Tom Mills is the author of the BBC – Myth Of A Public Service, a critical history of the BBC. Sean Finnan sat down with him to talk through the BBC and the role of public service broadcasting in a time of growing media distrust.
Hi Tom, thanks for talking to us. Firstly, can you tell our readers briefly about the premise of your book The BBC – Myth of a Public Service.
The book is about the politics of the BBC and it shows, basically, that the BBC is and always has been part of the establishment. It draws on my own research, and on the extensive historical and sociological work on broadcasting, and shows that despite its reputation, the BBC has never been genuinely independent and has never reported impartially. It outlines some of the scholarship on news and current affairs reporting, but also offers an account of how and why those patterns of reporting come about. It examines the culture of the BBC and its relationship with political elites and the state, including the secret state.
I’ve been recently reading your podcast co-host Dan Hind’s Return of the Public. What is the public and what is a public service?
It’s a great book, and I’m not just saying that because Dan’s a friend. ‘The public’ is one of those concepts that can mean a lot of different things. Usually it just means the citizenry of a society as a whole. In the case of public service broadcasting the idea is simple: the broadcasters should serve that citizenry rather than narrower political or commercial interests. It seems to imply independence from corporations and the state.
But then the question is: who positively defines what’s in the public interest? The concept of public service broadcasting isn’t really a coherent blueprint for broadcasting practice. Rather is a rather vague concept based on a particular set of institutional arrangements and a particular coalition of class interests. In practical terms what it has meant is that the public interest has been defined largely by people drawn from the upper middle classes who operate in a subordinate relationship to the state.
Dan argues that it shouldn’t be up to the professional broadcasters to decide what is in the public interest. Instead the public itself should be able to make this call, which calls for a much more participatory model.
I’ve often heard people talk about the web and things like Facebook as the domain of the new public. Obviously last month’s revelations tell a different story. Do you think Facebook and such can be democratised in such a way that its users own their own data, have more control on who targets them with information and limit the exposure of its networks to third parties?
Not really, no. Regulation could bring certain protections but the idea that private platforms could be effectively reformed is kind of silly. Their entire business model is based on monetising personal data. So as soon as regulation is effective, it would put a lot of them out of business. The real priority is to build alternative platforms that are capable of bypassing traditional media in the way you describe, but without the significant downsides.
If you look at the bias of the BBC in relation to its portrayal of Corbyn, we are seeing an institution that is highly partisan. What can/ or will a Labour government do to challenge the culture within the BBC?
I hope they will introduce a radical reform programme to modernise and democratise the BBC. It’s really important that Labour don’t just pursue political advantage in the way governments have in the past. Usually what governments do is they appoint politically sympathetic people to the top who then seek to reshape the BBC’s culture.
What is needed is a much more radical programme of bottom up reform that will end governmental influence over the BBC for good, open it up more to the public and bring it into the digital age. Corbynism at its best is about the empowerment of ordinary people, not top down political strategy, and that should form the basis of BBC reform.
How could a proper public service broadcaster be achieved? How might it look and how might it be operated?
Some of the problems with the BBC are relatively straightforward. The role of governments in appointing senior executives, setting the level of the licence fee and renewing the Charter, for example – those can simply be abolished. The issue of the centralised editorial structure and the class composition of the senior journalists and executives could be sorted out with changes to the BBC’s governance and recruitment practices.
What we need to be thinking about now though is not just those sorts of organisational changes – which are badly needed – but an ambitious shift from broadcasting to digital, and a move to a much more decentralised, participatory public model at the BBC. We need a BBC that acts as a platform and a social network, and which fosters a broader, more democratic and pluralistic media ecology domestically and internationally.
What do you think of the democratic/left wing media that currently exists in the UK. Is it fit for purpose and what is its purpose in Corbyn times?
There’s some fantastic work being done in independent media organisations right now, and the Corbyn moment has really energised some of the existing organisations, as well as giving rise to new already quite influential outfits. The problem, as ever, is resources.
For a long time there’s been a culture of voluntarism amongst left media which arose out of particular conditions. A lot of early independent media emerged in a moment of both political weakness for the organised left, and significant technological potential.
In this context it was clear on the one hand that the mainstream media was politically compromised, and on the other hand that it was possible to achieve quite a lot with relatively little money. Then a lot of people made a virtue out of a necessity.
People should be paid for their work and whilst we seeing some successes, we’re nowhere near the point where we can support enough reporting and investigation. We need to build a functional media system that can support the sort of work currently being done at the margins.
You can find The BBC: Myth of a Public Service in most daycent bookshops. Check out Tom on a recent Novara Media episode too.