Real Media’s Tom Barlow interviewed Author Tom Mills on the subject of his new book‘The BBC: The Myth of A Public Service’ covering the BBC’s past, it’s future and the the major events and influences which have affected and changed it’s output.
Today I have with me Tom Mills, author of ‘The BBC: A Myth of Public Service’. Today we’re going to be talking about the BBC, it’s past, it’s potential future and also Whittingdale, Rupert Murdoch and the influence that Murdoch has on British media. Thanks for joining us today Tom, how you doing?
Pretty good, thanks for having me.
First and foremost, can you tell us a little bit about your book, especially the title ‘The BBC; A Myth of Public Service’ – it’s a provocative title isn’t it? Because most people would think it is a public service. It is paid for by all and it is there for all? What’s mythical about this public service?
We all think the BBC as being an alternative to Murdoch as you say and the various big corporate conglomerates that control the news agenda which we all rely on for information. And the BBC is celebrated as an alternative to that, a very trusted provider of news. It’s seen as impartial and takes these values much more seriously than the likes of The Sun and particularly on accuracy, but behind all of that reputation I think is the reality of an institution that has been deeply embedded with the establishment since its earliest days. In the neoliberal period, during the Thatcher government and the wake of Thatcherism, the BBC has been really transformed from being an institution that had embodied some of those public service ideals, it became gradually transformed by the rise of neoliberalism. It became much more pro-business, it became arguably more right wing during Hutton and Iraq and everything that happened there.
Really the book is looking at the BBC from its earliest years, and despite all of this reputation, all of the scholarly research on the BBC finds that it’s output – it’s journalistic output – which is what the book focuses on, because of course the BBC does lots of other things, a lot of good cultural stuff. The book focuses on journalism, and all of the research on the BBC’s journalism has overwhelmingly found that it reflects the interests of powerful groups in society and this is true even before Thatcher.
Actually in the aftermath of Thatcher, the BBC went through this process of change where even the sort of pockets of critical thinking and independent journalism that really had horned around the BBC particularly after the 60’s and rise of the counter culture, were kind of eroded in the 90’s.
What the book is doing is trying to look at the BBC not as we like to look at it, because I think all of those values are important, values of impartiality, journalistic integrity and all the rest of it. It’s trying to get a clear sighted understanding of what the BBC is. And central to the book is the argument that the BBC is part of the establishment, it’s deeply tied to the power and influence which define British public life so it’s doesn’t in any straightforward way offer an alternative to the establishment, and that’s the central argument to the book.
Isn’t that claim contended by both right and left? We are talking about this journalistic output here, and the right wing argument is usually focused on the cultural output and it says the BBC is overly liberal and has no right wing comedians. While we’re looking at the journalistic output, isn’t the claim that the BBC makes that ‘well both right and left wing say we’re biased so therefore we’re actually doing our job and representing a broad spectrum of opinion and being neutral’?
Just because you’re attacked from 2 sides doesn’t mean that you’re balanced. On the one hand the BBC has been criticised by reputable academic institutions on the basis of well-established methodologies, and it is also attacked by lunatic fringes on the right. And there are organised efforts on the right, and this is a part of its history and yes they do claim that the BBC is biased to the left. One of the problems with these arguments is that you always have these debates about left and right without it being rooted in any kind of concrete understanding of what these terms really mean.
On one hand of course whether the BBC is left or right depends where you are on the political spectrum. If you’re broadly to the right of establishment opinion or elitist opinion, it probably does seem quite left wing. And if you’re to the left of that it will seem quite right wing. The consistent finding, which makes sense, you need to depart from this notion of left and right and look at how are the voices of British society [covered], who’s prospective interests seem to dominate. Those to me seem to be fairly straightforwardly in politics it’s the Prime Minister, followed by the Cabinet, followed by the ruling party and then the dominant elements within the opposition. First the leading factions within the British state, unelected officials have always tended to find these agendas. This isn’t just true of the BBC, that’s the case across all news media, instinctively or as a journalist you approach powerful people to get comment or debate them. Those are the people who tend to be focus of journalism.
But then within the economic sphere, you look at things like economic reporting – most of the information that is coming out is based on the values of stocks and shares, and this is business news. And then economics news is inflation, news coming out from the bank of England, employment figures. So basically the BBC and the broader news cycle is embedded within this circle of information. But more than that if you look at some of the very classic studies like going back to 1970s, and from then pretty consistent findings that it’s powerful interests that tend to dominate news. Now whether that’s left wing or right wing,…
Isn’t that just how news is done? Isn’t that the best way to do news, if they have the most influence over society, if they have responsibility, aren’t those elements things that should be reported on?
Sure but there’s two ways you can look at this. On the one hand you might want to do reporting where you might want to know what’s going on outside of the sphere of officialdom, so like Paul Mason does you might go see what protestors are saying, or go and see people on the sharp end of austerity. So that’s one thing you might do, bring in new voices, people who are marginalised by the news agenda. On the other hand you might be wanting to call to account people in power which would be the best defence of that news approach. Saying we’re talking about the PM because he’s a position of power. And then that brings you to the question, how much are these figures being interrogated by people at the BBC, [to] what extent are they actually questioning these agendas? One of the problems is if you look at the way these things are covered, the way questions are raised of people in power tends to be in establishment dissent let’s say. So this is the classic Hallin study of the Iraq war which found that it was people in positions of influence that tend to dissent. Establishment dissent tends to gets its way into news.
You see this on things like the Today programme, where the voices which are allowed to frame the questions on whether David Cameron’s policies get to be contested tend to be a narrow framework. So I think its legitimate to be asking questions of people in power and for investigative journalists to be focused on this, this is how democracy is supposed to function. But it raises the question of where does the agenda come from and how should journalists and political journalists understand [it], which raises a whole other problematic set of questions for how the BBC goes about this.
I’ve heard American commentators in the media talk about the problems of access journalism and the fact that corporate outlets will not ask Donald Trump, or any major political or cultural figure any difficult questions because then they will get denied access again. You could do one good interview but then you would be gone, you wouldn’t get that again. Is that relevant within the BBC? After the Iraq war, during the Iraq war, voices of dissent lost their jobs and were never invited back in. I remember vaguely at the time, and it would be good to hear your thoughts on this, that the licence fee was used as a political weapon by the Labour government at the time who said they would face cuts. The Director General (DG) lost his job over supposedly critical coverage of the Iraq war. So there’s 2 questions there – does the BBC have to worry about access coverage? If they speak out of turn do they face not being able to speak to those figures again? And have we seen the BBC change since the Iraq war?
This is a complicated question. The question of access journalism. It is possible if you’re the PM to refuse to go on the Today Programme – Tony Blair did that. I think this is kind of a less of a problem for the BBC because they’re such as prestigious platform, certain sections are such prestigious platforms, they can at least say so and so refused to appear on the BBC, you don’t really get that with other outlets. There’s an expectation with the BBC because it is prestigious, so that plays to their strength.
To answer the question on Iraq, before what happened with Hutton – to listeners who aren’t familiar with this story – after Iraq, there was report that went out on the Today programme by the then reporter Andrew Gilligan who reported that the dossier on Iraq had been sexed up at the request of Downing street and [that] lead to a huge public scandal, which lead to an inquiry and the resignation of the Chairman and then the Director General. Now what preceeded that was relentless bullying of the BBC by Alistair Campbell who was Tony Blair’s spin doctor at the time. A very malign figure in politics, and he was key to what then followed – more than Blair he was let off the leash against the BBC, but he had been bullying the BBC before, saying the BBC was politically biased well before the controversy over Gilligan’s report. So this raises the question of access. Alistair Campbell was sort of an exemplar of the rise of a particular form of journalism which was obsessive news management which grew up around New Labour, the culture of bullying was laid to bare with Leveson, Campbell came from that world.
In terms of the outcome of Hutton, people have put different spins it. It seems pretty clear to me and John Kampfner wrote on this at the time. The BBC has certainly been cut by what happened. The two most senior figures resigned. The board of governors apologised to government and there was an overhaul of the board governance as they like to call it. Now, put this in context, Dyke who was the DG who had been appointed as a more likeable figurehead, more supportive of independent critical minded journalism, well liked by his staff, he had replaced someone who was one of the most disliked people in BBC history, [who] ran a thoroughly demoralized BBC workforce, with his kind of obsessive centralisation of editorship, his stifling managerialism. So Dyke in that context was a breath of fresh air for the BBC, and what happened with the government – the [mission] was to decapitate. People who say this didn’t have some kind of political impact on the BBC, I just don’t think that’s feasible. It’s very difficult to say in any conclusive way what the impact was of that on journalism, I don’t know how you’d go about that, which points to the complexity of this, in a scientific sense. I don’t believe it had no effect at all which I found Steven Barnett said – I don’t find that in the least bit convincing.
I can’t see it not having a huge effect. And it had a big effect across British society, and I felt maybe it was me, but also across the Anti-war movement – which was probably the largest and broadest base in British history, at least in recent British history – of demoralization. The government is not listening to the marches, an American group did a study of BBC war coverage prior to Dyke getting the sack and said that actually it has still been in the vast majority sensitive to government, basically replicated the government arguments, uncritically, at around about 85% and only 10% of it’s coverage was in any way negative on the Iraq war, and building up to it. They step out of line once it seems with something factually based, and we’re pretty certain it was true…
If you go back and read what Gilligan said, it’s remarkable the conclusion that Hutton reached. Basically, his downfall was that he said he knew Downing Street knew this wasn’t the case. The claim was made by Blair that within 45 minutes Saddam Hussein would be able to launch weapons of mass destruction, and everyone focused on that. And he said Blair knew or Downing Street knew, a very careless phrase, because of course you can’t prove what people knew at one stage unless you can find a specific email saying this is rubbish. So it was careless, but if you look at the substance of the story it was all completely correct.
There’s another important context in this which I go into in much more detail in the book. Not only was the reporting in the run up to Gilligan’s reporting broadly favourable to the government, the same thing happened with the Suez Crisis and the Falklands conflict was that the BBC was broadly reflecting the government’s arguments for war, but critical voices were able to get an airing so they were asking critical questions just more or less at the margins and less than they were reflecting government propaganda. They were attacked for, like you say, raising questions which turned out to be all substantially correct, as far as you could expect someone to be correct about this issue, bear in mind that the report was about central government and about the intelligence agencies. It’s a extremely difficult story for journalists to cover. The story turned out to be remarkably correct.
The other important context which I go into in the book is that also at the BBC, senior figures were being briefed by members of MI6 about this. So the guy who edited the Today programme then – Kevin Marsh, had gone with John Humphries who’s still on the programme, had gone to meet MI6. It’s been indicated to them, and not that this was the only source, that they may not find weapons of mass destruction – so that’s the context in which they felt confident in running this story. When I talk about the myth of public service it shows really when the chips fall, how much leeway the BBC really has. So this is a case in which the BBC is getting briefed by some of the most senior authoritative figures in the British state, a really solid source, all of their facts are broadly correct, and it still results in the two most senior figures being forced out of office through a campaign from central government. So I think it illustrates quite well how precarious a situation the BBC is, and how much power the government does have over the BBC, if it’s willing to exercise it. The much more common situation is the BBC is kept at the mercy of government and at arms length so it’s not that the BBC is constantly doing what the government says. That’s not what it is. It’s always kept within a grey area between being independent and subservient and that’s where the government has always wanted it. Since the General Strike which is when all this starts.
…In 1926. So this becomes a part of self censorship – the managers at the BBC know the rules of the game, they know how far you can go, and no further. And all debate occurs in narrow parameters, and that seems to be true across most of journalism, having said that the press in this country is welcome to take quite staunchly political opinions, without a factual base but it still resides within a very narrow set of parameters. I guess, it’s great that we’ve talked about Hutton and the government’s control both tacitly and explicitly on the BBC. I’d like to talk about Rupert Murdoch and the effect he has on the BBC, because a lot of people have noted he has gone to war with public service broadcasting across the world. ABC in Australia, NBC in New Zealand, CBC, PBS, Canada, America he’s consistently lobbied for them to be shrunk, for their funding to be shrunk. ABC now has adverts as does the Canadian broadcaster, they’re a lot smaller, they get a lot less funding that they used to. And Murdoch has his friend Whittingdale in charge of the licence fee negotiation – what do you think of this? Do you think Murdoch has engineered that and do you think Murdoch has had an effect on the BBC?
Oh yeah. There’s not an area of British Public life where Rupert Murdoch hasn’t influenced. The rise of, the process of change which the BBC goes through which is neoliberalism, privatisation, the free markets – all of the rest of it – everything that comes to the fore under Thatcherism – [that] transformed the BBC. So first of all it’s important to say Murdoch was player back in the day, at the time of the rise of Thatcherism, he was very influential there. But when Thatcher came to the fore in the 1970s, the support of The Sun which had previously been The Daily Herald, which was kind of social democratic, centrist left, populist left daily had become The Sun and Murdoch had swung his lot behind Thatcher and the new right, and the conservative movement. When that really comes to the fore in the BBC in the mid-1980s, Murdoch’s a player there amongst others so when Thatcher appoints a chairman of the BBC who fired the then Director General, before she makes the appointment she consults Murdoch.
But it’s important to put Murdoch in his place amongst a group of other establishment players. The other people who Thatcher consults, her other conifidant is Ian Trethowen who was the former DG of the BBC who was a conservative and Michael Swan was also involved in the right wing political network. So there were people in the BBC who were at the top of the BBC, politically minded people who were part of the broad conservative network that Murdoch was a part of.
Having said that the corporate interests that Murdoch has are obviously very clear – he doesn’t want a publicly funded BBC that will threaten to crowd out…
That’s the term that’s always used – ‘crowding out’..
Not just Murdoch, it’s the other private media as well. He’s obviously central to this. And it’s all been laid bare since Leveson the influence he had over public life. I do think it’s important to recognise Murdoch is not some puppet master – he’s a very influential person in a broader network of operators around neoliberalism, so when you go back to the BBC being attacked you had the Institute for Economic affairs – which is a neoliberal think tank, you had advertising influences like the Saatchis who were very influential in the rise of Thatcherism, and Murdoch was part of that coalition of corporate interests who were pushing free market agendas, attacking the labour party and social democracy, the pre neoliberal settlement. I don’t know if that answers your question.
It’s easy to paint him as a villain and as we talk about the Wapping strike 30 years on what we hear from the strikers is that after he crushed the strike by lying and cheating and getting Thatcher to back him up, he quadruples his profits within a year and this is in 1986, so by 1990 that’s when he buys Fox and sets up the Fox News Network and that’s when he gets skin in the game in TV, and that’s when he starts lobbying against specifically the ‘crowding out’ of the private sector, and the private sector should be given more leeway. You look at something like Sky however, Sky gets £6.5bn to the BBC £4-4.5bn it gets more money yet it provides a lot less. There are a lot of tiers to get all the content, basically to get a full package you have to pay at least £30 a month and live with advertising to see quite frankly worse journalism and worse drama and sport, essentially you’re paying a lot of money for sport. That’s all on the basis of the Wapping strike and it’s a co-mingled process – so Thatcher helped but also the police and three anti-union laws were passed prior to the strike specifically to deal with the miners.
The whole of that history if you go back and look at it now, was a very tight coalition, between one one hand the police and the Thatcherites who were like the neoliberals in government – broad, shady right wing thinktank operatives who were involved in counter subversion anti-communist networks, and the right wing press who were absolutely central to supporting these campaigns and the campaign against the BBC.
It brings it back to your question about BBC bias, on the one hand Murdoch – there’s no mystery about where Murdoch’s material interests lie and the BBC‘s place in that. And Murdoch’s material interests dovetail quite well with Thatcherite ideology. There were other media tycoons around that time – 1980’s when the BBC first came under attack from news quarters who weren’t sympathetic to Thatcher, like Robert Maxwell. So the coalition between Murdoch and Thatcher was quite key, he leant her this populist sheen. The BBC is [seen as] elitist middle class orientated institution, the BBC has never really had a strong answer to that populist market attack which was very key to the press, and these figures who gathered around Murdoch were pushing these angles and they were quite important part of the Thatcherite project.
In terms of the significance of Wapping, it’s easily forgotten now but the BBC was being criticised from the left in the 1970s, and a lot of the broadcasting unions were becoming very influential at the BBC from 60’s to 70’s and Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom grew out of that movement. They were all very active and much more powerful than they are today and they did act as a counter balance to corporate power and the margins were developing ideas based around workers control and workers cooperatives and the BBC was being criticised then as part of an unaccountable democratic establishment from those quarters and Wapping really drew a line under that upsurge of militancy in combination with the miners strike and I think that had it echoed through the industry – it opened up the media to business interests much more broadly -not just Murdoch but all the international conglomerates. And it also set in train a whole process of much more business friendly coverage which has influenced the BBC which is what I talk about extensively in the book. What happened after the Miner’s strike and Wapping in particular was that news becomes much more dominated by business interests. The BBC is a publicly owned broadcaster which you wouldn’t necessarily think embraces business values like private companies do. That’s what I go into the book , how that happened. What changed the BBC from public service broadcasting that reported the labour movements quite extensively to having virtually no labour reporting and having hundreds of people covering business.