Let’s be careful not to throw the BBC baby out with the bathwater

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By Peter A. Bell

The ongoing furore over the BBC’s now all but explicit anti-SNP bias reached something of a crescendo in the aftermath of the Scottish local elections.

The editorial decision to manipulate the figures so as to allow Labour holds to be represented as gains was met with howls of understandably indignant protest.  More details of this can be found over at Newsnet Scotland – Questions over BBC Scotland’s election figure claims.

The anger was further stoked as BBC coverage of the results on Friday night and into Saturday persisted in portraying a Labour “victory” in blind denial of all the evidence which clearly showed that, in terms of any metric not distorted by the BBC, it was the SNP which had prevailed.  On some fronts, to a very significant degree.

The brazenly partial behaviour of what is, after all, Scotland’s public service broadcaster, has led to renewed calls for the corporation – and particularly its operation in Scotland – to be held to account.  There is now added impetus behind the campaign to tackle the explicit pro-union bias of the BBC.  But this campaign is not without dangers.

Perhaps the greatest of these dangers is that the campaign will be hijacked by those who are, wittingly or otherwise, the enemies of the very public service ethos which the effort is intended to restore.  I refer, of course, to the various individuals and groups who call for the dismantling of the BBC or the abolition of its independent funding – which amounts to the same thing.

This includes those who simply don’t like paying the licence fee as well as those in the broadcasting industry who see the BBC as an impediment to the quest for ever-increasing private profit.  When it comes to the BBC there are a lot of agendas.

Whatever else one may think of the BBC it has to be recognised that it is, if not the last, then certainly the most powerful bastion of public service broadcasting in the UK and, it might be argued, the world.  This remains true whatever the faults that unquestionably plague the BBC as an organisation and however regrettable its failings as an institution.

Let there be no misunderstanding about the fact that the destruction of the BBC would signal the end of public service broadcasting as we have known it; and that this would have serious implications for all of broadcasting in the UK as well as significant repercussions for the core functions of news gathering, reporting, commentary and analysis across all media.

We should not be taken in by those who assure us that the market will provide.  Who but the most mindless devotees of free market dogma could be so blind to the lessons of the last few years.  Having participated in the arguments for many decades, I know that the proponents of a commercial alternative to the BBC are totally unable to meet the challenge which I, as a consumer, put to them.  The challenge for the market is to provide me with the same range and quality of services currently available from the BBC at the same cost or less.  Nothing short of this is a true alternative.

Let there be no mistake either about the need for independent funding if the aim is to maintain a public service broadcasting service.  For those who claim to want to preserve the BBC but change its funding the challenge is to find a way of raising money that is a true alternative to market-dependent revenue streams such as advertising and sponsorship.  A method which must guarantee funding for niche services that cannot be supported by subscription because otherwise it fails the test of a true public service which demands that it must be universal.

The other danger is that, even accepting the need to preserve the BBC and its independent funding, we resort to heavy-handed political measures to address what is, essentially, a management problem.  In our enthusiasm to restore the public service ethos to the BBC we may be tempted to impose forms of state regulation that are just as inimical to our purpose as the dismemberment of the BBC in favour of some market “solution”.

What is needed is not new layers of bureaucratic micro-management but a measured approach to restoring the culture of an organisation which has seriously lost its way.  There is a tendency for all organisations, particularly very large ones, to come to serve themselves rather than the purpose for which they were founded, unless they are managed in such a way as to prevent this.  The failure at the BBC is a failure of management.

But while avoiding draconian measures we should not shy away from effective action.  For obvious reasons I am particularly concerned with BBC Scotland.  And nothing short of a massive clear-out of personnel at BBC Scotland will suffice.  The little internal empires must be brought down.  The cosy alliances with the political establishment must be broken.  This is an organisation that desperately needs a fresh start under new management.  If it was an “ordinary” business, nobody would even question this.

Even more pressing, however, is the need to set BBC Scotland free of the stifling, distorting effects of a massively London-centric leviathan.  The nation’s public service broadcaster must be ultimately accountable to the nation’s democratically elected government.  There has always been a strong case for devolved authority over broadcasting founded in part on a certain cultural distinctiveness.  That case grows stronger as Scotland’s always distinctive political environment diverges increasingly, and at an accelerating pace, from the politics of England.

BBC Scotland can be saved to become what we surely all wish it to be – a truly Scottish institution serving the people of Scotland as part of an inclusive, progressive democratic society.  This should be the sole aim of any campaign to address the undoubted problems that exist within BBC Scotland.  Let us not allow the Philistines to throw out the baby with the bathwater.