Why the BBC-bashers must not be allowed to destroy public broadcasting

The British right are not demonising the BBC because it unfairly attacked a Labour government
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The Independent Online

Two days after it was struck by the Hutton missile, is it worth picking through the rubble of the BBC newsroom, ignoring the corpses of Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies, in search of survivors? Many critics of the BBC think not, and argue that the whole institution is now so structurally unsound that it can only be rebuilt if it is handed over to the private sector.

The very future of the BBC as a public institution is being called into question. Sion Simon, the Labour MP, asked the Prime Minister yesterday: "As we now learn on the anniversary of the miners' strike that the enemy within turns out to be the BBC, had we not better privatise it sooner rather than later?" The catastrophic misreporting by Andrew Gilligan - where he made an allegation as serious as Watergate, without a proper script or accurate quotes from his single source - has provided anti-BBC forces with the highest-megaton weapon they have ever had.

The debate about the corporation's future did not end with the resignations, although it might abate for a few days while the bodies are paraded. The real argument has just begun. The danger is that public discourse will become polarised between anti-BBC privatisers who triumphantly wave the Hutton report and pro-BBC forces who defend Gilligan, claim that Dyke and Davies have been brought down by a political vendetta and effectively adopt a position of "my BBC, right or wrong".

This is extremely dangerous. The true friends of the corporation will see in Gilligan, Dyke and Davies not a cause to rally around but an opportunity to restructure BBC news so it is far less likely to stumble and be caught by the anti-BBC wolves in future.

The lurking BBC-beaters see the resignation of Dyke as another step in their slow-burn discrediting of the Beeb. One scandal after another will, they believe, tarnish the brand that is still the most trusted in Britain. One DG down and disgraced, another few to go, until privatisation has majority support. The broader argument of these anti-BBC forces is rehearsed in the Murdoch press, in line with their owner's commercial interests, every day: the BBC has been captured by "institutional left-wingery." It is dominated by "out-of-touch", "liberal" types who considered a wildly biased, false accusation against a wartime Prime Minister to be unexceptional. Public money provided by all television viewers is thus being used to promote a partisan political agenda.

The disgracing of the top tier of the corporation has made more people receptive to these arguments than ever before. If the only answer seems to come from people who try to defend the indefensible Gilligan, then the BBC is doomed. No; the basic case for public service broadcasting needs urgently to be restated, before the privatisers begin to sound like they have the best tune. Away from the headline resignations and the shocking operational errors exposed by Hutton, the long-term arguments for the corporation remain sound. The BBC is necessary because, unlike all other media outlets, it is accountable to us, the viewing public, rather than billionaire owners or corporate advertisers. Of course, some private proprietors are benign: I've been lucky to work for those. Yet without public-sector broadcasting, all our news passes through the filter of ownership structures dominated by the mega-rich, and we would be forced simply to hope that the decent billionaires stay in business.

That would be be an unacceptable risk. Look at some of the appalling acts committed by malign news owners in the past decade. Rupert Murdoch has censored even his most respectable news outlet - The Times - from reporting Chinese human rights abuses, because it was inconvenient to his plan to extend his interests into the heart of the Chinese Empire. Or look at the late, unlamented Conrad Black, who promoted a fierce right-wing agenda amenable to the uber-rich when he owned The Daily Telegraph. As one of his former editors, Max Hastings, put it, Black is "seldom unconscious of his responsibilities as a member of the rich man's trade union".

Do we want the editors of our news accountable to them, or to licence payers? Who does Simon think would snap up shares in a privatised BBC? It is essential for democracy that a range of media sources not owned by rich people is entrenched in Britain's de facto constitution, or our politics will become horribly skewed. Just look at the way the ownership of many of our newspapers by billionaires with anti-EU business interests has debased public debate about the EU. How much more skewed would the debate be if the BBC had been part-owned by Murdoch?

It is precisely because public-sector broadcasting is so important, then, that we have to get it right. The BBC - in this important case - clearly did not. Yet the British right, unlike the Government, are not demonising the corporation because it unfairly attacked a Labour government. They hate the BBC because it is one of the few news sources that does not join them in hacking up their Eurosceptic, anti-government, pro-rich bile. From their perspective, that indeed looks "institutionally left wing". From now on, cynicism towards the BBC will be fostered with unprecedented glee by the right-wing press. They hope it will eat away at public support for the corporation like dry rot. The renewal of the BBC's royal charter in 2006 is secure - but 2016? 2026? The Government can be reconciled to the BBC with the apology Dyke offered yesterday, but the BBC-vandalising Murdoch right cannot.

Ironically, much of the BBC's crisis derives from an attempt by the corporation to mimic the attack-dog culture of the British tabloids - the very culture that has now torn such a serious wound in their own side. Gilligan was poached from The Sunday Telegraph by Rod Liddle, then editor of the Today programme, with the single mission to dig up dirt on the Government. This kind of anti-politics aggression has undermined the whole purpose of the BBC: to provide a more sober, less hysterical, more informed forum for debate. Although investigative journalism remains essential, it is not the job of the corporation to unleash rabid hounds; the new director general will have to send them to the vet to be put down.

The extent of the BBC's problems can be exaggerated. The BBC's best journalists - Andrew Marr, John Simpson, the Panorama team - still set an international gold standard. Yet the new director general will have to institute a vast programme of structural change. Lines of accountability have to be much clearer: the fact that none of a small army of BBC middle managers seemed to consider themselves responsible for the veracity of Gilligan's report was incredibly revealing.

Then he or she will have an even harder job: to change the culture of BBC news from corrosive cynicism to measured, sane debate. This is essential surgery. In its current state, the corporation can't survive many more poundings.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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