THE BBC has a new Director General, Tony Hall, to replace the rather hapless George Entwistle who resigned just the other week.
I do hope he can borrow a tin hat from one of those Covent Garden opera productions, or maybe engage a couple of Valkyries as minders, for if he thinks the scandals are behind him then he really is living in the fantastical world of Wagner’s Ring. And we know what happened at the end of that saga – Valhalla came crashing down on the heads of the Gods.
Now if you don’t like the Sun, the Morning Star, the Daily Record or even this estimable journal of truth and wisdom (thanks, ed.) you can always switch to another paper – or nothing at all. If you can’t abide Scottish Television or Sky you can always turn over or go down to the bingo hall (if it’s still open) without having to pay another subscription or endure the advertising.
Not so the BBC.
If you don’t like what the BBC says, what it transmits, how it populates the internet and how it sets the scene for so many news stories you can turn off the telly, switch off your laptop and go down to the pub (if it’s still open) knowing that unless you actually dispose of your TV set and your computer then you will still be paying for it through the licence fee.
This is why the BBC is important to us all. It is a great institution about which I have waxed, no doubt inelegantly, down the years, regaling readers with my fond memories of so much of its output that I grew up with. The BBC is, however, funded by a system that binds it to us all whether or not we wish to be part of it. This means that whatever the BBC does it does in our name and that is why it is different from every other news organisation or broadcaster.
So when the scandal about Jimmy Savile broke, the fact that this admittedly strange man even back then was constantly beamed into our living rooms by the BBC made him almost part of the family – we were not just watching him (if we chose to) we were paying for him (even if we chose not to watch him).
And when the scandal broke about Newsnight falsely accusing Alastair McAlpine of being a child molester – the same show that had failed to report on Savile’s sordid history – it had failed on our behalf. The £185,000 that the BBC had paid out was therefore funded by us – as was the huge pay-off given to the Director General when he resigned.
So as Tony Hall parks himself on the Director General’s chair he must consider how he can re-establish the BBC’s reputation for journalistic standards – for so long as the TV Poll Tax remains, those standards are in our name. But if he thinks the scandals are in the past then let me point to more that have surfaced in the last few days.
The first is partisan reporting such as the BBC correspondent Jon Donnison, who tweeted a photograph of a dead child in Gaza with the comment “heartbreaking”. Only the photograph was of a child killed by one of Assad’s snipers in Syria. It was an Arab atrocity against an Arab child but it had been used by a Hamas supporter as propaganda against Israel and the BBC reporter had not checked his source. At best gullible, at worst complicit in the hateful falsehood, Donnison was forced to apologise. However, the damage to his already questionable credibility had been done.
Tony Hall could gain respect by recalling him and giving him a dressing down. The worry is that such journalistic failings are, however, institutional, for the bigger scandal is how the BBC gathered 28 “leading scientists” to help establish its policy on climate change. Why the BBC needs a policy and does not just report the debate is an obvious question, but the real isssue is that only four of the 28 were scientists – and none are listed in the UK’s Top 100! The rest are policy-makers and advocates of the man-made climate change theory that many believe is a great deception, with no members of the group to propose the contrary view.
This was nothing to do with the failings or over-enthusiasm of a single journalist but all about shaping the research, commissioning, editing and reporting of all programmes that might in the future report on climate change issues.
It is this systemic and institutional bias that Tony Hall has to eradicate if he wants to regain the BBC’s hard-fought reputation for impartiality.
Of course he could let the BBC continue to be biased and end its funding through the TV Poll Tax. Then, like the Sun, or Sky News, it would not matter – as we would not be forced to pay for it. But like a drunk working and living in a brewery. that ain’t going to happen.
Like Wagner’s Gods, the BBC has no wish to become mortal like the rest of us any time soon.