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.