Jun 10

Tessa Jowell on the BBC’s “fight of its life”

Seminar today at City University on public service broadcasting set up by the enterprising people at OpenDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog, which has been assembling an impressively wide-ranging cast of opinions for the past months. The seminar gave some of them a chance to get into the same room.

Star of the opening session was Tessa Jowell, Culture Secretary and in charge of the government’s negotiations with the BBC for the past six years until the election four weeks ago. The BBC will find itself in the “fight of its life”, she predicted. (Another panellist replied that the BBC had been seen in thes melodramatic terms for at least the last 25 years and several licence fee  renewals).

Other highlights: Jowell said that in the Labour government she had found herself as “the only advocate” for the BBC in government. She criticised the Beeb’s culture and managers as wanting “all the advantages of the private sector with none of the risks.” This seemed like an oblique reference to the high salaries  at the top of the BBC.

She said that BBC accountablity was good enough and that the BBC Trust had failed correctly to read the mood of the moment, not least because the BBC’s hierarchy had spent too much of its time in intmate negotiations with the government, neglecting the broader picture. She also said that the Trust’s power had not been sufficiently built up.

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May 10

Sense and nonsense about newspapers and elections

I’m getting asked a lot of questions about newspapers and their effects on elections. Any kind of close or surprising result usually unleashes a wave of claims that newspapers have manipulated, influenced or dumbed down coverage. If the past is any guide, most of these theories will be wrong.

I took part in a discussion on Radio 4’s Media Show on this subject yesterday. My City University colleague Roy Greenslade wrote a fine debunking Evening Standard column. Hold on to the following facts as you listen to claims that it was newspapers wot won it or lost it.

  • Evidence that formal endorsements of political parties by papers change votes is hard to come by. People mostly don’t choose their paper because of its political allegiance. Twenty per cent of Daily Mail readers regularly vote Labour. If newspapers ever influence how people think politically, they only do so very gradually. Stop Press: the complexity of this is well caught by a neat new experiment from The Times.
  • A majority of newspaper titles advocate a Tory vote and that’s been the case in the 17 elections since 1945. Labour won nine of those outright.
  • In 1945, when newspapers commanded a vastly greater “mindshare” than now and television broadcasting hadn’t begun, most editors and proprietors campaigned for a Conservative victory. Labour won a landslide.
  • Newspapers now compete in a media market filled with hundreds of broadcast channels and proliferating new media platforms. When The Sun switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories last autumn, one major pollster pointed out that they were following, not leading, their readers who had moved in the same direction earlier in the year.
  • The media event of this election wasn’t the much-hyped new media or print but TV. The leaders debates moved Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems 9-11 points up in the polls and they stayed there. Print does not do this and never has.

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