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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice