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The Broken BBC

From Public Service to Corporate Power

Gavin Lewis is a British freelance writer and academic who has taught critical theory, film, and cultural studies at several UK universities.

In the face of austerity cuts to state infrastructure provision, the British Broadcasting Corporation has recently generated something of a moral panic about the future of public sector broadcasting—mobilizing both its own news channel and its friends in the corporate media around the issue. Yet in the midst of this ongoing existential crisis, few have asked: What is it we are being asked to defend? One exception was an Australian expatriate named Doug Carey, who, as an outsider beyond vested interests and a stranger to degraded UK norms, was equipped to make the following emperor’s-new-clothes critique in a September 2014 letter to the Guardian:

As a recent arrival from Australia, I had such high hopes of British TV. We received many wonderful programmes in Oz from the BBC. Since being here for three months, I wonder where they have gone. Endless repeats, rubbish house programmes and idiotic antique shows. To be reduced to watching Alas Smith and Jones on some other network is pathetic. What’s happened to British TV?1

Carey’s was far from an arbitrary impression. In the same year, the corporation’s BBC2 channel celebrated “Fifty Years of Comedy.” Watching this, it was almost impossible to fail to notice just how much of its top comedy talent—The Fast Show (1994–1997, winner of BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards), Harry Enfield’s Television Programme (1990–1998), Shooting Stars (1993–1997), and shows that demonstrated its public-service commitment to ethnic diversity, Goodness Gracious Me (1998–2001, Royal Television Society award), The Real McCoy (1991–1996), and more—had been allowed to hemorrhage from the corporation, all at roughly the same time toward the end of the ’90s. In the years following, budgeting and formulaic, micro-managerial standardization saw the bulk of the BBC’s comedy output regress to a cheap 1950s What’s My Line panel show model, punctuated only by a few “prestige” productions.

At the same time, the BBC’s curatorship of major film seasons—celebrating different auteurs, stars, directors, national cinemas, experimental styles—also imploded, never to be restored to its previous rigor, and independent drama production all but collapsed. However, the abandonment of traditional fully-funded public service provision, particularly in its drama production, has largely been camouflaged, especially for international viewers, by the further adoption of post-Fordist managerial production techniques applied to a handful of flagship productions, designed for an expanded global sales distribution. As in car manufacturing, what is provided is a limitedly resourced primary product, altered for different consumption demands, by add-on and take-off parts. For instance, the BBC’s Dr. Who (usually one series split into two half seasons), and Sherlock (three episodes per year), use many of the same writers, share some of the same actors, and often even, draw on the same musical palette. These few high-profile productions are not constructed exclusively or even primarily for audiences in the UK, where televised product marketing is prohibited on BBC channels; their running times and scene lengths are structured for the insertion of advertising breaks in foreign markets. This restricted production model hardly represents diversity, much less a thorough, consistent and specifically British public service provision.

Where, then, did the resources of public service broadcasting go, and what happened at the end of the 1990s? In 1997, the BBC invested heavily in the newly created News24 Channel. In No News Is Bad News: Radio, Television and the Public (2014) Michael Bromley notes the corporation “was heavily criticized for the development and subsequent cost of BBC News 24, which is available 24 hours a day,” and which diverted funds and resources away from other, established channels and programs.2 But the cost and burden to the rest of the network is not the only issue. The evidence increasingly suggests that this investment signaled the BBC’s metamorphosis from a rounded, albeit unaccountable, public service provider, to a full-blown corporate state broadcaster and propagandist. The continued existence of the BBC and other national public service broadcasters owes much to the concept of the public sphere, explored by Jürgen Habermas and other socio-media theorists.3 This idea posits the need for democracies to maintain a protected, universally accessible neutral space, where social diversity and open debate can be expressed free from vested interests.

Whatever the logic or feasibility of that model, it is fair to say that BBC News24 in no way achieves any ideal of a discursive space free from market motives. Instead it repeats and mirrors existing institutional power dynamics. Formally, the channel is a twin of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News. Its editorial values are so identical that viewers get exactly the same hierarchy of news stories, at the same time of day, and predominantly from the same ideological viewpoint. The channels even screen their weather reports simultaneously, and each have “newspaper preview” segments, also broadcast at the same time. Like Sky, the BBC is happy to define itself in relation to the right-wing press but almost never allows comparison with the diversity of other national public sector-based global news broadcasters–France 24, or Russia Today (RT), for example–to throw the validity of the “new” BBC project into question. The BBC’s “newspaper preview” also almost exclusively features guest commentators from the oligarchic print media, rather than representatives of civil society, thereby ensuring further ideological conformity and continuity. This hegemonic homogenization with the right-wing press is even more dubious given, as Goldsmith’s College professor James Curran has pointed out, “according to the 2010 Eurobarometer survey, the British public was the least disposed to trust its press, out of a total of 27 European countries.”4 A more recent poll by YouGov ranked the British press as the most “right-wing” and “biased” in Europe.5

What, then, are the broader characteristics of the new BBC, and how representative is it? In its ideological assumptions and structural representations, News24 is resolutely pro-business and pro-market. A definitive study led by Mike Berry of Cardiff University notes that “on BBC News at Six, business representatives outnumbered trade union spokespersons by more than five to one (11 vs 2) in 2007 and by 19 to one in 2012. On the issues of immigration and the EU in 2012, out of 806 source appearances, not one was allocated to a representative of organized labor.” When covering the 2008–2009 banking crisis, “opinion was almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage.”6

The corporation’s journalists pursue this pro-business, free-market ideology to the point of blatant hypocrisy and even self-destruction. In February 2014, a BBC journalist cross-examined then-Labour leader Ed Miliband about the lack of privatization plans in the Party’s public-sector proposals. This is a common theme in BBC news interviews. In the previous week, Hard Talk presenter Stephen Sucker berated the Indian finance minister for subsidizing the country’s farmers. Though editorially critical of other, less well-paid workers receiving public sector incomes, the issue of BBC funding and its own journalists’ ample salaries, similarly supported by taxes and public spending, seems to present no quandary to its reporters.

Obviously, none of this accords with the ideal of a public sphere separate and free from vested interests. Nor is this ideological positioning some accident compensated for by the diversity of representation in other parts of the network. The larger consequence of the invention of News24 is that, again, diversity of provision has been throttled by the imposition of a post-Fordist, core-and-periphery management structure. The BBC’s other channels either take their bulletin newsfeed from the main news channel, or have their output homogenized around the editorial dictates and demands of the core control location. Here Mike Berry’s graphic analysis of the BBC Radio 4 program Today‘s coverage of the collapse of Lehman Brothers shows the same ideological imbalance of the TV news channel (Chart 1).

Chart 1. Interview Sources Discussing the Banking Crisis on BBC’s Today Program, September 15–October 20, 20087

Chart 1. Interview Sources Discussing the Banking Crisis on BBC's Today Program, September 15–October 20, 2008

The new, pro-business BBC may well be guilty of playing fast and loose with the obligations of its charter, which requires “impartiality” and “forbids” the service from carrying advertising.8 However, even more worrying is its bond with state power and its willingness to embrace racism in the maintenance of this relationship. There is insufficient space here to fully discuss the wholesale institutional racism of BBC news coverage, where massive indigenous civilian casualties are edited from public consciousness, the Black Lives Matter and Muslim Lives Matter campaigns are ignored, and the Mark Duggan race riots are written off as outbursts of mere greed. Whenever possible, News24 does not represent the deaths of civilians—in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere—at the hands of British and American invading forces. It covers these “shock and awe” adventures as a sort of exciting fireworks display. With great solemnity, the channel covers the returned caskets of dead UK soldiers, but Iraqi war dead are not represented, either visually, as corpses, or in casualty statistics.

Protests against the killing of civilians are given similarly little representation. For example, in Afghanistan, demonstrations around the killing of local children by occupying western militaries had reached such a pitch that, after the 2011 incident in which nine children were bombed and killed, even Western satrap President Karzai was forced to publicly embarrass General Petraeus by stating, “On behalf of the people of Afghanistan, I want you to stop the killings of civilians,” and rejecting his subsequent apology as “not enough.”9 This story was buried in the BBC teletext service. Instead the corporation prioritized over the deaths of Afghan children a story about a Muslim protester convicted for the symbolic gesture of burning plastic poppies (an offence against public order). In 2013, an English soldier named Lee Rigby was attacked and killed on the streets of London by two Nigerian-British converts to Islam. If such a thing had happened forty years ago, during the BBC’s Vietnam War journalistic heyday, thoroughness would have mandated that eventually some attention be given to the activities of the soldier’s regiment in Afghanistan, recording both the indigenous and regimental casualties it generated.

But not in our era, and not on the new BBC News24 Channel. Similarly, BBC’s coverage of the 2014 withdrawal of British troops featured a report from an Afghan graveyard. Viewers were told that graveyards here were full of war victims, killed by the Soviets, the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, and social unrest. No mention was made, though, of the deadly consequences of the British-American invasion. It is hard to view this as anything other than a deliberate manifestation of corporate state hegemony, designed to produce a very particular and apparently partially successful outcome. Noam Chomsky and colleagues recently made the following public observations about British war coverage:

In May 2013 the reputable polling company CoMres asked a representative sample of the British public the following question: “How many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?” According to 59% of the respondents, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war. The results are especially shocking because…the latest scientific estimate of the death toll from the war is almost 500,000. This was published in PLOS Medicine. Two previous studies, also published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, suggest the death toll may possibly have been closer to a million… The CoMres poll is powerful evidence that the media misled the public about the consequences of the war.10

In the aftermath of the recent Paris killings, the BBC’s Panorama current affairs show followed up with an edition called “The Battle for British Islam.” While defending the free-speech right to offend of Charlie Hebdo, the BBC simultaneously condemned Muslim television news outlets for reporting civilian casualties at the hands of Western forces, which they described as “pandering to a Muslim victim narrative.” By comparison, when white victims go unacknowledged, this is referred to as “genocide denial,” often by the BBC itself. It is hardly surprising that, in the face of such monolithic misrepresentation, there is now a Muslim YouTube news channel called Voice of the Voiceless, and Muslim “voicelessness” has now become a prominent theme of Al Jazeera’s coverage.

This coverage raises broader questions about the role the British license payer-funded News24 channel plays in representing U.S. global hegemony. Coverage of U.S. government actions and policy tend to be driven by a crude, skewed “good guy versus bad guy” narrative formula. Countries that the United States has designs on, or potential adversarial relationships with—any leftist Latin American country, or Russia, or Iran—are disproportionately subject to ongoing historical critiques and even speculative conspiracy theories. All this despite the disastrous legacy of U.S. foreign policy: just in recent years, the United States has invaded Iraq and Afghanistan; established torture centers; supported a coup d’état against Hugo Chávez of Venezuela; and financed the Egyptian army, which brought down its own democratically elected Muslim government and imprisoned international journalists. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was even caught on tape attempting to handpick an unelected government for Ukraine.11 But on BBC programs, it is Russia that is editorialized about and repeatedly accused of “meddling” in this instance in a country with a large ethnic Russian population—at the very least a more serviceable pretext for intervention than anything Nuland could offer.

The BBC’s pro-American editorial technique is almost crassly simple, and primarily based upon double standards at the level of analysis and point of view. Foreigners can be editorialized about, and have their histories and patterns of behavior subjected to “joined-up” historical analysis. While the policy offences of Anglo-Saxon America are only ever reported as single, year-zero incident violations, with no similar ongoing relationship to previous transgressions. Then there is the issue of the point of view from which viewer identification is generated. Protests in countries that the United States doesn’t like–as in the so-called Arab Spring—are covered from the point of view of demonstrators. By comparison, the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are either ignored or treated as deserving of significant suspicion. Content coverage about Russia is often orientated around the issue of homophobic human rights abuses. But you won’t similarly hear that the United States, with only 5 percent of the world population, accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population, often for profit in privatized jails, nor that a disproportionate number of these inmates, are black and Latino.12 Given these editorial practices, and its treatment of indigenous casualties, if the current BBC was operating during the Vietnam War era, it is hard to imagine the viewing public would hear much of the My Lai Massacre or the identity of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is hardly surprising that the current U.S. civil rights crisis is something of a shock to BBC News24 viewers, or that the corporation successfully places its infotainment product on U.S. cable and radio networks.

One of the problems of attempting to expose this sort of coverage is the historical construction of a narrative of “impartiality” that has long been attached to the BBC. Those nostalgic for some idealized past of public service provision, who hope that this analysis is hyperbolic or that claims of a BBC ideological agenda are over-egged, should be aware of a 2014 interview in the Guardian with former BBC World Service director Peter Horrocks. In it he demanded more funds for the BBC to fight a “global ‘information war’ with the Kremlin,” and compared this campaign to “the overall national interest and things we spend on international influence, like military spending.”13 Sadly, this territorial imperialist agenda is far from an eccentric policy interpretation by a single former manager. Introducing the BBC’s Future of News report, James Harding linked the BBC’s news provision to the notion of soft power: “If the UK wants the BBC to remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the government will have to recognise this.”14 Director General Tony Hall also followed up this report by pushing for extra funding for foreign territorial interventions, “unveil[ing] proposals for a significant expansion of the BBC World Service, including potentially a satellite TV service for Russian speakers and a daily radio news programme for North Korea.”15

The great irony is that editorially, Russia’s RT (Russia Today) news service, despite its own significant problems with “impartiality” and nationalist narratives, shares many characteristics with the standards of the pre-News24 BBC. RT’s Western-oriented programming accommodates independent, non-embedded, non-establishment, academic, and expert opinion. It also gives up space and editorial control to specialist contributors. At the mainstream end, this has included Larry King’s Politicking, but also many counter-cultural shows, including, in Britain, pro-Palestinian MP George Galloway’s Sputnik, Afshin Rattansi’s Going Underground, in the United States, Abby Martin’s Breaking the Set, Tyrel Ventura, Sean Stone, and Tabetha Wallace fronting Watching the Hawks and The Big Picture with Tom Hartmann. These are captioned prior to screening as not representing the station’s own editorial voice. The micro-managed BBC does not do anything comparable. The BBC is a public network, established to ensure that the diversity of British democracy is represented. At a 2013 autumn conference, internationally renowned veteran filmmaker Ken Loach founded the Left Unity party, whose aim was to supersede the then neoliberal-captured Labour. Britons would have struggled to find significant coverage on their own BBC. However, it was featured on Russia’s RT and a number of other global news outlets.

Along with a narrative of “impartiality,” historical notions of the distinct and elevated “quality” of BBC journalism further obscure the ideological work of the corporation. But in fact, the BBC replicates some of the lowest reporting techniques of the corporate media. Public relations material masquerades as journalism. Advertising and political spin are passed off as “anonymous off-the-record-briefings” with unnamed government officials. This un-sourced and largely un-critiqued material is placed in the public domain by a reporter speaking directly to camera, usually from outside the institution whose spin is being disseminated free of charge. Obviously this “anonymous briefing” is not whistle-blowing, though source anonymity is manipulatively excused by this precedent. The treatment of the tragic death of weapons inspector David Kelly, who had cast doubt on the WMD case for the Iraq war, shows how this plays out. Prior to David Kelly’s suicide, a Downing Street press officer untruthfully briefed the press corps that he was a deluded busybody, a “Walter Mitty character.” This story was then repeated uncritically by reporters, usually speaking directly to camera from outside the Prime Minister’s residence. Nothing happened to the original press officer–other than eventually receiving a peerage–because this process does not allow for him to be named on the record. Most of the BBC coverage of Downing Street and other sites of vested interests still operate upon this model.

Another method the BBC uses to cover its lack of actual supporting sources is to forgo direct-address to camera, and instead disseminate material through staged conversations and studio interviews with their own staff, which gives a false sense of discovering real material. Most first-year undergraduate essays would fail to pass if presented with this lack of substantiation. BBC interviews on the ground also often still rely on the much discredited “noddy,” an artificial reconstruction that takes place after an interview has been shot. Journalists then have the camera turned on themselves and theatrically act out a series of “nodding” and sometimes emotional reactions, to be subsequently edited into the finished segment. It’s not unusual to see a BBC journalist give a manipulative, teary-eyed performance—all after an interview has been conducted—with someone whose language they do not understand, whose contribution had to be translated.

Another factor which fundamentally perverts the news agenda is BBC coverage of their own staff. In recent years, BBC personalities Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis and presenter Stuart Hall (not the late academic) have been revealed to be serial sex criminals, often committing offenses on corporation property despite their acts being the subject of internal “canteen gossip.” Which prompts the question: Just what allowed these staff members to get away with these practices under the noses of a major news organization? The BBC’s Newsnight had been due to run an exposé of Savile in December 2011, but suddenly dropped the item. Presenter Jeremy Paxman told an enquiry into the scandal that the decision not to pursue the story was a “policy judgment,” and that he believed it “must have been a corporate decision.”16 The Press Gazette, followed by the Guardian, featured articles suggesting that a number of BBC journalists–including Meirion Jones, Liz MacKean, and Tom Giles—who had attempted to expose the alleged Savile cover-up, were tainted as “traitors” and “squeezed out” of the corporation as punishment, while others involved in suppressing the Savile story have kept their jobs.”17

More recently, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson was caught on film using the word “nigger,” after previously referring to a Southeast Asian man as a “slope.” Clarkson and his team have habitually referred to people of other ethnicities as “lazy, smelly” or even in scatological terms. The thousands of complaints caused by these racist remarks and the outraged public statements of foreign ambassadors are frequently covered on other global news outlets, but are buried by News24. They also are not permitted to appear on BBC viewer response shows, such as Newswatch and Points of View. Indeed, the BBC hardly ever allows complaints of racism against it, of any sort, to be aired. However, it covers itself by featuring on its teletext service the press releases designed to overwrite these complaints. It may be unnecessary to note here that the global export of Top Gear has been a major source of revenue for the corporation.

A regular feature of the show has been Clarkson and his two co-hosts driving across foreign landscapes in cars customized so as to cause maximum offense to locals. In May 2014, the Observer noted that in Argentina,

Clarkson and his team [were] accused of deliberately driving cars with license plates calculated to offend Argentinians because they referred to the 1982 Falklands conflict. The key plate in question, attached to a Porsche 928 driven by Clarkson, was H982 FKL…Two other high performance cars were said to carry plates with final digits close to the number of fatalities sustained by the Argentinian and British soldiers in the war. These plates, N269 KNG and EKH 646J, roughly coincided with the death tolls: 649 Argentinians and 258 Britons.18

Images of the three cars, also carried by the Guardian, appeared to lend weight to the three-car story.19 In short order, other print media outlets produced images of a fourth number plate, reading “BE11 END,” also taken on the trip.20 However, tasteless insults directed at a country’s war dead are not really the issue here. Like the jettisoned Savile report, what this story demonstrates is an erosion of boundaries between marketing, light entertainment, and news content. Regardless of the weeks of public furor, the story was again largely buried in the teletext service, where the show’s repeated rebuttal claimed this was all a “coincidence” generated by only “a single car number plate.” Viewers who complained about the absent or misleading news coverage instead got responses from Top Gear‘s independent producer—a light entertainment sub-contractor. Even after the Argentine government made a formal complaint, and despite the many news reports and photographs, to this day, the corporation has stuck to the “one number plate…coincidence” narrative. If the corporation is willing to embark on an Orwellian misrepresentation of reality simply to protect a light-entertainment asset, what if anything, can be trusted of its news output? Ironically, the following year, Clarkson punched a BBC line manager and was sacked anyway.

There is not the space here to explore further examples of the BBC “managing” its news agenda so as to negate public criticism, but the emblematic issue of personnel, class, and corporate ideology deserves further attention. The UK has in its postwar evolution attempted to develop policies of “equal opportunity,” both in the culture of employment and in the legal rules applied to it. It was believed that class, race, gender, and sexual orientation should not exclude people from employment, and that individual ability should be meritocratically recognized. Despite this, the BBC maintains a unique look and set of practices. The Director General—the peer Tony Hall—was appointed by invitation. There was no application or shortlist process to which black, minority ethnic, working-class, or female candidates were allowed access. The BBC’s flagship show of political debate is called Question Time. It is marketed as a harsh scrutiny of politicians, but the reality is that it provides great career exposure. The show’s service to the establishment earned a former presenter a peerage. Currently the host is David Dimbleby, son of the royal correspondent who gave his name to the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby Lectures. Jonathan Dimbleby, brother of David, presents an equivalent show on Radio 4, and does other journalism for the corporation, as does his former wife Bel Mooney. The reporter John Sergeant graduated from BBC journalism to presenting light entertainment for the corporation. His son Mike is now also a BBC journalist. Presenter and journalist Michael Buerk has similarly been followed into the corporation by his son Roland. The case of journalist Peter Snow and son Dan Snow is perhaps the most interesting. Just after leaving university, Dan Snow appeared on his father Peter’s military-themed show about the Battles of El Alamein. They followed this collaboration with a short series called Battlefield Britain, and Dan Snow subsequently released a coffee-table military history book of the same title. Since then, the BBC has introduced him on shows as the “historian Dan Snow.” There are no records of him holding any postgraduate qualifications, in any discipline.

What this personnel snapshot reveals is an organization structured upon an almost hermetically sealed class system where, if not outright nepotism, certainly a family introduction seems to advance careers, or, failing that, it is beneficial to have gone to the same Oxbridge college as one’s employers. Given what we can observe about the BBC’s dependence on corporate and political power, we have to ask: Doesn’t such a relationship positively demand an unaccountable elite labor-force to make it work? Doesn’t this elitism tie into the misrepresentations of staff failings? And why should this elite labor-force find the actions of power questionable, when they are disproportionately rewarded by it? Over the last decade or so, BBC documentaries have predominantly regressed to right-wing “toff-histories” presented by the great and the good. But is this posh recruitment more worrying than the example of Dan Snow, where the organization actually conjured academic credibility out of the ether, on the back of a prestigious BBC family name? Increasingly this elite seems unable to relate to the lives of normal Britons, and probably unwilling to represent the challenging power dynamics of genuine cultural history. This makes it all too amenable to government-demanded historical revisionism.

In the run up to First World War Centenary commemorations, Tory minster Michael Gove put intense pressure on the BBC to present a rewritten, pro-establishment remembrance of the conflict that elided memories of “lions led by donkeys” critiques of British military leadership. Gove issued a number of press statements and penned an article for the right-wing Daily Mail: “The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles—a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”21

Apart from a couple of tut-tutting articles from BBC celebrities, Gove got exactly what he asked for. Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder were all excluded from the broadcast schedules. Over the preceding decade, the BBC had given director Christian Carion’s romantic critique of the aristocratic waste of the Great War generation, Joyeux Noel (2005) an occasional screening, and BBC Films had previously produced a film version of Regeneration (1997), Booker Prize-winning novelist Pat Barker’s homage to Siegfried Sassoon, but these were also excluded, along with classics like Paths of Glory (1957) and Gallipoli (1981). Instead the educational theme of the BBC coverage was, “Has history misjudged the generals of World War One?”22 The BBC accompanied this with a season of shows celebrating the bravery of the British Tommy.23 No mention of alienation, hostility to authority, or even the idea of a “lost generation.”

Contrary to Gove’s arguments, British people’s sense of World War One, and their understandable anger about it, was not generated by some sort of left-wing conspiracy. It was born out of genuine social processes, oral histories of survivors, family memories passed down generations, and village and town hall memorials, plus the testimony of veterans on Remembrance Day. The massive spread of socialist and left-wing sensibilities after the First World War largely grew out of the alienation caused by this conflict, not the other way around.

It is offensive and ideologically manipulative deliberately to efface all of this—particularly the huge grassroots movements—from representation. Our sense of the era’s alienation was also generated by decades of cultural evolution and production. This includes the War poets and Lost Generation writers Erich Maria Remarque, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others. Such was the resonance of the alienated Lost Generation sensibility that it could still be found even in the 1950s Hollywood hardboiled films of Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner, some 30 years later. For the BBC to “disappear” this huge output of cultural production—even its own film adaptation of the critically lauded Regeneration—is once again Orwellian. The following year the BBC followed this coverage with a tribute to the survivors of the Second World War—Britain’s Greatest Generation. Unsurprisingly, mention of the leftist popular front against Nazism was absent.

In July 2015 the corporation announced, “The BBC is to cut 1,000 jobs because of a £150m budget gap in its license fee income. An unexpected increase in the number of households saying they do not watch live TV and so do not pay for a license has been blamed for the shortfall.”24 An increase in the number of households saying they do not watch TV might be unexpected within the world of media orthodoxies. However, even a casual reading of the political spectrum of British society tells a different story. For the political right—regardless of the corporation’s ideological function—the BBC is primarily of interest as a heritage industry producer and site of possible privatization. Young millennials tend to be uninterested in media monoliths, and prefer their media consumption through more localized technology. For the first time in decades the BBC, having come completely unmoored from its public sphere function, is now also almost totally irrelevant to the interests of the British left and to the sociological lower half of society. There is also a growing consensus that the license fee is becoming indefensible. Even the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee reflected public hostility, stating, “the TV license does not have a long-term future.”25

Part of the problem for the BBC has been that in pursuing a service-to-power agenda, it has aligned itself with deeply undemocratic, unrepresentative forces and values. As in the United States, the political sphere in Britain has suffered from corporate and neoliberal entryism. This political formation was not historically a substantial part of the country’s postwar culture. Black and Muslim Britons have not been forming clubs to demand that their countries of origin be re-conquered and control of their natural resources appropriated. Working-class Britons have not been demanding that their jobs be exported to sweatshop economies, or that they should lose welfare, job protections, and educational opportunities that it took activists generations to achieve. For the Labour Party, neoliberal capture has been particularly damaging. An anti-Conservative backlash gave the Party a 1997 general election turnout of 13.5 million. But in 2001, as the nature of its neoliberal project became apparent, it lost 3 million votes, down to a 10.5 million total. In each of the subsequent general elections, the party hemorrhaged a further million votes until finally in 2010 it plummeted to 8.6 million. At one point it had lost two-thirds of its peak membership. More recently, it lost every seat in Scotland but one. In the absence of a traditional socialist or social democratic representation to which to turn, Scotland embraced the Scottish National Party and its drive for independence.

Yet despite the BBC’s public sphere function, none of this huge social upheaval and dissent was allowed to destabilize normal coverage of a clearly unrepresentative neoliberal elite. Coverage was limited to the gossip and story-defining, prepackaged soundbites from a largely disgraced class of political celebrities with name recognition. By contrast, grassroots voices were willfully throttled. In 2010 the SNP, along with the Welsh independence party, Plaid Cymru, complained of being excluded from debates, as subsequently has the Green Party.26 In addition, thousands protested during the Scottish independence vote that the BBC was producing “‘Pravda-like’ propaganda,”—in its style if not in its politics—especially after an incident in which footage of the SNP’s leader was edited to give the false impression that he had been unable to answer a direct question at a press conference, reinforced by a misleading commentary claiming “he didn’t answer.”27

However, the BBC’s practice of forcing a distorted master narrative onto domestic political events has been most overt during its coverage of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Given the prospect of an orthodox Labour leader heading the party again, hundreds of thousands of former supporters reenlisted once again and, augmented by newly joining young idealists, achieved record Party membership levels—eventually bringing Corbyn a 60 percent majority win. During the campaign it was not unusual to hear representatives of the BBC’s commentariat refer to each of the other candidates by their first names, while pejoratively using Corbyn’s last name only. As polling organizations started to predict that underdog Corbyn’s unexpected lead would translate to a win, voters from affiliated organizations, unions, and cooperatives were smeared for having enjoyed cheap concessionary membership rates—as if voting were a preserve of the rich? Corbyn and his supporters were also frequently referred to in McCarthyite terms as partisans of the “hard left” or “far left.” And there was repeated talk of organized “hard left” infiltration of a party that ironically had for most of its history stood for a collectivist socialism, with a corresponding constitution and base demographic. The continuous BBC practice of prefixing Corbyn’s name with the labels “hard left” or “leftwing” so incensed sections of the public that subsequent to the leadership election, a petition was presented demanding that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron be equivalently prefixed as “rightwing.” By September 17, 2015, the Daily Mirror reported that the petition had gained 65,000 signatures, and by September 21, the Independent was reporting a figure of 80,000.28 The BBC put out a press release defending their position, but even in the face of this high-profile press attention, allowed no significant coverage of the petition to be carried on its news channel—mirroring the strategies carried out during the Scottish independence campaign, when political editor Nick Robinson gave interviews with the print media, condemning the alleged “intimidation” by protesters, despite the fact the BBC coverage was giving little indication that any protests had actually occurred.29

Contrary to the “hard left” spin, there was in fact very little in Corbyn’s policy agenda that diverged from Britain’s postwar political consensus. A criteria that describes Corbyn as “hard left” would also have to describe the interventionist Conservative postwar governments of Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, and Ted Heath as “leftwing” too, as well as every modern German government. This point didn’t escape some broader sections of the media: The Huffington Post‘s Phil Jones wrote, “Thirty plus years of Thatcherism in various forms, including under Blair, has seen the BBC all but throw in the towel as a serious objective economic analyst. Neoliberalism is the norm…a market interventionist like Harold Macmillan would now be regarded as a radical and a danger to the nation’s economic security.”30 Some time after the election, these smears were revealed as widely inaccurate when even a survey of Labour members by the Guardian—which had opposed Corbyn—revealed that “there are few reports of attempted infiltration from hard-left groups.”31

Though Labour once again has both a leftist leader and base, its Members of Parliament were largely centrally selected by the previous Blairite neoliberal regime. These MPs not only have a very different sensibility to traditional Labour culture, but evidently are also not about to give up the corporate gravy train or the possibility of careerist advancement within the United States-led world order. This conflict is not dissimilar to grassroots attempts to expel the “Republicrats” or “Thirdwayers” from the Democratic Party and to derail the campaign of Hillary Clinton, or other democratic political reclamation campaigns across the world. However, despite both the global nature of this political phenomenon and Britain’s longstanding investment in its public sphere, BBC coverage has not been remotely representative. The reporting has been relentlessly press release-driven, generated from the perspective of this small cadre of rogue neoliberal MPs. This bias has been exacerbated by the fact that outside of marketing techniques, the BBC no longer undertakes broad social research or interviews with grassroots activists, or—regardless of the public service model—genuinely reflects socio-political diversity.

There is much to learn from the fall of the BBC and the corruption of its public sphere purpose. The new BBC has been able to perform its intensified service-to-power less than a generation after required undergraduate reading would have included Gramsci’s analysis of the relations of “State and Civil Society,” Louis Althusser’s critique of the Ideological State Apparatus, and Foucault’s theories about the “disciplinary regimes” of language. The current state of the BBC tells us a great deal about how the new anti-intellectual McCarthyism and constructed notions of “extremism” shore up ideological systems. Instead of being subjected to genuine external intellectual scrutiny, the BBC has been able to self-legitimize and self-credentialize—Dan Snow is far from the only example. A recent advocate beating the drum for the BBC on the Guardian columnist pages has been Roger Mosey. Why is he given semi-regular column space? He is billed as master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, but this is a position he gained on the back of his status as a former BBC news editor.

Outside of corporate media hegemony, there is little intellectually to support the BBC. Sociologically, as demonstrated above, the BBC is even less sustainable. In this respect it mirrors the problematic recent history of the modern Labour Party. Both were formed to be socially representative, but instead have degenerated into providing technocratic service-to-power. An existential crisis was perhaps inevitable, but presumably those that profited from this process did not care about the future health of the institutions upon which they fed. However, the Labour Party was at least reliant on and could—to a limited extent—be influenced by voting. The BBC has no democratically elected positions of real power. It has allowed itself to forget the ideology that both brought it into being and which ratified its continued existence.32 If it now finds itself increasingly irrelevant to its social base and at risk of extinction, then it only has itself to blame. Without a genuine, representative sociological and intellectual connection to the society it purportedly serves, it is not really public service broadcasting, but corporate propaganda, and in the long run, who will care if that survives?

Notes

  1. Doug Carey, letter to theGuardian, September 17, 2014, http://guardian.co.uk.
  2. Michael Bromley, ed.,No News Is Bad News: Radio, Television and the Public(London: Routledge, 2014).
  3. Jürgen Habermas,The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).
  4. James Curran, letter to the Guardian, November 6, 2013.
  5. Will Dahlgreen, “British Press ‘Most Right-Wing’ in Europe,” YouGov UK, February 7, 2016, yougov.co.uk
  6. Mike Berry, “Hard Evidence: How Biased Is the BBC?” The Conversation, August 23, 2013, http://theconversation.com.
  7. Adapted from Figure 1 in Mike Berry, “TheToday Programme and the Banking Crisis,”Journalism 14, no. 2 (2013): 257.
  8. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “The BBC’s Editorial Values,” http://bbc.co.uk.
  9. Shah Marai, “Apology for Afghan Deaths ‘Not Enough’,”Daily Telgraph(Sydney), March 7, 2011. & Jon Kelly, “How Do You Insult Someone Legally?BBC News Magazine, May 18, 2012.
  10. Noam Chomsky et al., “Poll on Deaths in Iraq Ignored by British Media,” letter to theGuardian, December 4, 2013.
  11. Doina Chiacu and Arshad Mohammed, “Leaked Audio Reveals Embarrassing U.S. Exchange on Ukraine, EU,” Reuters, February 6, 2014, http://reuters.com.
  12. Michele Alexander,The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
  13. Josh Halliday, “BBC World Service Fears Losing Information War as Russia Today Ramps Up Pressure,”Guardian, December 21, 2014.
  14. Speech by James Harding, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, to Launch Future of News Report,” BBC Media Center, January 28, 2015.
  15. Mark Sweeney, “BBC Plans TV and Radio Services for Russia and North Korea,”Guardian, September 4, 2015.
  16. John Plunkett, “Jeremy Paxman: Newsnight’s Failure to Tackle Jimmy Savile Was ‘Pathetic’,”Guardian, February 22, 2013.
  17. Dominic Ponsford, “Meirion Jones: ‘Everyone on Right Side of the Savile Argument Has Been Forced Out of the BBC’,”Press Gazette, July 29, 2015; http://pressgazette.co.uk. Jasper Jackson, “BBC Forced Out Team Behind Savile Exposé, says ex-Newsnight Journalist,”Guardian, July 29, 2015.
  18. Vanessa Thorpe and Uki Goni, “Jeremy Clarkson Claims Falklands Protests Against Top Gear Were Orchestrated by the Government,”Guardian, October 4, 2015.
  19. Chris Johnston, “Jeremy Clarkson Feared Deaths in Argentina Number Plate Row,”Guardian, October 4, 2014.
  20. Gerard Couzens, “Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear Falkland Row Porsche Had ‘BE11 END’ Number Plate Inside,” Mirror, October 8, 2014, http://mirror.co.uk.
  21. Michael Gove, “Why Does the Left Insist on Belittling True British Heroes?Daily Mail, January 2, 2014, http://dailymail.co.uk.
  22. Gary Sheffield, “Has History Misjudged the Generals of World War One?” BBC iWonder, 2014; http://bbc.co.uk.
  23. Lucy Williamson, “What Caused Verdun to Be the Longest Battle of WWI?” BBC iWonder, 2016.
  24. BBC to Cut More than I,000 Jobs,” BBC News, July 2, 2015.
  25. No Long-Term Future for BBC Licence Fee, MPs Say,” BBC News, February 26, 2015.
  26. Trust Publishes Outcome of SNP/Plaid Cymru Appeal Relating to the BBC Prime Ministerial Debate,” BBC Trust, September 23, 2014; “Greens Are ‘Not a Major Party,’ Suggests Ofcom,” BBC News, January 8, 2015.
  27. Alasdair Glennie, “Alex Salmond Reignites Row with Nick Robinson Over ‘Bias’,”Guardian, September 18, 2015. Stephen Naysmith, “Nick Robinson Tells BBC Scotland Colleagues: Sorry I’ve Become the Story,”Herald Scotland, September 17, 2014, http://heraldscotland.com.
  28. Dan Bloom, “Petition for BBC to Call David Cameron ‘Right-Wing Prime Minister’ Backed by 65,000 People,” Mirror, September 17, 2015; Ian Burrell, “The BBC’s Refusal to Report the Dead Pig Allegations Against David Cameron Is Unacceptable,”Independent, September 21, 2015.
  29. Stephen Naysmith, “Nick Robinson Tells BBC Scotland Colleagues“; Press Association, “BBC’s Nick Richardson Attacks ‘Bullying’ Over Scottish Referendum Coverage,”Guardian, August 21, 2015.
  30. Phil Jones, “Nothing Particularly Moderate About the Labour ‘Moderates’,” Huffington Post UK, January 11, 2016, http://huffingtonpost.co.uk.
  31. Ewen MacAskill, “Revealed: How Jeremy Corbyn Has Reshaped the Labour Party,”Guardian, January 13, 2016.
  32. Tony Hall even refers to providing public services that the market cannot as a “market failure broadcaster”: Henry Austin, “BBC Director-General Tony Hall: The Tories Won’t Close Us Down,”Independent, June 21, 2015.
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