A separation of powers

The BBC crisis gives the UK an opportunity to think about the kind of communications system a large democracy needs.

The BBC has been rocked by scandal after accusations that late star Jimmy Savile was a perpetrator of sexual abuse "on an unprecedented scale" [AFP]
The BBC has been rocked by scandal after accusations that late star Jimmy Savile was a perpetrator of sexual abuse "on an unprecedented scale" [AFP]

The latest crisis at the BBC is many things. It is another opportunity for the institution’s enemies in the rightwing press to score points. It is also a moment when the BBC can exhibit its extraordinary capacity for self-criticism. More seriously, failings in a Newsnight report threaten to distract attention away from Jimmy Savile’s criminal career, and from principled efforts to establish the scale and extent of child abuse in Britain.

But something else is going on. The scandals give us a chance to think more carefully about the current organisation of the media, how they relate to other powerful actors, and how this relationship needs to change. The media as a whole – the publicly funded BBC and the supposedly pugnacious print press – failed to unmask Jimmy Savile while he was alive, as did the police, and any number of other institutions. This failure is only the latest example of a persistent inability to describe the world of power and to challenge criminality in high places. While the Chairman of the BBC Trust has announced the need for a “radical overhaul” of the Corporation, this is about much more than the BBC.

At the moment the communication system in Britain is thoroughly integrated with the rest of the constitutional settlement. The BBC is a creature of Parliament and takes it cue from a minority of elected politicians there. The private media groups also operate in an environment shaped by political power. They depend on politicians for privileged access and newsworthy scoops and they enjoy significant public subsidies. Exposed as they are to market forces, they have another set of pressures to contend with; they have to create platforms that advertisers are happy to use. In the circumstances elected politicians find it easy to define what politics, and the limits of politics, are.

 Sex abuse scandal rocks BBC

Individual politicians are vulnerable to the media and individual journalists are vulnerable to politicians. But the media are structurally vulnerable to the politicians and politics is structurally vulnerable to the journalists. Consider for a moment what happened to Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to take full control of Sky when Parliament decided to stop him. Consider, too, what would have happened if the News of the World‘s archive of unpublished photographs and documents had seen the light of day. Given this cat’s cradle of dependencies, only a fool would expect a reliable account of state and corporate power to become widely available.

Traditional constitution builders were always concerned to prevent a concentration of power that would overwhelm all opposition. When the framers of the United States constitution attempted to create a stable republic they relied on an intricate separation of powers. The individual states were set against the federal government, and the judicial, legislative and executive functions of the central state were intended to balance one another in a regime of permanent suspicion. They took seriously Machiavelli’s warning that founders of republics should “take for granted that all men are evil and that they will always act according to the wickedness of their nature whenever they have the opportunity”.

The drafters of the American constitution were concerned with the government of a few million people, most of whom lived in small towns or in rural isolation. They were still operating in a world that would have been recognisable to Machiavelli, and even to Cicero. The modern nation is incomparably larger and the modern state incomparably more complex. The population therefore relies on intermediate institutions for information about the distant world where decisions that affect them take place. If we hope to remain tolerably well informed, we must exercise a degree of direct control over these institutions. The power to govern and the power to describe government cannot rest in the same hands. That much is obvious. But neither can we leave the job of holding the state and private interests to account in the hands of a few media executives who benefit hugely from the current arrangements and who are exquisitely vulnerable to pressure from those they are required to invigilate. The separation of political power and the power to describe is the urgent task of those who wish to live in substantively democratic societies.

We could begin to secure this separation of powers by making the public subsidies for journalism and research, which are currently as lavish as they are unremarked, subject to public direction. Once pooled these funds could be given to journalists and researchers who persuade some fraction of the public to support them. Projects funded by the public would be published. Everyone would then have an opportunity to indicate whether they wanted a particular story to be given greater prominence. Matters of widespread or persistent concern would be broadcast. In this way matters ignored or downplayed in the current system could be given proper scrutiny. This isn’t about electing representatives and hoping that they will do the right thing. The audience would become an active commissioning body and the exercise of that function would become part of what it learns. For while it is commonplace to say that education empowers, it is also true that power educates.

Some of what the public supports and promotes in this system will be trivial or misconceived. Some of it will be pernicious. But it will also be subject to effective public challenge and refutation. More than that, everything that is described as a fact of nature, or as too complex for popular understanding, can be made subject to permanent critical review. We will be able to understand and, if we wish, to alter much that is currently held incomprehensible and inevitable.

Those who are serious about holding power to account must start thinking more carefully about the constitutional status and function of the media in large, formally democratic societies. Until they do they are only nibbling at the edges when big bites are needed.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His e-book,Maximum Republic will be published later this month.

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

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