Why We Should Care About the Future of the BBC
Our new Minister for Culture thinks the TV licence fee is "worse than a poll tax" and it's generating fear throughout the BBC. "There's a feeling that it's the end," said an in-house producer we spoke to.
"Worse than a poll tax" – the words of the newly appointed Minister for Culture, John Whittingdale, in an interview on the licence fee. But in a week that saw someone who voted against gay marriage appointed Equalities Minister, it came as less of a surprise that the person in charge of the BBC's future has already said he believes it to be "unsustainable".
For a party so obsessed with keeping the union and "upholding British values" (although not Human Rights), it's ironic there is a strong faction within the Conservatives apparently intent on breaking up the very institutions – like the BBC and the NHS – that uphold those values and unite us.
Why we should care? Mainly, because the grounds on which these voices make their arguments – that the BBC is inefficient or left wing, for instance – just aren't true. The dismantling of the BBC would be a huge win for Tory ideologues intent on forever changing the nature and course of the country, regardless of the wishes of the greater part of the population – i.e. the whopping 76 percent who don't necessarily support a Conservative government.
One of Whittingdale's first jobs as minister is to negotiate the BBC's charter renewal, which sets the licence fee – currently £145.50 – and the terms under which the corporation operates for the next ten years. Although in a recent inquiry into the future of the BBC chaired by Whittingdale – a former political and private secretary to Margaret Thatcher and often dubbed her "toy boy" – he said there was as yet "no better alternative". So the licence fee is probably safe for now.
But Whittingdale has also said that the TV licence is "becoming harder and harder to justify" given changes to technology. He believes that satellite broadcasters and subscription TV like Netflix are taking over from the conventional free-to-air channels, so it should be turned into a subscription service where you only pay for what you want, like a Sky package.
Only, we're not as feckless with our viewing habits as that. The pace of change is extraordinary, but even in homes with Sky, 58 percent of all viewing is of the traditional channels.
More importantly, there's no public demand for the licence fee to be reformed. Despite the Savile revelations, accusations of a bullying culture and the absolute pig's ear made of getting rid of Jeremy Clarkson, belief in having a strong national broadcaster – and a commitment to paying for it – remains high. At 40p per day per household, most people seem to think they get their money's worth. And they do. By comparison, Sky's most basic package costs £21.50 per month, and that's without the channels you actually want.
"There is a feeling here that this is the end of the BBC" – an in-house producer
"It's astonishing value, despite increasing and enormous animosity from the anti-BBC propagandists. You're getting more and money for your money," was the passionate defence from Professor Patrick Barwise, the co-author of a 2014 report called What If There Were No BBC Television? He's optimistic that fear of a public backlash will save the BBC, given that Cameron's government is already fighting huge ideological battles on other fronts, like shrinking the state to previously unimaginable levels through austerity measures and potentially being the PM that takes us out of the EU and loses Scotland.
Barwise believes the renewal will see the BBC undermined by a continued freeze on the licence fee (it's been frozen since 2010, which in real terms has meant a 20 percent cut in budgets), and the fee further "salami sliced" by diverting funds from programme-making into other functions, like paying for the rollout of broadband, or for free licences for the over-75s, currently paid for by the government.
Some working within the BBC believe irrevocable damage has already been done by Cameron's freezing of the licence fee and that the corporation cannot withstand any further pressure.
"There is a feeling here that this is the end of the BBC," an in-house producer – who wished to remain anonymous – told me. Eventually, that pressure will affect the broadcaster's output. "They're trying to wring the same standards out of the fee. It isn't cutting the number of programmes, or quality or duration, so people are working much longer hours for less pay."
The real problem that the anti-BBC brigade has is with a perceived left-wing bias. In his 2007 Hugh Cudlipp Lecture, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, declared: "It is, in every corpuscle of its corporate body, against the values of conservatism... by and large BBC journalism starts from the premise of left-wing ideology."
But that's just not true. "I know lots of right-wing people here," the BBC producer told me. And in the recent election, there was a feeling that the broadcaster's coverage was led by our overwhelmingly right-wing press. "Far from being in the pocket of Labour, the BBC was too easily swayed by newspapers that support the Tories and are heavily invested in Labour's defeat. It contaminated everything, from the questions that were asked in interviews, to the lazy assumptions that were made about Ed Miliband," said Tom Baldwin, a senior Labour Party strategist.
The Conservative right is determined to reorient the country economically and socially. Speaking two years ago, Whittingdale criticised a "BBC world view" and said the attitude that anyone who disagreed with it is "plainly mad". Grant Schapps has said he thinks it should do "fewer things, better" – which is ironic for a Minister most notable for running another business under a pseudonym.
Perhaps they would prefer the BBC to be making things more in line with their own worldview, which, given Whittingdale's voting record, could make for some interesting viewing. This is a man who voted against equal gay rights, equal marriage and the fox hunting ban. He and other MPs who sit on the Conservative Party's right-wing and influential 1922 Committee may say the BBC is too large or too liberal, but will that stop them from finding ways of imposing their own morality on it?
In fact, Whittingdale isn't the worst person David Cameron could have appointed. The former chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is highly experienced in this field, and will be moderating the demands of people who care less about the BBC than he does.
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So much of what is said by the Tory right about the BBC is questionable. Senior executives are paid a lot, and some of those roles might need looking at again. But they're not paid as much as their rivals at ITV or Sky, and are producing programmes that are watched, respected and sold around the world. Let's not forget that our MPs are also paid "out of the public purse", and on course for a 10 percent wage increase this year.
By making less programming, the BBC could end up like PBS in the United States, churning out documentaries no one else will make, a sliver of sensibility in that mind-boggling landscape of visual shit that is most of American television.
"I want to bring our country together, our United Kingdom together," said Cameron on election night, when it became clear the Conservatives were on course to win a majority. But his own party is prepared to turn on the institutions that carry out that very function. The report by Barwise and his co-author Robert Picard, found that without the BBC, investment in new UK programmes would drop by between 25 and 50 percent. And that's before all the citizenship arguments about its role in making children's television, regional programming or its huge influence internationally.
"I go around the world and everywhere else people would love to have a public service provider not in the pocket of the state or a millionaire mogul. This matters – the BBC is not perfect but it is so much better combined with our private sector press than what is on offer just about anywhere else," said Professor Charlie Beckett, Director of journalism think tank Polis.
But the 1922 Committee Tories that were silenced during the coalition are now going to have their say. And they simply can't bear that the BBC was created to be free of the market, independent of political manipulation and to cater for everyone regardless of their place in the pecking order. To Tory militants, those institutions no longer have a place in British society.
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