You have to hand it to Peter Oborne, the newspaper columnist, for his ability to think several contradictory thoughts at the same time when writing for the need for the head of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten (a former Tory party chairman and Hong Kong governor), to resign over the Savile sex abuse scandal:
“And it is important that he [Chris Patten] goes very soon, because he is doing such damage to an institution that stands for everything that is best about Britain – integrity, fairness, and generosity. Above all, the BBC represents a common sphere of British public life which is not part of the marketplace, and yet not controlled by the state. Alongside Parliament, the NHS, the Army, the monarchy and the rule of law, it is one of our great national institutions.”
Well, if Oborne thinks that the BBC, an organisation that has the privilege of taking revenue in the form of a tax (the licence fee) levied on anyone who owns a television, regardless of their viewing habits, is a “great national institution”, and “not controlled by the state”, which is laughable, then how does he go on to say this:
“It is deeply unfortunate that, over the past few decades, the corporation has been colonised and captured by a narrow, greedy, self-interested and self-perpetuating liberal elite, ignorant of ordinary people and contemptuous of ordinary morality – hence, in part, the Savile affair. The unprincipled and arrogant conduct of that elite has provided a great deal of ammunition to the broadcaster’s enemies, such as the Murdoch press, and thus placed the BBC’s future in jeopardy.”
But if the BBC is a “great institution” – which I contest – then the fact that it has been “colonised and captured” by such terrible people must surely point to the problem that any state-privileged institution with certain monopoly powers, such as the BBC, can be captured by such people. The point is not to create such bodies with such privileges in the first place, since they almost always end up being captured or politically manipulated; or, to establish such powerful checks and balances that bad behaviour is rapidly dealt with. (In the case of the army and the legal profession, even they are not free of problems.)
The foolishness of Oborne is in his naïve belief that all that is necessary is for good and honest people to be put in charge of X or Y, and all will be well. The problem is not the people, but the monopolistic system in place. In all state bodies where an element of state privilege is involved, and where the competitive force of the market does not apply, the way to the top is often through political scheming rather than simple merit, although no doubt there are elements of meritocracy involved, at least in the early years of an institution when there is plenty of idealism in the air.
And the reference to the Murdoch media empire is typically misleading and gratuitous, since Murdoch has, in the face of the outrage about the behaviour of some of his journalists, shut down a newspaper (the News of the World), suffered major shareholder damage, and seen the potential breakup of his empire. Ask yourself this: in a year’s time, does anyone expect anything similar to happen to the organisation known, hilariously, as “Auntie”?
Needless to say, I should add that some of the same problems apply to the National Health Service, the UK’s socialised medical system which, despite some tweaks, still runs on the same quasi-Soviet basis as when it was created in the late 1940s. Savile was able, so it is alleged, to abuse young patients in at least one of its hospitals (Stoke Mandeville), and it is appalling that his activities were not stopped. I am not saying that a completely private medical system would be free of such monsters, but one has to ask whether the public’s almost religious view of the NHS, despite everything, is a hindrance to clear thinking about such matters.