If there is one consolation that the BBC can draw from the events of recent weeks, it is that so many expected better from it. As successive institutions – parliament, the banks, the press, the police – have lost the trust of the public, the corporation has retained it. Yet, for the first time ever, according to a poll by YouGov, more people distrust the BBC’s journalists (47 per cent) than trust them (44 per cent). If the broadcaster is to recover, it must learn the right lessons from the current crisis and act on them swiftly and decisively.
Though BBC2’s Newsnight accounts for only a fraction of the 400,000 hours of content produced by the BBC each year, the scandals at the programme have exposed profound flaws in the way that the corporation is structured and led. When the hapless George Entwistle resigned, he did so not only as the BBC’s director general but also as its editor-inchief. It was the latter role that he so lamentably failed to perform in the case of Newsnight’s investigation into the Conservative peer Alistair McAlpine, of which he seemed comically unaware. His defence, when interrogated by John Humphrys in a career-ending interview on the Today programme, was: “The organisation is too big. There is too much journalism going on.” It is now clear that the job of director general is too large for any one individual. The post should be split in two, with a chief executive responsible for day-today management and an editor-in-chief responsible for supervising all content. In addition, uncertainty about the role of the BBC Trust, which at present acts as both a cheerleader and a regulator for the corporation, must be resolved.
Also necessary is a change of culture at an institution that has strayed far from its founding ideals. With its extravagantly remunerated presenters (the “talent”) and senior executives, the BBC has too often behaved like a private-sector organisation while enjoying the benefits of being a publicsector body. This month, it was revealed to have paid 804 of its presenters through “personal service companies”, allowing them to be taxed as companies and therefore to pay a lower rate of tax, instead of treating them as individuals who are taxed through PAYE. That arrangement was unacceptable and an insult to the great majority of ordinary taxpayers.
If some of the criticism of the BBC has been well intentioned (and well deserved), much of it has not been. The press, which has responded with undisguised glee to the corporation’s woes, is less interested in promoting rigorous journalism than it is in destroying a competitor. For Rupert Murdoch’s News
International, which might wish to reflect on its own recent history before lecturing the broadcaster on journalistic ethics, the BBC is the last obstacle to unfettered market domination. In its war against the corporation, it finds many allies on the Conservative back benches. Having secured a 16 per cent real-terms cut in the licence fee, some Tory MPs would like to see the BBC abolished altogether.
Confronted by these threats to its existence, the BBC may be tempted to adopt a safety-first approach. As one senior corporation source tells Jason Cowley on page 20: “The solution to each crisis seems to sow the seeds for the next. So we will probably end up with even more managers, more box-ticking and more compliance ‘to stop this happening again’.” Yet such timidity would serve neither the BBC nor its audience well. Rather, as the source suggests, “The BBC needs to restore the culture where producers are given the confidence to produce and editors the confidence to edit.”
If the BBC has often fallen short of its high ideals, one should at least be grateful that it still has them. The need for an impartial public-service broadcaster, beholden to neither the state nor the market, is as great today as it has ever been.