Our warm shared memories of favourite children’s television colours our attitude to the BBC – the well-meaning Auntie of the nation, provider of our popular cultural heritage. However, Dr Tom Mills, from the Centre for Critical Inquiry into Society and Culture at Aston University, speaking in Hebden Bridge, argued that we are buying into a myth of a disinterested public service.
His analysis of the way the BBC functions focused on the political stance of the organisation, and hence on its journalism rather than its arts or entertainment output. Evidence shows that while the broadcasting output includes different people with contesting ideas, the organisation as a whole does have a bias towards the prevailing ideologies of an ‘elite’.
A quick look at the history of the BBC provided him with some evidence for this institutional bias. Originally founded by radio manufacturers to provide content that would sell their products, it soon became obvious that radio broadcasts could influence public opinion. The shaper of the BBC ethos, Director General Lord Reith, explicitly wanted it to be part of the establishment. After the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, for example, Reith broadcast a recital of Jerusalem, thanking God for saving the country. A more liberal Director General, Hugh Green, presided over such anti-establishment programmes as ‘That was the week that was’ but was also keen to monitor the activities of left wing producers. Mills argued that there was inevitably a tension between politically appointed leaders of the Corporation and programme makers.
One of the biggest changes to the BBC came with the ‘neoliberalism’ of the Thatcher years, when after the ‘brutal removal’ of Alistair Milne, John Birt took over as Director General and set about embedding competition and an internal market within the structure of the BBC. This was extended under Greg Dyke. One of the effects of this, Mills said, was that long established journalists who had covered industrial relations were replaced by journalists who reported on business, and a conscious pro-business consensus was institutionalised in BBC reporting. So coverage of the 2008 financial crisis was defined by the views of a political elite.
Ten years later there is more pressure to open the BBC to competition and make it an arms length provider of services which are commissioned from the private sector. To call the BBC a ‘state broadcaster’ implies a direct political control which is not the case – individual journalists at the BBC are independent, but they are also drawn from an elite social strata, with 54% being privately educated and 45% with Oxbridge degrees. This maintains a gulf between those making programmes and selecting news stories and the consumers and ultimate owners of the Corporation.
Mills believes that the links that exist between the BBC and government are invidious, with regular Charter renewal, the setting of the licence fee and the direct political appointment of the Director General undermining the independence of the Corporation and keeping it in a precarious position. We are at a turning point when the BBC TV of our fond memories is dead, with on-line programmes allowing viewers to curate their own individual experience and social media providing news. This offers an opportunity for the kind of democratisation of the BBC that challenges the establishment bias. Mills strongly believes in the BBC as a public service broadcaster, and thinks the challenge has to come from those who support it, and not just from those who want it to fail. Questions from the audience in the packed Waterfront Hall suggested that his talk might have begun that process.
With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report