The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service, by Tom Mills

Has the corporation acted as an arm of the state in the past, and might it in the future? Ivor Gaber wonders

November 17, 2016
UK workers demonstrating during General Strike of 1926
Source: Alamy
On side: Whitehall ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’, said John Reith during the 1926 General Strike

The BBC is such a central part of our daily lives that until a government comes along determined to reform it (and that’s most governments) we tend to take it for granted. The academic community – specialist scholars and others alike – tend to see the BBC in a positive light, an institution that makes a major contribution to the “good society”.

Not so Tom Mills, and if the subtitle of this book doesn’t give away his argument, then his PhD thesis (on which the book is based) certainly does – “The end of social democracy and the rise of neoliberalism at the BBC”.

Mills’ argument, cogently made and based on an impressive use of primary and secondary sources, represents a direct challenge to the notion of the BBC as a pillar of liberalism and social democracy, as it is so often characterised.

This is a notion that Mills contests. Making extensive use of the BBC’s written archives, he argues that since its creation the corporation has been, and continues to be, a central part of the state and its security apparatus – mainly because of the continuing ability of the UK’s elite to capture, and hold on to, the central functions of the BBC.

This might be a relatively uncontroversial argument to make about the pre-war and wartime BBC. During the 1926 General Strike, for example, the BBC’s founding director general, John Reith, wrote that the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial”; and throughout the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills illustrates, the BBC colluded with the government and security services to keep left-wing voices off the air.

However, more contentious is Mills’ challenge to the keepers of the BBC’s official history – Asa Briggs and Jean Seaton in particular – who, he argues, have failed to see that the BBC is, and remains, in essence a state broadcaster. In his analysis of the BBC’s cooperation with MI5 in vetting left-wing staff or potential staff (a practice that continued until the 1980s), Mills makes a convincing case that the impetus to establish and sustain the vetting came more from the BBC than from MI5.

He’s on less easy ground when it comes to demonstrating that the BBC has continued its collusion with the state. The corporation’s difficulties with governments – Conservative and Labour alike – over, for example, Northern Ireland and wars in the Falkland Islands and Iraq suggest otherwise. Mills argues that the BBC’s apparent conflict with the government over Iraq was more a reflection of a division of opinion among the elite – political and military – than it was proof of any fundamental opposition to the war itself.

He makes a strong case, but given the ferocity of the events surrounding the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, including the Hutton Inquiry and the resignations of the BBC’s chairman and director general, it is ultimately unconvincing.

But Mills might prove to be a better predictor of the future than an analyst of the past. Will Hutton, commenting on the government’s recent proposals for the BBC’s charter, wrote: “The BBC is being redefined not as an autonomous organisation that expresses public service broadcasting on the licence-fee payers’ behalf, but as a state corporation subject to state and party interference.” If Hutton is right, then Mills’ challenging analysis of the BBC’s past and present will become tomorrow’s reality.

Ivor Gaber is professor of journalism, University of Sussex, and was an independent editorial adviser to the BBC Trust.

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service
By Tom Mills
Verso, 272pp, £16.99 and £14.99
ISBN 9781784784829 and 4850 (e-book)
Published 15 November 2016

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