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Leader: The BBC is a virtuous institution

The BBC is excessively bureaucratic, bloated at the top and under-resourced on the front line. But it must be preserved.

By New Statesman

The BBC is “the envy of the world and we should stand up and fight for it, not let it go by default”, said Peter Kosminsky, the director of Wolf Hall, in his acceptance speech after winning a Bafta on 8 May. “If we don’t, blink and it’ll be gone.” One would expect his statement to have been well received at such an awards ceremony in London. But it is worth considering what a mess this government has made of its custodianship of public-service broadcasting, as Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC News and editor of the Today programme, writes this week.

In the week of the white paper on the future of the BBC, our public-service broadcaster is under ideological assault from the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale. The BBC is a virtuous institution, which occupies an intermediate space between the market and the state. It is prized by the nation. Its mission is to inform, enlighten and entertain the British public. It is one of the greatest sources of British soft power in the world; in particular, its impartial news service is internationally admired and envied. Yet the Conservative government seems intent on denigrating and undermining the BBC at any cost.

However, it helps nobody to pretend that the corporation is without flaws. The BBC is excessively bureaucratic. It is bloated at the top and under-resourced on the front line. A generation of well-paid white men continues to occupy senior positions long past retirement age. The BBC is also biased – not, as hardliners on both sides claim, towards the left or the right. Rather, it has an establishment bias: it is instinctively sympathetic to those who wield power. At the same time, it is too easily bullied and is far too slavish in following the agenda dictated by national newspapers, many of whose owners certainly do not have the best interests of the British people at heart.

George Osborne was correct to comment on the “imperial” overreach of the BBC. He has mentioned, in particular, the expansion of its website, which competes with other less fortunate media groups and print publications. The BBC has a contract with the British people to be a public-service broadcaster, not a national online newspaper. Soft features, recipes, travel news and coverage of popular social media content are adequately supplied elsewhere.

Mr Whittingdale’s frustrations with the BBC are far less defensible. As he is a conservative, one would have thought that he would value long-standing institutions and the accumulated wisdom of past generations, as embodied in the BBC. Yet he seems to believe in little beyond the dogmas of the free market. His ill-advised remarks give the impression that he wants the BBC to retreat from popular programme-making. If we want everyone to pay the licence fee, however, the BBC must provide something for all tastes, from Strictly Come Dancing to Radio 4.

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Even if it is to be reformed, the BBC must be preserved. Meddling by an often reckless government could irretrievably damage an institution that helps to bind the nation together. We cannot allow this to happen.

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Hillsborough and honours

On 8 May, the British public was finally able to see Daniel Gordon’s documentary on the Hillsborough tragedy on BBC2, thanks to the conclusion of the inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans in 1989. It was hard to watch. Made with the co-operation of the families of the dead, it showed footage of their last moments, which many viewers will have found upsetting. The families, however, have seen stills and video from that fateful day again and again in the various courts in which they have sought justice.

The documentary highlighted the role played by an unassuming criminologist, Professor Philip Scraton, who took up the families’ cause. In 1999, he published a book on the tragedy, Hillsborough: the Truth, and he was later a member of the independent panel that uncovered how senior South Yorkshire commanders had altered police statements about the events of that day.

This publication does not much love the honours system, which too often rewards Westminster insiders (arise, Sir Lynton Crosby), but Professor Scraton seems an obvious candidate for a knighthood. If numbers are limited, perhaps he could be given Sir Philip Green’s?

This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump