With its Director General having resigned, and more heads set to roll, I’ve been wondering what should happen to the BBC.
Norman Tebbit, one time chairman of the Conservative party, and no friend of the BBC, writes:
Contrary to what many of my critics believe, I regard the BBC as a valuable national institution, which served us well over many years. Its principal failures have sprung from an inbred culture which evolved into a censorship of dissident voices. Its habit of recruiting from a narrow range of political – and of late, politically correct – thought has led to a damaging arrogance.
Well, he’s quite right about the inbred culture recruited from a narrow range of the political spectrum. But, in my experience, this isn’t anything new: the BBC has always been left wing. It was when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister in the 1980s, 30 years ago. But would it be any better if it was right wing? And precisely why is it a “valuable national institution”?
Its very name – the British Broadcasting Corporation – announces that it was primarily a radio (and later TV) broadcasting company. And all broadcast media (radio or TV) is essentially one-way, from broadcaster to listener or viewer. And whoever controls such one-way broadcast media can control what listeners or viewers see and hear, and to a great extent control what they think as well.
Is it entirely accidental that the rise of totalitarianism in Europe coincided with the emergence of radio broadcast media? The Nazis in Germany were very quick to realise the power of such media, and to use radio and newsreel to tightly control what Germans heard and saw, and therefore largely also control what they believed. And the BBC was used in exactly the same way, except to counter Nazi propaganda. Broadcast media are inherently propaganda media. So the BBC was always as much a propagandist as any other broadcaster in the world.
And it still is. It’s just that the propaganda is a bit different these days. The BBC is currently a global warming propagandist, and an EU propagandist, and an antismoking propagandist. When I got rid of my TV set a few years back, it was largely in revulsion at being propagandised. (And it’s not just the BBC: all the UK TV channels are propaganda broadcasters).
Do we all need to be propagandised in this manner? Just because we’ve had 90 years of propaganda, does that mean it is now so institutionalised for it to be unthinkable to end it? And just who has it served so well for so many years?
The emergence of the internet is now breaking up the monopoly of broadcast media over news and opinion. And the internet is a two-way medium. It restores the kind of two-way conversation which preceded the appearance of the broadcast media.
In the past, you needed expensive microphones and tape recorders and cameras and transmitters to capture and broadcast a message. And you needed cameramen and reporters to lug this equipment wherever it was needed, often in large vans or trucks.
But now that the cameras are built into mobile phones and computer screens, and hard disks can store gigabytes of video and audio, and this data can be sent anywhere in the world via the internet, there isn’t really any need for all that expensive equipment, and for all those reporters and cameramen and editors. We are all reporters now. We are all cameramen. And we are all editors.
A good example of this, last year, was the grisly death of Muammar Gaddafi outside Sirte in Libya last year. There were no newsmen present. No TV cameras. But there were plenty of of mobile phone video cameras, and the shaky videos from these were published on the internet. The broadcast media were relegated to editorialising at secondhand about material produced by a bunch of amateurs.
And that’s probably the way all news is going to go (apparently the BBC didn’t even manage to get the scoop on the departure of its own DG). It will all be amateur. Parliament will be videoed by MPs sitting in it. Train crashes will be videoed by passengers. People will be interviewed at home, sitting in their own armchairs, and quite possibly smoking cigarettes as they do so. Editorialising will be left to everybody, rather than a select few.
Quite simply, it is no longer going to be possible to shape public opinion in the way it was done during the broadcast media era. And we should all be heartily glad of it.
So what’s there left for the BBC to do once news and current affairs slips out of its grasp? Well, it can do what it’s always been good at doing, and what it actually does best, which is to produce documentaries and plays and costume dramas whose costs haven’t been falling in line with other technological developments. It’s always going to be expensive for anybody to produce a documentary about arctic seabirds, or remote volcano eruptions, or moon landings. And it’s always going to be expensive to put together a cast of good actors and put them in Elizabethan period houses and clothes. These still need investment and management. But does it need to be done at the taxpayers or license-payers expense? It seems to me that could be done just as well (and perhaps better) privately.
Radio and TV are technologies approaching the end of their natural lives. There’s no more reason why they should continue to exist than there is reason for vinyl records or cassettes or 3.5″ floppy disks to continue to exist. What the BBC might now do best is to educate everyone else in its accumulated wisdom, gathered over almost a century. Show ordinary people how to do it. And then bow out, and leave it to them.