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The Agony Of Neutrality, An Objective Lesson

Public broadcasting executives fall into two distinct groups. Many are lifers, sealers of the mission, steeped in the culture, occasionally blinded by it. Others are the change agents, coming in from outside the organization with new ideas or, at least, less baggage. More often than not, politicians have a large voice in selections, vacillating between staying the course or changing it. With the nature of media as it is in the 21st century, change is the first choice.

another point of viewThe BBC’s director of news and current affairs James Harding is changing jobs at the first of the new year, leaving the BBC “to start a new media company with a distinct approach to the news and a clear point of view,” said his statement, quoted by the Guardian (October 10). “I know I will enjoy the chance to do some more journalism of my own and, at such a critical time, I’m seriously excited about the prospect of building a new venture in news.” Details, he said, would be forthcoming.

It is common - to the point of expected - that the top jobs at public broadcasters go to those attached to journalism and news production. BBC general director Tony Hall fits this with nearly 30 years in a BBC newsroom, including five years a Director of News. He also burnished those culture credentials with more than a decade revitalizing the Royal Opera. Lord Hall isn’t leaving soon.

That may well have encouraged Mr. Harding to exit sooner rather than later. UK media watchers observed unanimously no internal (or external) issues forcing him out the door. He has, they say, done a good job, only a few missteps. The BBC is huge; TV and radio channels, online portals, production studios and international broadcaster BBC World Service with its various branches. A YouGov poll last year showed the 58% of the UK population viewing BBC News as “balanced and unbiased.” Sky News placed second with 15%. (See more about the BBC here)

The other quite obvious exit starter is basic to all mid-career executives: what’s next? Mr. Harding is 48 years old and seems to cycle through executive positions about every five-years. Almost five years at the BBC followed five years as editor at the Times and 12 years (three jobs) before that with the Financial Times. In 2008 he wrote a book - Alpha Dogs - about political spin-masters. His GB£ 340,000 annual salary (roughly US$450,000) pales compared with that of ITV news chief Michael Jermey and Sky News head of news John Ryley. Both of them are but a few years older than Mr. Harding, neither contemplating an exit.

Everybody not currently living in a cave knows “point of view” is the news business growth sector. This leaves public broadcasters adhering to the last century’s code of conduct feeling a bit out of step. Why keep to objective facts (AKA: truth) when “alternative facts” (AKA: spin) attract viewers, readers, listeners and, it follows, money? Why let the tabloids (or the Russians) have all the fun?

In the UK, Conservative Party MPs has long been on the watch for false steps by the BBC, real or fantasized. Failure of BBC News to unsufficiently support the exit from the European Union (Brexit) by pointing out critical deficiencies is their most common complaint. And with the possibility of Sky News becoming a Fox News clone becoming more tenuous, struggling Conservative leaders, MPs and their friends need a reliable voice. Mr. Harding, in his exit statement, said his new media venture would cover what the BBC “can’t, and probably shouldn’t, do.”

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