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30 May 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Striking in the public interest

By Nick Cohen

If there can be a standard pattern to such rare events as strikes, then the BBC strike fitted it. The typical trade unionist today is middle class rather than working class, and works in the public rather than the private sector. It is in the public realm that weak unions are fighting what battles they can hope to win. And at first glance my union, the National Union of Journalists, seems to be fighting hard and well. But, like the rest of the white-collar trade-union movement, it won’t win unless it can overcome its failure to expose the deceitfulness of the rhetoric of “choice” and “diversity”. That failure is understandable, because the fraud comes in different guises in different parts of the public sector. But it must be overcome, or everyone will suffer.

The best way to begin is to imagine a spectrum. At one extreme is a species of privatisation where power passes to the manager rather than the citizen or private supplier. This is what is about to happen at the BBC, and the NUJ has so far botched the job of explaining that its members weren’t entirely self-interested, but were engaged in a public service strike. It is a dangerous mistake. Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, might sound a nasty piece of work when he calls for thousands to be put on the dole, but his message that the money saved will be given to independent programme-makers is a seductive one that will eventually win over the public unless the NUJ confronts it.

The flaw in his argument is that an independent programme-maker isn’t independent. He is in a state of gilded serfdom that leaves him dependent on the whims of BBC and commercial commissioning editors. He must flatter and indulge them, however fourth-rate their ideas may be. He can never stand up to them, because losing their favour would destroy his business. I know the heads of several independent companies, and in their melancholy moments they admit that their freedom to think would be far greater inside the BBC. With the old job security and self-confidence of the BBC culture, they would be able to talk back to, say, the head of factual programmes. If that person was an idiot or a bully who never loses face, they could appeal to his or her superiors. As it is, they go to work knowing that on no account can they offend him, or his counterparts at Channel 4 and ITV. Flattery and self-abasement fill their days. Courtiers at Versailles had more independence of spirit. It is this condition of servility that Thompson wishes to extend. As John Willis, the BBC’s current head of factual programmes, admitted, the ability of BBC staff to make their own programmes – and fight to preserve elementary standards if necessary – will be “irreparably weakened”. You don’t have to watch too much television to know that the citizen will be presented with more dreary, me-too programming as every mediocre commissioning editor copies what every other mediocre commissioning editor is doing.

Exposing how privatisation is bringing more choice but less variety is hard because the story isn’t a simple narrative. For at the other end of our spectrum is a species of privatisation where power passes to the private supplier rather than the public sector manager or the citizen. So ran the history of the private finance initiative, where billions of pounds of public money were thrown at computer companies, whose shabby work brought the asylum and benefit systems to a halt. In market theory, the customer is king and the companies should have been punished severely. But in practice Whitehall managers – and by extension luckless asylum-seekers and benefits claimants – were victims of what is known in the trade as “customer capture”. Once a computer company had control of an IT system, or a consortium of business and bankers had control of the new school or hospital, the management couldn’t just drop them and take their custom elsewhere. The normal constraints of the market didn’t apply, because the only way the customer could punish the supplier was to write off the whole investment and start again from scratch with a new supplier altogether.

In the middle of the spectrum are cases that may benefit the citizen in the short term and may give limited freedom of manoeuvre to public sector managers, but raise moot questions for the future. NHS trusts that send patients to private hospitals are the classic example. The patients are grateful to be off the waiting

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list, but in the long run if private hospitals

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get more money, they will take more doctors and nurses from the National Health Service and trap it in a spiral of diminishing effectiveness.

It is easy to mock middle-class trade unionists as greedy representatives of a “producer interest” concerned only with protecting their privileges. Finding the different arguments to explain how the public suffers in different circumstances is a complicated task. But journalists should be able to explain complexity. If they, of all people, cannot, they don’t deserve to keep their jobs.

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