Jeremy Corbyn is half-right about the BBC – but 100% right about big tech | Roger Mosey

The Labour leader’s Alternative MacTaggart lecture had some good ideas – especially taxing tech firms to pay the licence fee

There was quite a gulf between Jeremy Corbyn’s Alternative MacTaggart lecture today, and the speech made at the Edinburgh TV festival yesterday by the current culture secretary, Jeremy Wright. The minister plodded through the bromides and avoided any original thought, whereas the Labour leader was fizzing with new ideas. True, some of them are a bit crackers, but overall it’s refreshing to see some fresh thinking about the media.

Corbyn is 100% right to re-examine the relationship between the new technology companies and traditional media. We have seen in recent years how little Facebook and Twitter care about truth and accuracy – and it’s vital to defend the media organisations that, despite their imperfections, seek to shore up the values that support our society. Newspapers have seen their content assimilated and their profits shredded by the Silicon Valley giants, so it is welcome that a major British political party is looking at how to tip the balance back in favour of journalism.

There are also signs of coming to terms with the relative lack of funding the BBC and other broadcasters get compared with the global behemoths: the BBC may still be big in the UK, but it is tiny compared with the American giants. Amazon, Apple and Netflix can potentially swat aside the European public service broadcasters in the way that online shopping is ravaging the high street. The proposal to tax the undertaxed global companies to support British content and British news is highly attractive.

So too is the notion of the BBC being put on a permanent, statutory footing. The corporation has become adept at resisting the demands of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians, but the political dimension of the corporation’s chairmanship – Chris Patten was a former chair of the Conservative party who ended up heading the BBC Trust between 2011 and 2014 – has always been unwelcome. Charter renewal – the once-a-decade process that revisits how the BBC is governed and funded – allows for insidious pressure to be exerted over a lengthy period, as John Whittingdale, George Osborne and their Labour predecessors have shown.

What needs to be viewed with much more caution, though, is the Corbyn idea that BBC directors should be elected, in some cases by the staff and in others by the wider, licence-fee-paying public. There is certainly a case to be made against the current murky government and BBC management nomination processes, but worrying thoughts come to mind about “democracy”: the tiny turnout there is for elections for police and crime commissioners, the constant emails from building societies inviting you to vote for their new directors, about whom you know little and care even less – and then, of course, the possibility of these processes being hijacked by pressure groups. I have also sat through enough consultation panel meetings in the BBC to be wary of well-intentioned advice that can also be impractical, time-consuming and lacking in any empirical basis.

The last thing the BBC needs is to be hobbled by even more advisory committees packed with special interest groups, or to discover that the public have elected three members of Ukip to their main board. Equally, I would resist the notion that editors should be elected, in the BBC or anywhere else. The best journalistic editors would not necessarily win popularity contests.

Similarly, I’m sceptical about increasing the burdens on the BBC in its diversity reporting – and particularly around social class. I have a personal angle here: as someone who was born in a mother-and-baby home, and then adopted into a family in a poor part of Bradford, I was nonetheless counted at one stage as one of the “public school Oxbridge types” running the BBC because my grammar school later went independent. I would strongly resist the idea that a Cambridge university education – which we seek to make open to everyone with ability, irrespective of their family background – is something to be fretted about if those people go into broadcasting.

The BBC does already publish some data about school background, and it has set up groups to look at class, as well as gender and ethnic diversity – but those are tasks that should be left to the corporation rather than adding yet more volumes of data at the behest of politicians.

So it’s two cheers for Corbyn rather than the full three; buying the whole agenda would have significant pitfalls. But this is an important recognition of the threats we face from the unbridled force of the internet and tech giants, and it’s cheering to see his willingness to tackle them.

• Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive.


Roger Mosey

The GuardianTramp

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