A Debate about the BBC

Until recently pointing out the shortcomings of the BBC was a quick way to lose friends among self-defined liberals and left-wingers. Doing so was seen as giving comfort to its enemies in News International and the Conservative party.

In debates about the media in the media you can either be in favour of market forces or public service, or you can favour a judicious blend of the two – the moderate and sensible position that is also conservative of the status quo, funnily enough. If you reject both as organizing principles in the communications field you can soon find yourself on your own. The debate has a structure and it is balanced between two extremes. To reject the terms of the debate is to be come inaudible.

But public service, for all its merits, is another legitimation for elite control. I could never bring myself to pretend otherwise, which is one of the many reasons why my calls for democratic reform of the media, um, failed to resonate.

So I am glad to see that Owen Jones has written a piece arguing that the BBC is more hospitable to right-wing speakers and ideas than its friends and enemies would like to admit. I don’t agree with everything he says. His claim that “the BBC’s bruising battle with New Labour over the Iraq war … left the BBC supine and fearful” might be true. But it obscures the extent to which the BBC was supine about government claims before the invasion. The BBC has always been unable to mount an effective challenge to the state on matters of fact when the state is united. This inability is built into the design of the institution. The BBC supports the existing constitutional (or quasi-constitutional) order.

And Jones’ suggested remedy – that the left complain more loudly about right-wing bias – is less appealing than thoroughgoing democratic reform of the BBC.

If the public have the power to raise issues and direct journalistic resources towards particular topics we will be able to discover what we think about matters of common concern through an iterative process of investigation and debate. We will be able to engage with each other as citizens, which is more interesting and productive than complaining about things, I would have thought.

There are other paths to democracy, of course. But one way or another the public must establish control over the production of public opinion if it wants to be self-governing. The BBC is as good a route as any we have to hand.

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