The Media Column: The BBC is brave to spell out the motives behind Murdoch's attacks

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The Independent Online

It does not always come naturally to senior BBC executives to say what they think. Most have, in the past, chosen to offer up meaningless politician-speak when asked anything more contentious than: "What's on telly tonight?" If you don't say anything interesting, your enemies in the press can't get you for it.

But there are risks in keeping silent as well as in speaking out - and it is very good news that the BBC seems to have weighed them up and decided to protest publicly against Rupert Murdoch's long-running and increasingly damaging campaign against the corporation. He and his people have been making the running for too long.

Silence from the BBC suggests that it cannot defend its corner in the face of sustained attacks on its "poll tax" licence fee, the standards of its reporting and the view that it ought to provide programmes for the whole nation.

So Lorraine Heggessey, a woman who has done so much to transform BBC1 in her three years in charge of the channel, is brave and wise not just to point out how Mr Murdoch's arguments are wrong - but to explain to the wider world his motives behind them.

In her interview with me in this paper yesterday, she said: "He is against everything the BBC stands for. He is a capital imperialist, isn't he? ... All people of his political persuasion are against the public sector."

As Ms Heggessey pointed out, there are more than merely commercial reasons behind his attempts to destabilise the BBC - though those are important. Certainly, the insane proposal by Tony Ball, chief executive of BSkyB, to ban BBC1 from broadcasting its most popular programmes would result in viewers deserting the BBC (and abandoning support for its licence fee) and signing up for expensive Sky packages. His suggested ban on the BBC showing Hollywood movies and American sitcoms would have the same effect.

But Mr Murdoch (and Conrad Black, owner of The Daily Telegraph, for that matter) is also driven by ideology - a narrow-minded, neo-conservative worldview that any organisation in the public sector is by definition inefficient, second rate and peopled by pinkoes. The BBC - like the NHS and state schools - is thus suspect before it does anything at all. The fact that its business is competing for viewers with Murdoch's companies makes it borderline criminal.

We should not run away with ourselves. It is tiresome to hear the kneejerk sloganeering aimed at Mr Murdoch that portrays him as an evil ogre who wants to take over the world. He owns some admirable newspapers and employs many dazzling journalists. Sky itself has corners of brilliance (Sky News, entirely untainted by any hint of Mr Murdoch's political bias, is a far more engaging channel than the BBC's News 24). But, like all of us, he has an agenda. Unlike the rest of us, he has the economic power and the newspapers to impose that agenda upon everyone else.

Mr Ball cannot see why "some people get very excited about the dangers of concentrating ownership and power" in the commercial sector. But Mr Murdoch's private interests do not necessarily coincide with the national interest. In his battle with the BBC, they most certainly do not. There is a real risk that his constant chipping-away at the corporation will weaken it to such an extent that it crumbles. The BBC is not there by accident, and we have no guarantee that it will be around for ever.

Mr Ball said at Edinburgh that he has no time for the argument that the BBC is part of the "social glue" holding the nation together. "I don't think the nation's falling apart, and in any case it's not the BBC's job to stick things together in the way that it sees fit," he grumbled. He had "heard enough about that glue to last me a lifetime".

Well, he should be forced to listen to more such talk. Ms Heggessey was absolutely right to say what she did. The BBC is something that we can all be proud of. We must not let Mr Ball and his boss sleepwalk the country into a position where there is nothing left of the BBC to defend.

* A footnote on the reporting of the Hutton business: is there not an irony in the fact that the affair revolves around the "sexing-up" of a government dossier?

Let's remind ourselves what a reporter does every day - he collects and sifts through reams of material, selects the most revealing and surprising aspect - and then shoves it to the top of his story. If that is not "sexing-up", what would you call it?

v.graff@independent.co.uk

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