BBC vs LSE, and the point of journalism

Posted by RDN under On TV & Radio / Politics & campaigns on 17 April 2013

A curiosity of the BBC’s undercover trip to North Korea is that hardly anyone has framed the argument in the terms which matter and would once have seemed obvious. Namely: as the debate about the trip went up the chain at the BBC, no-one seems to have considered it important to ask the governing body of the LSE whether it minded having its institutional brand, imprimatur and name hijacked. When asked, the LSE said it wasn’t happy. But the BBC and its fans (let’s especially include the articulate and usefully clear piece by Robin Lustig in the Guardian) merely repeat the mantra that the BBC was responsibly considerate as to the risk its trip posed to the club-members who accompanied it….

An old grump like me sees modern institutions and great personages increasingly behaving merely as people and seeing issues as merely personal. But institutions matter and have a life of their own: they continue and have interest beyond those of the people who populate them. So the BBC ought to consider itself as a great body of national life, and to be alert to other similar bodies – such as the LSE or any university – and their needs.

I don’t know how much damage the LSE has or will suffer as a result of the Panorama visit to North Korea. But the LSE’s own view of the matter should have been sought and would have trumped the Panorama’s team desire to make programmes or the view of the personal risk the trip posed those who undertook it.

Here’s a lesser dimension of this story. Robin Lustig – to take an example of modern thinking – says that news is almost always something that someone doesn’t want you to know. Thus, one might say, it is worth paying a high cost (say to the LSE’s feelings) in order to report from North Korea. A stablemate of this idea is the view that news is a matter of speaking truth unto power. This also a partially useful dictum. But the two together add up to a mission for journalists to be insurgent and dissident. And that would – does – imbue journalism with what amounts to an anti-establishment, anti-elite point of view.

So far, so good. We certainly need dissident news-gathering and opinion. But the BBC’s difficulty is that it is a national institution with a special remit. It needs, even more than any other serious news outlet, to be capable of considering what sort of a world its work is tending to build. Amongst things which matter here are boring stuff like institutions, a thriving elite and an understanding that complaint is not always constructive.

Along these lines, I formulate a further rule for news: It should tell me something I don’t know. In this sense, it should be counter-intuitive. In an anti-establishment age which denigrates elites and celebrates the dissident, that will take a writer in peculiar directions.

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