Brian McNair Writes About the BBC

I was on holiday when James Murdoch made his Edinburgh TV Festival speech denouncing the BBC’s dominance of British broadcasting. While in Spain, though, I had the chance to watch Fox News – News Corp’s US-based news channel. 

I don’t take my work on holiday, honest, but in my Spanish hotel I had access to only one English-language channel, Fox News. I’d seen Fox before, of course, usually on trips to the US. Five years ago, as America reeled from the damaging impression given by the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, I watched open-mouthed as Fox presenters spoke of ‘the misbehaviour of our boys’, as if sexual sadism and murder were no worse than frat boy pranks.

Today, Fox News – slogan, ‘fair and balanced’ – remains a brazenly  propagandistic outlet which can best be compared to the worst of the 1980s-era Sun. Tabloid TV, with a ferocious right-wing slant, driven by hatred of something called ‘liberalism’.

I switched on one morning, to encounter an item on the Obama health reform debate. A presenter called Glenn Beck was standing before a blackboard on which were written the words, ‘freedom or fascism’? I was on holiday, and wasn’t taking notes, but his point seemed to be that there was a historical line between current supporters of health reform in the US and European fascists of the 1930s. They might say they want freedom, he argued, but really they want fascism.

In another item, Fox presenters discussed the historical precedents for the televised pep talk given by Obama to American school kids recently – Chavez did that, didn’t he, said one. Proof, in short, that Obama is a budding socialist demagogue, using the media to brainwash defenceless American children.

You get the picture. Fox News pursues a populist, if deeply serious political agenda in its coverage, turning every story into evidence of the creeping, authoritarian socialism now allegedly embedded in the White House.

The presenters have two basic styles – one is outraged misbelief that the Obama administration could be contemplating such a thing (health reform, for example); the other a kind of weary resignation at the announcement of another blatantly socialist and un-American measure.

You might, given the existence of Fox News, think that James Murdoch has a bit of a cheek talking about the importance of what he called ‘independent journalism’, and the damage to that precious principle which he claimed the BBC inflicts. And you’d be absolutely right. Not that he was all wrong.

The BBC is often arrogant, complacent, elitist. Its senior managers pay themselves more than prime ministers. The corporation has been guilty of using its vast wealth and size to expand into commercial activities which are not part of any public service remit I’d recognise.

But its value, and the absolute necessity of its survival if we wish to retain the quality of broadcast journalism we’ve grown used to in the UK, is dramatically demonstrated in the daily outpourings of propaganda that comprise Fox. In Britain, News Corp operates Sky News, an altogether more reasonable, watchable, and credible provider of TV news than its US sister. Sky News has less money than the BBC, but does a good job. It has been an award-winning innovator in the UK news marketplace, and the slower-moving, more conservative BBC has learnt from it.

So why is Sky News not Fox News? Because, simply, the BBC exists, and in doing so sets the bar for new entrants to the TV news business very high. The guiding principle of the corporation’s news and current affairs – impartiality – is also the principle by which ITN and Sky News must work, if they are to survive in a BBC-dominated landscape. It is a market-imposed quality standard which, having emerged over decades, should never be abandoned.

There is much to be said about the positive impact of Sky News, Sky in general, and parent company, News Corp, on British and global journalism. I am not a Murdoch basher of the old school by any means. But let’s not take any lessons about independent journalism from the people who make money out of Fox News’ poison (according to Michael Woolf’s 2008 biography, even Rupert is embarrassed by its excesses these days).

Let’s be clear, as the pressure on the BBC continues to build in advance of a likely Tory government – the BBC’s importance, and that of the public service broadcasting it exemplifies, is in defining the standards and qualities (including the journalistic, aesthetic, educational and entertainment qualities) to which the commercial competitors must conform if they are to survive and prosper. We’d miss it if it was gone.

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism & Communication at the University of Strathclyde.

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