Ofcom rules rob BBC newsroom of independence
Let us, in round two, put James Harding on the pedestal that many of those who’ve worked with him willingly erect. Let’s take the departing BBC head of news at his own word: that’s he’s off to start a different kind of news organisation that will be allowed – ahem! – to reach conclusions, to take sides, to have beliefs. In short, to be free.
But isn’t Harding’s current empire a vision of freedom? No Barclays or Murdochs telling him what to say. No sudden collapses in advertising to bring his plans tumbling down. This is a newsman’s nirvana, surely?
Alas, think again. Or rather go to bed early and read the latest Ofcom prescriptions for corporation sanctity. Some of them land – or would have landed – straight in Harding’s lap. “We will strengthen news and current affairs rules,” Ofcom insists.” We have increased quotas for news and current affairs on BBC1 and 2, and set new conditions for radio. Radio 2 will be required, for the first time, to air at least three hours of news and current affairs in peak time per week, and Radio 1 to broadcast an extended news bulletin in peak time each weekday.”
Oh! And never forget your “public purpose of providing impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them in accordance with its obligations under the charter”.
Many of these prescriptions, meanwhile, take words like “diversity” and squeeze the life from them. Diversity in employment on screen and in production. Diversity in serving every region and community around the land. Diversity with new targets and formulae, subject to annual review and sanctions.
At which point it may gently be observed that very little of this has much to do with airing crisp news or incisive analysis – and much more to do with the weight of government regulation tacked slyly, for purpose, on to charter renewal; along, of course, with hefty cuts in the licence fee and news budget, plus assorted contemporary problems, like pay differentials across the swath of news coverage.
A nightmare. No wonder Harding reputedly longs for a life free from a) bureaucratic criteria; b) politicians; and c) rules for news gathering that impose almost inhuman restrictions on good reporting instincts. And the difficulty is that there’s never anything we could call closure.
Overseas news has different rules. Jon Sopel doesn’t have to be fair to an unbalanced Trump. But the big issues that affect Britain are different.
There’s no story bigger than Brexit, but it’s clearly a scoopfree zone. Any new voice of opinion – say, from Sir Martin Donnelly, lately Whitehall’s top expert on international trade, has to be countered 20 Today minutes later by a Leave businessman. Brexit, like the referendum that gave it birth, is an endless parade of he said/ she said. Yet what does impartiality imply in this context? Only a collective lack of commitment that, on one side or another, has no basis in demonstrable fact. Impartiality isn’t independence to establish truth.
I took some stick from Catalan nationalists last week for asserting that Catalan radio and TV channels create a cocoon of unreality around their cause. Which is predictable enough, in the sense that being for or against independence is an issue that affects and divides 7.5 million citizens. Of course, coverage on both sides seems warped. How could it not be, for instance, with the ex-deputy head of one driving organisational force for independence plonked in charge of TV3?
But is that more or less useful than a BBC mired in the Ofcom mud and doomed to wheel in Iain Duncan Smith or Nigel Lawson at ritual rebuttal time? You can’t blame Harding for getting fed up. Nor, alas, can you blame ordinary viewers and listeners either.
James Harding is quitting as BBC director of news and current affairs. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images