Last week James Murdoch claimed that the BBC practiced “state-sponsored journalism” and implied that the BBC could never be as independent as corporate news networks such as those owned by News Corporation. Giving the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh, Murdoch said that “In this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy.” He argued that the BBC’s hold over the British news was evocative of Orwell’s dystopian vision of Britain in 1984.
At the centre of Murdoch’s accusation is the notion that BBC News is compromised by its Government mandate and its financial backing. Although the BBC is quasi-autonomous and is actually a public corporation, its critics argue that the presence of any state control means that it cannot provide impartial journalism. The central claim is that the state-sponsored background of the BBC compromises its journalism more than the compromise suffered by News Corporation’s outlets ie. their basis in commercialism and the necessity of generating profit.
The BBC News website (above) offers a number of news stories, none of which stand out as particularly partisan. It contains no explicit mention of either right or left-wing politics. The website design is minimalistic and functional giving the news in a straight-forward, if rather plain, manner.
The Fox News website (above)has a third of its horizontal space taken up by advertisements. It contains mention of right-wing politics and uses evocative language to disparage its competition – the “out of touch media”. Its logo markets itself as “Fair & Balanced”.
It would therefore appear that the corporate-owned news organ is making a greater concession to its advertising paymasters than the state-owned news organ is making to its government overlords. But this is a tu quoque argument on my part and Mr. Murdoch deserves better than that.
The Murdoch/BBC debate comes down to a matter of trust: do you trust the state or corporations? Corporations have a tendency to be single-minded in their pursuit of profit. The bottom line for corporate entities is money. This occasionally leads corporations to abuse their economic power and treat human beings with disdain. News Corporation’s own subsidiary, News International, for example was recently in trouble for using illegal phone-taps to spy on the public. It’s worth nothing that this practice is perhaps slightly more ‘Orwellian’ than anything the BBC has ever done.
This is not to say that the BBC hasn’t had its share of trouble. BBC News was heavily involved in the Hutton inquiry and sometime ago a trailer for a BBC documentary was deliberately edited to make the Queen look bad. But if anything this points towards a lack of compromise on behalf of the BBC: the ‘state-sponsored’ company was in trouble for insulting the British head of state.
State control is far from perfect but in my opinion it can be trusted more than any corporate controlled entity. For the most part the state has the advantage of being run by elected officials who the public have some measure of control over. Murdoch mistakenly invoked the buzz-word of modern politics – “democracy” –without realising that state-sponsored entities are at least quasi-democratic whereas corporate entities are absolutely not. Nobody ever elected Rupert Murdoch.
The British are proud of their state-sponsored entities: recently the NHS came under attack by US Republicans which prompted thousands of Brits to send Tweets soaring across the pond in impassioned defence; the Guardian reports that the public is by and large happy with the BBC. We like our uniqueness of our institutions.
The BBC produces programming that simply wouldn’t get made without it: Radio 4, Radio 3, and Radio 2; intelligent quiz shows that don’t pander to the audience; important political coverage from Question Time to Newsnight; cultural shows and events that the other terrestrial channels shy away from. It also provides some of the best news programming in the world, free from commercial influence or excessive political bias. BBC News may not fit into the world-view of people like James Murdoch – the world as one giant free-market under the hoof of powerful economic entities – but that is precisely why the BBC is so beloved by so many people. It dares to be different in a world of increasing homogeneity.