By Colin Sparks
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Iraq: The BBC at War

This article is over 17 years, 10 months old
The resignations at the BBC following the Hutton report caused a storm. Colin Sparks looks at the role of public broadcasting in a time of crisis.
Issue 283

The struggle between the BBC and the government is evidence of the deep divisions inside the ruling class over the war in Iraq and the wider issues of strategy that lie behind it. The publication of the Hutton report and the subsequent resignations of the chairman of the board of governors, Gavyn Davies, and the director general, Greg Dyke, should have been a victory for the government. The fact that it is once again on the defensive is partly because the underlying split has not yet been healed, and partly because of the way in which BBC workers were prepared to rally in defence of Dyke.


There is a temptation for socialists to dismiss all of this as a storm in a teacup. The government is clearly unequivocally committed to the capitalist system. The BBC is an integral part of the capitalist system. Who cares if they are fighting each other? And who cares which side comes out on top? And the journalists and other workers who struck in defence of Dyke were exactly the same people who night after night produce news programmes that demonise strikers, Muslims and asylum seekers. And what kind of strike is it when workers march out in support of their millionaire boss?

However understandable such a response might be, it is not one that socialists should share. It is true that the BBC is an integral part of the capitalist system, and true that both Davies and Dyke are very rich men with long histories of ruling class militancy. They were, indeed, strong supporters of Tony Blair, and when they were appointed it was widely believed that they were being shoehorned in to make sure that BBC stood for `Blair Broadcasting Corporation‘. In order to understand why things have turned out this way, we need to look a bit more closely at the place of the BBC in British capitalism.

British capitalism is a bourgeois democracy, and both bits of that label are important. Bourgeois democracies differ from other forms of class rule in two very important ways. For the ruling class, the fact that there is freedom of political association means that different sections of the ruling class can back, or buy, different politicians who they think will advance their interests. The US is the classic example of that process in action. A bourgeois democracy allows the ruling class to change direction and government without street demonstrations, military coups or other messy, unpredictable and dangerous things. One set of politicians replaces another and does the bidding of whichever section of the capitalist class is paying it.

For the working class, the fact that there is free association is very important indeed. It means that it is possible to organise trade unions and political parties, to go on strike, and to publish socialist newspapers and books. In other words, open and legal working class self organisation is an integral part of bourgeois democracy. Naturally, the capitalist class would like to restrict this as much as possible, and everywhere tries to marginalise and criminalise organised workers. But just because the ability to organise is so important to us, socialists are always the most militant defenders of democratic rights.

We defend freedom of the press against government restrictions enthusiastically and wholeheartedly. If the government tomorrow closed down the Daily Mail we would find ourselves in the unusual position of being the most determined defenders of a vile and reactionary rag‘s right to publish.

The BBC fits into this picture as one of the places in which discussions about the future of British capitalism are conducted. It is not the private property of any individual capitalist. Rather, just as Marx called the government ’the executive committee of the capitalist class‘, so the BBC is the public forum for the capitalist class, or rather for capitalist politicians. It is not a servant of the government but part of the state.

This role means that it differs from a private broadcasting company like Berlusconi’s, which he was able to use unashamedly for his election strategy. It also differs from a government broadcaster that simply amplifies the voice of the ruling party: General de Gaulle once said of French television, ‘My enemies have the press, but I have broadcasting.’ The BBC, on the contrary, is obsessively devoted to reflecting all shades of bourgeois opinion. It makes sure that the amount of time given to Labour and Tory, for instance, balances exactly, down to the very last second.

But if its prime purpose is to reflect different shades of bourgeois opinion, it can only do that through a large organisation. The BBC employs thousands of people, and only a tiny number of these are actual members of the capitalist class. True, its recruitment policies mean that it tends to be dominated by white male public schoolboys. Even Greg Dyke was horrified when he took over – after touring the organisation he said it was ‘hideously white’, and made some faltering efforts to ensure it reflected contemporary Britain a bit more accurately. But the BBC also employs thousands of workers who are members of trade unions, and who share the uneven and contradictory ideas that are held by groups of workers everywhere. Many of these workers firmly hold the view that the BBC should reflect all shades of opinion, not just that certified as acceptable to the ruling class.


In the last couple of years we have seen those contradictions played out very clearly. As the government has found itself more and more at odds with the popular mood, it has attempted to make sure that those parts of the media that it can influence present its policies in the best possible light. That means sucking up to Murdoch, but it also means trying to bring the BBC to heel.

Over the invasion of Iraq, the differences of opinion inside the ruling class were not reflected in differences between the two main political parties, so the BBC could not trot out MPs from different parties to argue it out. They could, at least in the weeks before the war, use the thoroughly pro-capitalist Liberal Democrats to articulate the debate, but the scale of opposition was so great that Charles Kennedy could hardly be presented as an adequate representative of the whole opposition. The ordinary journalists and other workers in the BBC knew from their personal experiences just how gigantic the movement against the war was, and their reports kept on spilling out beyond respectable opinion and giving an airing to voices of determined opposition.

There clearly was a conflict inside the BBC over this. Mostly the management was able to keep things within bounds, and all the studies show that the BBC was the most pro-war of the major broadcasters. Once the invasion began and the Liberal Democrats swung behind imperialism, the whole political establishment was in favour of war, and the BBC could happily try to present opposition as marginal. But it was still not pro-war enough. It acknowledged opposition to the war before, during and after the invasion, and that was why Alastair Campbell was determined to bring it into line.

It was in that context that a tiny error of emphasis in one substantially accurate story was seized upon by Campbell and blown up into grounds for an assault on the BBC. There is absolutely no doubt at all that what the government wanted, and what it still wants, is to bring the BBC into line as the loyal voice of New Labour. The Hutton report was a weapon in that struggle, and it was powerful enough to force out the BBC’s leadership.

What it was not powerful enough to do was to cow the staff into submission. On the contrary, they could see it for what it was – a direct and crude attack upon freedom of the press. They walked out, and they were quite right to do so. Striking to defend a boss who is a millionaire was no doubt a part of it, but another and much more important part was walking out to defend journalistic freedom from government censorship. That merits the wholehearted support of any socialist.

It is too early to say what the final outcome of all this will be. There is no doubt that the government is casting around for a couple of reliable pals to place as the new chair of the governors and director general, but it now knows that it can’t necessarily rely even on its friends to stay loyal during a crisis. The fact that the staff did go on strike, and that they gained widespread public support, means that the attempt to make sure that all future crises are reported in the way that Blair would like is much less likely to succeed.

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