The BBC: Myth of a Public Service – Tom Mills: A Review

Date Finished: July 30th 2017

Oh, Verso, what ever did we do to deserve you? I’ve extolled the wonders of the publishing company before, but for those who don’t know, Verso Books, who sell direct-to-consumers through their own website, offer frequent deals. Recently, this culminated in the greatest one I’ve ever seen: 90% off all eBooks.

After reacting approximately like this:

… I set to work to browse the site for some titles I’ve wanted to peruse, and harshly eliminating as many as possible in order not to bankrupt myself.

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills was one of the titles that made the cut. The veteran broadcast centre is ubiquitous in British life for all, but questions over its impartiality are often raised. Just plug “#bbcbias” into Twitter’s search engine and one will find a surfeit of whingers on both sides of the political spectrum contradicting one another over how they believe the British Broadcasting Corporation leans. In this volume, Mills attempts to divine the truth, taking the history of the BBC to establish the nature of its partiality.

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The revelations come thick and fast. Delving into the BBC’s history, Mills starts with the very establishment line the BBC took during the General Strike of 1926. From here he charts the relationship between BBC director generals and MI5, who secretly colluded to vet employees over a fifty year period in order to keep out fascist and, especially, communist-sympathising employees from the higher echelons of the corporation; how the BBC has been limited by, cooperated with and occasionally defied governments during wartime; and the slow insidious march of neoliberal ideology into the corporation’s reporting.

“Capital, in reality, has never created anything; it has only capitalised on people’s creativity and expertise, and directed their activities towards profitable ends.”

Mills writes with an academic, readable flow and, though one can tell his sympathies lie towards the left (he is published by Verso, after all), he treats the subject with a rigorous professionalism, always seeking to get to the heart of each matter he covers. He doesn’t stoop to bashing the right as other commentators have but instead analyses the influence the establishment has had over the corporation over the last century.

Though a fascinating account, the historic cocktail of bias, government censorship and elite collusion in the BBC is hardly surprising given the volatile media climate under World War II and the Cold War. It’s the story since 1980 onwards that strikes one as truly revelatory: the chapters on perceived and ingrained bias within the BBC, and the neoliberalisation of the BBC under Thatcher, which transformed it into a market-driven bureaucracy really stand out as the book’s most riveting disclosures.

“Content analysis commissioned by the BBC Trust found that in…2012 [business representatives] outnumbered [representatives of labour] almost twenty times.”

Ultimately, what Mills’ book shows is that the BBC’s relationship with independence, impartiality, and successive governments is far more complicated than anything found in a “#bbcbias” Twitter post. The reality is something I had gleaned but could never have articulated as well as Mills does: the culture and politics of the BBC is broadly defined by a revolving door network of establishment figures, both Labour and Conservative, an old boys network of the elite who often hold jobs in both politics and the media during the course of their career. Also important, is perceived bias: many of those criticising the BBC for leaning too far Left are people whose views are unconventional at best and lie on the moderate-to-far Right. The view from this position will make most things look left-wing, something these critics either don’t realise, or simply refuse to acknowledge in the hope that they can force their own views upon the mainstream.

One point Mills fails to cover, but I regard as nonetheless important, if perhaps a little obvious, is to make the distinction between the BBC’s news and entertainment organs. Mills focuses solely on the corporations news and current affairs shows, as well as the journalists and departments who oversee this. However, it seems worth pointing out that accusations of “liberal bias” leveled at the service are often likely to be an overall condemnation of their entire programming output. Of course, entertainment, comedy and the creative arts in general are considered to be intertwined with more liberal outlooks, something that is a fact of psychological predispositions. It would be very easy for critics of the BBC to use satirical TV shows such as Yes, Minister or Have I Got News For You as “evidence” of an innate bias. It seems likely that there is an element of this willful conflation of values as partly in the firing line of those seeking to deride the corporations veracity as a broadcaster of news.

“The BBC today still maintains a precarious existence, reliant in the long term on the trust and affection of its audience… but dependent more immediately on the support of political elites who hold… the constitutional power of life and death.”

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service is a compelling read that packs a lot of information into a relatively short space. Mills never caves to the idea of the BBC being ruled by an ideological bias, but instead shows the internal and external pressures that have acted on the higher levels of the corporation in order to make it conform to certain ideas and ways of thinking. Often, this has come from the Conservative party and its funders, but more pertinently, it has come from the establishment as a whole, that amorphous, elitist body, be it Thatcherite, Blairite or even Churchillian in nature. This eyeopening read reminds us that there is more to our public media than we see on the television screen.

8/10

 

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