Is this really the way to defend the BBC?

Hyperbole is a technique well known to both politics and journalism. But is it the best defence for the qualities of the  BBC? Will Hutton’s angry blast at the BBC’s griping critics in in the Conservative part of Britain’s new governing coalition says that the BBC deserves defending because the public service broadcaster is “the last bulwark against rule by the mob.”

Warning lights go on in my head when I read the phrase “rule by the mob”. Hutton did not mean that unruly crowds with pitchforks were going to appear in the streets, but the use of that spectre frequently means that someone has looked at change and does not like what they see. Hutton has looked at the early results of the revolution in (all human) communication wrought by digital technology and gagged. Bloggers, all of them apparently irresponsible, partial, dangerous are poisoning American political culture. The BBC is the only defence left against the same corruption occurring in Britain.

I’d imagined that America’s big problems were the deficit and the economy, Afghanistan and the Louisiana oil spill. But no. According to Hutton, “the bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics. Senior American politicians and officials of all political persuasions despair about its impact on political debate and policy.” Only a small extension of that argument tells you that the blog you are reading is part of a sinister assault on the values of balance, fairness and good journalism. I had no idea I was part of anythng so important. (In case Will Hutton is reading this: that last sentence is irony. It’s another thing bloggers do.)

The Observer yesterday also carried a short and much less well-displayed piece by the paper’s New York correspondent which gives a clue to why Hutton may be overplaying his hand here. The White House and some of the American media were manipulated into firing an official by a political dirty trick. Whether in a new media world or not, journalism’s job was – or should have been – to expose the manipulation. Aggressive political bloggers are just one symptom of a new political world in which anyone can publish opinion or claim to reveal new facts which may be true or may not be. It isn’t going to be possible to impose “balance and fairness” rules on everyone on the planet with access to a computer or mobile phone.

So organisations like the BBC which practice good journalism are important for demonstrating a quality standard. The BBC has weathered assaults on its journalism before and will do so again. Hutton’s claim that the BBC is the only defence left against barbarism is overheated piffle which confuses a timeless British political argument over public service broadcasting with his inchoate dislike over new opportunities for communication which erode journalism’s monopoly of public debate.


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