New Labour’s War Against the BBC

by Stella Jorgensen

Lanarkshire, Scotland. 30 January 2005.

The BBC is arguably the most famous media organisation in the world. Its unique status is due to its publicly funded nature — each householder pays an annual licence fee of roughly £100. The TV licence is not optional; fines (and even prison sentences) can be imposed on those who watch TV without one.

Although many complain about the licence fee, the system confers advantages on the viewer. BBC television and radio is free of commercial breaks and all product placement is banned. Since the emphasis is on quality output rather than profit, the BBC has an admirable reputation for making maverick television, and for being unafraid to cater to small audiences. A notable recent offering was “the power of nightmares,” a three-part documentary examining the use of propaganda techniques in the so-called global war on terror. The film concluded that governments worldwide are using propaganda to foster compliance and create fear, to disguise systematic erosion of civil liberties. It is difficult to imagine such a film being broadcast on U.S. network television.

Indeed, it is only due to public funding and the independent status of the BBC that such television is possible in Britain. The BBC is not perfect, but it is not controlled by corporations, advertisers or the state — it tries to be representative of the differing opinions and tastes of the populace it serves.

Tony Blair’s desire to control how the media portrays him and his party at times borders on the totalitarian. His ex press chief Alastair Campbell believed that the only way to know what was going to be in the news the next day was to create the stories. He was not being rhetorical either — on one occasion he personally wrote and filed copy fraudulently in the names of Reuters’s John Morrison and the Press Association’s Jon Smith to ensure that the appointment of George Robertson as NATO’s Secretary General “spun” the way he wanted it to.

An attempt to put a positive slant on TV news coverage was probably behind Blair’s appointment of Gavyn Davies to the position of Chairman of the BBC. The choice of Chairman is one of the few ways government can influence the BBC. Davies was known as a staunch supporter of New Labour. Greg Dyke, the last Director General, was also a party member. It is clear that Blair expected Davies and Dyke to toe the party line. The BBC’s critical coverage of the war in Iraq and the hunt for WMDs made it abundantly clear that Dyke and Davies’s professional loyalty to the BBC took precedence over their ties to the party, and this infuriated Blair.

So, a certain amount of Tony Blair’s antipathy toward the BBC is explained by his frustrated attempts to control how it portrays him, but that is not the whole story.

American readers may be interested to know that Rupert Murdoch’s grip on the media extends well beyond U.S. shores. In Britain his most important holdings are Sky News, Sky One (our version of Fox TV) and The Sun, a tabloid newspaper with a readership of approximately four million. They might be further interested to know the degree to which Murdoch was personally responsible for delivering New Labour to power in 1997.

The Sun is Britain’s most popular newspaper. The term “newspaper” is somewhat of a misnomer, since The Sun is a tabloid rag — celebrity relationships, human interest stories and diets all feature prominently. It has a conservative leaning, and takes right-wing stances on the few political issues it covers. Yet in the election year of 1997, it laid aside its natural inclination toward the Tory party and endorsed Tony Blair and New Labour, at the behest of Rupert Murdoch. It is not overly ambitious to say that this endorsement may well have been the defining factor in New Labour’s resounding election success, and Murdoch took care to remind Tony Blair of this – after the election victory, The Sun printed the headline “It Was The Sun What Won It” [sic].

The Sun has also been the only paper to consistently support Blair’s ill fated excursion into Iraq. Negative stories are conveniently ignored. It partakes in crude propaganda and flag waving, despite the opposition of a majority of the British public to the war. Its job as a paper is not to accurately reflect news or public opinion, but to create it. It does so through bias, omission, and obfuscation, leaving its readers criminally uninformed.  

It is impossible to overstate just how much Tony Blair needs the support of The Sun as the British general election approaches. Americans are used to a much more compliant kind of media than the British are. The papers that are antiwar are savagely antiwar. The Daily Mirror ran a cover photo of dead Iraqis and a smiling George Bush under the headline “He Loves It.” The same paper, when the U.S. election results came in had the simple and rather wonderful headline “How Can 59,054,087 People Be So DUMB?” Jeremy Paxman, one of the BBC’s best loved journalists, interviewed Tony Blair before the war started and sneeringly asked him if he prayed with George Bush, while a studio audience laughed at the Prime Minister’s discomfort. (Paxman says that his technique for effective and aggressive interviewing is to repeat silently to himself “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” throughout.)

These examples broadly illustrate the degree to which the British media has been making Tony Blair’s life utter hell every day for the last two years. In a climate like this, the unquestioning support of The Sun and the wider Murdoch media is again crucial; indeed, it might make the difference between another term in government or unemployment and infamy for Blair.

Murdoch’s agenda is not simply pro-Labour, it is also steadfastly anti-BBC. His papers in the UK criticise the BBC relentlessly, and John Gibson, a Fox News anchor, recently accused the BBC, on air, of “a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Americanism,” among other things. It seems obvious that Murdoch’s attempts to erode the credibility of the BBC stem from his desire to achieve a controlling influence in the British terrestrial TV market.

Altruism is not a feature generally found in men of Murdoch’s ilk. What, then, is his reward to be for his cheerleading services for Blair? Could Blair’s indebtedness to Murdoch explain why New Labour has been following Murdoch’s example and carefully chipping away at the reputation of the BBC since Blair’s arrival in Downing Street in 1997?

Blair has consistently refused to be interviewed by BBC journalists, preferring the “softly softly” interviews of the commercial channels; he has had his ministers publicly and repeatedly attack the BBC’s licence fee and output, calling it monopolistic, and by turns dumbed down or elitist. John Reid, the Labour Party chairman, was so enraged at the BBC’s refusal to act as the government’s propaganda wing that he accused it of behaving like “a friend of Baghdad.” Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Culture, twice refused the BBC permission to broadcast two new digital channels. It is also Jowell’s job to review the BBC’s charter in 2006, should New Labour be re-elected. She has the power to lower (or even abolish) the licence fee, which would have a drastic effect on the quality of the BBC’s programming if implemented.

However, Blair’s true moment of glory came in the wake of the Hutton Report.

The Hutton Report concerned the suicide of Dr David Kelly, a weapons expert who was the source for a BBC news report claiming that the intelligence dossier that made the case for war against Iraq was “sexed up.” The report, commissioned by the government and widely viewed as a whitewash, absolved the government of all blame in the affair, and heavily criticised the BBC. Blair relished his moment of vindication. Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke resigned immediately, as did Andrew Gilligan, the reporter who broke the story.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the Prime Minister and Alastair Campbell’s undignified gloating, public opinion remained on the side of the BBC. The BBC attempted to defuse the situation, swiftly appointing a new Director General and continuing with business as usual. BBC staff paid for a full page advertisement in a broadsheet proclaiming their support for their fallen leaders and their continuing commitment to independent journalism. Aside from the high profile resignations, government pressure for “efficiency” led the BBC to announce 3,000 redundancies and a massive reorganisation in an attempt to reduce the amount of licence payer’s money that is spent on bureaucracy.

Recently, New Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn showed that the BBC smearing agenda continues. He wrote to the Independent, partially blaming the BBC for the high death toll caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami, since it issued no warnings. It seems no political opportunism is too low or too distasteful for New Labour.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that New Labour wants to see the BBC neutered, packaged up and sold off to Murdoch and others like him. Such an event might be good for business and good for Blair, but it is most certainly inimical to public interest, artistic standards and journalistic impartiality. If proof is needed, one only has to compare the output (and global reputation) of BBC News with Murdoch’s Fox News in the U.S. Fox is the living definition of lowest common denominator television, and the subject of international ridicule. Is this what New Labour wants for the BBC? Greg Dyke is adamant that this must not happen: “…the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism…For the health of our democracy, it's vital we don't follow the path of the American networks. The moment the BBC starts kowtowing to government, you may as well close it down.”

The BBC, typified by men like Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies, prefers freedom and quality to profit and control. This point is at the heart of Tony Blair’s mistrust — he is a natural born capitalist; a man with an adding machine in place of an imagination, and he is simply unable to grasp that the BBC is a potential money making machine that can’t be made to care about money.