Men walk past a bank of television screens in the BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House. Photograph: Getty Images
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We must defend the BBC from Murdoch and death by a thousand Tory cuts

If we want to preserve quality public-service broadcasting in Britain, we must defend the Beeb.

Rule one of politics, as Barack Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once remarked, is: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.” Right-wingers in the UK have heeded his words: they certainly aren’t allowing the crises engulfing the BBC “to go to waste”. And their strategy is as brazen as it is cynical and opportunistic: to magnify and exaggerate the sins of the hated Beeb while quietly minimising the crimes of their friends at News International.

A case in point was Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column of 12 November. After blithely declaring that the “real tragedy” was the “smearing [of] an innocent man’s name” by BBC’s Newsnight (and not, as you might think, the sexual abuse of children), Johnson claimed that Newsnight’s reporting had been “more cruel, revolting and idiotic than anything perpetrated by the News of the World”.

Sorry, what? Dare I remind the Mayor of London that more than 4,000 people have been identified by police as possible victims of phone-hacking, including the families of dead British soldiers, relatives of the 7/7 victims and a murdered schoolgirl? Yet the cultural vandals on the right only have eyes for the BBC, whose existence has always been anathema to their free-market, anti-regulation ideology.

Hysteria and hyperbole

The Newsnight debacle has provided the perfect cover for an attack on the corporation that has been a long time in the making. Remember, in opposition, the Conservative Party in effect allowed James Murdoch and NewsCorp lobbyists to write its media policy. And on coming to office, the Tory-led coalition froze the BBC licence fee for six years. An unavoidable cost-cutting measure, perhaps? Not quite: a gleeful David Cameron let the mask slip when he referred to the BBC “deliciously” having to slash its budget. (For the record, the BBC costs each licensed household less than 40p a day.)

In recent weeks, conservatives – both big and small “c” – have queued up to denounce the broadcaster and demand that it be downsized or even broken up. “The BBC must do less, and do it better,” declaimed the Telegraph on 13 November. The Defence Secretary, the Conservative Philip Hammond, suggested in (where else?) a BBC radio interview that the future of the licence fee might be in doubt.

What we are witnessing is a shameless, co-ordinated assault on the BBC’s reputation and output by Conservative politicians and by their outriders in the right-wing media echo chamber. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: where were these doughty Tory defenders of media ethics when Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of the murdered architect Joanna Yeates, was being smeared as a “creepy” killer by the press? Eight newspapers, including the Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail, had to pay “substantial” libel damages to the former schoolmaster. None of those papers’ editors quit his job; none “stood aside” from his post pending an independent inquiry.

It is also worth asking why so few Tory MPs and Tory-supporting columnists have gone after ITV – the network on which the presenter Phillip Schofield idiotically ambushed the Prime Minister, live on air, with a list of alleged paedophiles culled from the internet. Schofield is still in his job. So, too, are the chairman and chief executive of ITV.

To try to delegitimise or dismantle the BBC, the world’s biggest and best broadcaster, on the basis of Newsnight’s double failure – first over Jimmy Savile, then over Lord McAlpine – is unfair both to the corporation and to Newsnight itself. Ask the brave people of the besieged Syrian city of Homs what they think of the show. Newsnight’s acclaimed film Undercover in Homs, which reported their plight to Britain, won an Amnesty media award in May.

The BBC is bigger than Newsnight – though you might not have guessed it from the recent hysteria and hyperbole in the press. Consider some of the award-winning and popular BBC output of the past 12 months: Panorama, David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet, Andrew Marr’s History of the World, Strictly Come Dancing, The Archers, Sherlock, the Today programme, Children in Need, the Proms, Woman’s Hour, CBeebies . . . the list goes on. Figures released by the corporation suggest 96 per cent of the UK population consumes BBC services every week.

The inconvenient truth for right-wingers is that their hatred of the taxpayer-funded, publicly owned BBC has never been shared by the tax-paying public. As the Financial Times noted on 12 November: “In a survey by Ofcom, the media regulator, in November 2011, 59 per cent of people said the BBC was the news source they most trusted. The next, ITV News, scored 7 per cent.” The reporters added: “No newspaper beat 2 per cent.”

Beware the Rupert

The BBC has bent over backwards to hold itself to account. How many other media organisations would have allowed their editor-in-chief to be flayed in public by one of his own employees, as Ent­wistle was by the Today programme’s John Humphrys on 10 November?

Full disclosure: I was once a BBC employee and I now do paid punditry for various BBC programmes. But I am no dewy-eyed defender of Auntie: I have, on these pages, condemned the Beeb’s “establishment bias . . . towards power and privilege, tradition and orthodoxy” and its “stomach-churning” coverage of the monarchy. And I agree that the corporation’s “bonkers” (© David Dimbleby) management structure is stuffed with “cowards and incompetents” (© Jeremy Paxman).

But what is the alternative? Death by a thousand Tory cuts? The Foxification of the British media landscape? Make no mistake, Rupert Murdoch – who incidentally hasn’t had to resign as chief executive of a media company where phone-hacking was conducted on an industrial scale – is waiting in the wings.

The BBC, despite its many faults, must be protected from its right-wing enemies. In the battle to preserve high-quality, non-partisan public-service broadcasting, Auntie is our last line of defence.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer to the New Statesman. This piece is crossposted with the Huffington Post here

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot