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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.