How our broadcasting is funded, organised and controlled is a matter of importance to anyone concerned about the quality of our lives, the information we receive, our democracy and our cultures.
Two seemly unrelated events in the past three months are likely to have a far reaching impact on the future of broadcasting in Britain. The first is Rupert Murdoch’s recent purchase of 17.9 percent of ITV shares. The second is the announcement of the BBC licence fee settlement for the next six years.
The first could threaten what’s left of plurality in the British media. The second could lead to the slow death of public service broadcasting and its replacement by the US model.
The backbone of public service broadcasting is the BBC. It is not the only public service broadcaster, because although ITV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 are commercial broadcasters, they are all required to provide a range of public service programmes.
No government has wanted to force Murdoch to take on public service obligations, so his BSkyB was able to compete unfairly with ITV.
ITV’s response was to go to the regulator asking for its public service provision to be cut. And it got its way.
Coupled with more populist schedules – to deliver more viewers to advertisers – have come studio closures and substantial job losses.
But now ITV has Murdoch’s News International breathing down its neck. A few days before Michael Grade switched channels from the BBC to ITV, BSkyB bought a 17.9 percent stake in the company. The purchase was met with breathtaking silence from both front benches in parliament.
Neither has any intention of upsetting Murdoch. It’s now up to the Department for Trade and Industry to decide whether there should be a full review of “public interest” considerations.
The record of standing up to Murdoch has been appalling, due to New Labour’s close relationship with the media mogul down the years, and Britain’s feeble media ownership laws. And it won’t be any better under Gordon Brown.
It was reported that Murdoch was lobbying Brown at the Davos World Economic Forum recently. And one of Brown’s friends and former close advisers, the US neoliberal economist Irwin Steltzer (known as Rupert Murdoch’s chief representative on Earth) will also be putting on the pressure.
Steltzer and Murdoch will also be pleased with the government’s below inflation licence fee settlement imposed on the BBC last month.
Murdoch’s hatred of the BBC is well documented and expressed through his newspapers. The settlement has Brown’s footprints all over it, leaving the BBC with a £2 billion hole in its finances.
In response to compulsory redundancies, the NUJ journalists’ union has threatened strike action. It is likely to be supported by Bectu, the technicians’ union.
The job losses at the BBC have been appalling. Since he became director general, Mark Thompson has axed around 7,000 jobs.
A number of its broadcasting operations have been privatised and more and more work has gone to independent production companies. Those left behind face longer hours and bigger workloads. In addition, the BBC is taking on the responsibility for digital switchover (costing some £600 million) and financing the move of some departments to a £190 million media centre in Salford.
On top of all this the corporation is expected to make so called “efficiency savings” of 3 percent.
All this will weaken the BBC (which pleases Murdoch) and lead to more repeats and further dumbing down (which viewers resent).
Of course there are plenty of criticisms of the BBC. It’s grovelling “unreserved apology” to the government following the Hutton report showed how its independence is threadbare.
It’s coverage of the issues such as the Middle East and Iraq has been well exposed by Media Workers Against the War, as has the BBC’s failure to report and debate the true depth of opposition to the illegal invasion of Iraq.
More recently the BBC announced that it had abandoned plans to produce a programme about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, on the grounds that it now believed that the matter had been well covered in the past.
The BBC is far from perfect, but it should be supported against media moguls who want to see a US style of broadcasting dominated by commercialism and subordinated to the influence of billionaire owners.
There are also growing demands for a more democratic, independent and accountable media from anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. News networks over the internet demonstrate that people are looking for alternatives to inform and mobilise opinion.
But in the end we have to build a wide coalition of trade unions,
anti-globalisation activists and others to rein back Murdoch’s powerful grip on the media and stop the slow death of public service broadcasting.
Barry White is national organiser of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. It campaigns for a diverse, democratic and accountable media. Go to www.cpbf.org.uk or ring 020 8521 5932