Blair’s Broadcasting Legacy 

12 May 2007

Tony Blair

Looking back over a decade – focusing on the outgoing Prime Minister’s impact on the world of British broadcasting

What a night. People not normally even interested in politics stayed up until the early hours. A discredited, failed, lying prime minister left office humiliated and broken. The next morning, the hopes of a nation were on the shoulders of a new, exciting prime minister who had waited years to walk through the doors of Number Ten.

This was May 1997 and the failed Tory government and its weak, colourless leader, plus a host of singularily objectionable MPs, exited stage right. In the door came Tony Blair, leader of “New Labour”, a reformer who promised that things would only get better. Things would improve. Not right away – there was much damage to undo – but what was left of the state would be improved and changed for the better.

Ten years have now passed, and that great hope has just exited Number Ten himself, with similar derision and catcalling. Few politicians leave office to the delighted cheers of a grateful public, of course. But this one will be having his legacy – so very dominant in his thinking for the past few years – debated endlessly by historians for many years. Indeed, his will be a premiership with just as much discussion as a certain female predecessor still receives, and for just as long.

But what must detain us here is a single aspect of his legacy. It is bound up in the overall discussion of his place in history in many ways, not least through the defining act of his time in charge – the illegal and immoral decision to attack Iraq. Of all the political obituaries that have been, and will be, written for Mr Blair, his broadcasting legacy is perhaps the one aspect that will touch every single Briton, often without them noticing it.

When Mr and Mrs Blair walked through the gates of Downing Street on 2 May 1997, the broadcasting world had already been completely changed by the previous occupants. Since Labour had last been in charge, the ITV contracts had changed, the long-promised fourth channel had been born, breakfast television had begun, the BBC had been repeatedly threatened and starved of money for challenging the government repeatedly, and embarrassingly, the ITV contracts – and the whole of ITV itself, effectively privatised – had changed again, Channel Four had been radically commercialised and finally, just over a month before the big day, the recently-much mentioned fifth channel had finally been born.

On the horizon, and still on the desk of Chris Smith, the new, slightly surprising choice for Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was the birth of digital television, marking an expansion of services and the potential profit from selling off the old analogue frequencies.

To a degree, any real damage to “the least worst television in the world” had already been done by the Tories. The BBC had been starved of funds and politically bullied for many years, dating back to Mrs Thatcher’s horror at the impartial treatment of the Falklands War, the (not altogether fair) slapping she received on Nationwide over the Belgrano sinking, through to later accusations of “pinko” propaganda over the Zircon spy satellite and the degree of IRA control of border villages. ITV had suffered a worse fate, the accurate investigation by Thames Television into the murdering of suspected terrorists on Gibraltar having led to a massive shake-up of the system, the death of the broadcaster-regulator IBA and, of course, Thames itself, along with all that remained of the 1955 ethos of commercial broadcasting. The backwash of those changes had plunged C4 into financial crisis and a crude commercialisation.

This was the situation that Blair inherited. But his zeal to reform precluded any return to the established status quo. Indeed, his zeal meant that many of the changes were seen to be starting point for further changes; and any changes the new government didn’t explicitly create were allowed to happen anyway “as the market decides” – a Thatcherite philosophy taken to new lengths by New Labour.

The early years of the Blair administration saw a degree of stability, from government interference at least, in the broadcasting world. Channel Five was given time to bed down, its initial cheap-and-cheerful-with-soft-porn persona eventually settling into a cheap-and-cheerful-but-aiming-more-upmarket mould.

Channel Four lost the “Channel Porn” moniker but still steadily headed down market with “Big Brother” and a later propensity for “shockumentary” programmes featuring poo, penises and pathological liars “debunking” actual science with selective editing and downright untruths.

Sky launched the digital satellite platform it had promised with a degree of success that shocked many commentators. Granada and Carlton followed, challenging the automatic digital Sky monopoly with a business plan and programming schedule that was clearly a downmarket BSB… as if following BSB’s plans was a good idea. The failure of their ONdigital/ITV Digital platform shocked nobody. “The market” decided that the replacement digital terrestrial service should be a bit less ambitious, a bit more public service and a lot more worldly-wise.

The laissez faire policy in broadcasting worked for Blair and the New Labour project at first. By doing nothing, they could be blamed for nothing – and in most spheres of public life, devolution alone standing out as being an active change, the policy was successful and Blair got his second term.

From that point, domestic, international and broadcasting policy started to fall apart.

On 11 September 2001, a team of terrorists, exploiting the notoriously lax security at US domestic airports, used brutal and shocking tactics to gain control of four aeroplanes. Within a very short period of time they crashed those planes into the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon; the fourth plane was retaken by its passengers and was crashed into a field.

The world changed instantly; and possibly permanently.

The immediate result was an understandable upswing in American jingoism. The United Kingdom had, since at least the Second World War, seen itself as America’s closest ally and responded accordingly. A shocked US was comforted by a more experienced UK; a shocked US president, already out of his depth in domestic affairs and proudly ignorant of international responsibilities was comforted by a UK head of government who was experienced and very confident.

The result was a war against the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, too long left as a rogue state destabilising an entire region. Soon the Taliban were vanquished, we were told, and all was well again. But then the US announced that Afghanistan wasn’t the problem. The problem all along, it turned out, was Iraq.

This brutal dictatorship was led by a certifiable loon, but he had previously been our loon. With the loonier Iran next door, the west had happily funded Saddam Hussein’s military plans, especially a brutal and fruitless war with the “mad mullahs” of Tehran. That those weapons had been turned upon Saddam’s own enemies and minorities… well, that wasn’t the point. When he turned those weapons upon Kuwait, an oil-rich and west-friendly neighbour, the west had intervened. Now, the US and UK governments told us, this former ally was in fact a dangerous loonbasket. His country threatened our very freedom.

At this point, the public’s sympathy with the US started to evaporate. A war against Iraq – something Blair denied was about to happen – wasn’t something the majority in the UK wanted a part of. Blair and his government had a choice – to support the US or listen to the people. If they chose the former, then the war needed to be sold to the people. And this was the point at which things started to unravel for the poor BBC.

The BBC had suffered terribly under the strange management of Director-General John Birt. His management style, odd theories and bizarre dogmatism had managed to endear him to Thatcherites, Mr Major and Blairistas. When, finally, with much rejoicing all round, he left in 2000, the replacement was the New Labour (and, previously, Thatcher) friendly Greg Dyke. The governors, always a hotbed of both loyal slavishness and angry dissension to every colour of government, soon got another New Labour face in charge, Gavyn Davies. Together they promised a new, dynamic, positive BBC – a New BBC to reflect New Labour.

The results were, obviously, poor television. As Dyke’s popularity with staff perhaps showed, he had only one default mode – populism. And the BBC’s television output (he knew nothing about radio and was happy to avoid managing it) started to get cheap n’ cheerful – resembling TVS, TV-am and LWT, his old haunts. New Labour was delighted – this was a new, reformed BBC that everyone liked. Cheaper n’ cheerfuller, just what taxpayers wanted.

But the BBC has had a long tradition of questioning government policy and diktat – going back as far as the Second World War, when the Corporation was able to convince the government that it was perfectly possible to be critical and steadfast, neutral and patriotic, accurate and singleminded. And indeed it was. It was this BBC – the BBC of Reith – that the government found itself up against.

It was all so simple. If the people wouldn’t accept a war against Iraq because of US wishes for a war against Iraq, then they would be supplied with another reason. So the people were offered “regime change” – and rejected it. They were offered “weapons of mass destruction” – and rejected it. So the entire package was respun. These weapons of mass destruction: we can’t tell you where they are, we can’t tell you what they are, we can’t tell you anything about them at all. Except: they can be used against us in less than 45 minutes.

Reith’s BBC acted strongly against such obvious nonsense and said so loudly. Of course they would. The requirement of the BBC to be neutral requires them to tell the truth as far as they can find it. A requirement to be neutral is not a requirement to be neutral between truth and lies or good and evil. Mistakes were made in this corporate gut reaction. People who should have been ignored were listened to. But then the government were asking the people to not listen to people who shouldn’t have been ignored. Nevertheless, the Today Programme on Radio 4, that most important of all news magazines (because the politicians don’t watch TV and thus discount the more influential television Six and Ten bulletins), had fallen into lax habits and was about to pay for them.

Like all news bulletins, Today had taken to interviewing its own reporters in preference to pre-prepared packages or real interviews. Because of the importance attached to the programme, it had become acutely aware of its own significance and had forgotten certain basics of journalism. Specifically, it had become used to being right one way or the other – broadly or in detail, it didn’t matter: the news agenda was decided each day by Today and careers and policies lived or died by Today’s reporting.

One day, Today had a scoop. The government, which everybody knew was lying about weapons of mass destruction, was lying about weapons of mass destruction. Broadly, Today was right. In detail, to a degree less so. Nevertheless, they were right. So they splashed on it, rousing their reporter to be interviewed in lieu of a real person and talking to him as he stood in his pyjamas talking on an ISDN line, apparently in the studio. He gave a lot of detail.

Sadly, this detail could only have come from a few people – one of whom was a very likely suspect. Dr David Kelly, a UN weapons inspector, was sure the government was lying. He told the BBC so. The BBC told the people. The government heard. Parliament dragged Dr Kelly in and questioned him in a hectoring and humiliating way – anyone who has seen the footage will not forget the nasty attitude of the awful MP who would later have blood on his hands. Dr Kelly then, it seems, went away and killed himself.

Game over for Mr Blair and his government. If Michael Howard, leader of the opposition, had not himself been terribly useless, many exciting constitutional problems would have occurred. Sadly, Mr Howard was indeed terribly useless. So Mr Blair was able to order an “independent inquiry” into Dr Kelly’s death.

The inquiry could do nothing but report on government lies and Mr Blair’s duplicity. The press and the BBC were ready for this. The articles about Blair’s downfall were ready. But then people noticed the terms of reference were very closely defined. And the man chairing the enquiry didn’t seem to be showing much in the way of pro-BBC bias. On the eve of the publication of the report, the Westminster Village gossip suddenly changed from Blair being ousted to the BBC being castigated. Positive noises were heard from Downing Street. Channel Four News, to its eternal shame, broadcast an interview with Alistair Campbell that was clearly designed to stick the boot in – ITN’s rivalry with the BBC finally after almost 50 years causing it to take leave of its senses and destroy its own reputation.

The report was published and it was almost universally held to be a whitewash. The government was held to be completely blameless, the BBC completely at fault. If it had stopped there, perhaps both sides could have walked away declaring a draw. But the nature of New Labour’s government had changed from benign indifference to active control of the minutiae of life. And the BBC’s challenge to Blair’s authority could not go unpunished. So punished it was.

The forced resignations of Davies and Dyke were an odd mixture of shocking-but-not-surprising. The government, Blair and Campbell all crowed their victory in a way that annoyed journalists throughout the country. They won the battle, but the honeymoon with the media ended. Even left-wing papers like The Independent turned against Blair – permanently.


Again, if it had stopped there, with a win for Blair, it would have been recoverable. But the defeat of the BBC was not enough. It had to be humiliated. Thus Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary who did not own a television, was empowered to make sure that the BBC’s face was ground into the dust. Reform was now to spread to the Corporation. The 80-year-old structure of the Board of Governors was swept away, replaced by an ill-defined “BBC Trust”, who did but didn’t manage, did but didn’t control, did but didn’t regulate.

The Corporation was reformed along more commercial lines, seemingly to make privatisation a clearer and greater threat. Presentation and facilities were sold off to an Australian bank – the BBC no longer had full control of its own output and no longer employed the people it employed to speak for it. These reforms gave Jowell, a minister who, it later turned out was prepared to sign anything her husband put in front of her, unprecedented power over the Corporation. She was soon to be heard interfering in the BBC’s output, even when she admitted to not watching the programme she was complaining about, interfering with the BBC Trust’s decisions, granting a licence fee settlement that resulted in a savage cut to BBC services, demanding that the BBC cut staff and wages by moving from London to Salford, directly apportioning money from the licence fee – something no politician had ever dared do – into government schemes for the new “digital age” and generally behaving like the victor after a war. Mr Blair watched all of this without comment but with obvious approval.

Whilst this disaster was befalling the BBC, “the market” was deciding the future of ITV. The government had several opportunities to step in to protect the interests of the public and the viewers but declined to do so. Whilst the policy of laissez faire had been brutally suspended for the BBC, that same policy was now enforced with a studied indifference on ITV.

In a strange dichotomy of vision, the thoughts and deeds of the BBC Governors were subject to careful scrutiny and direction; meanwhile, the thoughts and deeds of the commercial regulator, the ITC, were ignored and the thoughts and deeds of the rapidly coalescing ITV companies were greeted with excitement and positive nods. When the “new” ITV system started to reduce news provision, the ITC was not pleased but the government saw no reason for it to intervene. News provision was cut. When the “new” ITV started to reduce local broadcasting, the ITC again protested but again faced a government that was disinterested in intervening. Local broadcasting was cut. Emboldened, “new” ITV started to demand reductions in public service output. The ITC remained displeased. The government gave tacit approval. Public service output was cut.

Eventually, and inevitably, the ITC was itself earmarked to be abolished. A new regulator, combining the telephone watchdog Oftel with the ITC, perhaps with an eye to regulating and controlling the new internet, was introduced. If the Tories had created the ITC to be a “light-touch” regulator, the new Ofcom was a “no-hands” regulator – even passing the residual advertising regulation functions to the advertising industry-influenced ASA. Commercial television was left with nobody to make demands on it, and nobody to enforce those demands. Shortly after, even the New Labour commitment to devolution was undone, as HTV’s separate continuity for Wales was subsumed into London’s output save for a badly superimposed subtitle that fooled nobody.

And whilst all of this was going on, Blair allowed Rupert Murdoch to expand his control of the television market. In his last months on office, his laissez faire policy allowed the Sky monopoly to extend to include a large slice of ITV plc and the removal of the less lucrative non-premium channels from Virgin’s terrible cable service – Sky’s only competitor.

As Tony Blair leaves office, he can be proud that his legacy includes the birth of the internet as a popular mass medium – although this was something that happened without his government’s intervention and would have happened regardless – and that digital television will soon be compulsory.

But a legacy should be measured by what influence will still be felt in 10 or 20 years. And for that, the former prime minister will indeed leave a legacy. His government reformed the BBC, neutered it and made it scared of comment in a way that the Tories never managed. His government prepared the BBC for wholesale privatisation – again something the Tories never managed, but now something they will find easy when they return to power. His government oversaw the removal of one of the three public broadcasters, allowing ITV to drift away from what the public needs whilst unable to rediscover what the public wants (this is a channel, after all, whose output has become so bad that even a member of the Grade family thinks it’s poor). His government has also allowed Channel Four to almost slip beyond the public service grasp, although the damage there was already done.

When it comes to tallying up the legacy of Tony Blair, the negatives will be found to outweigh the positives. This is normal for most politicians; but it is hard to swallow whilst people still remember the optimism of 2 May 1997 in any detail.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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