I was on a panel yesterday at an event organised by outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas. It wasn’t my finest hour, as I tried unsuccessfully to disguise having a tenth as much knowledge of data and civil liberties as the other participants. But I did have a good conversation with Jonathan Dimbleby, the event chair.
Jonathan has written a powerful attack on the BBC Trust for its censuring of BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen. Now, I am all for media accountability, but having read through the detail of this case the Trust response does seem excessive. An essay by Bowen on the 1967 Six Day War was criticised by two well-known pro-Israeli activists. The Trust then agreed to a number of small amendments to Bowen’s piece. Supporters of the journalist fear that the damage to his and the BBC’s reputation caused by this apparent censure from the Trust is massively disproportionate.
My many friends in the BBC tell me that the system of editorial compliance now feels out of control. Fear of any criticism of content is creating cumbersome form-filling processes, a burgeoning bureaucracy and posing a threat to freedom and creativity (there is even talk by some programme makers of establishing an anonymous website on which to publish what they see as the more ludicrous compliance decisions). I was reminded of these concerns this morning when I heard that the BBC is again investigating Jonathan Ross, this time as a consequence of four complaints (so far) that a joke he made last weekend was homophobic.
Of course, these issues are difficult. The BBC is still in the shadow of a variety of attacks including the Gilligan affair, Ross/Brand, the misrepresentation of the Queen and dodgy phone-ins. Various other media interests – most obviously Associated Newspapers – are always on the look out for populist exposes of the BBC and the Conservative Party is adopting a position of studied neutrality about the future of the Corporation. But is it the right strategy to try, at whatever price, to ensure that no content ever upsets or irritates anyone, whatever their agenda?
In my experience, few thoughtful people are seriously critical of the range of BBC content; indeed most continue to regard it as excellent. The real image problem for the BBC in media circles right now is not its editorial policy but that it can seem impervious to the wider problems of the sector and public service broadcasting in particular. For instance, BBC executives can still be heard saying – as its BBC Trust Chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, did here last year – that any diversity needed in public service broadcasting can be delivered by pluralism within the Corporation! And, as the BBC argues that it can’t afford to lose a penny of its funding to help the rest of the sector, the pay of its senior executives doesn’t help its cause.
We form general impressions of organisations, as we do of people. Those we judge to be modest and generous we are inclined to forgive when they make errors. But when those we deem arrogant and self interested err we enjoy their discomfort (witness the MPs’ expenses saga). Could it be that instead of attempting to avoid all editorial criticism – a project that will either fail or be deeply counter productive – the BBC should be focussing more on its image as a Corporation?
PS: In case there is any doubt that my views may be influenced by the RSA’s new chairman, here is a link to a blog wote in May last year expressing some similar views.