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Feedback: Presenters' views about the BBC

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Should BBC presenters be allowed to express their views about the future of the BBC and in particular of the licence fee?

BBC Broadcasting House

Nick Ross is only the latest of a significant number to opine. And he would doubtless argue that he has every right to do so since:

  1. He is a freelance who is not on the staff of the Corporation (like me)
  2. The Corporation is supposed to stand for free speech and not for the censorship of debate
  3. His primary loyalty is to public service broadcasting not to the organisation which is designed to deliver it

However presenters like John Humphrys are now on the staff. Should they be silent?

It is required of them that they do not publically express their views on controversial subjects since that would affect the audience’s view of their handing of such subjects on air, and interviewees, particularly politicians, would not be slow to claim that the presenter’s personal bias was evident in the questions asked.

John Humphrys

Nonetheless some presenters like John Humphrys do publically express their views on the BBC and some would argue this is to the Corporation’s credit.

The Today presenter defends the comments he made about the BBC in a recent interview.

What other organisation would tolerate such openness or insubordination?

Mind you, if I was the Director General Tony Hall, trying to mastermind Charter Renewal and the licence fee negotiations in the face of some vitriolic and self-interested media criticism, I would not be best pleased.

You will be relieved to know that you do not have to suffer my views on the BBC’s future, as presenting Feedback does mean I have to remain neutral, however I will try and say something controversial on the issue.

It is this. Don’t take too much notice of what presenters say because most don’t know much about the issues involved.

I speak as someone who has been on both sides of the fence, a former BBC executive (dispensed with in politically sensitive times) as well as a presenter.

The latter are primarily performers, preoccupied with the content of the programmes they are presenting. If they have a strong journalistic background they probably think most management is a waste of time and see its representatives as roadblocks to be driven around.

Many know little, and care less, about budgets, training and other issues. So don’t pay too much attention to them, or me.

BBC executives are, of course, self-interested when discussing the future of the organisation that feeds and clothes them, but many do care passionately about the BBC and public service broadcasting. Some presenters are just self-centred.

Having said that (you see I am BBC to the core of my being and have to present the other side and, some would say, climb back on the fence), Nick Ross is one of the most interesting and thoughtful broadcasters around!

Enough of these esoteric issues, as Bill Clinton might have said, it’s the programmes, stupid! The Controller of Radio 4 said she wanted to introduce anarchy into Radio 4 through the so-called Character Invasion. This week on Feedback we asked her commissioning editor for drama, Jeremy Howe, all about it. Here is our feature:

Feedback hears from listeners and Radio 4's commissioning editor for drama, Jeremy Howe.

In the next few weeks, the Radio 4 controller, the editor of The Archers and the editor of Today are all coming onto Feedback. So please let me know what you want me to ask on your behalf. I am your highly paid servant. (I jest.)

Roger Bolton

Listen to Feedback

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by All for All

    on 7 Apr 2014 05:02

    There is danger in silence as in the chanting mob, our disqualification of others to speak our excuse perhaps - in denial of fear - for our own silence, ourselves falling into complicity or Quisling excess. Whatever is dared, fought-over and resolved in any courts of opinion or law, with respect to commentary by dependents, employed or freelance, on the affairs of either the BBC or of political parties, moral legitimacy will for all parties and all decisions be lacking without the material security of all, mutually guaranteed, from informed agreed equal partnership.

    Illegitimate authority will argue, with expectation of rational support from within all quarters of merit, best-sense conservative and best-sense progressive, that today in a world of danger, of danger perhaps most from ourselves, with evil possible as side-effect from even 'the best of intentions', we might be right to suspect if not to suppress all suggestion of change. Even from so respected a figure as Nick Ross, so long known and relied-upon as a balanced presenter of facts and arguments, a case that looks to honesty and courage, to implicitly fair competition and to promise of world-domination for whatever implicitly our shared values, must - in absence of any mention let alone commendation of real democracy - call for great caution.

    It is amongst the saddest facts of our predicament today that we hardly can trust ourselves, let alone others. The damaged too often lead the damaged astray, at every level, cradle-to-grave, from domestic abuse to political corruption, from lies and propaganda to exclusion from society if not from existence. We impose the worst of burdens on those least able to bear them, and though aware ourselves of stress near-impossible, pretend that we might save from the consequences. That we are led in such self-deception may tempt us to search the biographies and the character of our leaders, looking for features to blame, to absolve ourselves.

    Only those who have met someone or who themselves are such that by cruel fate near unlimited power has been bestowed and enjoyed over all others, over would-be friend and not-one-of-us foe, only those can know the secret of lives such as of Lady Thatcher, of Jimmy Savile and of some nameless in local planning circles. To qualify as official biographer by closeness as to a shadow, in powerless old-age approaching legend, is probably as a historian to be in hopeless attachment to unspeakable values, disqualified if not damned.

    From those degraded, the truth itself must be degraded, their lives otherwise un-tellable, report from proximity to such a dent in the fabric of self-respect so clearly fatal. Why did not, do not, they say? Even for ourselves, let alone for those loved-ones brought into the world and deserted, it is hard to face the reality of self-degradation, our being made near to nothing, lives and hopes but chaff, without amongst us agreement on equal partnership, freedom real whether in choice to follow or in conscience oppose.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by newlach

    on 6 Apr 2014 17:10

    Presenters should be allowed to express their views on the BBC in a fair and balanced way. Presenters in the spring of their careers would be wise to keep their mounts shut, but they don't need me to tell them this. A wrong word could give a heap of executives some work to do: work that they would enjoy doing.

    I frequently hear criticism that the BBC is "over-managed" but I don't recall ever hearing a rebuttal. I hear about surveys that suggest the public is greatly satisfied with the BBC, I hear about Sherlock being much watched in China and that Dr Who is growing in popularity. Mr Hall by no longer commissioning oil paintings of former BBC Directors General at £15,000 a time has failed to convince me that he getting a grip on things. A major national newspaper has reported that the BBC will have a staff of 472 in Brazil for the World Cup - seems an awful lot. Also, this call from Hall that all homes in the country, whether they have a TV or not, must pay a BBC tax is plain madness. What about hard-pressed pensioners who have worked all their lives and who do not watch television?

    The BBC should do away with a lot of that entertainment nonsense, make quality drama that that be sold to interested parties and start getting rid of shirkers and those with made up job titles.

    Finally, someone at the BBC lost hundreds of recordings of Alistair Cooke's Letter from America. Fortunately, two listeners made home recordings of them and gave them to the BBC. Was anyone sacked over these lost recordings? If not, why not?

    Well, that's my informed opinion!

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 5 Apr 2014 10:19

    Should presenters be allowed to express their views?

    I suppose from a technical POV, since we have Privity Of Contract in this jurisdiction, what terms are in one between the BBC and a person is a matter for the parties.

    But as to the wider picture of the BBC's national brief, the water seems to get pretty muddy in this context. I have to admit to a degree of queasiness when BBC staff allow themselves to wander onto such ground.

    What bothers me more, and as we approach the GE it appears ever more noticeable, is the BBC's deadening of public comment on its website.

    On the HYS pages we now have a very user-unfriendly system, which makes return to earlier comments extremely difficult; access to user profiles of comments made has recently been denied; whole threads seem to vanish if the debate perhaps doesn't go the "right" way; there's a ten minute delay between posts; a four hundred character limit; comments which break no rule but introduce a startling fact, of which the editor was perhaps unaware are "referred for further consideration" (removed) and so on.

    You're not helping yourselves, BBC.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by All for All

    on 4 Apr 2014 21:28


    Feedback is a delight, for which thanks, a gentler version of the News Quiz, more seriously light and only a little less lightly serious. Such it must be, from programming necessity, a contender. Its informing ambitions are then, as for BBC output overall, to entertain and to inform with respect to selected expressions of view, the mainstream concern being to know either that all is well, or - God forbid - that troops might be massing on the border or behind the church hall.

    John Humphrys' view might be quaint of the BBC as 'owned by the public', but on the dangers of over-management (mystery, fear, complacency) and on the role of editors (no doubt also of such 'chains of influence' as fixed-it for Newsnight, on Savile), his parting words rang true. However 'neutral' the presenter, the aired range of views will be narrowed by successive filters, the residue - arrogant confidence and ritual debate -mistaken as 'civilised' though inimical to 'proof of concept'.

    Not to deprive ourselves of Feedback's long appreciated tone, perhaps there should be a three-minute 'possibly more serious' slot, for views in small minority - neither foolish nor offensive - that just might stand-up to scrutiny and time. Otherwise, as already the case I fear, timely notices of serious error or omission seldom will be submitted, sure to be lost amongst what a John Humphrys might see as, 'bonkers to us', or as perhaps a Jeremy Paxman, 'illiberal bordering on vile'.

    Thus may even the most fundament of ills be missed. Liberal and 'democratic' we are very far from democracy (possession impossible without understanding and assent), unable even to think for the clamour of 'democratic' parties claiming 'democratic' policies, staggeringly off-target.

    Our predicament is so far out of hand, even for the best of historians, even for the most imaginative of futurologists, that no degree of social self-destruction is beyond our capacity to bring about. Just as for out great-grandparents in 1914, for our grandparents in 1939, and for our parents who set the scene for Greed is Good, for most of us today - and many of our children - what could happen next will not be believed, even while it is happening.

    It is in the absence of definitional rigour that commentators - politicians, presenters, journalists more widely, as well as the public - are obliged and enabled to let-down themselves and the public (inadvertently or deliberately) in discussion of democracy and public service, the possibility of our knowing how to pursue 'the public interest'.

    Under the flag of democracy, righteous cover waved on all sides, interests real and imagined can be easily brought to the boil, in just 45 minutes to the point of war. Our vulnerability to both withdrawal of apparent rights and demagogic abuse of rights, is born of our lack of coherent - shareable - understanding, hence our lack of a workable social agreement, on the social contract by which rights can be secured and so our views expressed freely, assessed openly and taken ongoing account of, in conscience.

    Such is the extent of public distraction from coherent definition, many readers will not have recognised in the preceding paragraph a description of democracy at work, its leadership being not by competing flag-wavers but by the people, all free in agreed equal partnership, defining 'the public interest' by their actions, in their daily-evolving choice of ways forward, decisions and negotiations all in conscience.

    Rule otherwise, by dictatorship however sold, as benign or as in truth (making concessions to humanity only as tactically allowable), by its nature divisive and corrupting, must ensure no end to our falling.

    Choice of genuine equal partnership democracy, necessarily supported by most of the adult population, has to be on the basis of understanding. This will be not just of need to escape from fear and greed as abhorrent, but also of desire for all to live lives of freedom and fulfilment, only to be earned and enjoyed - and known for each other - in our working at least in spirit together, alone or in teams, always in conscience.

    Good luck with the Archers.

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