Sunday Omnibus: Letting Go
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A couple of weeks ago I picked up a free magazine in London which included an interview with the much-feted veteran film-maker Ken Loach. He was publicising his latest film.

In the course of that interview Mr Loach quoted with approval the late Tony Benn’s statement to the effect that we don’t need the KGB in Britain as we have the BBC. Well, as someone who has worked off and on for the Corporation for over 40 years and had my share of rows with its bosses, I find such statements ludicrous.

However it is true that the BBC has freedom under licence and that periodically Governments threaten to remove that licence if that freedom is exercised in ways of which they disapprove, particularly close to election time. Usually they are robustly repulsed. And there are, inevitably, unconscious biases in its programmes and news coverage which need to be exposed and debated.

The best way of doing that is of course by being open and accountable, explaining and defending difficult decisions as well as admitting mistakes when they are made. Feedback is supposed to assist in that process.

However sometimes I get very frustrated when the Corporation clams up and gives conspiracy theorists like Ken Loach more ammunition. For example this week some listeners smelt a rat when what was claimed to be a 50,000-strong demonstration against the Coalition’s cuts, which started just outside the BBC’s news centre, was not reported on network radio.

Obviously we asked for an interview with an executive to explain the decision but were told that BBC News “could not facilitate” such an interview. We received a short statement instead. So, no opportunity for me, and more importantly for the licence fee payers, to question decisions made by people whose salaries they pay.

Over the years I have been presenting Feedback, have the Corporation’s decision-makers become more ready to face their audiences? I don’t think so. It all depends on the individuals involved. We have some strong supporters, and people like the Controller of Radio 2, Bob Shennan, and the Director of Editorial Standards, David Jordan, are always willing to come on and be challenged. They are in danger of being the exceptions.

Anyway we will keep on telling you when people refuse to appear as well as being delighted when they do. However, a diktat from the Director General that in principle every one of his decision-makers should be expected to appear on Feedback would be very, very, welcome.

Meanwhile here is the inevitably rather limited feature about the story on this week’s programme, together with what I think was a really interesting discussion on when and in what circumstances the use of the “n” word in full is acceptable on air.

And if you listen to the complete programme you can hear the author of a report for the BBC’s Trust on the quality and impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of rural England tell me that she is disappointed by the BBC Executive’s response. So some elements of accountability and openness are working well.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

Listen to this week's Feedback

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by bacon

    on 7 Jul 2014 12:45

    I normally loathe Ken Loach as the archetypal left-wing antisemite but this time he has a point. What Tony Benn meant to say in his comparing the BBC to the KGB is that both are UNACCOUNTABLE.

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 6 Jul 2014 09:56

    It must be remembered that the Board of Governors of the BBC is generally agreed, by informed usage, to be part of The Establishment (the real one, not the metaphorical and mythical political one, claimed by Nigel Farage etc. and assisted by journalists). The social aspect of this is its essence:

    We have of late unexplained and worrying reports, of papers relating to serious alleged crimes going missing, and of senior figures themselves being subject to allegations.

    We are led to understand that the people implicated are from across public life and national institutions.

    While a storm of public speculation would perhaps not be helpful, the BBC's apparent suppression of comment, for me, exposes it to the accusation of a closing of ranks of sections of that Establishment.

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by cliff

    on 5 Jul 2014 11:36

    I have some very direct evidence of the bbc censorship - though it is over ten years old - when the opportunity to freely comment was not available.

    Soon after the start of the Iraq war i happened across this very well researched article - -

    which among many other well argued points demonstrated that the real motivation for the war was the preservation of the dollar as the sole currency with which to purchase oil. Saddam had for some time been selling his oil for Euros.

    I tried in vain to get any mention or reasoned discussion on any of the bbc outlets including local radio phone-ins but was only allowed to speak if i was dishonest about my reason for calling and was 'accidentally' cut of once the producer realised where i was heading.

    Maybe Channel four should do some research with retired bbc producers to expose the amount of Government control.

    Equally In the recent batch of programmes commemorating the two halves of the world war there is a total failure to mention any historically successful resistance to the Nazi occupation of Scandinavia and Europe that did not involve violent confrontation. Could this be even remotely linked to the tight links between the politicians and the military industrial complex?

    Gandhi's success in making the establishment's desire to cling onto India not worth the hassle is as it was based on the truth, is often glossed over.

    There is a saying, whose author i have forgotten, that the only true democracy is one that doesn't actually have any armed forces, so the rulers really do have to have the support of the people.

    If a civilised society is going to have any chance of surviving the next century we need a radical freeing up of financially driven constraints on the freedom of speech.

    If you want a positive idea of how the future could possibly pan out take a look at 'News from Nowhere' by William Morris that is freely available at:

    May be there is an opportunity to modify the funding of the BBC as i often find myself frustrated when abroad in not being able to access their online resources even though i've been funding them for around 50yrs. This could take the form of an option to pay the fee [or possibly fees for different degrees of access] online with a secure login so it could become a global service - and could even gain a large number of non UK resident funders / subscribers. There would obviously have to be a greater distancing of the corporation from certain aspects of the US/UK establishment, but that could only be for the general good, and encourage more fearless investigative journalism - something which seems to have declined recently, but which is so vital to an educated and effective democracy. This could become a vital starting point for a reduction in the absurd emphasis on the importance of sovereign states in world where there are a surprisingly large number of unaccountable global corporations with more economic power than a sizable number of nation states.

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 5 Jul 2014 10:36

    I think some very good points have been made on this thread.

    Now: BBC News also purports to allow comments on its "Have Your Say" page.

    There couldn't really be more on which people would like to do just that right now: the ECHR's upholding of France's ban on the full veil (after all the populist mud that's been slung at that Court); the Brittan papers; Germany's arresting of a US spy; and much more.

    Why the closedown? Is someone afraid public opinion might demonstrate itself to be other than the BBC tells us it is?

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by All for All

    on 30 Jun 2014 15:25

    News selection and handling will depend much on the selection of personnel, of sympathies (or their absence) and of voice (from patrician to petty-fogging), horses for courses, any 'conspiracy' laid long ago, in awareness but naive.

    At all levels, from politician to presenter, processes of selection will compound over the years not only to moderate swings in undergraduate fashion and maybe show some resistance to alternating buffets from capital and labour in power, but also perhaps to act eventually not as lead but as drag in the evolution of public insight.

    If not to consign our lives to dead-hand time-serving, to waiting for change that never can come, we need our 'openness and accountability' to be not just on random slips of 'unconscious bias', but with constant reference to deep shareable principles, beyond contradiction other than in 'exercise' or sociopathy, foundations of freedom in conscience, of dynamic positivity for all.

    While it might be 'very welcome' (superficially reassuring as well as perhaps often entertaining), on the strength of 'diktat from the Director General', to have access to 'every one of his decision-makers' for grilling on national radio, we could not truly expect justice always to be served for individuals grappling with situations already hard enough, or for the cause of humane personnel development, or even for the issue apparently at hand.

    Our accounting is most importantly to our own conscience, given our reasonable security and freedom to follow that conscience. Aside from the criminal or formal disciplinary, with the option of legal representation, public accountability is surely for those 'professionals' appointed to the role, to offer genuine apology and to promise effective action, if appropriate to include their own resignation.

    Who in the BBC might be held 'accountable' for team-awareness of 'shareable principles': firstly of reason (faith extending to the world as orderly, to others as 'real'; even to intuition, on providence & purpose & inferred 'ruling spirit'; AGAINST counter-orderly superstition & 'special revelation' & any assumptions of divine authority); secondly of care (for all: 'as our neighbours' and as 'partners in society'); and thirdly of democracy, implicitly equal partnership (as between the lines in the BBC's original Charter and Agreement: NOT as in the tendentiously cut-down duty, 'explanation of the workings of British parliamentary democracy')?

    A question for the DG or the Minister? For the Prime Minister or the Queen? Or for us, 'the licence fee payers'?

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by 0racle

    on 30 Jun 2014 13:33

    I happen to feel that the BBC is influenced by the establishment as to how it covers new stories. Over the last few years the BBC has had constant rehashing of the same EU stories. Ostensibly because there was some variation on a theme, however I have been unable to spot the differences. Usually it seems it is just another ploy to get Farage on air yet again. Apart from the in-fighting over the decades in the Tory Party, the rest of the country has, by and large, considered EU membership to be a non-story. However, a constant barrage by the media, including the BBC, has seen a rise in anti-EU sentiment. It is clear that news manipulation by the right is shaping public opinion. As to the evidence of this manipulation I will provide a link to an independent study:

    Our economic system is clearly broken and serves the interests of a few, but the BBC never has programs questioning the validity of the status quo. The BBC implies in its lack of investigative journalism and critique of austerity a support for the economic opinions of the right. It seems to be the case that the news slant suggests that austerity should not be questioned. And when a protest march of 50, 000, commencing from the BBC, against austerity is ignored by the BBC and the media, it isn't hard to argue, with evidence, that an establishment bias exists. And if I hear another "ordinary" member of the public interviewed again, saying we're all in this together, I think I'll pull my hair out. The economic mess left at the end of WW2 was far worse than we have now, but the economic solutions used then, including massive infrastructure building, the creation of the NHS and the Welfare state are ignored when they clearly worked. The super rich did incredibly well during the boom years from 1997 - 2007 and have continued to do so, but not once have I seen coverage of stories saying that they could wipe out the debt they created, not once. If we had an unbiased media we would see coverage of people with these opinions side by side with the coalition's austerity arguments.

    I wait for the day when the BBC airs programs questioning the political/economic status quo. I think it could be quite sometime.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by cjelektra

    on 29 Jun 2014 12:15

    It the same as the maddie McCann case only positives about the mccanns are reported. Everyone would read this

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

    on 28 Jun 2014 20:43

    Tony Benn's point is valid. He did not mean the BBC fulfilled the same role as the KGB. Rather, that there's no need for such thuggery, as the BBC is capable as and when required, of manipulating public opinion without it.

    His main repeated point throughout his career was, that the things you really need to know are what the media, including the BBC do NOT tell you, and why they don't.

    There's also the matter of manner. Of late, we've had the extraordinary and bizarre spectacle of a PM taking the meanings of everyday words, such as "good", "bad", "democracy" and so on, and standing them on their heads, yet this being reported as if entirely normal things to say.

    The public foaming hysteria of late has little to do with reality. The EU has never oppressed any UK national in any material way, quite the contrary. It stems from an emotional manipulation of the public, exploiting primitive tribal and other instincts. I can only conclude it's significantly our media's show of strength in response to the threat of regulation following Leveson: "dare to touch us and here's what we can do: turn a mediocrity, even one like Farage, into a genuine threat to the whole political process, no less. Plenty more whence that came. Understand?". Although BBC journalists are not primarily for the printed press, they are still of the same feather.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by newlach

    on 28 Jun 2014 13:17

    It does seem strange that a demonstration in London numbering an estimated 50,000 people was not reported on network radio. Although this demonstration included known anarchists and communists I think it should have received a word or two of mention. Perhaps if there had been an outbreak of thuggery, or had water canon been available for use and used, it would have got a mention. Whatever, it is inexcusable that none of the high-paid executives from BBC News had to courage to appear on Feedback to justify their decision to omit coverage of the demonstration from the airwaves. Most licence-fee payers are neither anarchists nor communists, and when senior executives refuse to speak to them about important matters it reinforces the belief held by many that the BBC is not fit for purpose. If the Director General does nothing about this the situation will only get worse. He should be telling BBC News that no such thing will be allowed to happen again and should make it clear that the reactionary elements within BBC News who oppose greater transparency and accountability risk being dismissed.

    This is certainly a controversial issue and it will not gone unnoticed by the Establishment that Feedback raised it.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by All for All

    on 28 Jun 2014 07:57

    The BBC has a 'licence to broadcast' within parameters explicit and implicit and subject to revision by successive party-governments, meeting old ideals and new circumstances supposedly to serve 'the pubic interest', inevitably though - in the absence both of real democracy and of its advocacy - to attract suspicion of fear and greed as dictating personal career or party-service with results not so far from the degree of KGB 'achievement' in stabilising, anaesthetising or enslaving superficially a well-satisfied audience and electorate.

    The BBC's licence is thus NOT a licence to be 'free within the law', but to act within its Charter & Agreement, then its editorial guidelines and courage, prudent or foolhardy, in march to the High Ground, subject 'unto the last' to ever greater so-called 'commercial' attack, the anti-social in pretended radical impatience or frank assertion of 'entitlement' to prey.

    To expect individual freedom without security, necessarily in equal partnership, and to see the mantra of 'accountability and openness' as necessarily sufficient for influence over established power, such would indeed be 'frankly ludicrous'. The 'conspiracy' of relevance is open, for those with time and eyes to register our democratic deficit, the sole concern of Tony Benn even in hyperbole.

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