14 March 2018

‘Reducing inequality’ is not the BBC’s job


James Purnell, the BBC’s Director of Radio and Education and a former Labour Cabinet Minister, announced the other day that the Corporation’s primary educational “mission” was to be on “improving social mobility across the UK”.

“We want to work with partners to have a positive impact on people’s lives,” he said, “especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

To that end, according, naturally, to bbc.co.uk: “the BBC has consulted extensively with stakeholders in education and business to identify key areas where its content, reach, educational expertise and trusted relationship with audiences could help reduce inequality and do more to support learning for people of all ages.”

This is a remarkable definition of educational priorities, even for those of us who may also think that social mobility is an altogether admirable aim. The belief that educational achievement is “the most significant element in determining life chances”, as Mr Purnell’s colleague Sinead Rocks puts it, has no bearing on what education is.

The BBC’s significant track record on producing valuable educational content – from its collaborations with the Open University to programmes such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, or indeed whole channels, such as BBC Radio 3 or CBBC, which Ms Rock used to run – shouldn’t alter the fact that the “mission” of education is education. In other words, to instruct and inform, to teach and to train.

However valuable it may be to the individual and society as a means of improving income, productivity, personal choices, social mobility or a whole host of other desirable things, the provision of education is not, and should not be, affected by these considerations, but by the quality of the education offered.

Literacy, scientific and medical progress, better employment opportunities, higher salaries and all the rest of it may come from good quality education, but improved education will not come from making the reduction of inequality the priority. Grammar schools didn’t improve social mobility by banging on about disadvantage, but by banging on about grammar.

Education and the support of learning have always been part of the BBC’s remit since its first Royal Charter in 1927, which had identified the “great value of the Service as a means of education and entertainment”. Until that point, the British Broadcasting Company (as it then was) had been able to demonstrate this “great value” as a private company, financed by a consortium of radio manufacturers.

In sharp contrast with the US, where free speech and markets created a huge diversity in radio stations, the history of British broadcasting, then, has been almost from the outset one of dirigiste management and bien-pensant judgments about what’s best for the populace.

This is self-evidently political; indeed, one major reason for the BBC being brought into the public sector was that it became the public’s principal source of news during the General Strike and John Reith, the first Director-General who set the high-minded tone of the Corporation, was acutely conscious that the government of the day might simply nationalise the broadcaster as the official propaganda arm of the state.

There are critics – notably those from the SNP and the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party – who maintain that the Beeb is just that. They include such unbiased commentators as The Guardian’s Owen Jones, who thinks it’s “stacked with Right-wingers” and Paul Mason, who spent most of his career working for, er, the BBC but who, freed from its editorial strictures, is now able to see it for the “Unionist’ and “neo-liberal” establishment conspiracy it really is.

The vast majority of the BBC’s critics, though, think that it has a bias towards the liberal Left. Even when it’s doing its utmost to appear party-politically neutral, they claim, it favours government spending and the priorities of the metropolitan chattering classes – perhaps unsurprisingly, as an organisation dependent on the first and overwhelmingly comprising the latter.

It could also be argued that there is no justification for public funding of much of its output. It’s hard to see either the education or entertainment value in Britain’s Most Embarrassing Pets or Help Me Anthea, I’m Infected!, two of BBC Three’s lowest points.

Certainly, Mr Purnell, who rejoined the BBC as Director of Strategy in 2013 (without the post being advertised or indeed, the board overseeing his appointment) isn’t a prime advertisement for neutrality. He began his career at a Left-leaning think tank before becoming the BBC’s Head of Corporate Planning. Then he became a Labour councillor, a special advisor to Tony Blair, a Labour MP, Culture Minister and Work and Pensions Secretary, before resigning in a letter to Gordon Brown which began “We both love the Labour Party.”

This doesn’t affect whether the BBC is good at its job, value for money, or tries hard to be impartial. It could be true (it probably is) that the BBC is the greatest public sector broadcaster in the world and simultaneously that it tends to have a bias towards the liberal Left. The latter is, after all, also true of most bodies reliant on public funds, such as academe, the Civil Service and the NHS. But accusations of bias aren’t best challenged by appointments like Mr Purnell’s, when he was the only candidate for the three posts he’s had at the BBC since 2013, despite having almost “no relevant creative or editorial experience for the job”, as The Guardian put it.

But despite the dross and any perceived bias, many people believe that, until now, the BBC has done a fairly reasonable job in its remit to educate. If anything, it has been overambitious ­– its enormous expansion into the digital realm has included schemes such as BBC Bitesize, which offer revision guides to schoolchildren, as well as programmes to assist with admission to tertiary education.

These may be admirable, but it’s not clear that they belong to the core function of a broadcaster, rather than being the business of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) or publishers of academic textbooks.

What certainly isn’t the business of a public service broadcaster is to decide to engage on a programme of social engineering, even if it’s one which sounds as if it has benign or beneficial aims. Like so many things, the BBC sees social mobility as a public good, and therefore its business. The trouble is that it also assumes that particular solutions ­– in this case, spending public money to “reduce inequality” – are the axiomatic, and perhaps only, means of doing so.

Mr Purnell seems to resemble his former boss, Tony Blair, in thinking that the means by which you provide “education, education, education” aren’t really significant; what matters is that you have good, solidly Left-of-centre motives for doing so. But like him, he may find that saying “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy” won’t automatically deflect claims that the BBC is showing evidence of bias.

Andrew McKie is Acting Deputy Editor of CapX