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Each BBC crisis sows the seed for the next

After the Newsnight debacle, it is excessive caution – not recklessness – that threatens the BBC.

On the evening of Monday 12 November, on my way to an awards ceremony, I was walking along Portland Place, near Broadcasting House in London. Huddled in the damp air outside the building that is symbolic of all that the BBC represents, and has represented since it was established under a royal charter in 1927, were a few reporters, hoping to be tossed more scraps of information about the latest “stepping aside” inside the embattled media organisation, so that they might feed the mighty maw of the rolling news channels. (One of the curious spectacles of the latest BBC crisis is just how self-referential so much of the reporting on the story is – which is in turn a consequence of the very strangeness of an organisation that is simultaneously opaque and transparent, private and public.)

Earlier in the day, Tim Davie, the acting director general, had brusquely ended an interview with Sky News conducted from Broadcasting House via a satellite link. In obvious irritation, he removed an earpiece and promptly walked off camera. It was a moment of small drama. Back in the studio, Sky’s Dermot Murnaghan snidely said: “I bet he wouldn’t do that to the BBC.”

Murnaghan’s aside was in keeping with the general mood of sustained anti-BBC hostility of recent days. The continued existence of the BBC as an impartial, semi-autonomous global media organisation publicly funded by a nonnegotiable national licence fee offends many. The Conservative free-market right has long suspected that the BBC leans left, which is nonsense. What the BBC has is a resolutely establishment bias. Is there a more establishment figure than the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, or the ubiquitous yet admirable Dimbleby brothers?

The Murdochs and their compliant editors despise the BBC’s power and influence – it represents all that Rupert and James Murdoch loathe. Rival media organisations from the Guardian, which has lost more than £40m this year, to the Telegraph resent its free-to-use website, with its rich, continuously updated content, iPlayer and wonderful archive of talks and music. Even Davie’s “mockney” accent has been held up as a signifier of a deeper decline. Davie, who before joining the BBC worked at Procter & Gamble, may have no journalistic experience but he has energy and the kind of commercial acumen that the BBC requires. Nor is he some kind of cultural barbarian. I’ve met him once. We had coffee and he took me on a brief tour of the remodelled Broadcasting House. When we met he was in the process of reading every Booker Prize-winning novel; he had a list of the winners folded in his wallet and a tick had been placed beside each one he had read.

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 the few British institutions that is 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. It is a cherished link to and a creation of the old culture of benevolent paternalism that flourished between the two world wars and reached its apotheosis with the 1945 Labour government that created the National Health Service and the welfare state.

Not far from Broadcasting House that night, the awards dinner for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was being held at the Royal Institute of British Architects. In his introductory remarks, Stuart Proffitt, publishing director of Penguin Press and chairman of the prize committee, praised the BBC as the greatest cultural institution in the history of the world. His words were well chosen because true and were received with spontaneous applause. Here, at last, was someone prepared publicly to speak up for the BBC when so many others were seeking to traduce and destroy it.

For many years when he worked at the Rupert Murdoch-owned publisher HarperCollins, Proffitt, who is cerebral and donnish, was committed to publishing non-fiction books of distinction in a house that was then often in open revolt against deliberation and scholarly plurality. He eventually resigned in 1998 after he was ordered not to publish Chris Patten’s memoir of the period from 1992-97 that he spent as the last governor of Hong Kong. Proffitt had agreed a £125,000 advance for a book he told Harper- Collins’s then chairman, Eddie Bell, was “the most lucid, best written and compelling . . . I have read by any politician of any persuasion since I came into publishing”.

That was not enough for Murdoch and his acolytes, who felt that the Patten memoir was too critical of Chinese power and could damage News Corporation’s ambitions for media expansion in Asia. The book was dropped. As for Patten, he received a £50,000 payout from HarperCollins and, as he recently told the Leveson inquiry, his memoir was published in the United States with a sticker on the dust jacket that said: “The book that Rupert Murdoch refused to publish.”

“It was a commercial decision, which rebounded to my financial advantage,” he said. Neither Patten nor Proffitt is a cultural leftist but both men recognise the intrinsic value of the BBC, as an institution that holds the British nation state together and embodies an unfashionable, anti-market ethos. The danger now is that, as it self-flagellates and moral panic spreads, the BBC will lose all confidence, its enemies will be emboldened and its senior editors and producers will become even more cautious and constrained by a disempowering culture and bureaucratic managerialism.

“The search for someone to blame is always successful,” a senior BBC source told me. “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.”

Expect more box-ticking, less boldness and journalistic freedom and risk-taking.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC