(3 of 3)
In 1981, after Murdoch affronted the British establishment by buying its favored broadsheet, the Times, the BBC responded by questioning his editorial and political interventionism in a documentary called Who's Afraid of Rupert Murdoch? Yet the real animus between Murdoch and the BBC lies elsewhere. "What you have to recognize is that Rupert Murdoch gambled his entire fortune and his company on building from scratch BSkyB, an operation that could have crashed and brought him down. And, in fact, through effort and dedication, it is a great success," says Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of the Times' tabloid stablemate the Sun. "Whereas the BBC operates with a £3 billion-a-year handout and competes directly in the same market."
With revenues last year of over $1 billion, some $2.7 million more than the BBC's total income from the license fee and its commercial ventures, BSkyB provides a strong argument for the healthy plurality of Britain's broadcast environment. The fact that the BBC does compete with BSkyB and every other broadcaster, and with newspapers and online services, at home and abroad is arguably most damaging to the BBC itself. It has relentlessly chased young viewers even as that demographic switched off the telly and switched on YouTube. It has sought to more perfectly serve the domestic populace by investing in spanking new outposts in different parts of the U.K. All of this might make sense in an expansionary environment in which money was no object, but revenues have failed to keep pace with ambitions. In 2010 the Conservative-led coalition government froze the license fee for six years as part of an austerity drive. The following year, the Foreign Office, which subsidizes the World Service, reduced its grant.
The charter that provides the BBC's constitutional basis and guarantees its independence is up for renewal in 2016, the year after the next scheduled parliamentary elections. Some Conservative politicians are likely to ask that the BBC's wings be clipped. They agree with the Sun's Kavanagh, who bemoans "this remorseless refusal to brook dissent, which is so manifest in the role the BBC has designed for itself as the voice and conscience of the nation, so that issues where it's come to a settled view, like climate change or Europe or mass immigration, it is not possible within the BBC to reach a senior position if you have another view." Dimbleby, who describes allegations of institutional bias as "offensive," counters, "We live in what most people would define as a liberal democracy ... That is the consensus of the national feeling, and therefore the BBC is always trying to find where it should be in interpreting particular challenges in relation to that context."
In reality, no British government, whatever its political makeup, will seek to dismantle the BBC unless the BBC loses public faith. And that seems to be happening, a phenomenon that distinguishes this crisis from those that have gone before. A poll commissioned, inevitably, by a BBC radio station taken after the Savile revelations but before Entwistle's departure showed the percentage of recipients expressing trust in the BBC slumping from 62% in 2009 to 45%. The BBC, in the words of Davie, urgently needs to "get a grip."
That may involve redesigning the job he is temporarily filling, perhaps by hiving off the function of editor in chief from that of the director general rather than expecting to find editorial smarts and exemplary leadership qualities in the same person. A larger problem is a management culture that a former senior executive describes as "basically a feudal kingdom. There was a king, the director general, and there were barons, but the barons never really respected the king. All they would do is fight for their particular corner, and they would bypass the king and do what they wanted until they were brought into line."
As these barons went into battle to protect their fiefdoms against cuts, and with the BBC's top management wedded to the idea of providing programming to suit every customer demographic, resources have stretched thinner in many places. An internal investigation into how Newsnight came to screen its erroneous report on child abuse in Wales found that basic journalistic procedures had been ignored. The segment was made in collaboration with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization founded to plug a perceived gap left by cutbacks to mainstream news organizations.
A journalistic maxim holds that a reporter should never become part of the story, but the BBC has been among the world's biggest stories for weeks. And it probably will continue to be as the truth about the dueling Savile and Newsnight scandals continues to come to light. Only then can the BBC begin to return to its rightful place: reporting on the news rather than making it.