Corporate sabotage and the future of the BBC

Corporate sabotage and the future of the BBC

Tom Mills (University of Bath)

The figure of Rupert Murdoch looms large in defences of the BBC, and whilst we should not imagine that the recurrent political wrangles over British broadcasting can be reduced to the power and interests of News International alone, Murdoch and his associates have certainly played a central role. Understanding the politics of British broadcasting, however, requires not only that we recognise the ideas and interests of the BBC’s private sector rivals, of which News International is something of an exemplar, but also that we recognise the extent to which those same social forces have eroded the principles and practices of public service broadcasting at the BBC.

In 1989, Rupert Murdoch gave the UK television industry’s prestigious MacTaggart lecture, declaring his ‘suspicion of elites, including the British broadcasting elite’. Reactionaries, no matter how powerful, always like to portray themselves as outsiders and as critics of the Establishment, and Murdoch was for a time particularly adept at this, berating the BBC for its condescension of popular tastes, and championing consumer choice as a means of democratising cultural life.

Part of the reason this rhetoric has been so effective is that the BBC was and is thoroughly elitist. Then, as now, it was closely tied to the world of Westminster and Whitehall, and its senior staff were disproportionately drawn from the private school and Oxbridge educated upper middle classes, as reported by the Sutton Trust and by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Rupert Murdoch went on in his lecture to proclaim that ‘restrictions on the freedom to broadcast, of course, are not compatible with a mature democracy’ and praised competition over monopoly. Irony apparently escapes him. On the brink of his takeover of Times Newspapers, his organisation already owned the daily and Sunday newspapers with the largest circulation, and the key issue was whether his bid would be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. A year after his MacTaggart lecture, Sky TV Ltd would merge with its only domestic rival in cable and satellite, British Satellite Broadcasting.

How can the sort of corporate consolidation which has characterised the UK media since the 1960s deliver authentic consumer choice, and why would a private company be more capable of delivering popular and democratic programming than a public corporation? In truth this has always been more of a question of faith than science, but the theory championed by Murdoch and others has been that competition makes broadcasters more responsive to the preferences of viewers and listeners. The reality has, to say the least, fallen somewhat short of the rhetoric.

Sky’s business strategy, for example, has been based less on delivering the consumer what they want, than on buying up what the consumer wants and then selling it back to them. Media corporations like Sky have no special relationship with their consumers. They monetise cultural goods through privatisation, a strategy which depends on excluding certain members of society. It is for this reason that intellectual property laws are so crucial for such companies. Without the power to exclude cheaply replicable goods from free circulation, businesses are not able to profit from them. For the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, intellectual property – a prima facie violation of the principle of free trade – would be a classic example of the ‘sabotage’ of production undertaken by businesses for the purpose of profit.(1) In the case of the contemporary media we have seen the ‘sabotage’ of culture and creativity, and of free and democratic communications, and there are no greater saboteurs than the Murdochs.

In 2009, it was the turn of Rupert Murdoch’s son James to give the MacTaggart lecture. There was the usual rhetoric about ‘trusting and empowering consumers’. But perhaps more revealingly there were complaints about the ‘lost opportunities for enterprise, free choice and commercial investment’ and the need to embrace ‘private enterprise and profit’. Murdoch junior spoke of the ‘theft’ of ‘creative work’, emphasised the need for a ‘robust defence of intellectual property’, and most of all bitterly complained that ‘state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.’

In reality, News International has been as much ‘state-sponsored’ as the BBC. The remarkable political largesse afforded the company would be starkly revealed in the subsequent phone hacking scandal, but it was even then already plain. The previous summer, David Cameron and his family had been flown on Murdoch’s son-in-law’s private jet for drinks on one Murdoch family yacht and dinner on another. The latter yacht subsequently sailed to Corfu where George Osborne and Peter Mandelson were both guests at a birthday party held for Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth. Later that year, Cameron wrote a piece in The Sun in which he declared that the BBC’s ‘squeezing and crushing of commercial competitors online or in publishing needs to be stopped.’

Remarkably, what was being complained of by the Murdochs, via Cameron, was not state restriction of consumer choice, but quite the opposite. The problem was that too many members of the public were choosing to use the BBC’s website rather than those owned by News International. What was being advocated then was that the government should restrict consumer choice so that private companies can more readily exploit news and cultural production for private profit. In the current debate over the BBC, this has been made even more explicit. The government’s controversial Green Paper claims that the BBC ‘undermines commercial business models’, and impedes ‘the ability of commercial competitors to monetise emerging technologies’ and ‘develop profitable business models, such as paywalls and subscriptions, in existing and new markets.’

We have now reached a peculiar juncture. When the neoliberals were still in ascendency in the 1980s, technological developments seemed to be on their side. But whilst new technology certainly affords viewers and listeners more power over what they watch and listen to and when, the neoliberals failed to foresee the full implications of this. In fact, the emerging post-broadcasting technologies potentially represented a serious threat to corporate power. As Paul Mason has noted, ‘Information goods are freely replicable. Once a thing is made, it can be copied/pasted infinitely. A music track or the giant database you use to build an airliner has a production cost; but its cost of reproduction falls towards zero.’ The great historical irony is that the most efficient, innovative and creative system of communication and cultural production in such circumstances would be publicly funded at the point of production and completely free at the point of consumption. But the tragedy for the public service broadcasting tradition is that the contemporary BBC, so hollowed out by decades of neoliberal reform, now has neither the capacity nor the inclination to rise to the challenge and advance a vision of 21st century public communications.

The public service tradition, which the BBC is still felt to represent, has been seriously eroded since the forced resignation of Alistair Milne in 1987. His immediate successor as Director General, Michael Checkland, began a process of commercialisation under pressure from the Thatcher government and this was expanded and entrenched quite ruthlessly by his successor John Birt, who introduced a series of neoliberal inspired managerial reforms promising to deliver efficiency and institute a more ‘business-like’ culture. In combination with other factors, and especially the independent production quota recommended by the explicitly neoliberal Peacock Committee, these reforms transformed the institutional culture and structures of the BBC.

The extent to which the Corporation has been integrated into, and transformed by, the capitalist market, is evident from its leadership’s response to the current threats from the Murdoch supported Conservative government. Writing on ‘Tomorrow’s BBC‘, the chair of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, states that, ‘the economic value of the BBC relies on a strong intellectual property framework to both protect and exploit its creative content in the UK and globally. Without the protection that this affords, the BBC and other content creators would find our strength as an economic powerhouse diminished and our power in global markets significantly weakened. It is, therefore, imperative that the BBC maintains a strong intellectual property regime.’

The BBC’s response to the attacks coming from the corporate sector has, in short, been to emphasise the value of the BBC to the industry of which it is a part, and to offer to further integrate its operations into the private sector. This is not merely a strategic response to its enemies. It is the natural impulse of an institution which, since the 1980s has been thoroughly commercialised. In such circumstances those who remain loyal to the public service ethos, which still animates many within the BBC, need to do more than offer a defence of the Corporation as it is. They must be willing to criticise the BBC, to be realistic about its many failings and shortcomings, and to think ambitiously and creatively about how the values it is still thought to embody might inspire a modern, public and democratic vision of media and communications.

1. For a contemporary development of Veblen’s concept of sabotage, see Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler (2009) Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder, Abingdon: Routledge; and Tim Di Muzio (2015) The 1% and the Rest of Us: A Political Economy of Dominant Ownership, London: Zed Books.


Tom Mills has a PhD in sociology from the University of Bath where he works as a researcher.  His thesis examines how the end of social democracy and the rise of neoliberalism impacted on the BBC. His forthcoming book on the BBC, which draws on his doctoral research, will be published by Verso in 2016.

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