“Stick up for the Beeb!” Yes, Will Hutton, but wait…

Posted: July 26, 2010 in Media & Journalism

In his latest column for the Observer (‘Stick up for the BBC’, 25 July), Will Hutton calls the liberal intelligentsia to the barricades in defence of the Beeb, ‘the last bulwark against rule by the mob’. It’s likely that the dinner party set of Islington or lushest Surrey, bless them, will sympathise but rather not commit to getting down and dirty for the BBC of all causes. Nonetheless, Hutton’s call is interesting because it touches on a sensitive leftie nerve.

Let’s face it, we comrades do like to have a go at Auntie. Whether it’s a rant about coverage of G20 protests, the war in Iraq or the gratuitous offence to taste and decency that is regular appearances by Michael Gove, it kind of proves our anti-establishment street cred to moan about this most paternalistic of British institutions. And I know this is going to go down like the Hindenburg with some but that puts us squarely in league with some very dubious company. The National Viewers and Listeners Association for example. The Daily Mail. And Alastair Campbell.

Yet there are some on the left, myself included, who realise that Hutton might have a point here. The BBC has many, many faults but what is the alternative? If it crashes and burns because no one gives a toss or we’re content to just moan, what are we left with? A deregulated, James Murdoch wet dream, that’s what.

So good on you, Will Hutton! I am with you on this one and so should everyone who claims to be left of centre. Only there’s one wee problem. As much as you urge Auntie to “make some dramatic moves” to bolster her defences against the barbarians at the gates (cutting down the bureaucracy, for example, and restoring trust in programme-makers and journalists)  you’ve failed to spot the fifth columnists within who are at this moment sneakily unlocking the same gates. It’s a kind of Siege of Derry in reverse.

If it’s evidence you’re after, have a look at a policy paper by Phil Ramsey of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster, Response to the BBC Strategy Review 2010, which details how, at the very time it is under attack from the free market, the BBC is actually ceding ground to those who would wish to see it destroyed. With a pithy weariness not heard since de Gaulle witnessed the surrender of France, Ramsey concludes that:

Putting Quality First displays an excessive support for marketisation and employs the language of market fundamentalism throughout. This is unfortunate given that the very premise of public service broadcasting runs counter to greater marketisation in the media sector and the very existence of the BBC depends on making strong arguments to the contrary.

But Ramsey doesn’t simply critique what’s wrong. He also makes the very important point that the BBC and its supporters should stop being so defensive and start asserting the positive aspects of a service which, compared to the fees extracted by subscription TV, is incredibly good value. And it’s radio and internet, not just TV.

The thing is, Will Hutton, what we first have to do is root out this enemy within and then, ramparts secured, resist the dastardly Murdochs and the dark forces of the Daily Mail – not quite like the defenders of the mysterious French castle in Monty Python’s Holy Grail but just as offensive: a sustained, calibrated counter-attack on all fronts against the free-market nostrum that media independence is best guaranteed by profit. Otherwise, it will be the BBC beating a final, humiliating retreat into the wilderness that is niche market, subscription-only broadcasting.  

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