Sunday, 11 November 2012

Newsnight and the BBC

I just posted this series of thoughts on the BBC Newsnight affair, on the Guardian Comment is Free website in response to an article by Tariq Ali.

1. People should be cautious in assuming that they know how the BBC is run. It is a very peculiar organisation with many unwritten rules, some of which prevail in some parts, some which prevail in others.
2. There isn't one BBC. Most people writing here talk as if there is one monolithic organisation with everyone being ruled, or running programmes in the same way. In fact, there are fiefdoms and the fiefdoms build up their own mini-cultures.
3. Talking about the output of 'the BBC' as if it too is one uniform world view is at best an exaggeration, at worst a distortion.
4. The BBC isn't 'free'. We pay for it out of our special TV tax and so the people who administer that revenue have the major say in running it. In an ideal world, I would like to see every institution paid for out or our various kinds of institution controlled more democratically. The only alternative posed in these times is privatisation which involves no democracy over 'production' either by producers or interested parties of any kind.
5. The private media aren't 'free'. They are paid for mostly from advertising. Advertising is a form of private taxation. The ludicrous structure of capitalist society rests on trillions of pounds being spent by capitalists taking money out of useful production into making ads - and paying for them to be seen and heard. Ultimately we pay for that in our wages and the cost of the things we buy. We pay for private media invisibly. It's not free.
6. This Newsnight affair was crap journalism. Basic journalistic ground rules weren't kept to. This is not a matter which is a sign of a sickness all the way across the whole of the BBC in its many different parts. Just to make a point: does this major mistake have anything to do with how the BBC broadcasts the Proms? Or Gardeners' Question Time?
7. I've worked inside the BBC on and off since 1969. I was sacked by the BBC because MI5 had an office in Broadcasting House and recommended that I be sacked. The BBC agreed. While that was going on, in another part of the BBC, those in control were turning a blind eye to how Top of the Pops was being run. As I say, there isn't one BBC.
8. Those of us who work in the BBC cannot understand how and why the Newsnight story got to the screen. We are all bound by two key rules 'compliance' and 'trust'. These were de facto rules but were made highly specific following such events as Hutton and the Queen documentary. In effect, it means that everything we say goes through a set of filters: producer, editor and each programme is 'signed off'. In the areas I work, this means that certain specific criteria about verifiability, honesty about who is speaking (and where from) have to be adhered to. As someone who has been through that mill many times, I have to figure out how and why the Newsnight story got made.
9. There can only be one reason: some people inside that part of the BBC got to be sufficiently powerful for them to be able to waive the rules that the rest of us abide by. This then raises the important question of why and how.
10. I think I know the answer to that question and it is to do with the kind of power that the broadcast 'departments'': 'News' and 'Current Affairs' wields in most broadcast organisations including the BBC.