In this week’s New Statesman: The plot against the BBC

Featuring: Roger Mosey, Jason Cowley, Joan Bakewell, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Cooke and Mehdi Hasan

The plot against the BBC

“If the BBC has often fallen short of its high ideals, one should at least be grateful that it still has them,” says the New Statesman’s Leader this week. After a wave of justified criticism, the BBC has lost the trust of many. But if there is consolation to be drawn from the events of recent weeks, it is that so many expected better from the BBC. We have come to expect failings from successive institutions – parliament, the private press, the police. The BBC, however, retains our trust in its idealism. In this week’s issue, we bring together many voices in defence of the broadcaster, and consider its future.

The editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, writes:

If you were setting up a national broadcaster today you wouldn’t create the BBC in its present form, with its many layers of middle management, labyrinthine processes and structures and its desire to be all things to all people. Yet the BBC remains one of few British institutions . . . admired throughout the world, for its impartiality, the range and quality of its programmes and, in spite of the Newsnight debacle, commitment to truth-telling.

As a senior source at the corporation tells Cowley:

The search for someone to blame is always successful. But 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’. I knew something was wrong when the compliance officer became the most powerful person in the building.

Compliance should be left to engineering firms. The BBC needs to restore the culture where producers are given the confidence to produce and editors the confidence to edit. Because that climate was destroyed after Hutton and Brand.

The broadcaster, writer and Labour peer Joan Bakewell puts things into perspective:

Hundreds of hours of [well-researched, responsibly written and overall excellent] programmes pour from the BBC every day. They reach every corner of the country, spread across the world, earn money and reputation . . . and have no commercials! So let’s have a sense of perspective, can we? . . .

Nonetheless wherever broadcasters come together they moan about the BBC. It’s always the same gripe: too many managers . . . Nothing that has happened this week has surprised me. There has always been a paradox at the very top of the BBC.

The head of BBC Television, Roger Mosey, writes about why he promoted George Entwistle, the director general he respected for “his intelligence, his decency and his humour”:

History will judge what George and the BBC could have done better in fighting the firestorm but what I do know is that he’s a good man who shouldn’t be held responsible for the evils of previous decades. And as his colleague and friend in recent days, I know he didn’t deserve the level of national vilification that now seems to be the punishment for anyone who makes mistakes in public office.

In the end, Mosey argues, it is the long-term quality of BBC output that will define the corporation, not its “scandals” and “meltdowns”.

We hold others accountable, so there’s no argument that we should be accountable too. But as a journalistic culture, we should apply ourselves to the difference between what’s serious wrongdoing in the sense of being criminal or wicked – and what’s just a “good” story with fallible human beings at the centre of it.

There’s no question we’ve taken multiple hits as an organisation but you can’t be a BBC boss and not expect periodic crises . . . we know that the BBC’s corporate reputation is destined to have a roller-coaster ride. But the deeper test is what audiences think about our programmes rather than about the corporation itself.

Here there is reason for confidence.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

 

Terry Pratchett: The day he nearly died – and who’s taking over the Discworld

Laurie Penny, who returns to the New Statesman as a contributing editor this week, interviews the comic novelist, campaigner and “professional morbid bastard” Terry Pratchett about his life and work.

Pratchett discloses a near death experience, and also reveals the plan for his daughter Rhianna to “take over the Discworld when I’m gone”. Read exclusive extracts from the story here.

 

Rafael Behr: George Osborne doesn’t see that voters can love the idea of benefit cuts but end up hating the cutters

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes about the Welfare Reform Act – due to be voted in on 21 November. “As a piece of theatre,” Behr writes, “the vote on a statutory instrument filling gaps in the Welfare Reform Act is a non-event.”

Yet this shuffling of regulations into law is momentous for hundreds, possibly thousands of families. It finalises the conditions that mean, after April 2013, they could be evicted from their homes. That is when the “benefits cap” comes into force, limiting the amount any household can receive to £500 per week, £350 for childless singles.

Few households are technically in receipt of benefits above the capped level – about 20,000, mostly in London. None of them feels it as disposable income. The numbers are inflated by housing benefit (already subject to a separate cap), which has run out of control chasing the capital’s exorbitant rents. But outrage at perversities in the current system is greater than attention to the detail of who is affected by coalition policy. That anger has been successfully exploited by Conservatives, painting Labour as the party for handing public money to wastrels.

While some of the coalition’s welfare policies might be honourably motivated, the function of this particular change is neither budget consolidation nor reform. It is a gesture of pure political positioning by George Osborne that happens as a side effect to turn some of London’s poorest families out of their homes.

 

“What is the point of me? I don’t really know.” Charlie Brooker interviewed by Helen Lewis

The career of the university drop-out, cartoonist, games reviewer, broadcaster and celebrity satirist Charlie Brooker “has been more a series of drunken lurches than an orderly line”. Helen Lewis talks to Brooker about his most recent pitch-black comedy trilogy, Black Mirror:

Brooker is writing a second series of the show, but I have to ask him: how did it get made in the first place? How do you tell Channel 4 that you want to show the prime minister porking a pig? “That episode was a replacement,” he says. “There’s a script that is as yet unmade, that was bleaker.”

At short notice, he had to pitch to Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s creative officer . . . In the end, Channel 4’s only quibble was whether it had to be a pig. “We went around the houses. We thought about different animals: about frozen supermarket chicken, at one point a big block of cheese. But whatever you tried to substitute for it wasn’t quite the same – like if it’s a sheep, that’s just too comic. I suggested a duck, but that’s again just too weird. A pig is disgusting enough.

 

Ed Smith: King of the spinners

In our lead book review this week, the former Test cricketer and now NS columnist Ed Smith reviews Gideon Haigh’s biography of Shane Warne. “Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket,” Smith writes. “Sport was the medium but the substance was drama.”

Warne’s cultivation of a distinctive and compelling on-field persona, Smith suggests, was not without its costs:

In seeking mastery of an authentic personality on the stage, authenticity in “civilian” life becomes ever more elusive . . . All great actors sacrifice something of themselves in the pursuit of a truthful performance. So do sportsmen. Warne, the great method actor of modern sport, has perhaps paid a higher price than most.

 

For a review of what's in The Critics section of the New Statesman this week, have a look at our "In the Critics" feature here.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage