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.

  • It’s a bit worrying when a story on turkey labelling in West Belfast (posted within a hour of this one) has at this point in time over 20 comments and your post has none. There is a very serious debate to be had on the BBC and its impact on other media and broad market provision of news and production.

    The issue of the impact of the BBC on the market is a serious one. While the national role could be seen as positive, necessary and worthy (perhaps), when it comes to regional impact the debate should be more robust. The BBC does not suffer the same decline of income in a recession. While regional broadcasters have to cut their cloth, the BBC can pick up the best at a ‘secure’ and reasonable wage, probably higher than available in other media.

    Its pervasiveness across all media, and in particular the web where a market model has not been identified, its ‘free to air’ capacity has given it a step ahead – though credit to it for being visionary enough to be ahead. It benefits from others’ investment in cable and broadband infrastructure(stressing these through on-demand) without having to make the capital outlay.

    Surely public rights come with public responsibility, and it is this imbalance that is should be thrown into sharp focus in the arena of public debate. The role of public service is to be self-aware and self-correcting, not to be self-righteous or self-serving. It’s a debate that needs to be thorough and far-reaching.

    For a three billion £ enterprise I did not think the recent BBC expenses was justified. There are more fundamental questions that are being crowded out with such rhetorical reporting. Focus on the coincidental will only rob us of a wider and diverse media from which we all gain.

    Your post is welcome and timely, and considerably more important than a flag on a packet of turkey slices.

  • Glencoppagagh

    If cutting ‘Let’s Talk’ is the worst the BBC can do in the local context, I don’t think there’s too much to worry about. It was pretty dire stuff.
    Of far greater concern is the relentless decline in standards of BBC news output. Less serious news and analysis of serious news ever striving for simplicity at all costs.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick I’m getting old and I’ll leave most of the reaction to others. Anne McElvoy is overdrawn. Each major change of governmemt since I was a boy has appeared as a threat to the BBC, from regional management boards with Annan to dropping popular channels with Peacock to create more commercial opportunities. History shows that in the end, the BBC has won through every time. I don’t gloat, it’s just a fact. The BBC has far exceeded the 25% independent production set for it by government and diversifed in a popular direction when it was criticed for “superserving” the middle class. Now it’s being slammed precisely for doing that. I’m not saying that the BBC won’t be hammered after the damp squib of Digital Britain, but I wonder. It’s a tall order for the DCMS to get it right by government fiat if it scraps Ofcom. I’m amazed too that instead of raiding the licence fee Carter didn’t go for diversifying TV ownership to allow in future big content providers like Google. In the struggle over the shrinking TV cake, I look forward with relish to any detailed argument with the Murdochs over value for money (Sky average package £300; BBC licence fee inc Freeview and iPlayer £142). I wouldn’t go to the wall over BBC NI’s Let’s Talk (never ssen it) but I would point out that on BBC NI there’s almost a full morning’s interaction each weekday on RU with Nolan and Talkback. And lots of politics with comment if not popular debate which Slugger quarries like Stormont Today. Nationally, there’s the fully interactive 5Live. And just about every BBC programme (tiresomely in my view) invites e mail or audio responses on just about everything. You really want more? Enuff ” free and open encounter,” as far as I’m concerned.

    Incidentally the best thing I remember from Onora was her neat paradox that, the more accountability mechanisms, the less trust. There, I’ve gone on far too long already. BTW, do you think I should audition for Grumpy Old Men?

  • Guest

    “s a bit worrying when a story on turkey labelling in West Belfast (posted within a hour of this one) has at this point in time over 20 comments and your post has none. There is a very serious debate to be had on the BBC and its impact on other media and broad market provision of news and production”-Thedissenter.

    Maybe the words “NATIONAL ROLE” in the second sentence of your next paragraph are a clue to why so few people are interested.Mick’s movement into GB politics has rendered his posts less relevant than Pete Barker’s dealing with devolved issues.
    Ironically, Mick Fealty’s post on the guardian run out of steam just as quick as they do here.

  • aquifer

    During the stickier parts of the ‘Peace Process’ it was very valuable to have broadcast forums where citizens could have their say, but the BBC very nearly did not do this local service due to budgets controlled from London. Disgraceful and very dangerous.

    It is very necessary that the media hold the parties nose to the devolved government grindstone. The sectarian blame game is a simple story requiring no additional research effort, quite unlike the minutiae of the local implementation of EU water directives. Going back to the bad old days of murderous spectaculars could suit the media all too well, but we should insist on a public broadcasting service rather than a shock horror show.

    In a way the Imperial Broadcasting service owe us for the tribute we paid in bloody headlines and journos trained, even before we consider the license fee.

    Commercial TV on cable is the biggest nonsense of all, paying money to watch adverts. Virgin and Sky really have found the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

  • Mick Fealty


    You’ll be pleased to hear that I agree with almost every word of that. Cameron’s talk on Ofcom may simply be a warning that his government will not countenance any surrender by Mr Murdoch of his precious (and as you point out), profitable monopoly over satellite sport.

    Cameron’s problem may be that he drives himself into a corner with promises that he cannot easily get out of when he comes to power. That one may one he comes to regret later in the game.

    Channel 4’s early genius was it’s eschewal of targets and investment of radical trust in the new producer/entrepreneurs of the 80s and 90s. It’s what accounts for the best of its production to this day.

    It seems to me there is a potential here, which should not be missed for providing some of truly independent and pluralist voice online, here on the chaotic and self organising internet.

  • guest


    You probably are aware of this but in Belgium “Belgacom”,the national phone compant do HD TV through an internet line.Fascinating.