The only people not asked about the BNP on the BBC are the public

October 22, 2009 1:45 PM

Tonight, the BNP will appear on BBC 2's Question Time for the first time. The row about whether Nick Griffin should be allowed to take part has been dragging on for weeks, and everyone has had their say: Unite Against Fascism, free speech campaigners, the BNP, Peter Hain, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, Jerry Dammers from the Specials, Russell Brand, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Everyone, that is, except the licence-fee paying public.


Indeed, it is the licence fee itself that has excluded the people who pay for the BBC from actually having any say or power over the issue.


In any normal business, if you dislike a company's actions, you could punish them. In terms of broadcasting, that punishment can happen through viewers switching off or advertisers withdrawing. Often the former will trigger the latter, of course.


This can be a powerful tool. When Jade Goody was accused of racist bullying of Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother, such pressure was exerted on the advertisers that Carphone Warehouse withdrew its sponsorship of the show. This was undoubtedly a major factor in Channel 4's subsequent actions on the issue.


In the US at the moment there is a major controversy over Glenn Beck, who has seen 80 advertisers withdraw from his Fox News show over comments about President Obama.


There are of course numerous examples of programmes being dropped by commercial channels due to awful viewing figures, without the specific and public withdrawal of an advertiser. If a channel reliant on advertising has awful ratings, its revenue is depressed as a result, which means it needs to change.


The BBC has neither of these pressures - not only does it not have advertisers, but it actually has quite an explicit mission to actively ignore consumer demand in its output. There is a theory that the licence fee model allows the BBC to produce broadcasting that is good, rather than just popular, but that model assumes two things:


1) The public don't like "good" broadcasting, they just like "populist" dross. Indeed, something becomes dross in the view of some precisely because it is popular.


2) Senior Beebocrats like Alan Yentob and an elite coterie of editors know what is good broadcasting far better than the public, and if they get anything wrong then the BBC Trust are able to get it right as a fallback authority on good taste.


The true absurdity of the current situation is not that Griffin and his many absurd views will be paraded on Question Time, but that such an important issue should be down to Peter Hain's lawyers, the BBC Trust's review panels and a few other unaccountable officials to decide.


The BBC's financial model has not placed the broadcaster in the hands of the public, it has taken its activities completely out of the control of viewers. It may on paper belong to the people, but the compulsory licence fee ensures that it never has to answer to them. The high minded ideals of those who want a "people's broadcaster" have, counterintuitively, produced one which is less accountable to the viewing public than ITV, Channel 5 or The Adult Channel.


The issue of whether Griffin should be on Question Time or not ought to be down to viewers. If they believe he shouldn't be on, then they will watch something else and boycott the show. Alternatively, if they are intrigued to watch what will be either a fascinating car crash, a political horror show or a combination of the two, then they will tune in - and why should anyone prevent them from doing so? The people's broadcaster should let the people decide.

Tonight, the BNP will appear on BBC 2's Question Time for the first time. The row about whether Nick Griffin should be allowed to take part has been dragging on for weeks, and everyone has had their say: Unite Against Fascism, free speech campaigners, the BNP, Peter Hain, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, Jerry Dammers from the Specials, Russell Brand, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Everyone, that is, except the licence-fee paying public.


Indeed, it is the licence fee itself that has excluded the people who pay for the BBC from actually having any say or power over the issue.


In any normal business, if you dislike a company's actions, you could punish them. In terms of broadcasting, that punishment can happen through viewers switching off or advertisers withdrawing. Often the former will trigger the latter, of course.


This can be a powerful tool. When Jade Goody was accused of racist bullying of Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother, such pressure was exerted on the advertisers that Carphone Warehouse withdrew its sponsorship of the show. This was undoubtedly a major factor in Channel 4's subsequent actions on the issue.


In the US at the moment there is a major controversy over Glenn Beck, who has seen 80 advertisers withdraw from his Fox News show over comments about President Obama.


There are of course numerous examples of programmes being dropped by commercial channels due to awful viewing figures, without the specific and public withdrawal of an advertiser. If a channel reliant on advertising has awful ratings, its revenue is depressed as a result, which means it needs to change.


The BBC has neither of these pressures - not only does it not have advertisers, but it actually has quite an explicit mission to actively ignore consumer demand in its output. There is a theory that the licence fee model allows the BBC to produce broadcasting that is good, rather than just popular, but that model assumes two things:


1) The public don't like "good" broadcasting, they just like "populist" dross. Indeed, something becomes dross in the view of some precisely because it is popular.


2) Senior Beebocrats like Alan Yentob and an elite coterie of editors know what is good broadcasting far better than the public, and if they get anything wrong then the BBC Trust are able to get it right as a fallback authority on good taste.


The true absurdity of the current situation is not that Griffin and his many absurd views will be paraded on Question Time, but that such an important issue should be down to Peter Hain's lawyers, the BBC Trust's review panels and a few other unaccountable officials to decide.


The BBC's financial model has not placed the broadcaster in the hands of the public, it has taken its activities completely out of the control of viewers. It may on paper belong to the people, but the compulsory licence fee ensures that it never has to answer to them. The high minded ideals of those who want a "people's broadcaster" have, counterintuitively, produced one which is less accountable to the viewing public than ITV, Channel 5 or The Adult Channel.


The issue of whether Griffin should be on Question Time or not ought to be down to viewers. If they believe he shouldn't be on, then they will watch something else and boycott the show. Alternatively, if they are intrigued to watch what will be either a fascinating car crash, a political horror show or a combination of the two, then they will tune in - and why should anyone prevent them from doing so? The people's broadcaster should let the people decide.

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