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The Beeb dances to its own beat

Opportunistic politicians should remember the BBC is a public-service, not a state, broadcaster

The shadow culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, thinks what's wrong with the Beeb is that there are too few Conservatives running bits of it. Labour's Ben Bradshaw thinks the problem is a "fawning" and "feeble" Today programme, which indulges Conservative ministers. Perhaps they should get together to thrash it out while the rest of us switch over.

There is plenty for them to fight about, on the question of the corporation's correct boundaries and how it should be paid for, without presuming to tell us how they would run it. Hunt started out, reasonably enough, saying that the BBC was too large and posed a threat to competitors. Now, he has a taste for blood and wants it to "actively look" for Conservatives to appoint to senior jobs.

Bradshaw tweets that Evan Davis's interviews with Michael Gove and George Osborne were too nice. Why is this his job at all? It isn't; in the same way, it is wrong of Hunt to prescribe "more Tories" as the recipe for sharper BBC journalism. The key to programme quality and innovation is not more or fewer of one sort of journalist. It is better journalists - challenging, enlightening and just doing the job properly.

Beneath the politicians' presumptions lies a belief that the BBC is an extension of government - present or future. It isn't: we have a public-service, not a state, broadcaster, and it is vital to preserve the difference.

Politicians muscle in

The BBC certainly needs a less supine supervision system, as the present BBC Trust, with an uninspiring figure at the helm, is neither effective in monitoring its anti-competitive activities rigorously nor a strong voice for its defence in a firefight. Letting politicians colonise this area, however, is like asking competing foxes to share a debate in the henhouse.

They're all trying to muscle in on the fight. David Cameron wants to decide the DG's salary. Harriet Harman wants more older women on TV and will doubtless wag her Equality Bill at any future contraventions. If (for one never knows how far Harmanism goes) her next good cause is another target group, are we to expect an instant rejigging of the on-screen staff to oblige her then, too?

On it goes. Peter Hain is at odds with Question Time's decision to let the BNP on the panel. George Osborne has attacked the Beeb's top managers for being paid more than the Prime Minister. The same New Tories who deride Big Government somehow want it to run the corporation's internal accounting as well as the country. The comparison is specious, to boot. Prime ministers and chancellors make a fortune when they leave office (see Tony Blair for advice). Let us not be fooled by their claim to be the embodiments of modesty in their incomes.

The broader point is that public institutions work best when they have clear boundaries, but are left to do their jobs. Our broadcast landscape is not dominated by party politics in public life. This makes it different and better than, say, Berlusconi's Italy or a sheikh-run fiefdom, in which the interests of broadcasters are identical with those of the government.

New Labour has presided over an erosion of the arm's-length principle, with heedless expansion of quangos and semi-accountable institutions. This is no reason for the Conservatives to continue in that spirit: indeed, they should make more of opposing it.

Hunt's position is that he won't be satisfied until he detects a more pro-Cameron direction in BBC news. Bradshaw wants a harsher tone towards the Conservatives, which would benefit Labour. But how many professional people who are not politicians consider themselves defined primarily by their party allegiance, or want to be considered as such when they go for a job?

I say all this as someone who has been critical of BBC bias, not its automatic defender. In the arguments about Britain's entry to the European Monetary Union, the figure most reliably wheeled out to embody the sceptical case was Norman Tebbit. The sceptics' argument was thus firmly branded on the airwaves as the preserve of a hard-right, ageing group.

Now, even the corporation's own executives concede that it has had to correct a tendency to tell us that immigration was an unalloyed good. It still does odd things, such as producing, in the Politics Pen on Newsnight, a panel of pundits who all had a connection with Labour. But does anyone seriously think the BBC would be a better organisation for dancing to the tune of opportunistic politicians, who are transient in their responsibility and have their own axes to grind?

This is not the GDR

The corporation must be seen to spend licence-fee money wisely. It is obliged to look critically at its bloated super-management class. It is rightly pressed by competitors about its impact on their businesses: no one owns up to having wanted the untrammelled spread of its activities, but somehow it has happened.

All of this is justified political interest. Telling it how to allocate resources, or what sort of person to prefer in job interviews, is not.

In East Germany during the 1960s, Walter Ulbricht called together writers to complain that, after a decade and a half of GDR literary production, they had not yet produced a socialist equivalent to Goethe's Faust. To which the grande dame Anna Seghers replied, sweetly: "But what would we do about a socialist Mephisto, Comrade Ulbricht?"

It sounds like one of those absurd stories from the la-la land of communism passé. Yet the same instinct to interfere and shape things in the likeness of a party view never goes away.

Full disclosure: I present an arts and ideas programme on the Beeb, and am (so far) exempt from Hunt's and Bradshaw's zealous attentions. So I brandish no sword of revenge here, just one of warning. Mission creep is infinite in its possibilities, which is why it should be seen for what it is, and resisted.

Anne McElvoy is a political columnist of the London Evening Standard and a presenter of BBC Radio 3's "Nightwaves"

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England