This is an edited extract from a speech given by former BBC special correspondent Allan Little for the Hetherington Lecture at Stirling University
Is the BBC worth saving? I am not and never have been a BBC executive. I am not much of a corporation man. I am a jobbing journalist. I cannot list for you the supposed abundances the BBC brings into your homes – from Doctor Who and MasterChef, to Live from the Proms; from CBeebies to Newsnight; from the Radio 1 Breakfast Show to Poetry Please.
My subject, my concern – my life’s work, if you like – is the news. And what I want to argue is that the BBC is uniquely valuable because it can carve out in our society’s discourse a public square, a place that most of us will pass through from time to time, in which we will encounter views that we don’t like, in which we will have to acknowledge the right of others to disagree and take issue and challenge and dispute our own view of the world.
This is more urgent now than it has been at any time in my working life, not only because the BBC is now facing a formidable array of vested interests who want to see it dismantled, but because I have seen this tradition, this civic ideal, in retreat, in places where it was once strong.
When I lived in Moscow in the late 1990s, this ideal was enjoying an exhilarating, but all too brief flowering before Russia retreated into the absolutes of Putinism and systematically crushed dissenting points of view. It’s Russia. You might expect it. But I also think pluralism is retreating in the United States, a country to which much of the world – and Europe in particular – owes its freedom.
If you strip away the principle of public service from your mainstream news channels you abandon things to the market and the market will tell you clearly and loudly what kind of news it wants you to offer your audience. The market will shape your story telling. It will dictate your running orders. It is already happening.
In America, at least on the mainstream terrestrial news bulletins, under the pressure of these commercial imperatives, the values of the entertainment industry shape, more and more, the news that the audience watches.
There has been a retreat from pluralism, a drift, by large constituencies of opinion, to ideological certainty and isolation. These constituencies watch their own news channels, listen to their own radio stations, read their own newspapers. Their preferred channels reinforce their view of the world.
The newspapers remain among the best in the world. They have the some of the best and bravest reporters and editors in the world. But their readership is small and shrinking.
There is the PBS public broadcaster and National Public Radio. Their audience is dedicated, loyal, self-selecting, earnest and small. They no longer constitute a public square through which the general public will pass from time to time on their way to be educated or entertained and where they will, as a matter of course, be exposed to the voices of those with whom they disagree. In the national dialogue that public space no longer exists for the great majority of the people. The mass media has vacated that space.
When I hear the BBC’s critics argue that a public service broadcaster has no business doing things that the market can do perfectly well – Radio 1, Strictly Come Dancing, Bake Off – that it should give up those things and concentrate on what the market cannot provide, I look at the US and see the ghetto to which public service broadcasting has retreated.
The BBC model is that you embed the public service content in the popular programming. David Dimbleby and Bruce Forsyth as part of the same package; Laura Kuenssberg and Dot Cotton as part of the same package; Graham Norton in showbizland and Jeremy Bowen on the frontline in Syria as part of the same service. The late Huw Weldon, who ran BBC television from 1968 to 1975, said the BBC’s unique mission was to “make the good popular, and the popular good”. I want to defend a tradition in which on your way Strictly Come Dancing you will come across Islamic State; on your way to Albert Square you’ll learn why the government wants reform in the EU.
Social media is the new context within which the conventional broadcasters operate. It is a liberating and democratising force. In Burma, pre-democracy demonstrations swept the country in the 1980s and were brutally put down by the military dictatorship. Not a frame of what happened ever made its way to the outside world because the regime had absolute control over the means of communication. When the same thing happened twenty five years later, the protesters were able to get their voice out of the country and - more crucially - to each other. The effect was transformational.
Here in the UK social media has demonstrated the potential to put power in the hands of people and communities who’ve never had it. I went to Liverpool not long ago to see the leaders of the campaign for justice for the 96 people who died at Hillsborough. They had campaigned for years to try to establish what exactly had happened to cause so many deaths. For decades they got nowhere.
Then, suddenly, a famous comedian and Liverpool fan tweeted about a petition that had attracted only a few thousand signatures. Within five days it had hundreds of thousands of signatures, which was enough to trigger a Whitehall process that led to the release of key Cabinet Office documents that successive governments had kept secrets. We now know much more about what happened. Power has been held to account for the mistakes that were made, the lies that were told and the cover-ups that were launched. Social media didn’t achieve this alone. The law courts were also vital.
In the 25 years that I have worked as a foreign correspondent, technological change has been a constant factor. We have lived all this time with a view that the conventional media is on borrowed time, that it is being superseded by new ways of communicating, that we are all reporters now, and that there is no longer a need for a distinct professional caste of journalists who will mediate the news of behalf of the public.
Before social media we had the revolution of 24-hour, real time, television news. Around the time of the second Gulf War, of 2003, a consensus developed that this was the death of the traditional running order; that the conventional built bulletin, which started with the top story of the day and then ran through the rest of the day’s news in declining order of merit or importance, was redundant. People would, in future, turn on the televisions or computers and watch the news live, as it unfolded.
The invasion of Iraq tested this to destruction, as highly mobile little cameras roared across the battle field and stopped to transmit pictures whenever something kinetic took place with their field of vision.
We quickly learned that this was not the future; that it was bewildering to the audience, who could not make sense of the bigger picture when its attention was focussed so narrowly. There was, it turned out, still a public appetite for a considered digest of what had happened in the course of the day, mediated by a group of people who were trusted to compile it ion behalf of the audience and deliver it digestible form.
These panics – that each new technological development makes redundant what has gone before it – punctuate the history of broadcasting. When radio was invented and the BBC took to the air for the first time in 1922, newspapers panicked. It was the death of news in printed form, the jeremiad declared. The newspaper proprietors lobbied the government and the early BBC was forbidden to broadcast news at any time during the day before 8pm.
In the 1950s, traditionalists at Broadcasting House tried to put a stop to television on the grounds that it would destroy radio and lead to the terrible dumbing down of news. It didn’t destroy radio. Radio adapted. The conventional news bulletin adapted to the reality of 24 news in our own day.
The rise of soci al media makes the conventional broadcasters not redundant but more necessary than ever.
Social media may be democratising and liberating. But it is also an echo chamber in which we hear our own view of the world reflected back at us. It is good – it gives us the power to exchange experiences of the world, information, evidence, and opinion with those we want to communicate with and who in turn want to listen to us. But I want us still to pass through that public square on the way to Strictly Come Dancing or Downton Abbey where we will be assaulted by views we don’t like and can’t answer.
I have heard it said that the BBC was so biased during the independence referendum campaign that it was “worse than the Nazis”. I don’t think the BBC got everything right. It never does. And there was a very energetic and sometimes heated argument inside the BBC about how we were handling this fundamental question - and I was a part of those arguments.
But the fact that it was not as binary as the yes-no question on the ballot paper suggested, the fact that most families in Scotland contained both yes voters and no voters, that many individuals themselves felt loyalties on both sides of the argument says something about the strength of our civic life and our democratic institutions.
When I hear the BBC compared to the Nazis I think of all those people I’ve known who have lived in police states. It seems to me to belittle and demean what they stand for in the world, what they have fought for, the real risks they have taken and the privations they have suffered for the struggle to win for their own countries what we take for granted and undervalue in our own. Above all what I think of is the value of doubt in political discourse; about the value of a civic culture in which absolute certainty is always suspect, and must always be open to challenge. And about how you sustain and protect that place in our civic life where we come across the world as it is seen by others. I think the BBC – which is the same age, roughly, as universal franchise democracy itself, and which has developed side by side with government of the people, by the people, for the people, is part of the bedrock on which that civic culture is built.
Allan Little spent 31 years at the BBC in news, current affairs and foreign reporting, covering events ranging from the Gulf war to the break-up of Yugoslavia. As sopecial correspondent, he reported on devolution and led the BBC’s coverage of the Scottish independence referendum.