Selling the BBC’s soul


Kenneth Roy

Andrew Neil, a former Murdoch editor, believes that the director of communications at 10 Downing Street, Andy Coulson, must be complicit or incompetent. Mr Coulson has repeatedly assured us that, in his previous incarnation as editor of the News of the World, he was unaware of the telephone tapping in his own office by the ‘royal correspondent’, who went to jail.

     Complicity, then, we can rule out. We have Mr Coulson’s word for that. If the Neil theory is correct, we are left with the incompetence option. The royal correspondent was up to no good and, according to the New York Times, others were up to no good too, yet the editor knew nothing of the criminal wrongdoing being perpetrated under his nose.
     In considering this possibility, I think of my own editors, the few I have managed to work with. George MacDonald Fraser was too busy writing a novel to be interested in the activities of his many underlings, only one of whom went to jail. In Fraser’s case it would not have been incompetence so much as commercially motivated indifference. Andrew Jaspan at Scotland on Sunday (later the Observer) was, on the other hand, almost obsessive in his detailed knowledge of his staff’s every move, and related expense.
     I am more impressed by the George MacDonald Fraser precedent. Might Mr Coulson have been writing a novel and thus distracted by higher matters of plot and characterisation?
      It remains, nevertheless, a mystery why David Cameron, the nice young prime minister on paternity leave, hired as his director of communications someone with so many questions hanging over him, not least the disturbing possibility that he was writing a novel.
      Yet, despite the likelihood of a meeting between Mr Coulson and the Metropolitan Police in the near future, Mr Cameron’s aide continues to exercise considerable power. Only a few days ago he and his colleague Steve Hilton (‘director of strategy’) summoned the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, to a Downing Street briefing at which Mr Thompson appears to have offered some assistance in ‘explaining’ the forthcoming public service cuts to the nation. One day – I hope not too soon – silly people entering this address will stop exposing the documents they are carrying to the prying cameras. Until they do, incriminating facsimiles of these documents will continue to appear in the following morning’s newspapers, or the few brave enough to publish them.

It is revealing of the BBC’s perception of itself that those in charge see nothing odd about a meeting between Downing Street press officers and the director-general.

     I am looking at the facsimile of a memo from Helen Boaden, head of BBC News, setting up last week’s meeting, in which she discloses that she had had ‘lunch with Andy Coulson [next bit obscured]…concerned that we give context to our Spending Review Season [next bit obscured]…I said that’s what we always try to do and part of the reason [next bit obscured]…inform the public about the whys and wherefores…’.
     Oh, quite, quite. Apart from the woolly whys and wherefores, context is the key word here. It is a word always to be mistrusted, a weasel word, non-challenging, non-bothersome, a comforting word for people in power to hide their policies behind. You won’t get much trouble with context.
     There is more context to come. ‘….the poorest would be hardest hit by the Spending Review implications [next bit obscured]…tried to put in a broader context’. It is always easy to put the poor in a broader context, since they have no weapons with which to put themselves in their own distressingly narrow context.
     The rest of the document, that little bit of it we have seen, gives a fascinating clue to the likely nature of the BBC’s thought-provoking journalism explaining the ‘context’ of the draconian cuts in public services which are about to hit us. Come the nasty month of October, we are to have a radio series entitled ‘Five Live Drives Down the Deficit’. As MacChuckemup, the anti-hero of John McGrath’s ‘The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil’, once so eloquently put it: picture it if yous will. Across the country, the BBC will be ‘driving down the deficit’ with the help of motorists stuck in the latest nine-mile tailback on the M6. No doubt these aggrieved listeners will have their own wacky ideas what should be cut next. The poor, I shouldn’t be at all surprised. It all sounds frightfully stiff upper lip, touch of the old Dunkirk spirit – let’s all do what we can to drive down the deficit, chaps. At a push, it could be promoted as a modern equivalent of what used to be known as campaigning journalism. Before it lay down and died.
     It is revealing of the BBC’s perception of itself that those in charge see nothing odd about a meeting between Downing Street press officers and the director-general. There was a time, not quite beyond recall, when the head of the BBC would have thought himself rather above the press officer class; he might have considered that, if a meeting at No 10 was required, it would be with the prime minister. Such is the lowered status of the director-general, and the climate of fear in which he operates or fails to operate, such is the craven state of the BBC in general, there is now a professional equivalence between the head of the BBC and the press officer class. When the latter calls, the former jumps. How abject.
     The related issue is more worrying still. The BBC prizes its independence. We have Mark Thompson’s word for that, just as we have Andy Coulson’s word about his non-complicity in telephone tapping. That being so, he should have thanked Mr Coulson and Mr Hilton kindly for the invitation but declined it on the grounds that BBC journalists are capable of working out the ‘context’ of the spending cuts for themselves and that, in any case, it is no part of the BBC’s job to help the government to sell its cuts. The moment Mr Thompson walked through the door in Downing Street was the moment he sold the BBC’s soul.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

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