Edinburgh Book Festival: Charlotte Higgins and Jean Seaton: Is the BBC Worth Fighting For?

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Charlotte Higgins, Jean Seaton, Kirsty Wark (chair)
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Charlotte Higgins and Jean Seaton are uniquely placed to talk about the BBC and contemplate its future. In the shadow of the forthcoming licence fee negotiations, both talked about their own research and the discoveries made in the course of writing Higgins' This New Noise and Seaton’s Pinkoes and Traitors.

For some considerable time, governments, whatever their complexion, have had something of a love-hate relationship with the BBC, recognising its value as a significant public service broadcaster, whilst wishing it to project a more flattering interpretation of the government of the day.

Viewers and listeners, on the other hand, have, until perhaps recently, been generally favourable in their views. Their disillusionment, arising out of the scandals surrounding Jimmy Saville, the salary levels of ‘celebrities’ and managers, and in Scotland perceptions of the way in which debates surrounding the Referendum appeared to be conducted therefore seems the more profound.

A large and engaged audience, then, for Higgins and Seaton, who discussed their experiences, Higgins of being given a ‘sabbatical’ by The Guardian newspaper to examine the BBC, Seaton of researching the organisation’s recent past, during a period when the notion of its being staffed by the said ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ was a commonplace of conversation, only for politicians such as the late Willie Whitelaw to recognise the need to support it both politically and financially.

Higgins conceded that mistakes had been made, in part as the result of corporate culture, citing John Birt’s opposition to the establishment of a ‘Scottish Six’ news broadcast being a significant one.

That, of course, was then, and the now in which we find ourselves came to vivid life when during a lively and largely well-conducted Q-and-A an audience member raised the matter of Salmond-Robinson relations (for those unaware, a dispute between Alex Salmond and broadcaster Nick Robinson over whether an answer was an answer and how much air time a politician was allowed when responding without addressing the question). Wark, as chair, rightly chose to move the discussion on, but her reaction appeared panicky and defensive.

Space is given to this as it seems to indicate something of the only partly addressed question of a more autonomous Scottish element of the BBC. Both Seaton and Higgins had spoken earlier and with some warmth of the BBC World Service and the decision of the present government to no longer support this through the Foreign Office budget.

The World Service indirectly fosters good broadcasting practice by the training and employment of many foreign national broadcasters which impacts on journalism in their own countries. At the same time, the pressure in an increasingly fragmented island (s), for nation to speak unto nation grows almost daily.

Whether an institution that appears to many increasingly metro-centric can address the issues of the diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society of these islands perhaps represents as great a challenge as the licence fee negotiations do.

Although Wark raised the issue of multiple broadcasting platforms, there was little time to address this. Nevertheless, the growing take-up of Netflix, Amazon Prime and others does not bode well for the state of public information nor the injunction of John Reid to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

The BBC cannot be said to be in a particularly good place at present, a fact both speakers acknowledged, but although many are critical of the BBC, they also use and rely on it more than they may admit, and in the months to come, the BBC may have need of as many of these critical friends as it can get.

Charlotte Higgins, This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubles Life of the BBC, Guardian Faber p/b £12.99 ISBN: 9781788350728

Jean Seaton, Pinkoes and Traitors; The BBC and the Nation, 1974-1987, Profile Books, £30.00, ISBN 9781846684746