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7 February 2005

Time to pension off Paxman

Michael Leapman argues that the BBC should abandon the Newsnight style of attack journalism and conf

By Michael Leapman

There is no pleasing them. For years, weeping into their pints of real ale in the staff club, BBC executives would rail against “the sodding governors”; and though both the tipple and the epithet may have been updated, the sentiment persists. Yet when a committee headed by Lord Burns recommends the abolition of that disparate band of worthies charged both with administering the corporation and regulating it, the suggestion provokes an outcry from the very same executives.

Under the Burns proposals, the governors’ responsibilities would be split between a new regulator (the Public Service Broadcasting Commission) and a reconstituted internal board of executive and non-executive directors. This would end the absurdity of a single body being obliged to rap itself on the knuckles for decisions taken in its name, as happened most damagingly over the Hutton inquiry into Andrew Gilligan’s report for Today about the government’s “sexing up” of a dossier on weapons of mass destruction, which ended in the suicide of Dr David Kelly.

The BBC itself made no substantive response to the Burns plan, but it was not long before its usual cheerleaders went into print to denounce what they depicted as a plot to rip out the corporation’s heart. The aspect that alarms them most is not the replacement of one quango by another, but the powers of the new commission. It would be charged with recommending the level of the licence fee and then dividing it up between the BBC and other broadcasters with public service obligations, such as ITV and Channel 4. This would end the corporation’s most valued privilege: having at its disposal a discrete pot of money – albeit of a capacity set by the government – which it alone decides how to spend.

Michael Grade, appointed as chairman to mop up the blood when both his predecessor and the director-general were pushed on to their swords, knew that the Hutton debacle would raise questions about governance. That is why he has already made a symbolic gambit to curb the governors’ influence by moving their office away from the corporation’s White City nerve centre (and, by happy chance, closer to their West End clubs and restaurants). But where the board sits is irrelevant. The central dilemma, never properly addressed in the BBC’s 78-year history, is whether a state-owned broadcaster, relying for its funding on the goodwill of the government of the day, can insulate itself from its paymaster and be free to engage in journalism that denounces government policies. That is what the Gilligan row was about.

Just before Burns was published, both Grade and Greg Dyke, the sacked director-general, addressed aspects of that issue in separate speeches. Grade, giving the inaugural Hugh Cudlipp lecture on 24 January, stressed how important it was that BBC journalism should maintain impartiality, while decrying “the knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses every statement from every politician as, by definition, a lie” – taken to refer to the John Humphrys/Jeremy Paxman syndrome. Although careful to distinguish cynicism from scepticism, Grade said that Gilligan’s fateful report on the Today programme amounted to a failure of journalistic practice. This he proposes to remedy with another innovation, a scheme of lifelong learning in which the BBC’s journalists would repeatedly be retrained in what was expected of them.

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Dyke, on the other hand, has seized every opportunity in the year since his defenestration to defend Gilligan’s story and accuse the BBC of caving in pusillanimously to Downing Street’s demand for an apology. In a talk at the Frontline Club in Paddington to promote his now not-so-new book, he insisted that a way should be found of freeing the corporation from any obligation to respond to official pressures. When I asked him how this would work, seeing that the government was clearly not about to give up its leverage over the licence fee, he merely observed that the BBC had been more robust in the past – over the Suez crisis, for instance.

Well yes, but that was nearly 50 years ago. Since then, we have had Margaret Thatcher reducing the governors and management to quivering jelly over coverage of Northern Ireland and the Falklands war; with Alastair Campbell all too eager to follow that intimidatory tradition when he took over the Downing Street publicity machine. And just so that nobody should forget where the ultimate power lies, every ten years the BBC is forced to make the case to its political masters for the renewal of its charter – a ridiculous exercise, consuming personnel and resources that ought to be devoted to making better programmes.

Charter renewal is due next year; and that was the context in which Grade, clearly worried about the government’s intentions, delivered his denunciation of knee-jerk cynicism. Although he will receive few plaudits for his pragmatism, he is probably right that it is time to muzzle the mad dogs of the Today and Newsnight studios; not just because they alienate the powers that be, but because their increasingly frenzied bark has always been a lot worse than their bite. Last month, Newsnight celebrated its 25th anniversary with a series of short compilations of the programme’s highlights. Among them, inevitably, was Paxman’s interview with Michael Howard, then the home secretary, in which Paxman asked the same question 14 times without getting an answer. No doubt the confrontation seemed highly significant at the time, but I am at a loss to remember why. Certainly, Howard’s failure to answer did not plunge the Conservative government into scandal or crisis; nor has it blighted his career. It is the same with most of those hyped-up interviews. They remind me of two drunks arguing in a pub: quite entertaining until they start repeating themselves, but never a source of great insights. Democracy would not collapse if Humphrys and Paxman were pensioned off and allowed to spend more time with their quiz shows. Of the three Today interviews that stick in my mind from the past few weeks, one succeeded in making Charles Clarke seem statesmanlike and the other two managed to engender sympathy for John Prescott and Tessa Jowell, two of the least sympathetic cabinet ministers. I recall no Today interview that actually changed anything; if ministers feared being forced into making damaging indiscretions, they would simply decline to take part. The BBC has every right to be proud of its journalism. Its network of overseas correspondents is possibly the best in the world, because most of its competitors are commercial operations that cannot afford the same level of representation. But it has to recognise that the price for retaining generous public funding is to limit itself to reporting news rather than making news. However unheroic that may sound, it is time for the corporation to accept that, by definition, it can never be truly independent, and that political exposes are best left to those sections of the media not financed by the state. Once that uncomfortable reality is digested, and given that a public broadcaster needs to be accountable, the BBC might find that the Burns plan works to its advantage, if only because the proposed commission would provide a clear, unambiguous channel for the corporation’s relations with the government. The Gilligan affair highlighted the muddle and weakness inherent in the way it is at present run. Instead, therefore, of deploying their instinctive defence mechanisms against change, the BBC and its supporters should give Burns a chance. At least they would see the back of the sodding governors.

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