.

(There is, perhaps, an analogy to be made with commercial and investment banking: when the operations are merged, there is a sort of Gresham's Law whereby the risk-hungry deal-makers on the investment banking side see the capital of the commercial banking operation as cash under the mattress for them to make sweat.

It's such a highway to hell that the Americans have laws to keep the operations apart [3]!)

Kampfner is a Liddle man too, apparently, so might be expected to have no sympathy for the organisation men (the BBC has 1960s levels of middle management, I gather) who aim for preservation of the organisation. He wants scoops - only better edited ones than Gilligan's infamous '6.07'.

With the Charter coming up for renewal in 2006, an unceasing barrage from the Murdoch and Conrad Black press (Murdoch has an idea of the BBC with no licence fee and perhaps a couple of million subscription-paying viewers) and withering fire from Hutton a few weeks away, it would be common sense rather than cowardice or lack of vision for the organisation to give scoops a rest for a good long while.

Surprising, perhaps, to see, in the middle of the Hutton process, BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies giving a lecture (September 10) on the history of the BBC and its relations with government. One par gives the tone:
Kofi Annan has described the World Service as Britain's greatest gift to the world in the 20th Century. Anyone who grew up in the remote bush of central Africa - as I did - would agree with him.

But, then, you can't go wrong with boosting the World Service [4]. It is the Geoffrey Boycott of broadcasting (or even the Trevor Bailey): it aims to occupy the crease, and does so. How many stories does it break in a year? A handful, at most, I'd guess. It knows that that's not what it's there for.

If the Gilligan/Kelly saga does the Corporation any good, it will be to get it to reconcile its objectives as a news operation with its resources, organisation and culture. Raising absurd expectations about scoops do it no favours.

  1. Had she offered a rendition of Four Green Fields (and perhaps one or two more from the Fenian Song Book) and unfurled a Time for Peace - Time to Go banner, she could scarcely have got further up Ulsterman Lord Hutton's nose. Being a fair man, he will be wary of bias against Gilligan on account of the hamfistedness of his counsel; perhaps even err on Gilligan's side. Perhaps that was the intention all along.

  2. Over Home Secretary Winston Churchill's plan for HMG to commandeer the BBC during the General Strike of 1926 - though that may have had more to do with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's desire to scotch an ambitious and troublesome Churchill, and had nothing to do with maintaining the impartiality of the Corporation - the trade union leaders apparently being kept off the air. (Long-time BBC hack John Simpson suggests the contrary in the Telegraph of July 6. Reference to Asa Brigg's monumental History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom would be necessary to settle the point.)

    And then again, during the Suez crisis, when the government of Prime Minister Anthony Eden wanted the BBC to operate a radio station on Cyprus to beam propaganda on the upcoming Anglo-French invasion to the Arab world - the BBC declined. (I can find nothing at all on this online!)

  3. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 and the Bank Act of 1933 - as described here.

  4. A piece from September 25 in the New York Times on the plight of the Beeb dares to criticise the WS; but then it does manage to get the name of one of its regular presenters rather comprehensively wrong - Lise Ducett is in fact Lyse Doucet. Fact-checkers still out to lunch post-Jayson, evidently. (Doucet is a typical Acadian (or acadien) surname, I believe.)

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