Jeremy Corbyn is half-right about the BBC – and 100% right about big tech
The Labour leader’s Alternative MacTaggart lecture had some good ideas – especially taxing tech firms to pay the licence fee
Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive.
Corbyn is 100% right to re-examine the relationship between the new technology companies and traditional media. We have seen in recent years how little Facebook and Twitter care about truth and accuracy – and it’s vital to defend the media organisations that, despite their imperfections, seek to shore up the values that support our society. Newspapers have seen their content assimilated and their profits shredded by the Silicon Valley giants, so it is welcome that a major British political party is looking at how to tip the balance back in favour of journalism.
There are also signs of coming to terms with the relative lack of funding the BBC and other broadcasters get compared with the global behemoths: the BBC may still be big in the UK, but it is tiny compared with the American giants. Amazon, Apple and Netflix can potentially swat aside the European public service broadcasters in the way that online shopping is ravaging the high street. The proposal to tax the undertaxed global companies to support British content and British news is highly attractive.
What needs to be viewed with much more caution, though, is the Corbyn idea that BBC directors should be elected, in some cases by the staff and in others by the wider, licence-fee-paying public. There is certainly a case to be made against the current murky government and BBC management nomination processes, but worrying thoughts come to mind about “democracy”: the tiny turnout there is for elections for police and crime commissioners, the constant emails from building societies inviting you to vote for their new directors, about whom you know little and care even less – and then, of course, the possibility of these processes being hijacked by pressure groups. I have also sat through enough consultation panel meetings in the BBC to be wary of well-intentioned advice that can also be impractical, time-consuming and lacking in any empirical basis.
The last thing the BBC needs is to be hobbled by even more advisory committees packed with special interest groups, or to discover that the public have elected three members of Ukip to their main board. Equally, I would resist the notion that editors should be elected, in the BBC or anywhere else. The best journalistic editors would not necessarily win popularity contests.
What an excellent idea that we have lots of other peoples’ money but you’ll leave us alone to spend it, thank you very much.