The BBC’s deal with the ConDems will see their budget cut and puts their role as a public institution in jeopardy. Despite its faults, we must defend the BBC from cuts and fight for its independence, argues Des Freedman.

Less than a week after the BBC struck a deal with the Coalition government that will cut the Corporation’s budget by 16 per cent by 2016 and require it to take on additional responsibilities as decided by the Tories, an advertisement in the Media Guardian (25 October 2010) called for a new Chair of the BBC Trust (salary Ôø°110,000 a year for 3-4 days work per week) to ‘Lead [a] Strong and Independent BBC’.

On the front page of the same issue is an article by Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, arguing that the cuts could have been much worse had it not been for skilful negotiation and that the ‘BBC’s operational and editorial independence will actually grow as a result of the deal.’

Welcome to a Kafka-esque world in which devastating cuts are championed as good business and additional burdens on a public broadcaster imposed by government diktat are evidence of increased independence.

The fact that the BBC will now be required to pay for the World Service and the Welsh language channel S4C (both, until now, funded by the government), to contribute towards the costs of new local television services (a favourite idea of the new culture secretary Jeremy Hunt) and to help launch broadband roll-out (another government priority), has somehow evaded the attention of the director general in his determination to put a positive spin on a terrible deal.

Indeed, Thompson’s statement that it would have been wrong for the BBC ‘to argue that it should have been untouched by the wider pressures facing the country’ could have been written by the same speechwriters who penned Jeremy Hunt’s comments at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August that ‘the BBC has to live on the same planet as everyone else’.

Some on the left will find it hard to feel sorry for a BBC that has all too often squandered any potential goodwill. After all, this is an organisation funded by public money that is ‘hideously white’ (according to its previous director general Greg Dyke) and top-heavy with senior managers, that is currently attempting to cap its final salary pension benefits and that has made thousands of staff redundant in the last few years but could still afford to award Jonathan Ross a three-year contract worth Ôø°18 million back in 2006.

This is a broadcaster committed to top-quality news reporting but one which was found to have been amongst the least critical voices in its coverage of the war in Iraq, that prevented its journalists from attending anti-war demonstrations, that failed to stand up to New Labour’s attacks on its news reporting following the publication of the Hutton Report in 2004 and that refused to transmit the Disasters Emergency Committee charity advertisement on Gaza in 2009.

Indifference or simple antipathy to the BBC, however, would be a mistake. First, the BBC as an institution is much more than its director general, the Trust and the entire Executive that is doing such a terrible job in defending the independence of the Corporation. Consider the BBC more as a kind of public space – a public park in which you might not approve of everything that goes on but which is fundamentally different in principle from a shopping mall or gated community that is privately owned and aimed only at an exclusive group of consumers with money to burn.

It is true that the space is still tightly controlled and that the park keepers are way too cautious with how you use the space but it is still an enterprise that is not answerable only to shareholders or (perhaps until now) government. The institution, as distinct from its management, is worth defending precisely because it suggests the possibility of a non-market form of organization, a space for critical and independent thinking.

Second, most attacks on the BBC are hardly designed to foster a more robust and critical style of news coverage. Instead, these attacks are aimed overwhelmingly at shrinking the BBC, at disciplining it, at reminding all of us that, in the eyes of any committed neo-liberal administration, public institutions are bound to be inefficient and bureaucratic in relation to the dynamism and creativity of private enterprise.

This extends to the government’s decision to cut not just the BBC but even the communications regulator Ofcom, itself launched by New Labour in order to stimulate competition inside the British media system. According to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, it was not economic crisis but ‘heavy-handed intervention’ that was responsible for the ‘massive crisis’ in the media industry.

On coming to office, Hunt, without any sense of irony, promised to ‘strip away [media] regulation in the same way that the Big Bang revolutionized the City to make it the major financial centre of the world’. Given the fact that it was precisely this form of financial deregulation that was a major cause of the banking crisis, the Coalition’s latest attack on the BBC shows how much the cuts are ideologically motivated and not simply a technical response to the deficit. As with other areas of public provision, the cuts imposed on the BBC suggests that this is yet further evidence of a Tory plan to re-engineer society along wholly marketized lines.

In attacking the BBC, the Coalition is simply doing the bidding of the Corporation’s commercial rivals, most notably the owners of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and, of course, BSkyB, whose revenues now far exceed that of the BBC but whose size (and therefore potential market distortion) is of no concern to this government. In between his regular trips to Number 10 to visit David Cameron, the most powerful media mogul in the country, News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch, found time to give a talk to the Centre for Policy Studies in which he paid an homage to his hero Margaret Thatcher.

The speech is an extraordinary eulogy to one of the architects of neo-liberalism and a useful reminder to those who can see little difference between the editorial agenda of the BBC and that of the owner of the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World. Thatcher, argued Murdoch, ‘recognised that the establishment can, and should be, challenged…The virtues she championed have been a guide for me in my life and in my business.’ He went on to praise the Coalition for its cuts package and, in the spirit of Thatcher, encouraged Cameron and Osborne not to turn back. His conclusion? ‘For all of us here…Thatcherite is a source of inspiration.’

The cuts to the BBC are shameful in many different ways. Shameful that the director general and chairman of the Trust could have so effectively handed what was left of the BBC’s independence on a plate to the government and rendered the Corporation an instrument of government policy; shameful that the people who pay for the BBC, the public through the licence fee, were totally excluded from the ‘negotiations’; shameful that BBC management are compromising the future of the BBC by accepting the inevitability of cuts when one of its main tasks as a public service broadcaster should be, seriously and thoroughly, to examine the case for cuts.

This is, of course, not the first time that the BBC has bowed down to government pressure: it failed its first test when it supported the government in the 1926 General Strike and it failed a more recent test when it decided not to stand up to the Labour’s government’s bullying during the Iraq War. But the BBC is not the private domain of a single Thatcherite entrepreneur and it has no mandate to place either the pursuit of profits or the service of government at the heart of its operations. True: the BBC is far from a solid ally in the fight against the Coalition’s cuts or campaigns for social justice (and the actions of its bosses constantly remind us of this).

But the only people who will have grounds to celebrate a smaller, weaker and more dependent BBC will be precisely the ones whose fortunes have been hitched squarely to the neo-liberal bandwagon. For that reason alone, any vibrant campaign against Cameron and Osborne’s cuts should also include a simple demand: Hands off the BBC.

In the current, increasingly polarised social situation, independence from commercial organizations and market values is something that will have to be fought for. BBC workers demonstrated their resilience with a 9-1 vote at the start of September in favour of strike action to defend their pensions.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of the digital radio station 6 Music joined the campaign earlier this year to stop BBC management from closing the station and to maintain the niche value of the service. This is the kind of mood that will need to be harnessed to fight for a set of priorities in direct opposition to those of the ConDem Coalition. In the struggles to come, media reform must be part of the agenda for broader political campaigning.

Des Freedman is a Reader in Communications in the Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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