The End of Investigation

When newspapers go under, the independence of the BBC will follow

In The Storm, Vince Cable’s short, sharp book on the economic crisis, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats predicts that the reaction against the failure of liberal markets will not be a revival of socialism but a turn to state capitalism. He can see the future coming in the merger of business and political interests in Berlusconi’s Italy and Putin’s Russia, the growth of the large, and largely corrupt, sovereign wealth companies in China, Venezuela and the Middle East and the nationalist and protectionist stirrings in Europe and America. 

That much is uncontroversial, I thought as I read, but Cable then surprised me by emphasising a feature of growing state power that hardly anyone else has examined. “The collapse of advertising revenue supporting independent media,” he continued, will provide legitimacy to the new order by “strengthening the relative importance of state broadcasters, including our own BBC”.

George Orwell said, “To see what is front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.” People who spend a part of every day with the BBC would be shocked to hear it described as the state broadcaster. Its output sounds nothing like the dull recitation of officially approved information of the old East European dictatorships. Yet for good or ill, the state funds the money-grubbing celebs, the quiz shows — which a ten-year-old could win — and the dramas — which a nine-year-old could write — as well as the BBC’s better angels: those journalists, editors and producers who would no more deceive or trivialise than betray a friend.

Only occasionally do outsiders glimpse the special relationship. Newspapers have abused the monarchy with impunity for years. However, when the controller of BBC1 ran a trailer for a documentary on the Queen in which the makers had manipulated to show the head of state storming out of a
photo-shoot, the BBC forced him to resign, even though the fault was not his.

As I have argued here before, the combination of the recession and the collapse in advertising revenue brought about by the internet will leave the BBC standing alone like a giant among pygmies. Its annual £3 billion from the licence fee spares it the squeeze on funding which has already closed American papers and pulverised the British press. As Cable says, the political consequences may be ominous.

The BBC’s more thoughtful executives and trustees know it and are becoming apprehensive. They understand that their freedom from excessive political interference depends on a thriving private sector.

To understand why, consider how little investigative journalism the BBC produces. Certainly, when the powerful have a story to tell, they turn to its specialist correspondents, not least because they can be assured of intelligent and honest coverage. But the BBC leaves the breaking of politically sensitive scandals to others. Even Panorama, the one programme on BBC TV that has the freedom to investigate, is a feeble affair — a thing of shreds and patches. Typically, it does not reveal, but adds details to stories already in the public domain — the death of Baby P, the collapse of RBS, how Sir Allen Stanford fooled the English cricket authorities. Its one undoubted scoop in recent years was an undercover investigation into the mistreatment of the elderly in care homes. The documentary was good journalism, but not contentious journalism because no one apart from sadists wants the elderly abused. And in that distinction between the good and the contentious lies the danger.

Broadcasters must struggle to be impartial and to appeal to everyone. Investigative journalists take it as an insult if you accuse them of fair-mindedness, and have no desire to be everyone’s friend. Their partiality is a professional blessing because it leads them to follow leads neutrals would ignore. A conservative is more likely to uncover the misuse of public money because she is already convinced that the civil service is a parasitical imposition on the taxpayer. A leftist is more likely to bang away at multinationals because he already believes that they are sinister conspiracies against the public interest.

Neither will always find what they are looking for, often because there is nothing to find, but their convictions drive them on until they get lucky. When they expose a genuine scandal, BBC reporters check facts and canvass opinion. In other words, they follow up, but they do not initiate.

I am not criticising. BBC correspondents cannot be partisans. BBC bias is shocking when it occurs because it affronts the core values of the corporation and undermines its straightforward journalists. In any case, the present division of labour between the politicised private press and non-combatant public broadcasters works well enough. Unfortunately, it cannot last because of the collapse of private profits. Investigative journalism is the first to suffer because it is expensive, particularly in Britain where newspapers face a rapacious legal profession and a judiciary that makes no effort to disguise its hostility to freedom of speech. As the internet wrecks newspapers’ business models, editors will back away from risky stories, leaving the BBC exposed.

Think of the consequences of a future when the press is out of money. BBC correspondents might propose that they should initiate politically controversial investigations because they at least have the resources to fund them. You have only to envisage the scenario to guess the answer they would receive from their superiors. The Telegraph could publish the details of MPs’ expenses because it is not beholden to the state. The BBC would never have broken the story. If it had, it would have learned about the relationship between paying the piper and calling the tune in double-quick time. The politicians would have blamed the corporation for their discomfort. Their disgrace would have been its “fault”. 

At present when politicians complain, the BBC can tell them that its journalists are merely covering what all other media organisations are covering. It retains its independence to report accurately by finding safety from its paymasters in numbers, like a potentially vulnerable animal hiding in the herd.

As numbers dwindle and herd immunity declines, we look as if we will have a weak private press and politically vulnerable public-sector broadcasters. Those with expenses and other secrets to hide may have a far easier ride from the media in the early 21st century than they experienced in the late 20th. 

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