The first question to ask about the BBC is: what is it for? One of its functions is to give us something to shout at; another is to represent the best of British values abroad. All part of the bigger “educate, entertain and inform” mission, as much worth preserving now as it was in 1927.
The recent shouting was in the general direction of the Radio 4 Today programme studio, when five of its end-of-year editions of were edited by “guests”. P J Harvey, the musician, was the guest editor who attracted the most noise, by giving prominent roles in commentary to John Pilger and Julian Assange, both of whom luxuriate in their ability to annoy anyone who doubts that capitalism and the United States are a conspiracy against the universe.
The previous week, another guest editor, Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, had caused another hoo-ha, or revived one of the BBC’s oldest hoo-has, when he tried to interfere with Thought for the Day. He wanted an atheist – or, more strictly, a “non-theist” – to deliver the daily homily in the programme’s Boxing Day edition. This was not permitted by the BBC because that slot is part of its religious programming, so an Alternative Thought for the Day slot was created.
This disputation was invigorating, but when we look at the full list of guest editors, it is hard to discern a systematic BBC bias. Everyone from a former Monty Python to a fat-cat banker had a turn.
More important for the integrity of the corporation is the future of its World Service. We report today that some staff, MPs and John Tusa, a former head of the World Service, are concerned about plans to “commercialise” the service and to shift the emphasis of its coverage away from “politics and conflict”. They are right to sound the alarm.
The plan for “wider commercialisation” is partly a response by the BBC to the loss of taxpayer funding for the service through the Foreign Office. This was an act of small-minded penny-pinching, even if it has the advantage of ensuring that the World Service, which is editorially independent of the Government, is seen to be so. The cost of the service is so small in relation to the total income from the licence fee that it is easily sustainable by the BBC without allowing commercial advertising to influence editorial decisions. And if the BBC nomenklatura protest that money is tight, they should be told to cut their own salaries by at least half before coming back to plead for another rise in the licence fee.
For all its flaws, the BBC remains a priceless national asset, and one which is adapting to new media technologies surprisingly well. The complaints about its publicly funded online presence crowding out other internet journalism have receded, for now. Instead, licence payers tend to be impressed with the innovation on offer. In his big speech in October, Tony Hall, the Director-General, promised to reinvent iPlayer, but it is already changing how people watch television and listen to the radio, with extra services such as Playlister.
This has all been achieved while retaining the BBC’s trusted and distinctive public service brand. It dealt badly with the legacy of abusive power relationships exposed after Jimmy Savile’s death, but such mistakes cannot invalidate its main purpose.
Long may it continue to infuriate us at home and represent our national commitment to honest journalism and freedom of expression abroad.
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