Beyond Sky, the BBC and ‘Objectivity’ towards pluralism and the ‘new information order’…

At Slugger we have gained a fairly cool distance from most sectional interests through the constant assertion of a pluralist critique to all political parties. In the past, I have argued, here and elsewhere, that such pluralism is the only viable alternative to the BBC’s ‘objectivist’ approach to its public service remit in an age where access to ‘alternative’ political views are only a click away. I made the point at a recent round table on Digital Britain, with the virtual collapse of a viable commercial alternative voice in public service broadcasting, the BBC is getting slacker in reinforcing its commitments to holding democracy to account (for instance, cutting Let’s Talk to four programmes a year after UTV cut Insight completely)…Anne McElvoy writing the Spectator asks a question what will the Tories do about it? The answer appears, up to now, to have been rather confused. More recently however, the voices of the Murdoch family have been moving away from the government, and towards the Tories:

Mr Cameron launched his attack in the Sun, a powerful Murdoch-owned message-board. How close Mr Cameron will move to embracing the Murdoch family’s view, now aired with renewed vigour by News International’s feisty chairman James Murdoch, is one of the key topics at those expensive BBC dinners we keep reading about. Mr Murdoch Jr believes that the BBC is an inhibitor of a truly open media market and impedes fair competition in areas like the internet and other commercial activities. He’s accused the organisation of trying to ‘create a British Google … funded by the taxpayer’. The presence of Elisabeth Murdoch on Mr Cameron’s digital task force hasn’t gone unnoticed either: though its chairman is the former BBC boss, Greg Dyke.

That “British Google” is essentially the same complaint being made by Emily Bell, the online Editor of the Guardian, and relates to the fact that the BBC has used its powerful global brand to colonise the market ahead of the commercial boys and girls (when the Guardian cared – and spent – too much perhaps, and Murdoch’s people did care a damn). McElvoy goes on to note:

Mr Thompson [the BBC’s Director General] and Mr Murdoch are, in a way, arguing for the two sides of Dave’s brain. One side of Cameronism emphasises benign collectivity and things that unite Britain. The other is sympathetic to tough entrepreneurs challenging monoliths — to say nothing of the gratitude this is likely to engender from powerful allies like News International.

It’s worth briefly noting here that Mr Murdoch is not actually sympathetic to entrepreneurs. He’s head of a large incumbent media corporation with a commercial monopoly over the broadcast of the most popular forms of British sport. In fact none of the companies Ms McElvoy quotes as resisting state subsidy (Channel 5, Sky and ITV) have favoured the rich plurality of independent production, brought forth by producer-friendly model chosen by Margaret Thatcher for Channel Four when it was established in the early 1980s. It’s well worth listening to how that came about on A Thousand Flowers, a radio programme that went on out BBC Radio 4 on Saturday.

Channel Four’s capacity to sustain its diverse and plural tv output is set to dramatically decline in line with the revenues of the other broadcaster’s mentioned. But it is hardly the end of the pluralist model, not least on line. As Natalie notes (via Paul):

?transparency subsumes objectivity. Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report. Objectivity without transparency increasingly will look like arrogance. And then foolishness. Why should we trust what one person — with the best of intentions — insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?

In short: Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can.”

Or course, as Professor Onora O’Neill pointed out in her Reith Lecture of 2002, transparency does not in and of itself add up to trust. In fact it may simply encourage more self censorship and cleverer forms of deceit. And she quotes one of my favourite phrases from Milton to demonstrate what looks like the latest form of the tyranny of formlessness:

As the quantity of (mis)information available rises, as the number of bodies with self-conferred credentials and missions and active publicity machines increases, as the difficulty of knowing whether a well-publicised claim is a credible claim increases, it is simply harder to place trust reasonably. Milton asked rhetorically “Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”. Today the very prospect of a ‘free and open encounter’ is drowning in the supposedly transparent world of the new information order.

That ‘free and open encounter’ cannot, like much else about the internet, be presumed to happen spontaneously in and of itself. It has to be cultured into view, and protected, in the Belfast vernacular, from ‘messers’. It remains to be seen whether the Tories have a real appetite for change in either the nature of the BBC’s output, or in producing reforms that would bring about a more truly pluralist system.

Ms McElvoy suggests they have a faint heart for anything more than preserving the status quo. In other words, retaining a perennial stand off between two large blocks of corporations; one statist the other private, both still living largely beyond the bounds of the chaotic world of that ‘new information order’ where the rest of us will continue to weigh their decidedly untransparent outputs and find them wanting.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty