Because of its global reach and standing and because it is almost wholly unchecked by legal restraint, the BBC is a dangerous organization. It is about to get more so with the possible appointment of Conservative politician Chris Patten, tipped as the front runner for chairman of the trustees.
The BBC’s cover story is brilliant – delightful kids’ programs; peerless nature pieces; period dramas; brilliant quiz competitions; endless classical music; and Melvyn Bragg being fascinating about everything. How can you dislike all that? But the star in the BBC firmament is its news – five hours of it for each hour of the day; thousands of news journalists across the planet; broadcasting in 32 languages; reaching 90 percent of the British public (compared with 27% for Sky – the nearest rival) each month – all funded with a recession-proof £4.5 billion a year of taxpayers’ money.
The most powerful weapon in the BBC arsenal is its quietest – the website. With a budget of around £125m.
and endless cross-subsidy from BBC content available to it, the BBC website is putting newspapers out of business.
Notice how today’s UK broadsheets have largely abandoned foreign news. As others shrink, so the BBC grows to fill their place.
A recent survey showed that 1,500 versions of a single news story could all be traced back to just three sources: Reuters and AP – two anonymous generic purveyors of information – and the BBC. The BBC is the strongest brand in the news business, a brand which, even after much research debunking the myth, is still widely believed to denote accuracy, balance and truth.
A DEMOCRACY should put controls on power. The BBC has slipped through the net and grows more impregnable every day. For example, as a government-sponsored body, the BBC is in theory subject to judicial review. The legal test requires the claimant to show that the BBC acted in a way that no sane broadcaster would have acted. Even if this very high judicial hurdle can be overcome, the cost is a major deterrence. At some £100,000 per claim, judicial review is beyond the financial reach of almost every citizen. In practice it is very rarely used.
The Freedom of Information Act in theory exposes the BBC to scrutiny by private citizens. In reality, the BBC has negotiated an exception which allows it to keep secret any document to do with “journalism.” The BBC realized it was getting the Middle East story badly wrong a few years ago when it received a flood of complaints. In response it hired Malcolm Balen to study its reporting on the Middle East and to issue an internal report. Balen’s appointment was used to deflect criticism; however, the BBC refused to make his report public. Indeed it has spent an estimated £300,000 opposing a freedom-of-information request to reveal the Balen report. Despite the BBC losing in the House of Lords, England’s highest court, the report remains locked up because the BBC has started a new legal defense, which it kept in reserve in case it lost its first defense. This is a well-tried ploy by the BBC, which can expect to out-spend its litigation opponents. Here it is forcing the entire claim to be run again, ab initio.
The BBC runs a comprehensive complaints system.
Here again, it has negotiated special treatment. Whereas the rest of broadcast media in the UK are subject to the independent scrutiny of a professional regulator, the BBC is scrutinized by itself. But don’t worry. If a listener is not happy with the way the BBC has dealt with a complaint, then s/he can appeal. Unfortunately the appeal system is also run by the BBC.
AT THE very pinnacle of the BBC lie the trustees.
Competition to become a trustee is fierce. Support of the BBC and all it stands for is an express requirement.
At the head of this robust band of men and women sits the chairman of the trustees, the post for which Patten is the front-runner.
The trustees used to be called the board of governors.
A few years ago its ability to function was investigated by one of the UK’s most respected judges, Lord Hutton. The BBC had invented a story that Tony Blair, at the time prime minister, had lied to the House of Commons over the Iraq war. The chairman of the governors decided that he should not even read the evidence of Blair’s complaint, but should just reject it out of hand, because “ the governors were under a duty to resist the attack [on the BBC].” As a result of the BBC’s governors’ complete failure to understand their job as an appeal court, they earned Lord Hutton’s scathing criticism. The BBC changed the name of its appeal body from “governors” to “trustees.” But it continued to regulate itself.
Many independent studies – including my own at bbcwatch – show that the BBC fails to fulfill its legal obligation to be accurate, balanced and truthful. The BBC has been found broadly to follow the trends in soft Left thinking – anti-business, anti-religion, anti- America, pro-Europe and, of course, anti-Israel. These views are hardwired into the institution.
One senior BBC editor recently allowed the mask to slip and stated in an interview that “we need to foster left-of-center thinking.” Mark Thompson, the director-general, in a recent interview admitted that the BBC had in the past been guilty of “a massive bias to the left” and admits that “people’s sense of what is right and wrong and justice are an incredible part of what motivates people.” But he fails to grasp that one person’s “right” will be another person’s “wrong.”
The aim of “fairness and balance” is a noble one, but it is unachievable by any single individual or institution, however high minded. That is why democracies understand that there must be a separation between the judiciary and the executive, why a person must not be judge in his own cause and why all government bodies require independent scrutiny. The fact that the BBC has escaped such independent scrutiny is a national scandal.
Given the BBC’s unfettered status, the chairman of trustees becomes a vital position. As the ultimate appeal judge on all complaints, he must be seen to be a person of scrupulous fairness and lacking in bias.
PATTEN IS as far from being suited to the role as one can get. He retains a 100,000 euro a year pension from Europe which he can lose if he fails to toe the pro-Europe line; he is a leading member of the Tory Party and stands accused of outspoken views on a number of other topics – the Middle East among them. These are all great qualities in a politician, but not as the ultimate appeal judge for the BBC complaints process. He could not even provide the semblance of neutrality, and a life in politics can hardly be considered good training in the art of not taking sides.
What the BBC needs is an independent regulator with real teeth. Until it gets that, it should strive to appoint a chairman of trustees who will command some respect. Patten is not that person.
The writer is the senior partner of Asserson Law Offices, a UK law firm based in Israel and London. He is also founder of bbcwatch, which issues reports on BBC coverage of the Middle East.