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BBC bashing is preparing for privatisation

Two TV programmes: one shown and one not, have plunged the BBC into crisis, with resignations of the director general, accusations of libel, poor editorial standards and staff morale plummeting even further. By Keith Spencer

The BBC has been accused of covering up the criminal activities of Jimmy Savile, whose death last November was greeted by programmes honouring him as a much loved figure and a tireless fund raiser for charity. Police are now investigating whether he was actually one of Britain’s worst paedophiles.
However, the anger over Savile’s crimes and the BBC’s errors has quickly turned into an opportunity for the Tories and big business to argue for the BBC to be cut down in size and prepare parts of it for privatisation.

Savile: the programme that never was
On 3 October, ITV aired a programme alleging that Jimmy Savile was a serial abuser of children and young adults. The programme said that his behaviour was widely known in television especially at the BBC and that Newsnight had dropped an investigation into Savile late last year. The BBC was soon accused of cowardice for refusing to expose the behaviour of one of its leading broadcasters and for continuing to broadcast three tributes to him over the Christmas period in spite of knowing about the allegations.
It soon transpired that virtually everyone else knew about Savile’s abuse. The Sunday Mirror newspaper tried to run an expose in 1990s, The Sun tried a few years ago. There were seven complaints to four police services, the Crown Prosecution Service knew about it but did nothing, some charities knew about it, the head of Childline Esther Rantzen said she turned ignored some of the stories she had heard. Savile had apparently been given the keys to Leeds and Stoke Mandeville hospitals (he did charity work for both) and there were complaints about him abusing patients. Strangely, the government even gave him a senior role at Broadmoor secure hospital, a hospital for those with dangerous mental health problems. This prompted The Sun to run a story in which Savile’s innocent was defended by one of Broadmoor’s inmates, the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. In fact, Savile had even been quite candid in his autobiographies about sleeping with underage girls.
But as he was a friend of royalty, spent 11 Christmases with Margaret Thatcher, raised millions for charity and was a national icon, no one dared or wanted to expose him. In a familiar theme in abuse cases, his victims were often girls in care homes, hospitals or from deprived backgrounds and were not believed by the police.
In the aftermath of the ITV programme, parts of the BBC fell into strife as accusations were levelled at senior managers for putting pressure on to drop the Savile investigation, and others countering by saying that the programme lacked enough evidence. The result after a messy few weeks was that the BBC set up inquiries into why the programme was never shown, another one into sexual abuse at the BBC, moved staff out of Newsnight, and promised better controls.

Newsnight and Lord MacAlpine
The furore over a cover-up of Savile’s sex abuse has led to the re-emergence of several other complaints about child abuse, including the North West Wales Care Homes Scandals from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Clwyd Council had investigated persistent rumours of abuse at homes under its control and also claims of whistleblowers. The Waterhouse tribunal was set up to investigate the abuse in the late 1990s. The investigations and the final report led to handful of convictions for the sexual and physical abuse of boys and a large number but there have always been rumours that the full extent of the abuse was covered up.
On 2 November, Newsnight broadcast an interview with one of the victims of the North Wales abuse, Steve Messham, who said that one person who abused him was a high profile figure in the Conservative Party. Social media soon named Lord MacAlpine, one time Tory treasurer, as the person. MacAlpine had actually been named before in a small circulation magazine called Scallywag in the 1990s.
Politicians and the press jumped to attack the BBC. A few days after the programme, Messham withdrew the accusation after the police, showing remarkable initiative for a change, showed him a picture of MacAlpine, which he said was not the man who abused him.
MacAlpine has now been paid £185,000 in libel damages by the BBC, he has also said he will go after those who named him on social media.
Newsnight was condemned. They had failed basic checks and had not put the allegations to MacAlpine himself before airing. The journalists on the investigation, which also involved the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, were severely criticised. The managers of Newsnight were also slated, but the most experience ones had been moved after the Savile row erupted. Various layers of management had failed to check or edit the programme before it went out.
The new Director General George Entwhistle, already reeling from an appearance at a Commons select committee a few weeks before when he revealed a most incurious style of management, then gave a disastrous interview on the Radio Four’s Today programme in which he admitted he knew nothing. He resigned the next day. In fairness to Entwhistle, the “I knew nothing about anything” defence has been pioneered successfully by News International editors, the Murdochs, ministers doing favours for multinationals, greedy politicians, bankers and a host of powerful people who try to stop the buck somewhere lower down on the managerial ladder. Even Entwhistle’s predecessor Mark Thompson left for a post at the New York Times in September and has also been saying that he knew nothing about anything, leading to one US headline: “Mark Thompson Had No Idea What Was in That Letter From Mark Thompson”.
Now there are at least eight investigations post-Savile including four at the BBC and others looking again at the North Wales Tribunal and its findings. In the BBC’s favour, it has shown remarkable openness in criticising and investigating itself compared with much of the press in the country that covers up wrongdoing, lies and phone hacking for decades.
But there are already calls for cutting the BBC down in size, that it is too big and inefficient and has too many clashes of interests. The crisis has provided the BBC’s historic critics with an opportunity to break it up and sell it off.
Meanwhile, the whole question of child abuse has now been pushed back into a dark corner.

New Labour attacks the BBC
The right-wing’s offensive has only been able to take advantage of the crime’s of Savile and some poor management because the BBC was softened up for attack by New Labour.
In 2004 the BBC Radio Four programme Today broadcast a report from journalist Andrew Gilligan that accused the government of Tony Blair, particularly his spin doctor Alaistair Campbell, of sexing up an Iraq document. The claim was that a document that tried to make a case for war exaggerated a claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons that would take only 45 minutes to hit the UK.
We now know that the BBC’s claim was correct. However, the government went on the offensive and attacked the BBC and also searched for the civil servant who supposedly leaked the information that the claim was an exaggeration – weapons inspector Dr David Kelly who committed suicide soon after being revealed as the leak in parliament.
The BBC was engulfed in a crisis leading to the loss of its then Director General and several trust members. An inquiry was held into the events leading up to the death of Dr Kelly. It has been generally believed that since the 2004 attack the BBC has trodden far more carefully when reporting political stories. Some of the press have been highly critical of the BBC and its standards, despite campaigning against having the same high standards, or any, applied to the press.
In 2007, there was a row over some footage of the Queen that led to the resignation of an editor; there was the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand prank that once again led to tabloid outrage and Brand being shown the door; even David Attenborough was accused of faking it by the Mail and Telegraph for using footage of a female polar bear with her cub from a zoo, despite the impossibility of getting so close to an actual pair in the wild without being killed. There have been rows about certain stars being overpaid, salaries given to top staff and taxation arrangements.
The Tories ratcheted up the attacks with an unfavourable licence fee settlement to 2017, which will inevitably lead to greater cuts. There have been criticisms of BBC coverage of Coalition policies such as very little on the dismantling of the NHS or the rephrasing of “cuts” to “savings” in news reports.
The National Union of Journalist’s general secretary Michelle Stanistreet has recently identified the scale of the attacks on staff:
“Morale is already at an all-time low. These job cuts [2012 round] come on top of the 7,000 jobs already lost since 2004. This year 140 jobs in BBC news went: the eighth consecutive year of cuts.
“The decision by former director general Mark Thompson, behind closed doors, to agree to a licence fee freeze until 2017 and to take on an extra £340 million in spending commitments, including the funding of the World Service, local TV and the rollout of fast broadband, was a disaster for the BBC.
“This has been compounded by the way BBC senior executives have implemented the cuts. They have chosen to cut staffing and budgets in frontline journalism; news has been particularly badly hit. Rather than hack away at the fleshy layers of management, they have chosen to cut at the sharp end and inevitably that will make it harder for quality, thorough journalism to flourish.”
Newsnight has also been cut. Stanistreet says its “budget in real terms has halved over the past five years and the number of reporters and senior journalists has been cut relentlessly. These are simple facts.”
Short of staff, offloading part of work to an outside agency, and with what appears to a Byzantine managerial system that was yet again changed, it is no surprise that a poor programme was produced.
Meanwhile senior managers and broadcasters have been doing very well, as evidenced by George Entwhistle’s £450,000 pay-off and the interesting tax arrangements of some of the “stars” of the BBC.
But this is the bosses’ solution: cut staff, work the rest harder and if quality suffers then either cover it up or blame the workers.

Cut news and sell the rest
The key question is why would the BBC want to cut back on news? The answer is that the other parts of the BBC need investment in order to be sold off but no one would want to buy BBC news even if the government wanted to sell it.
Murdoch already has Sky News, there is ITV with its news channels and Channel Four. There is no real reason for another private news channel – especially with the difficulties in maintaining local independent news.
But Rupert Murdoch and his loyal minions in the media have long campaigned against the BBC. It competes with BSkyB and secures greater market share. It is also funded out of a licence fee paid by everyone with a TV – although it works out quite a lot cheaper than Sky.
Most importantly, however, the BBC is an invaluable part of the British state apparatus. Its role – from the 1926 General Strike, through the Great Miners Strike and the Iraq War, right up to the financial crisis we are still living through – has been to make propaganda on behalf of British imperialism. Anyone who has been part of any serious protest movement will testify how strikes, demos and alternative analyses have been ignored, distorted or downright lied about.
For example, no sooner had the initial banking crisis died down than the BBC, chief among all other capitalist media, started claiming it was caused by spending on the welfare state and workers’ pensions – and the earlier understanding that this was the toxic debt of fictitious capital accrued by banks, who could no longer turn a profit by investing in making real products and services, was silenced.
The problem that the British state has in the modern world of decentralised social media is that the BBC has to reflect this wider discourse if it is to remain at all credible. So its top news programmes, like Radio 4’s Today and BBC2’s Newsnight, stray into being off-message. The cuts and the reaction to the “scandals” are, therefore, aimed at reining in the BBC and forcing its managers to self-censor their output.
But the other parts of the BBC – entertainment, documentaries, overseas productions, education online and so on – can be sold off at knock-down prices to the likes of Murdoch, who will no doubt repay the favour to which ever political party gives him control.
Remember, the Leveson inquiry has shown just how close Murdoch’s News International was to the Conservatives and how much influence the corporation had on Tory media policy. Cameron said that the idea of the BBC carrying out cuts was “delicious” and the Tory Prime Minister in waiting, Boris Johnson, said this month that what the Newsnight had done over MacAlpine was far more evil than anything the News of the World had done. But the BBC didn’t even name MacAlpine while the NOTW falsely named people as paedophiles during its Sarah’s Law campaign under Rebekah Brooks, hacked into a dead girl’s mobile, and used illegal means to gather evidence about Labour politicians and Johnson himself.
Therefore it is likely that BBC news will stay as a state broadcaster, slimmed down and ideologically neutered while the rest is being prepared to be sold off to the multinationals.

BBC and the welfare state
The attack on the BBC is part of the offensive on the welfare state. The NHS, education, benefits system and local government services are all being prepared, plucked and handed over to the private sector at breakneck speed. The NHS will be in the hands of private sector multinationals by the time of the next election; most secondary schools will be academies; and councils will be offering fewer services under the guise of “localism”.
The BBC was formed in 1922 in order to broadcast radio, then launched its first TV service in 1936. As a state broadcaster it played a vital role in defending the imperial interests of the UK with its overseas broadcasts or world service, particularly during world war two. At home it developed as the only broadcaster until the 1950s when ITV was set up by an act of parliament to act as a competitor.
The BBC expanded after the Second World War as part of the welfare state consensus. It provided drama, entertainment, music, comedy – but also education and a culture, which has always been part of its remit. As a state broadcaster it perpetuated the ideas of capitalism both home and abroad. It was dominated by an establishment elite, patricians who ruled the airwaves telling the world at home and abroad the British interpretation of events.
However at times, under pressure from outside events or changes within society it could offer radical and thought-provoking radio and TV, from cutting edge comedy, sport broadcasts, ground-breaking dramas to inspiring documentaries, uplifting music or good educational programmes – even sharp political critiques of Britain’s role in Ireland or in the ex-colonies.
In the main, working class people were rarely allowed in its programmes and opposing views to the government were sidelined. In fact this establishment culture may have in part created opportunities for abusers. A recent article in the London Review of Books (8 November 2012) revealed how several of the children’s entertainers at the BBC were left unchallenged as they serially abused children for decades. “If their parents complained… director-general’s office would write and say the nation wouldn’t understand such an accusation against a much loved figure.”
As part of the welfare state, it was contradictory, its expansion as a cheap and varied broadcaster was dragged out of the ruling class by mass demand. But as an institution under capitalism, it was dominated by the ideas of the ruling class and its need to defend capitalism.
Now like the rest of the welfare state, the Tories and the Lib Dems, supported by New Labour, have targeted it for “reform”.
The BBC is 90 years old this year, it is likely that by the time it reaches 100 it will look very different.

What sort of broadcaster should we have?
Just like other parts of the welfare state the BBC should be defended against calls for its break-up and sell-off. Its socially useful programmes should be funded and expanded not cut back.
The NUJ is correctly balloting for strikes over job losses, and the hope is that the biggest union at the BBC, BECTU, will join them in a united campaign against the cuts, low morale, and the threat of privatisation. However, the unions have failed in the past to unite and fight, especially in 2010 over pensions, when BECTU agreed to a deal and the NUJ had a very successful one day strike, including winning over some notable BECTU activists, only to drop any further action and have the whole campaign disappear in a fug of ongoing talks.
However, more than just defending the BBC, we should arguing that it should be in the hands of those who work for it and use it, not in the hands of a quango of government appointees very few people have heard of or managers who are preparing it for privatisation. We should have committees of users, workers and trade unions overseeing production and maintaining editorial quality.
Furthermore, as a state broadcaster that controls the means of production of TV and radio – these should be shared out for use to trade unions, community groups, ethnic minorities and other progressive causes. If we really want to talk about freedom of the media, then far more people need access to the methods by which it is produced. The radio and TV studios should be thrown open to working class people to broadcast their views, stories and ideas.
But, while we fight for this in the NUJ and the wider anti-cuts movement, it is precisely because the BBC plays such an important role for the bourgeoisie that it can only be won over for the working class and the great majority of society as part of a revolutionary struggle for power.
It is no accident that revolutions from the Spanish civil war through to the attempted coup and counter-coup in Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela, the fight to control broadcasting institutions has been crucial. Armies have defended state media outlets and revolutionary forces besieged them because the revolution will be televised and the means of mass communication are vital in any war, including the class war. And that’s why we defend the BBC’s and its journalists’ right to criticise the government and give alternative viewpoints.

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