When the news broke in June that the Greek public broadcaster ERT had been closed down, taken off the air, I found the justification of the Greek government provided an uncanny throwback to events in Britain.
Throughout the run-up to the 2010 general election, David Cameron, as leader of the Conservative Party, had been at the forefront of the demands to freeze the BBC licence fee.
Within three months of taking office, the coalition government formed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had imposed a 20 per cent reduction in the BBC’s spending.
The Greek’s government’s official spokesman accused ERT of being “a haven of waste”. He said it had displayed “an exceptional lack of transparency” and had done nothing to end “incredible extravagance”.
Conservative politicians promoted a similar line when the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne justified his October 2010 spending review which included a six-year freeze on the BBC’s licence fee, cutting the the BBC’s income by £1 billion a year by 2015.
Nicholas Jones was among the speakers at a conference on “Public Service Broadcasting in the Era Austerity” organised by City University London (11.7.2013). His lecture had the title “Public service broadcasting: a vital role at times of strife”:
Journalists don’t often own up to a crisis of conscience. But when I reflect on my thirty years reporting for the BBC I do think that at times of strife, we as public service broadcasters face a very real danger of becoming cheerleaders for the government of the day.
It’s not easy maintaining balanced coverage during civil unrest, when the forces of law and order, backed up by the establishment and sympathetic media proprietors, are doing their utmost to dictate the news agenda.
The year-long British coal miners’ strike in 1984-5 – the culmination of Margaret Thatcher’s confrontation with the trade union movement of this country – put the BBC on the front line of reporting a bitter industrial dispute. It was a struggle which lasted a year and which divided mining communities across the country. It became the longest and perhaps the most prolonged mobilisation by the Police this country has ever seen.
To this day many on the left of British politics believe that the BBC was used by the state to further the political goals of Mrs Thatcher. I would contend that we did our utmost to provide a balance of access to airtime...and we did deliver that.
We gave miners’ leaders and their supporters endless opportunities to argue the case against pit closures on radio and television. Our coverage had a lasting impact...there is still huge public sympathy for the miners. But the challenge then to the BBC was to try to withstand the impact of wave after wave of anti-trade union propaganda coming from much of Britain’s popular press.
Tabloid newspapers did all they could to whip up public hostility against the miners. Press proprietors, like the Prime Minister, were only too keen to see the demolition of extreme trade union power. This became the narrative, the framework of our coverage.
A responsibility to ensure and to deliver balanced reporting is one of the great acts of faith of public service broadcasters. Yes we are paid for by the taxpayer – we are regulated by the state – but we have our principles. The BBC has its charter. Our editorial guidelines set out the BBC’s standards and values, our duty to be impartial.
But the great difficulty in the miners’ strike of 1984 was that the more polarised the dispute became, the greater the difficulty in getting access to the mining communities. Reporters and film crews, especially from the BBC, increasingly found themselves corralled behind Police lines. We were not welcome within the mining villages.
The plight of the miners’ families and the oppression of the Police didn’t always get the coverage it deserved.
The question I have to myself is: Did I as an industrial correspondent for radio, did we together at the BBC, end up becoming the cheerleaders for Mrs Thatcher. I fear that is probably what happened. We found ourselves reporting the dispute from a perspective which favoured the government.
Our emphasis increasingly was on the return to work by the men who wanted to break the strike and abandon the miners’ union. Our footage of violence on picket lines was filmed from a safe vantage behind the Police, rather than alongside the strikers.
The new faces as they were known – men returning to work with police protection – were paraded in the press as heroes.
Did I get swept along by that kind of reporting? The answer is probably “Yes”. Once half the miners were back at work, Mrs Thatcher could claim victory, which is precisely what she did.
Looking back I do think the BBC’s guidelines were probably stretched, that perhaps our coverage went too far in the government’s favour.
I certainly felt pressure coming down from the top of the BBC – influenced no doubt by Conservative politicians. There was some uncomfortable questioning of my reporting. I was called in by executives I hadn’t met before to justify what I was saying. Where had my statistics come from? I was under pressure to reveal my sources. I felt somewhat isolated and the danger of course is that this pressure leads to self censorship.
If you ask me: did you ever tell an untruth when reporting the miners’ strike? No never, not that I know of. But yes I did sometimes hold back, I didn’t always report everything I knew.
I like to think that what happened to the mining communities in 1984 – the under reporting of the suffering of the miners’ families, the brutality of the Police – wouldn’t and couldn’t be repeated today?
My confidence is based on the way countless cases of civil unrest across the Arab world have been reported in recent months. Thanks to the mobile phone and the internet, images of what has really been happening at the hands of the military or police, or perhaps by the opponents of the state -- goes viral within minutes.
I am sure the same thing would happen here – and does already happen – during demonstrations and disputes.
The challenge now to a public service broadcaster like the BBC is to ensure that these images are given the airtime they deserve. Or, I ask myself, would self censorship kick in?
My opinions now are as a viewer and listener. I can’t help thinking that the BBC is becoming more cautious. Is there a lasting impact from the agony over the Hutton report into the BBC’s reporting of the dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?
Has the tidal wave of allegations of sexual abuse by television presenters such as Jimmy Saville and the public disgust over the unbelievably generous payments to former executives been eroding the public’s trust and the BBC’s credibility?
When we see public sector broadcasters being attacked in Europe we shouldn’t forget what happened here in Britain when the government of Tony Blair challenged the BBC on its reporting about the so called “sexed-up dossier” on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps we should pause for a moment to reflect on that relentless assault on the BBC’s journalism.
When the news broke in June that the Greek state broadcaster ERT had been closed down, taken off the air, I found the justification of the Greek government provided an uncanny throwback to what happened in October 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government imposed a 20 per cent reduction in the BBC’s spending.
Throughout the run-up to the 2010 general election, David Cameron, as leader of the Conservative Party, had been at the forefront of demands to freeze the BBC licence fee.
The Greek government’s official spokesman accused ERT of being “a haven of waste”.
He said it had displayed “an exceptional lack of transparency” and had done nothing to end “incredible extravagance”. Perhaps we should remind ourselves how the Conservatives’ spun the line that the BBC’s expenditure would have to be cut by a billion pounds a year by 2015:
I suppose the lesson of the BBC – the message that I hope will go out to other public broadcasters – is that it is possible to withstand the assaults of the governments of the day. Our journalism – and our editorial standards – are enduring examples of the value of public service.
But we have to work hard to preserve the trust of viewers and listeners and that is going to be increasingly difficult in age of austerity, when resources are so stretched.
Nicholas Jones 11.7.2013