The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills
by Ian Sinclair
24 October 2016
One of the most important political and cultural institutions in the UK, polls show the BBC is the most trusted news source in the country. For example, in 2011 Michelle Stanistreet, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, argued in this paper that “BBC journalism is of the highest quality in the world”. This is because, she explained a few years later, the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage”.
Dr Tom Mills’s superb first book deftly demolishes this – and many other – popular and comforting myths surrounding the BBC. For Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University, “the BBC is neither independent nor impartial.” Instead, with “its structure profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Mills shows how the BBC’s journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”
What causes this establishment-friendly output? Mills highlights a number of factors, including the elite-populated, government-appointed BBC Board of Governors (since 2007, the BBC Trust), the class and educational background of senior management, the fact the government of the day sets the corporation’s budget and decades long vetting of employees conducted by the security services.
The BBC’s output during the 1926 General Strike was an early indication of the state of play. “The BBC was afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent”, Mills notes. However, this was “on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government.” As the first BBC Director-General John Reith famously noted about this gentleman’s agreement at the time: the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”
On war and peace issues, from the Second World War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, study after study has highlighted how the BBC has tended to toe the government’s line. Special mention should go to Mills’s analysis of the conflict between the government and BBC over Andrew Gilligan’s ‘sexed up’ dossier claims in 2004. Seen by the official BBC historian Jean Seaton as an example of the BBC’s independence, Mills counters that it was infact “something of an imbroglio among the British elite”, with the huge anti-war movement largely excluded from the airwaves.
Also impressive is the book’s exploration of the neoliberal shift at the BBC after the arrival of John Birt as Deputy Director-General in 1987. “There was a turn away from industrial reporting and a remarkable growth in business and economics journalism”, notes Mills. The perspective of workers was marginalised, with industrial reporters downgraded and let go.
In the last few pages, Mills sketches out what the much needed radical reform of the BBC would require: the end of political control over senior appointments and budgets, a more representative workforce and the public commissioning of investigative journalism.
An absolutely essential read for anyone interested in British politics, the book has profound implications for social movements and those, like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, who challenge the neoliberal establishment.
The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service is published by Verso, priced £16.99.