BBC must be changed

Towards a Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation

The disclosure of the BBC list of highest paid ‘stars’ raises the question: what is the corporation for? William Kane investigates

The new requirement that the BBC publish all salaries above £150,000 has borne fruit at last, and given rise inevitably to a pearl-clutching scandal.

There are many available cries of injustice here - above all the injustice of Chris Evans being paid more than everyone else, when it is surely doubtful that even the most loyal listeners of his Radio 2 breakfast show would claim any more than that he is a safe pair of hands: successfully preventing dead air, according to broadcasting best practices, by flapping his gums and playing tedious music. We guess that a big part of that packet has something to do with the calamitous attempt to put him up as a replacement Jeremy Clarkson for Top gear presenting duties, but still - Chris Evans? The unacceptable face of the 1990s? Surely the only reason to pay him £2.2 million is for promising to go away.

The hierarchy on the whole seems a bit random, with some relatively well-known TV faces being thoroughly humbled by more obscure radio presenters, from which we might surmise that a large part of this phenomenon is down to brinksmanship at the negotiating table. Celebrity is not a fungible commodity: you cannot just replace Graham Norton with another man of the same height and build. On the other hand, Graham Norton would not get remotely the same audience reach and prospects for continued work in light entertainment if he were merely chattering away on some YouTube channel, and certainly nothing like the same level of money would then be available to him. Thus we are not dealing with a job market in the usual sense, but rather something like two monopolists attempting to price-gouge each other on a single transaction, in an undignified display of mutual parasitism.

It is worth bearing in mind, also, that salaries are only part of the story: stars often collect money through their own production companies, so some of these numbers will be dramatically unrepresentative of the real benefit of the licence fee to certain individuals. One early adopter of the ‘personal production company’ model, incidentally, is Chris Evans.

Much of the commentary on this issue has been dedicated to the very clear disparity between the genders in this pay list - everyone earning better than £500,000 is male, with Claudia Winkelmann the top paid woman, coming in somewhere between £450,000 and £499,999. This is despite decades of diversity initiatives and the like, and indeed a generous sprinkling of women among the BBC’s senior management, in roles where they will presumably be having some kind of impact on the salaries obtained by ‘the stars’. In broader life, there is the small matter of men having, on average, a greater degree of confidence to demand higher wages; but you would have thought that the BBC’s ‘sleb’ contingent would be drawn from the most brash and extroverted members of both genders, overwhelmingly from born-to-rule establishment types, and thus the advantage would be cancelled out. Apparently not.

The underlying political issue, however, is not so much the pay gap as the BBC itself - after all, we can hardly accuse the Daily Mail and The Sun, currently denouncing the BBC’s rampant sexism, of impeccable feminist credentials. (Let’s see some Mail columnists’ fees, and count the X chromosomes while we’re at it ... ) The whole thing is being exploited as a means of bashing the Beeb. No doubt if the top seven earners were women, we would read in the Mail that it was ‘political correctness gone mad’; or if the gender distribution was more random, then some other aspect of the case would be lifted up as evidence of the BBC’s degeneracy. Indeed, how did we get here? Thanks to the Tory government, which made the publication of top salaries a condition of the corporation’s new charter: clearly a calculated move to embarrass an institution that is increasingly regarded as a public menace by the rightwing part of the establishment.

This is really a most peculiar outcome. The Beeb, after all, was founded by Lord Reith on explicitly Tory principles; his was the sort of mindset that viewed the existence of a commercial popular press - never mind the radical alternatives affiliated to the labour movement - as a civilisational disaster, and he argued successfully that the government ought to get ahead of things in the radio world. The BBC began as a cartel of radio manufacturers with the austere, god-fearing Reith as its spiritual guide, licensed by the general post office to “inform, educate and entertain”.

Its first serious test was the 1926 general strike; Reith and his minions despised the strike, of course, but wanted to at least maintain the appearance of neutrality; but that was not good enough for Stanley Baldwin and especially Winston Churchill, who forced the delay even of the broadcast of a peace-mongering sermon from the archbishop of Canterbury. As reward for services rendered, the BBC obtained a Royal Charter, and increasingly outgrew its commercial roots.

It became an odd, chimerical creature, in that it was plainly a state broadcaster, just as much as Russia Today or anything else, but one from which the government of the day has generally deemed it politic to keep a polite distance. It is funded not out of general taxation, but a direct flat tax on television viewers (and, before that, wireless owners); thus the opportunities for government direction are focused on charter renewals. Obedience to the establishment is traditionally ensured merely by hiring from its ranks - not for nothing is received pronunciation sometimes called the ‘BBC accent’.

Politics of envy

This is a picture of the BBC that would be difficult to contest as late as the 1980s, and even today is an accurate likeness if you are on the left (and have to put up with the relentless Tory spin of the likes of Nick Robinson, Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg). Yet it is not the portrait painted by the commercial press, especially on the right. The BBC is dominated by the ‘liberal elite’. It is crippled by political correctness. It is the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. How did this come to pass?

In a sense, it is the same difficulty faced by Reith in 1926 - for the preachers of social warfare, friendly neutrality is never going to be enough. The archbishop’s sanctimonious message of peace and goodwill between men was plainly directed at the workers’ surrender; but the very fact that it would call for understanding and Christian humility on all sides rendered it suspect to the likes of Churchill, who was directing squads of fascist scabs and contemplating the massacre of strikers. Likewise, the vexatious Toryism of Neil and Kuenssberg will never be enough for Paul Dacre, as long as there is even one Eastenders storyline expressing sympathy for the plight of illegal migrants.

There are, of course, also the vulgar economic imperatives. We may not think of the Beeb and the Mail as direct competitors, but in reality they are, if only inasmuch as both are the maintainers of high-traffic news websites with global reach and importance. (Mail Online is notoriously the most popular news website in the world, although how much that has to do with its ‘serious’ content and how much the celebrity cleavage in the sidebar of shame is open to question.)

As for the Murdoch press, umbilically linked to film studios and TV stations, the conflict is even more obvious. The world’s most powerful media dynasty has the distinct virtue of having spelt out plainly what its real problem with the BBC is. In 2009, James Murdoch delivered the MacTaggart lecture with the basic argument that the BBC’s licence-fee model strangles competition by allowing it to produce high-quality content without having to prove itself as a business:

The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it and what is good for the country ... Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling.1

This was, on the face of it, quite an extraordinary concession from the Murdoch clan, the most vociferous defenders in the bourgeois media of naked capitalism: that the pursuit of profit, far from giving the commercial media an advantage through the remorseless, evolutionary logic of market competition, actually gives the state-funded likes of the BBC a leg-up if they are not suitably constrained by the hand of government. ‘It’s not fair,’ Murdoch seems to say.Well, life’s not fair ...

Of course, the picture he painted back then was absurd, and would be absurd today - of his dynasty, the only media organisation popularly referred to as an ‘empire’ (and for good reason) being some sort of plucky underdog: a lone voice crying in the wilderness for media diversity. The acquisitive, domineering character of News Corporation and its corporate satellites is plain for any observer to see: we should remember that Rupert Murdoch prints 40% of all newspapers in this country, and that, had the phone hacking crisis not come to a head at the wrong moment, he would now have a formidable monopolistic advantage in the British media, as a result of outright ownership of BSkyB. His complaint is ultimately that the BBC stands in the way of these ambitions; he (and the other press barons) would prefer a far more restrictive charter, which would conveniently absolve the Beeb of doing anything remotely popular, after the fashion of America’s PBS.

Better future

Where does this leave the left and the workers’ movement? It is plainly the case that the BBC as an institution is an enemy, and (Murdoch junior is quite correct) a powerful one. It is a propaganda apparatus of the state that undergirds capitalist exploitation.

Yet all such apparatuses of the state are subject to the anxious logic of contradiction; for they are not mechanical apparatuses, but rather composed of people, whose affiliation is ultimately conditional on the delivery of wages for not overly onerous work in a timely and satisfactory fashion. In other words, once we walk ourselves down the BBC pay scale - past the £150,000 point, where last week’s disclosure came into force, towards the £20,000 point that media union Bectu said that many BBC workers receive - we are talking (with some exceptions) about proletarians. In any case, we are dealing with people, not machines, whose individual motivations are not reducible to the structural role of their employer. Soldiers, likewise, are 90% of the time merely the bloody instrument of British imperialism; but they need not be, and it would be a dim-witted Marxist indeed who denied the value of agitation in the ranks.

In a successful socialist society, ‘media diversity’ would be more than a cheap flag of convenience for a Murdoch scion or a half-forgotten regulatory objective: it would rather be the natural outcome of radical egalitarianism and the unleashing of popular creativity and power. On the road to that society, we must have a meaningful programme for the BBC - if its radio stations, TV channels and web outlets are to be worth a damn to the cause of human progress, what transformations are necessary, and what convictions must be spread in its own trenches?

In some respects, we even agree with James Murdoch. It is difficult to defend light entertainment as a ‘public good’: however superficially populist the glitz of prime-time talent shows, in reality the demotism is false and cynical, and the exclusive desire for such material is merely projected onto the broad masses by - yes - a ‘media elite’, liberal or otherwise. Given real control over such decisions, it is doubtful whether the popular mood, even as it is today, would demand merely more Strictly, more of the time.

So control must be moved downwards: BBC managers must be subject to election by their charges, and their remuneration packages not merely rubber-stamped by the gang of establishment cronies in the BBC trust, but carefully meted out by committees of ordinary workers. The BBC defends itself often on the basis of its community efforts and cultivation of new, young talent, but in reality this function has wasted away since the days of Cathy come home: it must be restored to its former glory, and the grey river of sameness interrupted with a new wave of innovative work. On the factual media side, there is one area where capitalism has failed most dramatically of all to meet needs, and that is local media: if ever there was a place for a non-capitalist institution to play a valuable role, it is there, transformed into an instrument of plebeian power from a power over us.

The BBC worth having would not spend millions on the chunterings of Chris Evans, but instead be put at the service of a revival of genuinely popular culture.


1. http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Media/documents/2009/08/28/JamesMurdochMacTaggartLecture.pdf.