Paul Goodman: An open letter to soon-to-be BBC Trust Chairman, Chris Patten
By Paul Goodman
A first-time voter last May would probably have been born in the year that you lost your seat in Bath. This is a reminder that although you're clearly on excellent terms with Downing Street, and have penned some of the most lucid prose about toryism written in modern times, you haven't been an active Conservative for a very long time.
So the few who expect you to arrive in Broadcasting House and begin painting the place bright blue are going to be disappointed. Rather more, I suspect, believe that you'll re-kit it out in pale pink - especially, perhaps, readers of this blog. They see you not so much as a flying buttress of the liberal establishment, supporting it from the outside, as a big stone set in the high altar, at the very heart of the inside of the building.
I hope that both these expectations will be disappointed, and have at least some reason to think that they may be. This is because what seems to me to be integral to you isn't so much a set of political views as a bundle of cultural instincts. How's it best summed up? Perhaps by writing that you'd not only know what "Templum hoc artium et musarum means", but what it signifies.
- The BBC's about much more than politics. The breadth of its critics' speaking and writing is sometimes sabotaged by the narrowness of their viewing and listening. The BBC is about more than the Today Programme or Newsnight, programmes that some follow narrowly and even exclusively. It's also about the full range of its broadcasting, which most don't follow (including me).
- The BBC shouldn't be Conservative. That's to day - turning to politics - that the corporation certainly shouldn't be Conservative - that's to say, with a capital "C", in the sense of party political. And for nearly all the time, I don't think that it is. BBC insiders can point outsiders to reams of bureaucratic guidance requiring balance between the parties, and I suspect that this is mostly observed.
- The BBC should be biased. In broadcasting, as in life, there's no such thing as neutrality. We each look at the world with a worldview, however fragmentary, even self-contradictory. The BBC should have a worldview, and be biased towards it. That essence of that worldview should be sympathy and support, however critically tempered, for liberal democratic virtues in their British cultural setting.
So all's well that starts well, then? Not exactly. For some tough questions follow for you to chew on.
Turn aside, as I say, from such matters as whether the licence fee should go or stay, Andrew Marr's really worth some £600,000 a year, the corporation needs a mass of local radio stations, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross should or shouldn't have been suspended, BBC executive pay is too high, John Motson should be brought back to do more work, "In the Night Garden" is better than "Tellietubbies", and so on.
Instead, think about the BBC's coverage of the following issues from within a framework of what I've called "sympathy and support, however critically tempered, for liberal democratic virtues in their British cultural setting". I apologise, having written that the BBC's about than politics, for returning to the subject - but probing the corporation's public affairs coverage definitely is part of your remit.
- "Cuts". I appreciate that "cuts" is a big story that the BBC must cover. But remember that there's a reason why I've put that word between quotation marks, even allowing for my own views and, yes, bias. After all, public spending is rising, not falling. Isn't that sometimes useful for establishing a bit of context? And could there - perish the thought - be areas in which spending's too high rather than otherwise? For example, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and The Sun are probing government waste in general, and local government extravagance in particular, very forecefully at the moment. Is there any reason why the BBC shouldn't do the same from time to time? Does overseas aid give value for money - and if not, where? Are costs in Whitehall too high? Is unnecessary or inefficient spending really a liberal democratic virtue?
- America. Under George Bush, the general sense I got from the BBC (though I exempt Matt Frei in particular) was that the United States was a country of Bible-brandishing, gun-toting, quadruple burger-guzzling maniacs. Under Barak Obama, that sense is somewhat though not entirely diminished. But whether my perception was right or wrong, I want to know much more about what remains the world's greatest military power from the national broadcaster that I help to fund. How different are Republicans in Maine different from those in Alabama? Or Democrats in Texas from those in Idaho? What makes the Tea Party tick? Who are the up-and-coming Presidential candidates in both main parties? Why do so many Americans, including some liberal ones, support capital punishment and gun ownership? Who are the most effective state governors? And so on.
- Religion. Sex. I'm sorry to follow that first word with the second, but this is what British reporting of religion tends to do, other than when the religious correspondents are on the case. The BBC is no worse than other outlets in this regard, and in some ways rather better. But even in relation to this narrow range of matters, there's always room for improvement. Traditional religion has very different views from modern secularity - on, say, priesthood, gay marriage and abortion. Whether one likes these or not, they're sometimes, even often, are founded on a carefully-considered case. Does the BBC usually give it a fair hearing? And looking at religion more widely, what about its role in society? Are faith schools good or bad? Are religious groups effective in, say, stopping re-offending - and at what cost? Does higher churchgoing really mean happier societies?
- The Environment. Man-made global warming will destroy the planet unless carbon emissions are curbed - starting in Britain. This, or something very like it, is the conventional wisdom, and I don't see it being probed or tested on the BBC. I'm not, repeat not, asking the Corporation to show endless repeats of The Great Global Warming Swindle. But it's surely the role of the national broadcaster to test the consensus fairly and, yes, without bias (the examination of claims made by scientists is a different matter from the holding of a worldview). Is man-made global warming taking place? If so, to what degree? Should governments be attempting to mitigate change or adapt to it, or both (or neither)? To what degree can our Government influence others, and act on its own anyway? What's being taught in schools on the matter? Where's the big investigative series on all this?
- The Middle East. Until or unless despotic Colonels are cooped up in Libya, or autocratic rulers forced to step down in Egypt, the BBC tends to fix its gaze on Israel/Palestine, as though what happens there holds the key to the region. But does it? What about the lack of economic development in the region? Or what's happening in Tunisia now the BBC's biggest guns have left? The meagre translation rate of books into Arabic? The export of Wahabiism from Saudi Arabia over 50 years and more? The role of women? The dissolution of the Sudan? The treatment of Shi'ite Muslims in Bahrain? Iran's drive for nuclear weapons, and the likely knock-on effects on its neighbours? The lack of economic development in the region? The status of religious minorities? The history of political change - such as the rise first of secularism and then of Islamism? Isn't there some work for the BBC to do here?
I've picked these five topics more or less at random, but they point to a larger truth - namely, that it's fair to say that the BBC's default setting on nearly all of them tends to be closer to that of the Guardian than that of, say, the Times. It follows that this is true of other subjects. And, remember, I've fixed my gaze fairly narrowly on current affairs. I haven't even begun to probe drama or comedy on the BBC.
Neither the Times nor the Guardian has a monopoly of what I keep calling "liberal democratic virtue". So is there any instrinsic reason why the BBC should share the outlook of one rather than the other? It may be that the answer lies in the licence fee arrangement which you've no power to review. But you do have the authority to commission reports on the corporation's coverage.
Now's the time to do so: there's no time like the present at which to start planning. Assisted by the BBC's considerable resources, you'll no doubt be able to point me to particular examples of programmes I've missed that address some of the questions I've asked. As you'd perhaps concede in private, that doesn't make my general observations untrue.
For those who don't know - this is an open letter, after all - "templum hoc artrium er musarum" means "this temple of the arts and muses". Most of the rest of the inscription is a prayer on behalf of the governors, who hope that "seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house". The moment's come for you to do a little sowing yourself.
P.S: In answer to the inevitable response ("Who are you?"), we first met, I think, when you were an Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office. Since then, you've gone on to even greater things. As indeed - you'll note from this website - have I."