Of­com rules rob BBC news­room of in­de­pen­dence

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Peter Pre­ston

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

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