John Kampfner: A fearful BBC must regain its nerve

Its journalists are stronger than ever; but its institutional courage is weaker than ever. For all that, it remains our greatest brand

Thursday 10 March 2011 01:00 GMT

When Chris Patten was the last British governor to Hong Kong he had an uncanny knack of upsetting the Chinese Communist Party. Instead of kow-towing and ensuring a smooth handover of the colony, he sought to embed a new-found democratic spirit and emphasise the universal rights to free speech, free assembly and political plurality. He succeeded in large part, but earned himself some enemies in high places.

Patten will today appear before the House of Commons Culture and Media Select Committee for a grilling, ahead of his ratification as chairman of the BBC Trust. Labour MPs will demand that he quits the Tory party, of which he was once chair. They are not wrong in doing so, but no matter what his political hue, Patten is unlikely to be anyone's patsy.

The Corporation desperately needs someone with steel. It is both beleaguered and exasperating. It contains some of the best journalists and creative minds in the UK; it is also poorly managed and over-managed. It remains much loved, yet it seems to go out of its way to antagonise its supporters. At every turn it gives ground to the powerful business and political interests seeking to undermine it.

The ramifications of Rupert Murdoch's snapping up of BSkyB have been much debated. Less discussed was the approach of the BBC management. At one point Mark Thompson, the director general, sought to lead the battle against the tycoon; at the next he was suggesting that Britain might as well have "partial" television stations along the lines of Murdoch's Fox. The same mixed messages applied to the negotiation for the licence fee. Initially the BBC was hubristic, trying to out-macho the then Labour government; then it capitulated to the Coalition over a cut that was far more damaging.

The "scandals" of the past few years – Ross-Brand, Queengate and more – have not helped the Corporation's cause. The management response has been a mix of delay and panic. Where necessary, middle managers were sacrificed to preserve the top bosses. The right to free expression, even where offensive, was confused with the breaking of rules or the misleading of audiences. All journalists and entertainers make mistakes, particularly when performing live. That is the price to be paid for lively and challenging broadcasting.

The more embattled the BBC has become, the more frightened it has become. Risk aversion is embedded into the DNA of managers and by extension programme-makers. It is particularly prevalent in the news output. There remain many examples of best practice. The big names – Nick Robinson, Robert Peston, Stephanie Flanders, John Simpson – call it as they see it, with few ifs and buts. Only a few days ago, Frank Gardner must have incurred the wrath of the spooks by revealing the extent of the fiasco surrounding the SAS's helicopter mission to eastern Libya.

Yet for every example of risk and courage, there are dozens of examples of feebleness borne of fear. The Today programme's political interviews are now far too soft. Tuesday night's One Show chat with David Cameron, with the presenter's unctuous gratitude that he had graced their sofa and concern about the Prime Minister's sleeping habits, marked a return to "what would you like to tell a grateful nation".

The Corporation has played down reports that managers at BBC London's regional news banned the use of the term "cuts", preferring the softer "savings". However, it does not deny an edict making clear that the referendum on 5 May is not about electoral "reform", but electoral "change". Reform is apparently too positive a term.

Last Saturday, I caught the start to the afternoon play on Radio 4. It was about Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli scientist jailed for handing details of his country's secret nuclear weapons programme to a British newspaper.

The introduction to the programme said that, following his release from prison, Vanunu faced "certain restrictions". In fact, Vanunu is banned from leaving Israel, from making contact with foreign citizens, from coming within 300 metres of foreign embassies and from leaving his city of residence without prior permission from security agencies. "Certain restrictions" suggests a few minor inconveniences.

This is a small example, but one of many. I can just imagine how it came about. This small line might have been referred up, and up. The path of least resistance, of greatest caution, will have been followed.

Who can blame any individual? There is very little incentive to take risks. Every aspect of policy is chewed over, and churned up, from on high. Middle East policy, Europe policy, climate change: the BBC Trust delivers lengthy reports, sometimes chastising individual journalists for making remarks deemed to be "unbalanced".

The great canard of left-wing bias remains an obsession. With a political editor (Robinson) and chief political interviewer (Andrew Neil) known to have Conservative leanings (but as excellent professionals not showing them) and with the Tory head of communications at Downing Street and the London Mayor's office both hailing from the BBC, this myth should be nailed. There may be a leaning towards social liberalism, but that is the result of metropolitan values rather than party politics (and will not change with any move from London to Manchester).

Impartiality is a prized asset. It is what viewers, listeners and online readers seek, alongside the authority that comes with experienced journalists. (And it is what makes Thompson's relaxed remarks about shock-jock TV so crass). But the bureaucracy, the "compliance" form-filling, and the rabbit-in-headlights fear of negative headlines have stifled creativity and courage.

Five years ago I wrote an insider's account of the loss of nerve at the BBC, in a piece entitled "Broken, Beaten, Cowed". It focused then on the damage caused by the Corporation's capitulation after the Hutton Inquiry. In some areas, particularly commercial innovation (such as online services and the iPlayer), the Corporation has recovered its chutzpah. Its journalists remain as strong as ever; its institutional courage is weaker than ever.

Last, but most emblematic, has been the assault on the BBC World Service. The BBC is, in virtually all areas, a bloated organisation, offering too many services and staffed by too many managers of limited talent and too many footsoldiers who have never worked in the chilly world of the private sector. The need for cuts, or should I say savings, is as legitimate at the BBC as it is in all other areas of public life.

Once again, however, the organisation shoots itself in the foot. The BBC is perhaps the greatest brand this country now has to offer, and the World Service is a considerable part of that brand. With uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, with continued autocracy in Belarus, other parts of the former USSR and elsewhere, the quiet authority of the BBC has been vital. It does not operate in a vacuum and needs to modernise. But the cannibalisation of the World Service into an adjunct of domestic newsgathering will have a long- term detrimental effect on pro-democracy movements around the world.

All of these problems and more have been bequeathed to Patten. He has a strong record in pragmatism, but also pugilism. He will now need to display his qualities as a bruiser to defend not executive pay or irresponsible behaviour, but to unleash journalistic and creative courage – something that has been lost but can yet be found.

John Kampfner is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship and author of 'Freedom For Sale';

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