I don’t know why people like James Murdoch, and his father before him, are invited to give MacTaggart lectures – it’s not as if anyone is going to hear anything they didn’t expect to.

Rather like a left-winger reaching vicariously for a Sun or Express in a hotel lobby room to experience the frisson of outrage, or Mary Whitehouse reaching for a Razzle, the Edinburgh media scrum seems to take great delight in a bout of extended self-flagellation.

Well, half of them do. As we already know the other half have it in for the BBC for a variety of corporate, ideological or score-settling issues.

It’s easy to see why. As digital platforms have rolled out, the BBC has kept pace. In 20 years it’s gone from under ten national radio and TV channels to a vast multimedia empire. And it’s likely to continue growing – that is, essentially, its remit – at least as far as its news coverage is concerned.

This threatens a lot of people, myself included to a degree, as it raises a number of questions about the reach of the BBC and its effect on the journalism and media market. How can news platforms make money from their news services when the Beeb does it all for free?

There’s an important issue to be addressed there but this growing, if fairly limited, base of unease about the expansion of the BBC has been recently used by a number of critics to take a pot-shot at the organisation.

Much of these can be tracked down to self-interest. Other media groups such as the Guardian Media Group, Associated Newspapers and News International have their own interests to safeguard. They often post fairly wild attacks on the Beeb for its ‘land-grab’ expansion – a subtly pejorative term that has been reinforced again and again.

James Murdoch used it at the weekend, along with the following references and terms:

[The UK is] it’s the Addams family of world media

The land grab is spear-headed by the BBC. The scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling.

state-sponsored journalism

state-sponsored news


[On the one hand] authoritarianism: endless intervention, regulation and control.

[For them] the abolition of media boundaries is a trumpet call to expansion: to do more, regulate more, control more.

Sixty years ago George Orwell published 1984. Its message is more relevant now than ever.
As Orwell foretold, to let the state enjoy a near-monopoly of information is to guarantee manipulation and distortion.

It’s a rather faux-intellectual sixth-form style diatribe against regulation in all of its forms and the Beeb and Ofcom in particular. It flirts with some important points, but all of this is lost in the hyperbole and off-kilter references.

There’s a rather bizarre passage that compares the BBC to creationism, which then segues into another half-witted metaphor about bananas and the redundancy of regulation. This, naturally leads to ‘state-sponsored news’ – a deliberately misleading titbit thrown to the kind of right-wing loons who think the NHS is trying to kill them.

The message is clear – not only does regulation not work, it’s actively evil. What the world needs is unfettered free-market capitalism, in broadcasting as well as banking (although, of course, Murdoch didn’t mention Sky’s utter domination of pretty much ever significant sporting event in the UK following the government’s craven deregulation of that market).

Thankfully on hand to take Murdoch to task over this untimely assertion over free markets was BBC credit crunch boffin Robert Peston, who pointed out that deregulation in economic sectors recently landed us with the worst recession in 80 years.

Murdoch’s attack reminds me of the smear politics of the American right – beginning a discourse with an attack so hysterical and out-there that it drags the tone and battleground of the following debate in the attacker’s favour.

Murdoch’s attack will launch a new broadside against the organisation, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that there’s a general election next year, during which Gordon Brown and WebCameron will be hoping for some help from the Sun.

So, gear up for some serious Auntie bashing from the usual suspects over the next few weeks, indeed the next year.

Gear up for free-marketeers pushing the monopoly line; hand-wringing articles from The Grauniad about how a pay-for-content platform can work while the Beeb is offering it for free; and ideological attacks from various lunatics seizing on Murdoch’s provocative (and deliberate) accusations about state-sponsored news and Orwellian organisations.

The death-by-1000-cuts assault has begun. Yes they’ve been much more sober and considered than Murdoch’s, but a variety of big beasts have decided that now is the time to voice their opinions that the BBC would be much better if ‘slimmed down’ and focussed on ‘core values’.

This is the start of a concerted effort to neuter the Beeb as a commercial threat, designed to cripple it as a news and broadcasting organisation.

The BBC has a big part to play in organising its own defence, and needs to come out fighting, reminding people of its value and important role in British culture. And it also needs to drop its bums-on-seats approach that has led to the arms race with ITV and SKy over big events, big-name signings and stupid paychecks.

But it also needs to address issues pertaining to its use of the licence fee to fund operations that clash with existing commercial ones and re-orientating itself in the digital world in a way that does not impinge unnecessarily on private enterprise.

Those supporting the Beeb need only look to how successful social media was in correcting and combatting slurs about the NHS. Despite their faults, I love the NHS, and I love the BBC too.

• Full MacTaggart text here: http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/comment/james-murdochs-mactaggart-speech/5004990.article

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