Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

The War Against The BBC- last chance W1A Bistro or a perennial trope?

Sir Allen Lane and his brothers developed Penguin in 1935 to produce intelligent books that could be bought at train stations for the price of a packet of cigarettes and so portable they could drop out of vending machines.

The iconic paperback imprint has continued the tradition of publishing ‘specials’ that run arguments for their time.

The War Against the BBC by Patrick Barwise and Peter York is a rage and warning for 2020 going into 2021.

Though at 503 pages you might struggle to slip it into your coat pocket and finish reading it on an inter city trip from London to Edinburgh.

It would certainly get stuck in a vending machine after you had emptied your purse of pound coins.

The notes begin at page 349 and there are more of them than quite a few PhD theses I’ve had to examine.

I can’t remember when I last bought a packet of cigarettes so at £10.99, I don’t know if the price is in keeping with Sir Allen’s aspiration for good value at the bookstand.

Penguins were supposed to be fictional entertainments.

Barwise and York’s well-intentioned polemic is perhaps more in keeping with Sir Allen’s later innovation of the Pelican paperback in 1937- books to enlighten.

An example of a 1930s Penguin novel.

In any event publishing in the 21st century comes with a lesser-priced e-book and even an audio download version read by actor Neil Gardner.

The multimedia age of multiple forms and platforms is a reminder of the crisis and perfect storm the BBC finds itself in.

The strapline to the title ‘How an unprecedented combination of hostile forces is destroying Britain’s greatest cultural institution… And why you should care’ is a very good clue to the book’s angle and attitude.

At the core of this project is important research and forensic deconstruction of the varied forces chipping and gnawing away at the BBC’s reputation, popularity and stability.

These include mainly the right-wing press and think tanks.

Barwise and York provide a considerable amount of evidence about the BBC’s worth, importance and financial value in respect of what the annual licence fee brings to each payer.

There is detail throughout that provides powerful cultural and political justification for its continued funding.

Most of the chapters offer a substantial social and economic portfolio of the values and advantages generated by BBC information, education, and entertainment.

The multi-stranded commerce of licence fee investment arguably creates at least twice the indice in terms of financial return.

On these issues, I believe the authors are in chime with the majority views of Chartered Institute of Journalist members.

Professional journalism in the United Kingdom needs an enduring BBC, and reversal of some of the decline in income and staffing of recent years.

They make very good arguments that the compromise on paying the licence for everyone over 75 and taking on the funding of the BBC World Service should not have happened.

Governments are making a habit of arm-twisting the BBC to divert licence-fee funding to actually subsidise what they are failing or unwilling to do themselves.

The local news partnership of funding ‘local democracy reporters’ covering local and regional councils is really not something the BBC should be paying for.

If the BBC really had these millions to spare, would they not be better spent on district reporters on the ground originating and channelling views, voices and stories into their mainstream news coverage?

The licence fee should increase with inflation like everything else so that the BBC does not shrink and shrivel.

The Penguin book is available as a paperback, Ebook and Audio Download.

The main purpose of this book seems to have been to counter nine BBC mythologies:

  • Lots of people don’t use the BBC but are still forced to pay the licence fee or go to prison
  • It’s bloated, wasteful and inefficient
  • It’s the best funded public broadcaster in the world
  • It does things that should be left to the market
  • In 2015, it agreed to fund free TV licences for all over-seventy-fives
  • If it didn’t over-pay its senior managers and star presenters, it could pay much or most of the cost of free TV licences for all over-seventy-fives

Curiously, the authors divide the above as ‘pretty much complete myths’ with three more that are ‘widely held’ but ‘mostly mythical though inherently more subjective:’

  • BBC news and current affairs coverage is systematically left-wing
  • It’s anti-Brexit
  • People no longer trust it

Is ‘The War Against The BBC’ sufficiently convincing? I would certainly say it wins the debate when presented to the mileu that the authors hail from.

And that could be its weakness.

Yes, the fact that NHK in Japan and ARD in Germany are better funded public service broadcasters is important.

But it would have been more interesting to know if NHK and ARD have had or are having any of the problems and attacks blighting the UK’s PSB.

What is the method of funding in those countries? Do they have an aggressive BBC licence collection fee style system of mail threats and criminal prosecution?

Do they pay even middling presenters, managers and editors more than their Presidents or Prime Ministers?

Back cover of The War Against The BBC published by Penguin November 19th 2020 and featuring authors Patrick Barwise and Peter York.

There is a tone throughout the text that has the feel of Hacked Off, Media Standards Trust, IMPRESS, Leveson Inquiry cheer-leading, and anti-Brexit and anti-Conservative Party resonance.

They decided to characterise across pages 91 to 92 a research study about BBC Radio 5 Live’s public service commitment by Kent University’s Centre for Journalism as an ‘assault on the BBC’ because it was funded by News UK which is Rupert Murdoch’s ‘New Front’ in its war with BBC Radio.

Using quotations from Private Eye magazine they described Professor Tim Luckhurst, who led the study, as ‘a self-styled leading expert on broadcasting’ despite having ‘published nothing authoritative on it’ and that the report had ‘bold claims’ though ‘as far as we know, the research was published as a short report, rather than a peer-reviewed paper.’

While being particularly ungenerous about a former award-winning BBC editor and journalist, former editor of The Scotsman, author of the book This is “Today: A Biography of the “Today” Programme (2001), author of many peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, and currently Head of the new South College, and Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor at Durham University, Barwise and York did not seem to understand the point of an academic study into the serious news and current affairs content of a BBC national radio channel; particularly when it appeared to fall short of its commitment by a factor of thirty per cent.

Luckhurst and his colleagues at Kent University were doing their best to hold the BBC to account. What they did was in the public interest.

In these circumstances a report rather than a peer-reviewed article in a hallowed academic journal is often regarded the appropriate form of publication and dissemination.

It is not as if the BBC, Ofcom and other media corporations do not fund academic research projects.

Associated Newspapers funded an important Oxford Reuters Institute study and report into the comparative costs of defending defamation actions.

Elsewhere, the authors have appeared to research diligently, professionally, and have a great cause.

But I wonder if they are preaching to the converted and have decided that BBC-sceptics are a lost cause.

They do cover the BBC’s own-goals and ‘own worst enemy’ syndrome- encapsulated in a rather affectionately titled chapter ‘To Err is Human.’

I think the challenge is properly understanding why the BBC has so many enemies, or many more enemies than they had before.

Is it really all down to the machinations of commercial rivals and right-wing think tanks?

The writing and publication predate the current scandal surrounding Earl Spencer’s allegations about Martin Bashir and the fake bank statements used to gain access to Diana, Princess of Wales and that notorious Panorama interview of 1996.

Of course, the BBC’s ‘enemies’ have had a field day, but there are so many aspects to this furore that leave the BBC’s most loyal supporters with a sense of disappointment and despair.

As Barwise and York do like to quote and reference George Orwell, like the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, it can be said they run a very good argument.

It is well worth reading. You may well be conservative (with a small ‘c’ and a big ‘C’), a Brexit supporter no less, a happy and contented reader of the Daily Mail, Times, Sunday Times, Sun, Telegraph and Express and truly love the BBC and want it to thrive in the British national interest.

That really should not be a contradiction in terms.

You will find ample evidence and arguments in The War Against The BBC to inform your position and help save ‘our most important cultural institution, our best-value entertainment provider, and the global face of Britain.’

The War Against The BBC by Patrick Barwise and Peter York has been published by Penguin 19th November 2020 and the paperback is £10.99

BBC’s Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London. Image by Tim Crook.