The debate surrounding the BBC is a complex one; this is largely owing to the corporation’s history and dominance of UK broadcasting. One must also take into account the BBC’s structure, which more closely resembles the civil-service than a commercial enterprise – albeit with some ‘modernisation’.
Most governmental criticism directed at the BBC during New Labour was aimed at the high salaries paid to stars like Jonathan Ross and senior executives. The former can be explained by a mixture of petty jealousy and a total failure to grasp the concept of market-forces in the entertainment industry (although I do accept that many ‘stars’ are greedy). The latter issue is more complicated. The BBC defend it by claiming that they need to do this to attract business-sector experts who bring greater efficiency to the service. Government criticism of this seems rather hypocritical in light of the fact that governments – going back to the early days of Margaret Thatcher – have done similar things. Both Thatcher and Blair were criticised for surrounding themselves with unelected advisors and they defended themselves by using a very similar excuse. The new coalition government have continued these criticisms but since it is an overwhelming Tory administration another has been added.
The Tories claim that the BBC has a centre-left bias and have done so for many years. This claim is odd because I don’t seem to remember the BBC telling the public to vote for a centre-left party during the General Election although I do remember many newspapers and the Murdoch broadcasting empire telling the public to vote Conservative. Are the Tories equally critical of this bias? Of course not. And as per usual, the Tories with their usual mixture of bile, spite and vitriol are proposing the BBC should be privatised – payback for imagined slights, no doubt.
The BBC is important for many reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that the corporation ensures that a certain level of quality is maintained in British broadcasting; it sets the bar higher than it would be if the BBC didn’t exist. For instance, quality television abroad – for example the US’s HBO – is strictly pay-per-view. The BBC provides also provides a service that isn’t reliant on the support of advertisers, who are motivated by profit and nothing else. This ensures that more specialist programmes and innovative formats can be supported. In addition, we have the issue of the BBC’s news coverage – this has long been envied all over the world and it is not driven by commercial interests. Okay, I have my criticisms of it; did we really need hours upon hours of the hunt for Raoul Moat, for example? I felt that was rather excessive and morbid, but they usually strike the right balance. Even the BBC’s sports coverage is regarded as the best – even I know that and I’m not even a sports fan.
In his McTaggart lecture, a year ago James Murdoch was very critical of the BBC, but why is anybody listening to him anyway? James Murdoch is clearly so partisan in his criticisms that his arguments lack all credibility. Furthermore, Murdoch Senior has already dragged British print media into the gutter – do we really need Murdoch Junior to do that with the rest of it? The BBC clearly has less of a monopoly than it used to have; there are far more channels on television than ever before, and the Murdoch’s have clearly a lot more money available to them than the BBC. A Murdoch monopoly is demonstrably worse than that of the BBC, whose monopoly can only be said to be in radio now. The BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson may have over-egged his lecture last week, but I’m on his side in this instance. The Murdochs are abhorrent.