I’m awfully fond of the BBC, but it sometimes makes itself hard to defend. Today is a case in point. It’s Brexit Day at the Beeb, more properly known as Brexit: Your Stories, a themed day when 12 lucky members of the general public get to be “involved in editorial decisions” across the corporation’s output. Hmmm.
I’d like to say nice things about this, and I can, sort of, understand how the BBC got to the point of thinking this is a good idea. But I think Auntie would be better off listening to an 18th-Century Irish philosopher than 12 upstanding members of the British public. I’ll come to my argument for a Burkean Broadcasting Corporation in moment. First, the BBC’s plan.
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The panel is “made up of a cross-section of Britain, with different political views and from different social and economic backgrounds,” the BBC says. “They represent the full range of public opinion.” They will be able to “offer their own questions and ideas” to BBC editors and correspondents throughout the day, helping shape story choice and content across platforms. The whole exercise is described as a much larger version of the Today Programme’s Christmas habit of hosting “guest editors” who get to choose a few topics for coverage at a time of the year when no-one important is actually listening.
I have several worries about this, some relatively minor and one quite fundamental.
A minor quibble is that this is just bad tactics for an organisation trying to defend itself from attack: it won’t work, and might just make things worse. A decent rule of defensive PR is that you shouldn’t admit you have a problem unless you can also – at the same time – solve that problem. Otherwise, all you do is confirm you have a problem and tell people you can’t or won’t solve it.
So the BBC, by inviting “ordinary people” to have a say on its Brexit coverage today is corporately admitting that those ordinary people and their ordinary opinions are not at other times fully represented in its editorial choices. That, I fear, is going to do nothing to allay the suspicions of those (on both sides of the divide) who say BBC Brexit coverage is unreliably partial. If you tell people you’re going to listen to them for one day of the year, don’t be surprised if the first question they ask is “So what do you do on the other 364 days then?”
Nor, I think, will Brexit: Your Stories achieve its stated aim of opening up the journalistic process to the public. According to Kamal Ahmed, BBC News’ editorial director, “we want our news rooms across the UK to be less a set of secret castles where, to the public, mysterious things happen.”
There are more problems here. First, does anyone really care what goes on in a newsroom? Surely what interests people is what comes out of newsrooms? As for what actually goes on, I’m reminded that American politicians love to use a quote they think comes from Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages: it is best not to see them being made.” Whoever said it, it’s also journalism.
Anyone who has worked in a newsroom will know that no exercise in ‘opening up’ or letting outsiders take part in the process will ever be authentic: at best, the visitors will get see a bit of pantomime staged for their benefit (no swearing, everyone on best behaviour) before the real decisions, based on the often brutal calculations of the trade (Was that murder victim attractive and middle-class and so worth covering, or fat and poor and ignorable? If we take that line on Brexit, will they deny it, or complain, or….?) are quietly made out of sight of visiting VIPs. The BBC’s panellists might get into the magic castle for a day, but they won’t really see everything that goes into the cauldron.
“We want to open up the process and this first day is just the start,” Mr Ahmed continued. Which brings me to Edmund Burke and the really fundamental mistake the BBC is making by offering to let the public “take back control” of the bulletins. Not only will they not get that control, they shouldn’t have it either.
Burke didn’t say much about journalism, because it didn’t really exist in much formal sense in his time. But he had a lot to say about representative democracy, most famously to the Electors of Bristol:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
“My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination”
And what Burke said of government and legislation is true of journalism too: it is – or should be – a matter of reason and judgement, not the “inclinations” of those who consume it. This industry is already over-served with outlets that chase clicks and eyeballs by trying to tell people things they want to hear and read. The last thing the BBC should do is join in.
It is, or should be, the job of politicians to exercise their best judgement on our behalf, not pander to our whims. The same is true of journalism, especially the BBC’s publicly-funded, public service journalism. The Corporation employs thousands of journalists, some of them the best of their generation. Their job is, or should be, to serve their audience by applying their judgement and expertise to explain the world and hold the powerful to account.
The EU referendum has accelerated the trend towards politicians seeing themselves as unthinking tribunes of the people, bound to vote even for things they think are a bad idea. The pivotal event of the Brexit drama came on 1 February 2017 when 498 MPs voted to invoke Article 50, something that many of them believed was not in their country’s best interests. Even the most ardent Brexiteer, I hope, would not be wholly comfortable with such an abdication of responsibility.
Today, the BBC takes a step down the same path, buying into the idea that it and its staff should meekly follow the instructions of “the people”.
This is a mistake. The BBC should have more confidence in itself and its journalists. Yes, they make mistakes and succumb to bias now and then – who doesn’t? – but if they’re good enough to be hired, they’re good enough to be trusted to get on with the job and face the judgement of the audience – afterwards, not before
Isn’t this dreadfully elitist? Only if you define the term so widely as to make it meaningless. Journalism is inevitably carried out by a small group of people with particular skills and responsibilities on behalf a larger group of people. You might as well condemn medicine as elitist. If your surgeon asked you where you’d like the scalpel to go in, would it increase your confidence that the operation would go well for you, or undermine your trust in the expertise on which you rely? The BBC should listen less.