The BBC, perhaps the world’s greatest broadcaster, is much in the news these days. The trouble is that it’s for all the wrong reasons.
All the major countries began broadcasting at about the same time, so how, historically, it got to its hitherto august position in the world is hard to say. But undoubtedly the BBC’s founder, Lord Reith, had a lot to do with it. He set a bar for standards of truth and impartiality at an almost impossibly high level. Reith’s credo was to inform, educate and entertain. His stern, Scottish countenance, looking down from office walls all over the Beeb, struck terror into the hearts of those who were minded to transgress.
All countries felt the temptation to use broadcasting, once it was invented, as an arm of propaganda; none more so than the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. His guiding mantra was that if you told a lie often enough and loud enough it would assume, eventually, the attributes of truth. But while he was broadcasting his lies, half truths and sly innuendos, the majestic BBC ploughed on, keeping faith with its Reithian traditions.
Even during the darkest days of the war when defeat followed defeat it told it as it was. Sometimes Churchill was furious with it and berated the organisation for giving succour to the enemy and spreading doom and despondency. Despite his draconian wartime powers it was all to no avail. The result was that the world, and most of all the downtrodden peoples of occupied Europe, turned to the BBC for the ungarnered truth.
Round their forbidden radios all over Europe they huddled together in darkened rooms, fearful of the sound of approaching jackboots. But they were prepared to take those heart-stopping risks, so much did they crave the reassuring chimes of Big Ben and the sentient words which followed: ‘This is London. Here is the 9 o’clock news.’ It is true to say that the BBC in its single self kept the flame of hope burning throughout those terrible times. It became almost a ‘light unto the nations’.
In the years that followed, the BBC World Service became the most trusted broadcaster on the planet speaking truth unto power fearlessly. Even today among our enemies in the badlands of northern Waziristan in Pakistan, it is listened to in their own language with respect – even, dare one say it, with affection.
This then is the organisation which currently faces the worst crisis since it began its work 90 years ago. We should all feel alarmed.
I am a great believer in the maxim that the buck stops at the top. Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington took it over the Falklands and was much admired for it. In my view it was a great mistake to appoint a man who had five other jobs. It was an insult to a body of such august pedigree, and indeed size, as the BBC. A part timer for such a massive organisation? What were they thinking about.
What of the man himself, Chris Patten? This is a man who purports to have a keen appreciation of the working world we all operate in, offering his services left right and centre, but who has never held a non-political job in his life. He began his ascent of the ‘greasy pole’ straight after leaving Oxford.
One of our complaints about modern politicians is that too few of them have any real experience of life outside the Westminster bubble. That could not be said of previous generations, but it can be said of Patten. He’s as smooth and smarmy an operator as it is possible to imagine. Even now, when he has at last woken from his slumber, he is busy mouthing the smooth platitudes expected of such a man trying to extricate himself from trouble.
For all the multitude of jobs that Patten has had he has not made a success of a single one of them. So why does such a man keep on getting these lucrative sinecures? What made David Cameron appoint him to head up the troubled organisation? Do we have yet another example of the PM’s own lack of judgement? I suspect we do.
As for Patten’s judgement, he was the man who thought it proper to appoint Entwistle to the post of Director General and then, when the heat started to move in, hung him out to dry. Patten arrogantly and high-mindedly berated the Culture Secretary, whose remit covers the BBC, for sticking her genuinely worried nose in to his fiefdom. Now he admits that although he knew of the impending, devastating assault on poor Lord McAlpine’s reputation, he didn’t think it necessary to warn poor Entwistle of the coming storm so that the Director General could check his facts before going on air.
The BBC is at a watershed. Its current amateur level of journalistic rigour is truly astonishing. Especially for an organisation with a budget of some £4.4bn.
Its left-leaning stance makes a joke of impartiality. This desperately needs sorting out. But can a man as ineffective and compromised as Patten be the right man to do it? I think not.
As was said of Charles I, the hopeless king who lost his head so magnificently: ‘Nothing in his life so became him as the manner of his leaving it.’ “Never mind,” Mr Patten declares, “heads may well have to roll in the BBC too.” He should start with his own.
He’d be doing us all a great favour and just for once we’d have something to truly thank him for.
I recently watched a BBC interview with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor – a very rare event since she has only once before given an interview to the foreign media.
The interview represented a considerable feather in the cap of the BBC, further confirming its status as the world’s premier broadcaster.
The interviewer, Newsnight’s Gavin Esler, wanted to get inside the head of the person who will largely determine the future of the eurozone and, to some degree, the rest of the world.
The visual aspect of TV makes it very difficult for an interviewee to ‘fake it’; to pass himself off as someone else. His body language and emotions are often plain to see; and when his face occupies most of a 42″ screen in your living room, you feel you can almost look into his soul. TV greatly assists in our quest to sort out the wheat from the chav.
Merkel came over as a pleasant, but no-nonsense, woman – interested more in getting the job done than in sound bites. Astute as she was with thoughtful responses, she seemed genuine.
And there was more than a little guile there too (but you don’t get to lead the most powerful economy in Europe without a level of that).
It was not difficult to understand why she had taken a shine to our own prime minister – the polished, well-mannered product of England’s leading public school. She may even have fancied the younger man a little, or perhaps felt a tad motherly, seeing him as the archetypal English gentleman as opposed to the coarse, bling-loving French president who wants to smother her at every opportunity with Gallic kisses. The contrast is stark.
Cameron is a most courtly emissary from a fellow Teutonic power which, from early childhood, she had come to respect. Yet despite its bombing of large areas of her beloved homeland almost back to the Stone Age only a generation or two before, it is apparent that – in economic terms at least – Merkel regards Britain as a natural ally and one she is most unwilling either to offend or marginalise.
The BBC was right in picking Gavin Esler as the interviewer, since Paxo might have been too adversarial by adopting his characteristic ‘master inquisitor’ approach.
But what I really gleaned from the interview is an appreciation of the lengths to which Germany will go to save the single currency.
Up to now, Angela Merkel has, understandably, played hardball. The German taxpayer is not going to throw his money at profligate nations which show an unsatisfactory willingness to change their ways.
The Germans want a new economic order in Europe so that nations act responsibly in the future; and to this end they want robust systems in place in the form of a fiscal union.
Germany is not interested in imposing a German jackboot, but wants the whole exercise to be seen as a pan-European affair – even though a fiscal union would result in all 17 eurozone nations’ budgets being overseen by EU officials: a fact masked by a Byzantium-level of cunningness or ingenuity (call it what you will).
I came away from that interview convinced that the German political elite do not want a single member – not even Greece – to drop out of the eurozone. And when push comes to shove, they will do everything in their power to see that this does not happen. They see the loss of a single country as the trigger that will begin the unravelling of the entire single currency and, more than that, of the whole ‘European Project’ to which it is so utterly and irredeemably committed.
So now, it would seem, it is down to the individual eurozone member states to do what is necessary. Only time will tell whether the eurozone’s peripheral countries’ impoverished citizens will – or even can – stay the course.
Pain levels in Greece – and now, more alarmingly, Spain – are at breaking point. A pistol shot to the head outside the Greek Parliament of a 77-year-old retired pharmacist has a terrible resonance with that pistol shot long ago at Sarajevo which set in motion the chain of events which led to the First World War.
Germany has to understand that PIGS’ (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) citizens can take little more pain. While it was necessary to start the austerity drive and change PIGS’ spending habits, it is clear that austerity alone is fast becoming counter-productive.
If Germany wishes them to hold on, she must give them hope – and this can only mean a plan not just for cuts, but for growth. She must put together and spearhead a new Marshall Plan of aid – such as saved Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Germany does not wish to be cast as the villain all over again; the one who did wrong by Europe for a third time, only now by economic, rather than military, might.
Now that we have all come to understand that we must stop living beyond our means, and that the social model we have developed is unsustainable, we are in a position to go forward.
Only by means of growth and a smaller state sector have we a chance of paying down our debt.
Fearful and envious as we may be of the developing countries – and that includes the oil producers – they are as one in wanting us to succeed; for if we go down the pan, we are as likely as not to drag them down with us – and they know this.
They might even feel that it is in their interest to involve themselves in such a rescue plan. But they will not do so if they see north Europe, and in particular the Germans, sitting on a pot of gold but refusing to use it to kick start their own salvation.
God, as they say, helps those who help themselves.