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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder