We Need to Talk About the BBC

by Tom Mills

21 January 2015

Tom Mills, co-editor of the New Left Project, argues that we need to demand a more accountable and democratic media.

Since the mid 1980s, those of us in Britain committed to radical social change have for the most part been on the defensive.

In the wake of Thatcherism, social democrats abandoned the original ‘third way’ in favour of the new neoliberal settlement, leaving those who remained on the left to rally behind the rump of social democracy – defending institutions which survived the Thatcherite assault but remained under constant threat of being swallowed up by big business or hollowed out by neoliberal reforms. The BBC was one such institution and so became something of a sacred cow for much of the left.

A trusted and widely respected public media organisation with serious news values and a non commercial ethos, it came to be seen as a bulwark to the crass commercialism and crony capitalism of which the figure of Rupert Murdoch is still such a potent symbol. On the question of broadcasting, the left in the neoliberal period thus found common cause with Guardian-type liberals, who though not necessarily opposed to the ever greater power of business over society, tend to find the reactionary populism of the likes of News International and the Daily Mail distasteful, and to recognise them as enemies of liberal values and rational political culture.

Perhaps this tacit alliance makes good strategic sense, but it has led to a complacency about the BBC and its place in British society. Though not a creature of capital, the BBC has, since its formation in the 1920s, been deeply embedded within official politics. And whilst the ideology of public service broadcasting holds out the promise of a more democratic public life, in practice it has always been circumscribed by the interests of elites and fulfilled only insofar as officially sanctioned channels permit.

All this was well understood by the left before the neoliberals began their unrelenting assault on public service broadcasting. The power and influence of systems of communications had been a major preoccupation for a diverse range of New Left intellectuals from Herbert Marcuse to E.P. Thompson to Ralph Miliband. Whilst most of these ‘Western Marxists’ were mainly concerned with the commercialisation of culture, Ralph Miliband is notable for having extended his critique to public service broadcasting in his influential book The State in Capitalist Society – a critique which he later expanded on in Capitalist Democracy in Britain. Though New Left thinkers tended to overstate the ideological power of the media, their claims about its systemic class bias and its ties to the existing social order resonated with the egalitarian social movements of the sixties and seventies, and with the left of the labour movement in Britain.

A common theme for the left in this period was the need to democratise the state and civil society, a programme implicit in the New Left’s dual criticism of capitalism and the social democratic state, and an idea which influenced the more radical campaigns for media reform in the 1970s. Over the course of that decade, the legitimacy of the BBC, the paternal institution par excellence, was contested as never before. “There is increasing awareness of the power that control over channels of communication carries,” the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries noted in 1972, and the “case is made with increasing cogency that broadcasting is in the hands of a small body not representative of the wider community.” Within official politics, the late Tony Benn became something of a figurehead for a coalition of activists, academics and trade unionists, having famously commented in 1968 that ‘broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters’.

Whilst the radicalism of that period certainly impacted on British journalism – notably giving rise to the sometimes radical and sometimes alternative Channel 4, and influencing challenging investigative programmes like Grenada’s World in Action and to a certain extent BBC programmes like Panorama – the immediate political challenge from the left was rebuffed by the BBC leadership and by the broader social democratic establishment. This left the radical right to drive the broadcasting agenda in the 1980s and to gradually reshape the BBC along neoliberal lines. As I have argued elsewhere:

The institutional changes the BBC underwent in post-Thatcherite Britain mirrored those of the wider society: power became more centralised, professional decision making became more marketised and working conditions were made more precarious. Meanwhile, whilst most found their freedom curtailed by neoliberal bureaucracy, a largely Oxbridge educated elite retained its decision making powers and the salaries of those at the very top sky-rocketed. … [T]he BBC [also] became consciously more pro-business, in effect making a concerted effort to embed itself in the very networks of unaccountable power that were eroding British democracy.

Since 2008, it has become increasingly clear that we are in the midst of what Wolfgang Streek has called a crisis of capitalist democracy. Politicians and public institutions have never been held in lower esteem, yet there is little indication that the BBC perceives the depth of the social crisis. Whilst there is a clear anxiety in the BBC’s political output about disengagement (an anxiety the BBC shares with the political elite), the concern is, as ever, with restoring legitimacy to the existing system of government; a tendency symbolised by the BBC’s celebration yesterday of the 750th anniversary of the January Parliament of 1265 as ‘Democracy Day’.

Certainly there has been no attempt to redress what Colin Crouch has termed ‘post-democracy’ through a proactive engagement with social movements and civil society organisations. For the most part it is business as usual. Russell Brand has of course enjoyed some exposure, but not without facing constant hectoring about the need to participate in the electoral process, which borders on moral outrage. The dominant response from the BBC, meanwhile, has been to amplify the right wing populism of Ukip and broader reactionary currents, an approach which has the advantage of reflecting elements of popular discontent without threatening the essential interests of Britain’s elites.

In the context of economic crisis and an increasingly reactionary mainstream politics, there has been a growing awareness on the left of the essentially conservative nature of the Corporation. Mehdi Hasan, for example, challenged the popular notion that the BBC is ‘left-wing’ in 2009, lamenting that this claim ‘”has been repeated so often that it has been internalised even by liberals and leftists,” whilst Owen Jones has more recently dismissed this same claim as a ‘fairytale’, noting that it “is stacked full of rightwingers.”

We face serious political, economic and ecological crisis, and the mainstream media – the BBC included – are part of the problem. As the new campaigning network Real Media 2015 note, they provide us with:

  • Little or no coverage on issues of great public importance; like the wealth gap, fracking, privatisation, banking and the corporate capture of our democracy.
  • Disproportionately negative, exaggerated or misleading coverage of issues like migration, crime, Scottish independence, gender and poverty.
  • Excessive coverage of political think tanks funded by billionaires whilst ignoring important social movements.

It is hardly surprising that the privately owned media is failing us in this regard, but these are exactly the issues which a functional public service broadcaster should be covering, and covering in depth. It is time we seized the initiative and demanded a more accountable and democratic public media. If we do not take the initiative, there will be nothing left of the BBC worth defending.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.