Rupert Murdoch, Newsnight and why we should wish the BBC many happy returns today

Any institution the size of this Corporation will face major crises from time to time. But few have represented the best of us so vividly for 90 years

Share

In this country, as Alan Bennett famously wrote in An Englishman Abroad, you need only reach 90 and be capable of eating a boiled egg to be reckoned worthy of the Nobel Prize. One hates to argue with a uniquely perceptive observer of national life, but try telling that to the nonagenarian which screened his glorious TV play about the traitor Guy Burgess back in 1983.

Today is the BBC’s 90th anniversary of its inaugural broadcast, and the only Nobel-related birthday presents anyone appears to have in mind are a cake studded with sticks of Alfred’s dynamite in place of the candles, a box of Swan Vestas and a very short fuse.

Bennett put that scornful aperçu in the mouth of the actress Coral Browne, an Australian with sneering contempt for what she saw as the smug decadence of the British establishment. With Rupert Murdoch seizing on the BBC’s embarrassment with classically ruthless opportunism, that certainly rings a bell. But while it may constitute the wettest of the old monster’s dreams,  the Beeb hasn’t decayed yet.

Senescence

There is of course no mistaking an air of senescence, from the Alzheimerish amnesia about the most basic journalistic good practice and George Entwistle’s befuddlement over the duties that go with the title of editor-in-chief. But unlike every other ancient trout whose callous younger relatives (in this case, Murdoch’s BSkyB) want to shove her off into a home, and get their hands on the dosh while she dribbles towards the grave, this great Auntie will recover her wits to see them off.

In recent decades, many wrote premature  obituaries to the Labour and Conservative parties and the monarchy when they were perpetually engulfed by chaos, forgetting that old whores like those only live to become old whores because they are, at their core, a representation of an idea. And you can never, as cliché teaches, kill an idea.

The idea that underpins the modern BBC is that of a state-funded broadcaster so large and so strong that it has the powers both to withstand political pressure and to foster that fragile sense of shared national identity. Its independence guarantees sporadic warfare with government, and its sheer size make mistakes of the kind fixating us now inevitable. But the obsession with these horrendous journalistic failures, and how it came to swamp interest in the paedophilia that led to them, tells a story. If people are furious with the BBC, it is that especially ferocious and ephemeral anger which emanates not from raw hatred, but from disappointed love.

Whatever current opinion polling says about the Beeb being mistrusted by a majority for the first time, the loathing will remain reserved for a Murdoch empire that cannot or will not learn humility. To hear Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, the closest thing in Rupertworld to an attack dog, tell John Humphrys yesterday that Newsnight’s misdemeanours were “worse” than those that infected the Murdoch tabloids would have been shocking had it not been so wearyingly predictable. The refusal to draw a distinction between gross incompetence and systemic criminality, or rather the cynical willingness to draw the mirror image of the real distinction, told us what we knew already. The BBC agonises over its flaws. News International dismisses its own as too trifling to be worth the attention.

In the BBC’s eagerness to allow Mr Kavanagh air time to distort and derange the self-evident truth, just as it allowed Humphrys to put George Entwistle out of his misery, lies the seed of its certain redemption. The rigorous independence of its journalism not only far outweighs the occasional fiasco. It is the immune system that will fight off this nasty virus.

Necrotic

A full cure will also require some surgery. The scalpel must be taken to the satirically bloated layers of necrotic management, obviously, and the chain of command be tightened. Elements of the output have stagnated through complacency, and need refreshing: its TV news is sluggish and sometimes facetious (the election night boat on which Andrew Neil canvassed Bruce Forsyth’s political insights made the Titanic look a triumph). However brilliant the Olympics coverage, the sports coverage is weak and smug.

The flaws are multiple and serious, and if this crisis forces the next editor-in-chief to address them, the BBC will emerge stronger from this nightmare than it entered it. In another piece of espionage fiction, George Smiley reflected on the treachery that brought the Circus to its knees in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and with hindsight judged it a blessing in disguise because it compelled the organisation to reform before it was too late.

There is no institution of the BBC’s magnitude anywhere on this Earth that does not face apparently existential crises from time to time, and those with the will to face and learn from them survive. The BBC will come through this, not just because if the only alternative monolith is News Corp, there is no alternative. For all the imperfections, its perspective expresses the values of tolerance and decency, fairness and humanity, to which this country likes to lay claim, and that expression resonates around the world. It continues to represent the best of us, as it has for 90 years.

This may be a muted and despondent 90th birthday for Auntie, but there will many happier returns.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone