by Jonathan White
These are difficult times for the BBC. On the one hand, it is subject to the latest dose of malicious intent from a Tory government in the form of John Whittingdale’s report. On the other hand, the BBC’s political journalists stand accused of naked pro-Conservative bias and find themselves the subject of mainstream media articles and 38 Degrees petitions. What’s going on? What is the BBC to the left? A progressive cultural sphere and a bastion against the monopoly media companies or a mouthpiece of the establishment?
To an extent, the answer is that it is both and it always was. The formation of the BBC was part of a general development of public service broadcasting in capitalist states at a time when the state was beginning to play an active role in the creation and reproduction of private monopolies through strategic social ownership. As such it was always part of what Ralph Miliband called the legitimation process of capitalist societies. Seemingly at arms-length from the state and nominally representing ‘the people’ as a whole, the BBC’s glossing of class structures and power meant that it always reflected the dominant values in society and gave expression to dissent only within a range of views that was seen to leave the current organisation of society fundamentally intact. When push came to shove, as in the General Strike for example, the BBC viewed the government as a more accurate voice of ‘the people’ than the people.
At the same time, from its very inception, the BBC was battling against attempts by private media companies and growing television monopoly companies to stifle its ability to grow, invade its market share and undermine its public service ethos. This has been the source of the progressive defence of the BBC ever since, ably restated by Chris Jury in the Morning Star in November last year. But it is also impossible to ignore the damage done to the BBC by the long waves of neoliberal reform and the restructuring of the media industry since 1979.
The Tory governments ushered in an era of deregulation whose ultimate logic if not stated objective as the break-up or destruction of the BBC. As Colin Leys sets out in his brilliant book Market Driven Politics, the BBC was subjected to a series of reinforcing ‘marketisation’ policies that have changed the way the Corporation works. De-regulation of rules on company ownership created a series of powerful ITV media monopolies lobbying for greater restrictions on the BBC’s ‘monopoly’ status, while the BBC’s funding was confined to a regressive licence fee on the consumer and squeezed tightly over a sustained period. This was used to argue for efficiency savings that saw massive job losses, the forced outsourcing of production and the creation of John Birt’s internal market of competing cost-centres. At the same time, the Board of Governors was increasingly politicised. New Labour, of course, did nothing to reverse this process. The move into digital production has simply accelerated the competitive pressures and corrosive internal processes at work in the BBC. It now competes with massive media conglomerates with huge spending power, using cable and satellite platforms to sell industrially produced television products through pay-per view and interactive services. The BBC now operates in and increasingly reflects a media market which aggressively manages the costs of its products to grab and sustain market share at the lowest possible cost in order to profit from advertising and subscriptions.
Given all this, it wouldn’t be surprising if the BBC’s political journalism had degenerated. But instances of partisan bias are only a part of the story. The very concept of politics at work in BBC reporting has changed. Viewers now would be hard pressed to locate any notion of politics as a contest of ideas or social agents which public service broadcasting has a duty to report or attempt to explain. Instead there is an implicit assumption that politics is a specialised, professionalised game in which competing brands attempt to sell their product on the basis of a better understanding of consumer preferences. And in this model of politics of course, the mass media see themselves playing a critical role. On the one hand, they are the vehicles for ‘reflecting consumer preferences’ through polls, surveys, vox pops and soundbites, the ‘neutral’ arbiters of opinion. On the other, they are subject to the ‘tabloid’ imperative to make sensational news.
Of course, this idea of politics was also central to the New Labour project. Blair’s close relationship with Murdoch, Mandelson’s attention to New Labour’s brand and the policy obsession with tailing consumer – sorry, voter – preferences were all built on this shared understanding of society and the function of the media. Consequently, a cosy consensus between politicians and the media emerged during New Labour’s years in government.
This accommodation has been rudely ruptured by the ‘Corbyn phenomenon’. For those with a sense of history and an understanding of society as a struggle of classes which finds some form of expression in politics, the Corbyn phenomenon is rationally intelligible. For a generation of political journalists and professional New Labour politicians, however, it comes as a nasty shock and an affront to their most deeply held shallow beliefs. This was not how the story was supposed to run – and it doesn’t make sense!
From this perspective it’s easier to understand the otherwise shocking phenomenon of BBC journalists not simply displaying obvious bias but actively conniving with a faction of New Labour MPs to destabilise the Labour leadership. They share a common understanding that the kind of politics expressed in Corbyn’s election should be dead. Its resurgence not only confuses them, it threatens their privileged position in politics and society. They also share a common idea of the solution: use the media – including the BBC – to destroy it. Hence the spectacle of Labour frontbenchers and MPs, losing control of their party and turning to the media to launch endless attacks on the leadership, unions, Momentum and even local constituency Labour Parties. Hence also the spectacle of BBC journalists striving to play their part in restoring the natural order by working to claim the scalp of the democratically elected Labour leader (and of course, creating ‘sensational’ news and ratings in the process).
What should be the left’s response? Chris Jury was absolutely right when he argued that it was not enough to attack this or that journalist as a ‘Tory bastard’. But neither is it enough to say that the BBC should be treasured because the alternative is the media conglomerates. Instead, unions and users need to organise an active and critical defence of the BBC based on the principles of what public service broadcasting should be in a democratic society. This alliance should see its purpose as more than simply keeping the barbarians away from the gates or mobilising whenever the government or Murdoch line up their next attack. Instead, it should be a vehicle for the exercise of everyday mass pressure on programmers and producers now. And it must also have a strategic vision for broader media reform, joining up with the agenda that emerged in the wake of the Leveson enquiry. At the heart of this campaign must be arguing the case for high quality cultural production for a critical democratic society which will require action to break up the media monopolies, investing in a revitalised public service broadcasting and supporting the emergence of a more diverse range of media voices. It’s a big ask. But it beats raging at Question Time every week.
Jonathan White is editor of the Manifesto Press book Building an economy for the people
An alternative economic and political strategy for 21st Century Britain