The slow death of the BBC: Blair, Campbell and Beeb bosses to blame
by JOHN SIMPSON
Last updated at 23:29 05 October 2007
And until about 1998, I used to congratulate myself on my good luck at having landed the kind of job in the kind of organisation in the kind of industry that would last me out.
True, the amount of documentary-making was already dropping sharply, and current affairs programmes were either being cut back or had disappeared altogether. But BBC News, the area I worked in, seemed to be holding its own, and had even grown in size. News, we thought, would always be in demand.
Not so. Audiences have dropped, and continue to drop, and not because there are now so many news channels on television. Our rivals - Sky News, CNN, Al-Jazeera - have a minuscule audience in Britain.
No, all the signs are that British people are simply becoming less interested in the world around them.
Once upon a time, we used to think that this kind of isolationism was something particularly American, like high levels of crime, the possession of guns and wide-scale drug addiction. Americans weren't interested much in anything that happened outside their city and state, let alone outside their country, whereas Britons were.
Now, however, we find that in all of these areas - crime, drugs and isolationism - Britain was merely lagging behind America. It wasn't fundamentally different, after all.
It's not so long ago that watching the Nine O'clock News on the BBC or the News At Ten on Independent Television was a kind of national duty for large numbers of people. When I presented the Nine O'clock News myself in 1981 and 82, it was felt to be my fault - and that of the other main presenter, John Humphrys - if the audience dropped below ten million.
It took people some time to realise that the number watching news programmes was slowly falling away. Today, the BBC thinks it's done well when it gets an audience of five million for the 10pm bulletin.
So what should we do? We have popularised our reporting and our agenda: that hasn't worked. We have tried a dozen facelifts and relaunches: no good. We have dropped some of our best presenters and brought in young, attractive people, who have done nothing to increase the ratings.
And now? It seems to me that we should first of all accept the situation, and then go back to basics. In an age when no one disapproves if you are ignorant about the world, and where reality seems less important to the programme-makers than reality shows, television news shouldn't try so hard to attract an audience that it will probably never see again.
Instead, I feel, we should use the opportunity to return to the original principles outlined by the BBC's founder John Reith: the business of informing and educating people as well as entertaining them. That may not be fashionable, but it's what we know we ought to be doing. Forget the focus groups and even, if necessary, the viewing figures - let's tell people what we think they ought to know. This idea is appallingly elitist, of course, and that alone is probably enough to ensure that it will never be implemented.
But expecting your audience to tell you what sort of news you should give them is like telling your doctor what sort of treatment you would like. Maybe the ratings will drop even more; but we'll know we've done the job right.
If the BBC became a little more Reithian, it would also strengthen its moral position immensely. And that's something that's badly needed, after the extraordinary political battering that the corporation has endured in the past few years.
Set aside, if you can, the recent furores over 'fakery' and the resignation yesterday of Peter Fincham, the controller of BBC1, over a documentary trailer that misrepresented the Queen. Maybe it's a sad loss because Peter was such an excellent programmer, but if you preside over something which is wrong or damaging or false, you've got to go.
The BBC has been very honourable about this. If only politicians did the same thing nowadays, their reputation would be a lot higher.
Every single government during my 40 years with the BBC has attacked and threatened it, but the danger has always faded away or been seen off. At the height of her power in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher used some fairly virulent language about the BBC and frequently encouraged the idea that it might have to be privatised, but she never seriously thought about doing it.
By contrast, Tony Blair, perhaps knowingly, perhaps not, began a process which, unless it is checked, seems in the end likely to destroy the BBC as the world's most powerful, freestanding, independent broadcaster.
He understood that the key to the BBC's strength was the licence fee which funds it; and he allowed a process to start which is putting the corporation's future licence-fee income in doubt.
This isn't necessarily the view of the BBC management, but it is my own. And if the management isn't worried, it ought to be.
If you work for the BBC, you can expect a good deal of institutional hostility from the Government and the Press. Britain's political parties always support the BBC when they are in opposition-because they know it offers them their best hope of getting their views across to the public.
But when they get into government, they change. They regard the BBC as the voice of opposition and hostility, and they are frustrated by its unaccountable failure to act as the government's mouthpiece.
During my own career, the governments of Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair have all gone through this metamorphosis.
Few prime ministers in my 40 years, though, have done as much damage to the BBC as Tony Blair and his head of communications, Alastair Campbell.
Blair, as Prime Minister, gave the appearance of doing everything he could to appease and propitiate the Murdoch group, which includes Sky and noisily anti-BBC newspapers like The Times and The Sun.
In September 2005, he was unwise enough to confide to Murdoch that he was shocked at the BBC's coverage of Hurricance Katrina, which did immense damage to New Orleans. Murdoch could scarcely wait to break the news of this confidence to a conference of influential American media figures the following week.
"Tony Blair told me yesterday that he was in Delhi last week and he turned on the BBC World Service to see what was happening in New Orleans, and he said it was just full of hate at America and gloating about our troubles," Murdoch told the conference.
The reporting which seems to have upset Blair was about the evident failures of the Bush administration to act efficiently or quickly to come to the aid of one of America's major cities.
Some leading figures in America suggested that the President deserved to be impeached for his slowness in responding to the catastrophe. Did Blair really believe that none of this should be reported?
Certainly, his government put immense pressure on the BBC to suppress coverage that it didn't like. And the only way to deal with this kind of pressure is to show toughness in reply.
The following dialogue is reconstructed from various accounts of what happened immediately after one particularly fraught programme was broadcast during the Blair years. While I can't vouch for the precise wording, the level of abuse and menace is certainly right, and so is the response.
The phone rings. The programme editor looks round the room; no one else is available to pick it up.
Editor: "Yes?" Political spokesman: "That was a f***ing disgraceful piece of s*** you just broadcast, and you should be f***ing ashamed of yourself for putting it out. Your standards are getting lower and lower, and you can't tell the difference between the truth and a piece of s*** lying on the pavement. That stuff about . . ."
And so on and so on, with the scatalogical and faecal element heavily stressed.
Editor: "Can I just make a point here?"
Spokesman: "Go on." Editor: "F*** off." Puts phone down.
That, believe me, is the way that people who behave like this should be dealt with. I don't necessarily advocate the bad language, but when it is liberally poured over your own head, that is sometimes the only fitting response.
What doesn't work, if you have Alastair Campbell or his imitators around, is meekness - or worse, something that can be mistaken for contrition. That is a betrayal of the principle of independence. The only response to a bullying and aggressive government is to be robust.
Cast your mind back briefly to 2003, when Blair published that now notorious dossier, apparently based on intelligence reports, which gave the impression that Saddam Hussein's weapons could apparently reach British targets within 45 minutes.
More than a year later, Andrew Gilligan - a reporter with the Radio 4 Today programme - broadcast the findings of an investigation into the Government's use of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In a live, off-the-cuff remark, he said, in effect, that the Government had knowingly 'sexed up' the reports about weapons of mass destruction in order to persuade the British people to support the war.
Alastair Campbell exploded with rage against the BBC, using typically abusive and threatening language. When Gilligan's source turned out to be an armscontrol official from the Ministry of Defence, Dr David Kelly, he was outed by his employers in a way that you or I wouldn't want on our conscience.
Isolated, frightened, cast out by those he ought to have been able to trust, Dr Kelly committed suicide. In all my years as an observer of successive British governments, I have never known anything quite so disgraceful.
It is now abundantly clear that the evidence which Tony Blair presented to Parliament in 2002 about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was exaggerated and misleading. Strangely, though, no one from the Blair government had to resign over the clear misuse of intelligence and the misleading of Parliament.
The only resignations came from the BBC: following the Hutton report into the David Kelly affair, its chairman and director general both went. The careers of most of the BBC people involved have all been affected by it in some way.
Later, in one of those curious turns that make even the most faithful of BBC employees wonder about the organisation occasionally, the Corporation bought the rights to make a series from Campbell's memoirs. It felt like searching out someone who had mugged you, and paying him handsomely to describe for you exactly how the crime had been committed.
The BBC's relationship with the Blair administration never recovered from the Gilligan debacle. In 2006, two years after Hutton, the BBC's income from the licence fee was sharply cut back by the Government. Tessa Jowell, the minister responsible for the licence fee negotiations, had known that this would be Tony Blair's response.
But she was a supporter of the BBC and accepted the argument for a licence fee increase to take account of inflation and the extra demands for technological change which the Government itself was making of the BBC.
She had prepared to play a trump card.
"You can't afford to refuse the BBC a full licence fee rise," she planned to tell Blair, "because if they don't get it, Michael Grade will resign as the chairman of the BBC.
"And you can't afford to lose two BBC chairmen in a short space of time like this. It would do terrible damage to the BBC, and it would look bad for the Government."
But as it turned out, she wasn't able to say that. With dreadful timing, Michael Grade, who had taken over as chairman after the resignation of Gavyn Davies in 2004, announced at this critical moment that he was jumping ship and going back to ITV.
So the BBC lost another chairman after all, and Jowell's argument became meaningless. Grade's defection left the way open for the Blair government to clamp down on the BBC's revenues, just as the Prime Minister wanted.
Was Blair getting his own back on the corporation? I believe he was. And I believe the damage to the BBC is likely to be real and permanent.
For not only did the Government cut the BBC's income, it encouraged talk that in future the licence fee might have to be shared with other broadcasters.
In other words, future governments will, if they choose, be able to punish the BBC for broadcasting things they don't like by cutting the BBC's share of the licence fee even more. Indeed, a future administration, seized by a fit of anger such as affected Alastair Campbell over the Gilligan affair, is likely to find this temptation impossible to resist.
And it wouldn't stop there - for the government would then be faced with a choice: either to let the BBC decline through lack of money, or else force it to make up the difference by taking advertising.
Not taking advertising is not some quirk, like not eating tomatoes. The idea behind it is that if you aren't beholden to anyone for the money you spend, you won't be in anyone's pocket.
For more than 80 years at the BBC, it has worked pretty well. But I now believe that the fury of the Blair government over an accusation that proved largely to be true will one day lead to the destruction of the BBC in the form we have always known it.
Some people will be glad about that. The rest, who simply want decent, reliable broadcasting to watch and listen to, will find it deeply depressing.
• Adapted from Not Quite World's End by John Simpson, published by Macmillan on October 5 at £20. John Simpson 2007. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.
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