Anyone else watch Newsnight last night? I certainly did. It's like visiting the deathbed of an ageing relative to whom you're theoretically attached but actually rather fed-up with. The viewing experience becomes like an episode of Miss Marple. Will there be a deathbed confession? Will we find out whodunnit? Or will there be another executive's body on the carpet by the time the show ends and I've turned over to something less morally troubling like South Park?
In the event, the show became less Poirot and more Witchfinder-General. After Eddie Mair's raging hints at suspension or cancellation last week, this week's editors (dead men walking, presumably) decided to take the Opus Dei route and self-flagellate before the mob of Tories and Murdoch employees turned up with pitchforks. Nowhere did I hear many facts: such as the inconvenient truth that Newsnight didn't name McAlpine, and the victim of the sexual abuse was misinformed by North Wales Police.
Instead, we got a decent amount of considered self-criticism followed by a shell-shocked public confession to all crimes barring murder on the Marie Celeste. Sure, Newsnight massively screwed up by not running the Savile film and making basic journalistic errors in the Bryn Estyn story, for which it should be severely reorganised, but let's not lose sight of the way the public narrative is trending. Conservative MPs and Murdoch papers have always hated the BBC. They think it's one of the last state-corporate institutions left and they want it dismembered to make way for fully-privatised media. And they think (wrongly) that the BBC is full of lefties. Excuse me if I just say Homes under the Hammer, Flog It, Escape to the Country, the Today programme as merely a few examples of cultural and political conservatism in action.
As it happens, I was discussing public service broadcasting with the students yesterday. After initially not seeing a problem with privatised media, they then began to understand what happens when licence-funded media and investigative journalism and abolished. Imagine the Sun being left to cover phone-hacking. Imagine any newspaper or TV station conducting consumer investigations into its own advertisers (this show about climate science is brought to you by Shell and British Airways). Imagine TV news being Fox vs MSNBC. Imagine children's TV without the Beeb: bought in dubbed toy adverts and nothing else. Who would make shows for the groups with little purchasing power: Welsh-speakers, the old, the very young, ethnic minorities? How would boring but important shows get made if they didn't attract advertisers, such as local news or discussion programmes?
Newsnight and the BBC need urgent surgery - but just look at the contorted faces of its enemies and ask yourself: who stands to gain from a shrunken, cowed BBC? The very same rich and powerful forces (politicians, police, corporations) who have made the UK a rotten, corrupt and bankrupt oligarchy. The £145 licence fee is quite a bargain when it keeps these forces at bay, however imperfectly.