Ken Loach Wide of the Mark


Ken Loach has launched a scathing attack on two of Britain’s biggest broadcasters. In a recent interview with Emily Phillips for ‘Short List’ magazine (12 June 2014), the film director best known for his gritty northern drama ‘Kes’ (Kestrel Films, 1969) – accuses the BBC and ITV of being in the pocket of politicians.

Ken Loach © Andy Parsons

The BBC is controlled by the government. The people who control independent TV are again, government-linked. The government dishes out the franchises and the people who get the franchises will sing the song the government wants to hear

Ken Loach

The comments are typical of Loach’s anti-establishment views and his own, personal take on the socio-economic issues that have informed so much of his work. But his criticisms of British television and the way it is structured and regulated are misguided and unwarranted. And while his left-wing politics may speak to millions of people across wide sections of British society, the evidence would suggest that the British public does not buy into his claims of collusion between broadcasters and governments.

Government Appointments

It is true that the British government plays a key role in the appointment of senior executives to both the BBC Trust and Ofcom, and that some of these positions may have become politicised in recent years (Chris Patten at the BBC, Ed Richards at Ofcom). But Loach is in danger of confusing the state’s power of patronage with the ability to exert editorial influence and control over British broadcasters – for whom independence is a fiercely guarded freedom.

Loach appears to suggest that broadcasters and governments are somehow complicit in how they frame the political and social discourse in Britain. Clearly, a case can be made for improving television’s ability to reflect a broader range of opinion and social backgrounds through increased representation and diversity both on-screen and off. But to suggest that any percieved failings in this area are the result of political interference by government or collusion on the part of broadcasters is simply wide of the mark.

The BBC and other public service broadcasters operate within a strict regulatory framework (albeit one established by statute) that requires they maintain balance and impartiality across their output – especially when it comes to news reporting and current affairs.

Print vs Broadcast

Unlike traditional print media which is free to express opinion and pledge allegiance to political parties, such liberties are not afforded to those licensed to provide television and radio services in the UK. Indeed, broadcasters are specifically prohibited from doing so.

The Broadcasting Code 2013 © Ofcom

News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality

Section 5.1 – Ofcom Broadcasting Code (2013)

If proof were needed that broadcasters are often at odds with the government of the day, one need only look at the countless examples littered throughout the history of British television.

Programmes such as ‘Secret Society: The Zircon Affair’ (BBC, 1986), ‘This Week: Death on the Rock’ (ITV, 1988) and ‘Tumbledown’ (BBC, 1988) all drew the wrath of Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s and are testament to the broadcasters’ dogged refusal to dance to the government’s tune – even when under intense pressure to do so.

Tumbledown DVD Artwork © BBC

DVD artwork for the commercial release of ‘Tumbledown’. The BBC drama starring Colin Firth, is based upon Captain Robert Lawrence’s harrowing experiences during the Falklands War and lead to accusations of a left-wing bias at the Corporation when it first aired on 31 May 1988 © BBC.

And in 1988, when the Thatcher government banned members of Sinn Fein from speaking on British television, news outlets like ‘Channel 4 News’ employed actors to re-voice their words so precisely as to render the ban meaningless and ineffective.

But it is not only Conservative governments that broadcasters have fallen foul of. More recently, the BBC’s coverage of the so-called ‘Dodgy Dossier’ and Britain’s subsequent involvement in the Iraq War (2003-11) all but destroyed the Corporation’s relationship with the Labour government of Tony Blair – resulting in the resignation of the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies and Director General Greg Dyke in 2004.

In Broadcast We Trust

Whatever one makes of Loach’s concerns about the ability and/or willingness of broadcasters to resist political pressure from government, it would seem British viewers do not share them. Only this month, a new poll commissioned by the BBC and published in the Press Gazette, reveals that the four most trusted news sources in Britain are all broadcasters:

Rank Brand Score/10
1 BBC News 7.4
2 ITV News 6.6
3 Channel 4 News 6.2
4 Sky News 6.2
5 Financial Times 5.9
Britain’s most trusted news brands in 2014 (Source: Ipsos/MORI).

Admittedly, these scores are not particularly high and demonstrate that even the most venerable news organisations in Britain still have further work to do if viewers are to invest more trust in them. But they do suggest that viewers are more likely to believe news reported by broadcasters than by any other medium. And although politicians may sometimes seek to exert varying degrees of influence over the news outlets which operate under their auspices, it is clear there are structures and procedures in place designed to help prevent this – including regulators but also broadcasters themselves. And for that, we should be grateful.

References & Resources

Press Gazette Most Trusted News Brands

25 Jul 2014 People