Correcting views on the role of the BBC

In an extraordinary attack upon Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, the director-general of the BBC Mark Thompson has roundly condemned the “cultural fascism” of the newspapers he controls – according to a draft speech that has come into our hands.

He accuses the Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard of peddling a farrago of right-leaning views favoured by their proprietor. This “singular world view”, which consists of “angled interviews” on “death taxes” and “pension poverty”, and race-inflaming articles on Muslims who attempt to use public subsidies to promote the veil, can have only one effect, Thompson says: to poison the minds of Middle England and promote a right wing-influenced outcome at the next election.

Of course, no such draft speech exists, and even if Thompson held such views, he would never be allowed to utter them in public. Unlike Dacre – who has used the Hugh Cudlipp memorial lecture to do precisely that, launching a stinging attack on the BBC and its “subsidariat” allies (among which, oddly, is counted The Times).

Though Dacre has intemperate views that does not mean they can be easily dismissed, tempting though parody is. For example, he accuses the BBC of being unfit for purpose in dealing with the political class because its “left-wing prism” makes it incapable of seriously puncturing the “politically correct” consensus. He’s right; though not necessarily for that reason. The BBC proved inadequate in dealing with political pressure during the Hutton Inquiry into the “sexed-up dossier”, but this had more to do with its financial dependence on the Government and its forthcoming licence review than with failing to ask the right questions.

Yet it is precisely here that the Dacre critique might find a broader resonance with ISBA members and media owners who do not necessarily share his political views. The BBC is indeed a privileged organisation which, uniquely, can draw on taxpayers’ funds to propagate views it would be unable to if the subsidy were withdrawn.

Whether withdrawal would be a good thing is difficult to assess. The BBC certainly makes life harder for those in the private sector by producing popular programmes that are irritatingly free of commercial risk. It would never, for instance, be forced into the humiliating position of Channel 4 over Big Brother because it doesn’t have to be – it literally doesn’t need the money.

But there is an alternative side to all of this. The BBC has been a valuable standard-bearer in programme quality over the years, a quality the more serious commercial channels have been forced to emulate – and not necessarily to the detriment of their advertisers.

Even now, when general audiences are declining, the BBC has proved its worth in another way, by pioneering a digital presence. Take away the BBC portal, and it is difficult to think of another UK brand that could compete with the US giants. It is not immediately apparent that any commercial alternative would have succeeded so well if the BBC had been denied access to this area.

In the long run, the critics will triumph. Corporatism’s days are numbered. The BBC has already suffered a substantial setback, in the licence fee battle. Imagine how much more weakened it will be, next time round, with audiences reduced still more and with no digital TV switchover to justify support for it.

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