Judy Beishon, Socialist Party executive committee
BBC NUJ strikers, 1.8.11 Sheffield , photo Andy Kershaw

BBC NUJ strikers, 1.8.11 Sheffield , photo Andy Kershaw   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Any sympathy for George Entwistle following his resignation as BBC director general after just eight weeks in the job was tempered by anger at his £450,000 pay-off and estimated £877,000 pension.

Entwistle, and two other BBC senior managers, had fallen victim to an avalanche of attacks on the BBC following the Jimmy Savile scandal and more recently a Newsnight programme that fuelled false accusations of Tory Lord McAlpine sexually abusing children in north Wales care homes.

Ironically, the ill-fated Newsnight decision to go ahead with the care home broadcast seemed partly an attempt to make amends after the earlier much criticised withdrawal of a Newsnight exposure of Savile’s deeds. It was also a consequence of BBC management turmoil in the wake of that backlash.

Both incidents were a gift to the BBC’s right-wing enemies and media competitors, many of whom detest the fact that the BBC receives £3.6 billion a year of public money. Leading the bandwagon of condemnation was billionaire Rupert Murdoch, still reeling from the exposure of News of the World’s phone hacking crimes and his resulting failure to take over BSkyB.

Murdoch’s mates

The Tory leadership’s views and links with Murdoch and other press barons were shown during the Leveson inquiry, from former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s expressed support for Murdoch’s agenda, to Cameron’s socialising with editors of News of the World.

Entwistle appeared inept during the Radio 4 interview that led to his resignation. But many people sprung to his defence. They included Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman who brazenly said Entwistle had been “let down by cowards and incompetents” and blamed “a series of cuts on programme budgets, while bloating the management”.

There are many excellent, relatively low-paid (compared to senior managers and presenters like Paxman) journalists at the BBC who have been reported as ‘tearing their hair out’ at the way management handled the Newsnight dilemmas.

Newsnight’s budget has been halved over the last five years and Entwistle’s predecessor Mark Thompson presided over the axing of 7,000 jobs across the BBC in the years after he became head of the corporation in 2004. The cutting of a further 2,000 jobs, including about 800 in news, is planned by 2016 following the government’s freezing of the television licence fee in 2010.

The cuts, partly stemming from pressure originated by profit-making media companies like Murdoch’s, are very damaging to quality, investigative journalism. They reduce the pool of expertise and the time to investigate and check stories, and increase reliance on outside firms – the non-BBC Bureau of Investigative Journalism fronted the Newsnight report that caused the McAlpine storm.

Publicly owned

As a publicly owned corporation the BBC built up a reputation over decades for being a more reliable source of information than the media owned by big business. In June 2012 Ofcom reported a survey in which 65% of UK adults named BBC One as one of their news sources, while only 37% named ITV, 23% Sky, and the highest figure for a newspaper was 16% for the Sun.

However, although the BBC has the major advantages of not being influenced by advertisers and not lining the pockets of shareholders (except via privatised sections and partners), it is far from having the political independence, accountability to the public and openess called for by socialists.

Unelected Trust

Its governing Trust is not elected but is appointed by government ministers, with the present powerful Trust chairman being former Tory minister Chris Patten.

An indication of the attitude of ordinary people to Patten is that he was voted out of parliament in 1992, but not before he had done Margaret Thatcher’s bidding by privatising the water industry and introducing the doomed poll tax. He then became the unelected governor of Hong Kong, paid more than the British prime minister and in his own words had “a fleet of cars, a yacht, a helicopter and scores of staff”.

After that there was a spell as an unelected European Commissioner, followed by supporting the introduction of student tuition fees as chancellor of Oxford University. Say no more to reveal the nature of the BBC’s top leadership, affecting its news coverage and all else!

Nevertheless, despite their deficiencies and inbuilt bias – including disgracefully that they don’t allow the anti-austerity voice of organisations like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition to be heard – programmes like Panorama and Newsnight can provide useful and interesting news, discussion and sometimes exposure. There is a danger that the sex abuse scandals will be used to undermine them and much else that is informative or entertaining from the BBC.

We must oppose all cuts in the BBC’s funding and inroads of privatisation, and defend its existence as a publicly owned and run broadcasting company. A socialist government will need to release journalists from commercial, financial and political pressures and put the BBC (and other major media resources) into the hands of democratically organised workers’ control and management.

Then, the media can serve the interests of the overwhelming majority in society, giving democratically decided time and space for the expression of minority views and for a flowering of debate, communication and culture.