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BBC sign, Norwich

BBC sign, Norwich. Photo: Elliott Brown / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

On the centenary of the founding of the BBC Des Freedman presents eight reasons explaining how the media outlet is wedded to the establishment and why it is incapable of meaningfully holding power to account

The British Broadcasting Corporation is about to celebrate its 100th birthday. The world’s first ‘national’ broadcaster, it has long been seen by its supporters as a counterpart to both a state-controlled and market dominated model and as a beacon of impartiality in a media landscape dominated by partisanship and disinformation. Yet it’s attacked by those on the right as being a hotbed of woke liberalism and by the left, despite the occasional foray into opposition territory, as a firm supporter of the status quo and an implacable opponent of radical movements. Here are eight examples of how the BBC is wedded to the establishment that point to why socialists desperately need an entirely different vision of media.

1Origins as a bulwark against ‘subversion’

The British Broadcasting Company was set up as a public company in October 1922 partly because the government saw it as a more efficient model for broadcasting than the emerging commercial free-for-all in the US. But the government also recognised the power of propaganda after World War One and the use of radio in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and were anxious to maintain control over the spectrum. As Jean Seaton puts it in Power without Responsibility, the BBC’s monopoly was created ‘because the government were concerned that the new medium might interfere with the security and military use of the airwaves’ and believed that a publicly owned company might be a more reliable bulwark against ‘subversion’.

2It failed its first test of independence

While the BBC claimed to be ‘above’ politics, it soon showed that this wasn’t the case. When miners kicked off what then became the 1926 General Strike, the BBC didn’t allow any union voices nor even Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, onto the airwaves. Described by some strikers in ominously familiar terms as the ‘British Falsehood Corporation’, Seaton argues that the BBC learned how to ‘censor itself during the strike in order to forestall government intervention’. While the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill wanted to take over the BBC, the government decided that the BBC could be relied on to take the state’s side without overt coercion. As Director General John Reith wrote in his diaries: ‘They want to be able to say that they did not commandeer us, but they know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.

3In bed with MI5

For some sixty years, MI5 vetted BBC staff for their political views seeking to weed out in particular those on the left. Based in the ‘Special Duties Office’ at the Corporation, senior BBC staff worked in secrecy with the security services to make sure that radical voices were either excluded or carefully watched. According to Tom Mills, a joint BBC/MI5 working party was set up in 1969 on the basis of ‘counter-subversion’ activities in order to vet posts that involved ‘an unhindered opportunity to slant broadcasting material for a politically subversive purpose’. Vetting was finally revealed by investigative journalists in the 1980s and officially ended only in the 1990s by which time thousands of potential and actual BBC staff had been subject to totally unaccountable levels of intrusion.

4Soft (and not so soft) power

From the ‘Empire Service’ to the ‘Overseas Service’ to its rebranded successor, BBC World Service, the BBC has long played a significant role in communicating the UK’s strategic interests across the globe. It has brought much valued journalism to countries in the grip of authoritarian rule but it has also worked with the UK state to advance key foreign policy objectives. From Sir Ian Jacob who, as Controller of the BBC’s European Services in 1946, was a key member of the Russia Committee that coordinated the British state’s anti-communist propaganda to the close links between the BBC’s External Services and the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, the BBC was an important partner in post-war politics.

As Tom Mills argues, ‘during the Cold War period, the BBC was not only distributing propaganda material in close cooperation with the British state, it was also supplying the intelligence on which that propaganda was dependent.’ The BBC’s monitoring service in Caversham continues to act as a proxy information source for the military with Owen Bennett-Jones claiming that in 2014, it was ‘generating material for the British intelligence services that was made available only to a select group of senior BBC journalists’. Today, World Service broadcasts in some 42 languages and is supported by the Foreign Office which in 2021 handed it £94 million to ‘build on their great work upholding global democracy through accurate, impartial and independent news reporting’.

5Pillars of a Tory Establishment

For a supposedly independent organisation, the BBC has long been run by people with very close ties to the ruling class. The first Board of Governors after it became the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927 was chaired by the Earl of Clarendon, former Tory chief whip in the House of Lords and also contained a coal owner, a former Comptroller of the Bank of England and the former headmaster of Winchester School. For balance, it contained Ethel Snowden, wife of the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer who was famous for cutting unemployment benefit in 1931. As Stuart Hood puts it in his short book, On Television: ‘With this first Board, the pattern was set’ with representatives of the ‘great and the good’ dominating critical positions.

This continues today with the organisation chaired by Richard Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs banker, adviser to Rishi Sunak and donor to the Conservatives to the tune of £400,000. Tim Davie, the current Director General, was deputy chairman of Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative Party in the 1990s and a former marketing executive for PepsiCo Europe. Meanwhile, Robbie Gibb, the former head of BBC political programmes who was then headhunted to be director of communications at No. 10 under Theresa May, has now re-joined the BBC as Board member for England. He was recently criticised by Emily Maitlis for being an ‘active agent of the Conservative Party’ with a significant influence over news content.

6Pro-business bias

Despite regular attacks from right-wing tabloids who insist that the BBC is riddled with liberals who peddle a woke, anti-capitalist agenda, academic evidence suggests otherwise. A major content analysis of BBC News coverage of business and the economy following the 2008 financial crash (commissioned by the then BBC Trust) found evidence that pro-business voices dominated coverage while trade unionists were largely absent. The researchers found that reporting of the crash featured a narrow range of stockbrokers, investment bankers and hedge fund managers to the virtual exclusion of civil society voices and critics of the existing financial system.

Across a range of themes, researchers concluded that the ‘BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda.’ This was highlighted by the Corporation’s negative coverage of the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a few years later. Academic research in 2016 found a ‘strong tendency within [the] BBC main evening news for reporters to use pejorative language when describing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters’. In contrast to its rivals at ITN, the BBC’s early evening TV bulletin ‘gave nearly twice as much unchallenged airtime to sources critical of Corbyn compared to those that supported him’.

7The BBC’s impartiality is not so impartial

BBC News prides itself on its commitment to what it calls ‘due impartiality’, the provision of a wide range of perspectives on any subject without taking sides. But how can you be ‘impartial’ on the climate crisis, on racism or on the financial crash? In fact, being ‘impartial’ in this way is more likely to mean imposing a ‘false equivalence’ between radically unequal and unrepresentative voices and so mystifying, rather than revealing, the actual power dynamics in any situation. For example the censuring by the BBC of Breakfast host Naga Munchetty who had condemned, on air, racist remarks made by Donald Trump (the censure was later overturned by the Director General after a public campaign) revealed the absurdity of being ‘neutral’ on such topics.

This isn’t simply about the underlying bias of individual journalists but about a broader ideological commitment to the status quo and an opposition to any movements that fundamentally shake the establishment. As Stuart Hood put it, senior BBC staff are selected because ‘they are likely to accept as “obvious” or “merely common-sense” the central assumptions of consensual politics in this country’ that include support for capitalism (that may at times include providing space for advocates of gentle social democratic reform), the monarchy and the key institutions of the state, not least the military. This was dramatically highlighted by academic research that found that the BBC had the most ‘pro-war’ agenda in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 11% of all sources quoted by the BBC were drawn from coalition government or the military, by far the highest proportion of all domestic broadcasters, with the lowest amount of coverage of Iraqi casualties.

8A state broadcaster

Just think back to the wall-to-wall coverage of the Queen’s death last month where the BBC was transformed – if indeed it can be called a transformation – into the house journal of the Windsor family. The BBC was always going to be a key player in ‘Operation London Bridge, the virtually militarised plan to prepare for the death of the monarch which involved combining network coverage and insisting that listeners to Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live would hear the words ‘This is the BBC from London’, designed in the opinion of the Guardian, to ‘summon a spirit of national emergency’.

Just as in the General Strike, the prime minister didn’t actually need to ‘commandeer’ the BBC as it was already set up to offer its platforms and channels to ‘bring the nation together’ – even if this meant excluding the 25% of the population with firmly republican beliefs. Little wonder that one of the most popular tweets last month was one insisting that the BBC ‘should now do 11-days of nonstop documentaries and features on republicanism, the crimes of the British empire, the dangers of unaccountable elites, and working-class history. For balance.’ It’s also little wonder that that the journalist Owen Bennet-Jones has recently argued that the BBC now ‘deserves the epithet “state broadcaster”’.

For all these reasons, we need to argue (without in any way falling into a Daily Mail-type rant about how ‘woke’ the BBC is) that we need a media that meaningfully holds power to account and that is genuinely independent of the state and the market. For a variety of reasons, the BBC is not that media outlet.

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Tagged under: Media BBC
Des Freedman

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 author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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