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An Atmosphere of Fear

The BBC’s Culture of Self-Censorship

by TARIQ ALI

Is the BBC in such a petrified or paralysed state, so badly decayed, that it is beyond repair? Are all hopes of inner movement or structural reform misplaced?

To read the national press this would appear to be the case. I’m not so sure. Hysteria has now reached absurd proportions, as has the level of public discussion on the issues at stake. George Entwistle, his predecessor Mark Thompson and Helen Boaden, director of news, are reminiscent more of middle-level bureaucrats in Honecker’s Germany than creative-minded managers. Entwistle has fallen on his sword. More might opt for hara-kiri, but on its own this will solve very little.

There is an underlying problem that has confronted the BBC since Sir John Birt was made director general in Thatcher’s time. His predecessor (bar one) had been sacked effectively on Thatcher’s orders in 1987 for not “being one of us”.

A reliable toady, Marmaduke Hussey, was catapulted on to the BBC board as chairman. His first task was to sack director general Alasdair Milne for “leftwing bias”. Thatcher was livid that the BBC had permitted her to be grilled on the Falklands war on a live programme by a woman viewer from Bristol who successfully demolished the prime minister’s arguments.

Thatcher disliked the BBC’s coverage of the Falklands war and the miners’ strike and highlighted a number of other documentaries that were considered “too leftwing”. A faceless bureaucrat replaced Milne till the appointment of John Birt, a dalek without instincts or qualities, who transformed the BBC into the top-heavy managerial monster that it has become.

Birt feared that the Tories would privatise the BBC. He pre-empted this by institutionalising private sector methods and dumbing down the BBC so effectively as to destroy any notion of diversity within British television. The number of managers assigned to broadcast units became a sad joke and instead of considered argument management-speak, lampooned fortnightly by Private Eye, became the norm. Not wishing to offend Thatcher, the BBC gave Murdoch much of what he wanted to stabilise Sky. Cricket, for instance, was no longer available to those who paid the licence fee.

When New Labour won, a New BBC was already in place. Blair and his spin doctors Campbell and Mandelson turned out to be even worse control freaks than Thatcher. Together with their subordinates, they regularly harassed producers complaining about what they perceived to be anti-government bias. Radio 4′s Today programme became a favourite Blairite target. Simultaneously they were crawling to Murdoch at regular intervals, hobnobbing regularly with the editors and staff of the Sun and happily inhaling the stench of the Murdoch stables.

After Birt’s departure there was some improvement. Greg Dyke did have some instincts. For one he defended BBC journalists, for another he sometimes resisted the blandishments and abuse that emanated from Downing Street.

But just as the Falklands war had brought down Milne, the Iraq war did for Dyke. Treating an accurate report from Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme as lese majesty, a British judge, Hutton by name, seemed to ignore the bulk of the evidence and declared the BBC guilty. Dyke had to resign while an exultant Alastair Campbell, crowing like a cock on a dung heap, addressed the rest of the media. Hundreds of BBC journalists assembled on the street to bid a fond farewell to Dyke. That had never happened before.

The atmosphere of fear and the self-censorship that followed is hardly a secret. Under Birt, creativity had been suffocated. The new management structures had destroyed departmental autonomy. Heads of departments no longer had the same freedoms as before: current affairs, drama, light entertainment all suffered. The right to fail, so essential to creativity, was no longer part of the deal. Ratings and competition is all that mattered, give or take a few good documentaries. Would a current department boss have taken on a contemporary equivalent of Monty Python with the words: “I don’t like it myself, but make six programmes and then we’ll see.” Ask those who work there.

This is the background to the present crisis. This is the reason why editors of TV programmes are too often scared to take the right decisions. This is why only tried and trusted (ie, safe and sound) people are promoted. Peter Rippon was one of them, but he was not alone in dumping the investigation. That decision was taken by a superior and everybody in the BBC knows their name. Who did they consult? Perhaps we will now find out.

It is the culture of the BBC that needs to be overhauled with the redundant parts (mainly useless management appendages) replaced and some freedom given to programme-makers. There is no sign whatsoever that this is what the government or the opposition wants. Time, perhaps, for licence-fee payers to occupy.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power.  He can be reached at tariq.ali3@btinternet.com.