James Harkin: The BBC is fighting the wrong battle

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The Independent Online

Even before Vince Cable fell on his sword, the strategic tussle between the BBC, Rupert Murdoch and the Coalition Government was building to a climax of operatic proportions.

The latest act was played out yesterday when the media regulator Ofcom presented the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, with its view of News Corporation's bid for full control of BSkyB. Hunt's next move will be crucial, and everything is said to turn on whether the merger would make Murdoch too powerful a beast in British broadcasting.

Look closely, however, and a more significant drama is being played out behind the scenes. At a seminar a week before Christmas, the BBC's Director-General, Mark Thompson, coughed up a remarkable admission. With the internet swallowing up all the media that came before it, he announced, public service broadcasters like the BBC, the ITV and Channel 4 could no longer claim a monopoly on the airwaves. As a result, he suggested, the traditional rules governing impartiality among broadcasters should be relaxed and commercial broadcasters like Sky should be free to launch a partisan news channel like News Corp's Fox News in Britain. The BBC would continue to fly the flag for impartiality, he said, but there was no reason why the public shouldn't be free to choose upstart operators who wear their opinions on their sleeve.

Thompson's aside was carefully weighted to throw the Government and Rupert Murdoch a bone. But it was also his latest attempt to reposition the BBC, this time as an impartial referee of last resort. If this sounds promising, it's because it chimes with our understanding of what the BBC has been up to in recent years. Keeping Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and the Daily Mail on side at the same broadcaster was always going to be difficult, and the BBC has spent much of its time standing in the middle, handing out yellow cards and enduring brickbats and humiliation from all around. In his seminar address Thompson confided that Murdoch had told him that he'd love to make Sky into a partisan broadcaster in the Fox mould, but that its editors had assured him that public support for impartial journalism in the UK remained strong.

I'm not so sure. Throughout the general election the tenor of Sky's news reporting was noticeably antagonistic to the Government. Meanwhile Channel 4 News has carefully been cultivating its liberal-left audience, and doing little that might upset it. For some years now the middle ground of British broadcasting has been quietly crumbling, and the BBC stands right in the middle of that exposed middle ground – forced to please everyone, it's ended up pleasing no one. The BBC once prided itself on its authority as an investigator, polishing up facts to get us closer to the truth. Embattled on all sides, however, it has taken refuge in the flimsier idea of impartiality, where the truth is often deemed to lie exactly halfway between any two opposing extremes. That's why its managers are constantly fretting about balance, and why its talk shows are forced to feature tokens of every conceivable constituency – the appearance, for example, of increasingly random Tories on Newsnight Review.

If Rupert Murdoch does take full control of BSkyB, it won't be the decision of it's editors to make. For Murdoch this isn't about politics but about money, and everything suggests that he'd take the commercial decision to target ready-made audiences on the basis of their values and political views. In the last few years the nightly newscasts on America's broadcast networks have been humbled by a new breed of cable operators who deliberately feed audiences with news which fits their existing worldview. Murdoch's Fox News leans heavily towards the Tea Party movement and the Republican right, and is staffed by hectoring, bombastic anchormen like Bill O'Reilly. Its audience seems to like it that way; in survey after survey Fox is named as the TV news outlet Americans trust most. In an effort to match its success, MSNBC (which is owned by the mainstream network NBC) has transformed itself into Fox's left-leaning alter ego, hiring similarly irascible talk show pundits in an effort to reel in the convinced liberal audience. CNN, which has stubbornly remained in the middle ground, has watched its ratings go through the floor: in 2009 its prime-time audience was lower even than MSNBC, the first time CNN had been beaten by any network other than Fox over a calendar year.

Mark Thompson is quite right that the impartiality guidelines governing broadcasters should be scrapped. If newspapers and bloggers are free to say what they think, why shouldn't loud-mouthed TV anchors? After all, it's cheaper and more effective to have one opinionated presenter talking at you than two of them shouting over each other. In five years' time it's very likely that Sky News, freed from impartiality constraints, will look very much like a tub-thumping Fox News while Channel 4 News will have moved further down the road of preaching to a converted liberal audience. We'll have got what we wanted, but by flocking to those who feel the same way as ourselves we'll have lost something too.

To stand above the fray, it's not going to be enough for the BBC to run around like a referee in the middle ground. More than ever it needs to stand up for the kind of high-minded, robust journalism and drama which can't easily be found anywhere else. One thing's for sure; continue standing in the middle and it's going to keep getting knocked down.

James Harkin's 'Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream', is published in March.

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