July 19, 2007

The BBC Scandal: Public Service Broadcasting Undermined?

What Now For the BBC?

Introduction

Like many users it has come as a shock to me that the BBC has had to admit to such a range of scandals and other shenannigens such as faking phone in results, alongside ridiculous 'errors' such as the trailer of the Queen apparently leaving photographer Annie Liebovitz 'in a huff'.  I certainly have a huge respect for the BBC as a media institution and for many decades it has led the World in the concept of public service broadcasting (PSB). It certainly became trendy amongst many media critics to knock the BBC for being elitist, top-down and all the rest of it. Perhaps a case of well meaning  left-liberalism  being blind to the dangers of  rampant commercialism which as Theodor Adorno pointed out realistically many years ago would lead to crass populism in the media. Adorno was of course castigated for being a "pessimist" by naive left-liberals.

Time to support Public Service Broadcasting to the Hilt!

Instead of looking upon this crisis as an excuse to hammer the BBC and ask for "Heads to Roll" along the lines of Daily Telegraph it is time for those serious about quality media to back the BBC and argue for  a return to an older system of public service broadcasting which predates the 1990 Broacasting Act.  Rather than trying to foist blame on executives in the BBC it is time to lay the blame at the door of the commercialisers. 

The 1990 Broadcasting Act, amongst other things, required the BBC to outsource a large per centage of its programming rather than producing everything in house.  This  was an action to be expected of a Tory government  in a move initiated by Mrs Thatcher  and  followed up by John Major. It was an Act directly attributable to the ideology of neo-liberalism. The editorial of the Financial Times is quite positive about the use of outsourcing however this requires a massive extra input of training to get these outside contributors 'up to speed', it will also require massive extra managerial effort to make these outsiders more accountable. this all amounts to uneccessary time and effort and money to get the BBC back into the state it was in in 1990 in terms of its organisational ethics! Is that really the way to run things? I doubt it!

The use of freelances and independent production companies is now a staple element in the BBC’s output, and rightly so. But this means that the organisation can no longer assume its programme makers have grown up with its values. Now it must communicate its editorial standards explicitly not only to BBC lifers but also to independent suppliers and those on short-term contracts. In addition it must be more rigorous in ensuring they are met.(My emphasis Published: July 19 2007 19:34 | Last updated: July 19 2007 19:34 )

The reality which the Financial Times is hedging around is that the continuous commercial pressure and the drive for ratings is dragging down the BBC to the standards of the lowest common denominator:

Part of the problem is self-inflicted. In pursuing mass audiences to underpin the legitimacy of the licence fee that is the mainstay of the BBC’s funding, the organisation has sometimes lost sight of the need to provide programming and services different from commercial media. This has led it into the territory of premium phone-line contests and wide-ranging digital ambitions that have helped make the Beeb less distinctive. (ibid).

Whilst the pathetic phone-line contest ethos should certainly be criticised and the programmes junked, I'm less comfortable about the comment upon the wide-ranging digital ambitions. It is ironical that the BBC is being used by the government to spearhead the national digital ambitions of turning UK broadcasting into a digital cornucopia by 2012. The government here is clearly wanting to auction off more bandwidth to mobile companies to provide video services such as live  Olympics which I assume was part of the bid to win the contest in the first place. No surprises then if Tessa Jowell gets a place on the board of Vodaphone or Virgin Media when she finally leaves office. Of course the Berlusconi empire may beckon given Blair's friendly relationship with him as well. 

Tessa Jowell

Under the circumstances it seems natural that the BBC should have wide-ranging digital ambitions, indeed as an aspect of cultural citizenship the BBC should have these ambitions. The problem is that the pusillanimous Blair government watered down the BBC's projects every time some pathetic commercial organisation felt challenged. Look at the furore about limiting the download times for TV programmes for example.

No crocodile tears for failing commercial ventures!

Let's not whinge about failing commercial broadcasters, the market is after all the market. The important issue at stake is that of cultural citizenship and the rights of citizens to have high quality broadcast / narrowcast media programmes. There is little doubt that public service broadcasting is best positioned to deliver this and in the UK this means the BBC. When the market can't compete with high quality public service it cries foul and tries to bring the service down to its own level.

When more equals less

When it comes to commercial broadcasting more seems to equal less if quality is used as a benchmark. Channel Four depending upon wall to wall Big Brother and its 'controversial' bits such as a commercially healthy bit of rascism seems to prove the point effectively. The reality bit about "reality TV" is the comercial reality! The key issue is that there is probably too much media and too little time for consumers to consume it all. The fact that the BBC has such a wide range of archive material, as well as the ability to create excellent new material - look at its world-beating website - means that commercial stations are seriously challenged. The reality seems to be that consumers don't want the pap that they regularly serve up otherwise they wouldn't be so worried. Advertisers are voting with their feet and following consumers to the internet. Lots of consumers like me are using the internet more than traditional media outlets and the BBC has positioned itself very effectively despite complaints from those with little knowledge or vision about emergent media forms. 

That the Blair government did nothing to change the situation and that Freeview, which has been a godsend for the BBC and its supporters, emerged out of commercial failure, bears witness to the pusillanimity of New Labour. The fact that Tessa Jowell in the debates around the White Paper of 2006 was discussing subscription services in the next round of Licence Fee negotiations and the possibility of sharing around licence fee monies with other broadcasters is clear evidence of just how in thrall New Labour has been to commercial pressures. 

PSB and Cultural Citizenship 

Like many others this blog supports the notion of the strongest possible Public Service Broadcasting system.  Thank heavens Tessa Jowell has been pushed sideways into managing the Olympics. It gives Gordon brown's government the opportunity to reshape Cultural and Media policy in the interests of British citizens and by extension World Citizens. As leading theorists such as David Held have proposed a key way forward for the globalising world is the development of world citizenship. This blog argues that cultural citizenship is an important component of this concept. The principle of public service broadcasting for all global citizens is an aspiration which can and should be furthered by the BBC. Historically the BBC is something Britain can be justifiably proud of. Look at the case of Alan Johnson for example who is an outstanding example of the BBC's finest. Imagine the deep embarrassement of people like this who could be tarred with the brush of the commercialism coming through the back door. The fact that so many journalists from Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world stood up for him bears witness to just how valuable an asset the BBC is in the fight for genuine global citizenship. 

Alan Johnston



When you are with one side from the conflict, you have got to put to them the very best arguments of the other side - the toughest questions

Alan Johnston's comments which seem to sumon up the BBC ethic of the highest quality journalism.  



No organisation is above criticism but the crisis today is not of its making, it is an inevitable product of the crass commercialism which has been espoused by neo-liberalism of all shades from Thatcher to Blair. Let us be clear on that and start to think about how to have a BBC free from both commercial pressures and a licence fee Sword of Damocles continuously over its head. Government can not always be trusted any more than any other institution. The task today is arguably not so much of the BBC having to sort itself out as the Government being rather more committed to principled public service broadcasting than it has been for the last 17 years. The fact that people such as Alan Johnson exist is evidence that there is still a deeply held ethos, but this will become ever more eroded unless the debate is reopened at a deeper level. 


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