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The BBC and the Tories: is it war?

By sabre-rattling with this government, the BBC is provoking an unnecessary battle that will most likely be to its disadvantage. A change of strategy is needed. 

David Elstein
22 July 2015
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Westminster. Image: Flickr/ Oliver Duquesne

The skirmishing started before the election, but few took it seriously at that point: after all, the chances of the Tories actually winning in May seemed remote to all parties, and the BBC spent some time during the campaign speculating (as did most of the press, for that matter) over the nature of possible post-election coalitions.

Then came the debates. Perhaps the BBC assumed that Cameron was unlikely to remain Prime Minister after 7 May, even of a coalition government, and felt able to go public with statements that came close to ultimatums in pressurising Cameron to take a full part in the debates the broadcasters were planning. There was even talk of empty chairs. A former BBC chairman, Lord Grade (a late arrival on the Tory benches, but speaking as an ex-broadcaster) chided the BBC over its tactics: you just do not threaten Prime Ministers with empty chairs – not unless you are foolhardy as well as arrogant.

The stunning impact of the 7 May exit poll must have concentrated a lot of minds in New Broadcasting House: not just “how could we have got it so wrong?” but “what is the worst that could happen now”? Triumphant Tories were convinced that there had been anti-Conservative bias from the BBC during the election (and not just over the debates). Then Boris Johnson turned down the Culture department, not wanting to make his last year as Mayor of London look ludicrous, and the call went through to John Whittingdale, at 55 years of age long gone from the Tory front bench, and from any expectation of preferment.

He thought it would be some obscure junior ministerial appointment, reward for his loyalty and his distinguished chairmanship of the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. In fact, it was his dream job – running the Culture Department just as the BBC Charter and licence fee were coming up for renewal.

Some of the Tory press ran headlines along the line of “Tories target the BBC”, citing Whittingdale’s Thatcherite politics, his criticism of the licence fee as a “regressive poll tax” and the Commons Committee cross-party report, published just in February, calling for replacement of the BBC Trust and – in due course – the licence fee. I was not alone in thinking this was heavily overdone. Whatever else he is, Whittingdale is a thoroughly straightforward and reasonable person, with clear opinions, but not engaged in any kind of ideological crusade. After all, the Commons report, wide-ranging and radical though it was, seemed scarcely to have raised an eyebrow at the BBC. But that was before the election.

The pre-budget raid on the BBC’s finances did not in itself trigger an increase in the volume of rhetoric. Tony Hall, the BBC Director-General, chose to bite the bullet on the funding of free TV licences for the over-75s, and present the package of concessions he extracted from the Chancellor as a “balanced” deal. It was the former chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, who warned that the small print in the exchange of letters contained a possible trap: forewarning of a change in the BBC’s remit that could reduce the level of the licence fee.

Ahead of the Green Paper and its scheduled release last Thursday, the BBC issued its own annual accounts; and an open letter, signed by 29 celebrities, found its way into the press, urging preservation of the BBC as it is. The BBC press office denied all knowledge, but it did not take the Tory papers long to work out that the only two film stars on the list (nearly all the others were past and present beneficiaries of BBC contracts) – Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz – had been guests at the wedding of the BBC’s Director of Television, Danny Cohen. The BBC conceded that the letter had been drafted by Cohen, and the celebs had been invited to sign (not all actually read the text before agreeing).

This careless own goal signalled a change in the BBC’s public posture to one of “get your retaliation in early”. On Thursday, within seconds of the Green Paper being published, the BBC press office issued an email saying the BBC “believe that this Green Paper would appear to herald a much-diminished, less popular, BBC”. Reading the document’s 76 pages, I could find just one line actually saying there “might” be a case for a smaller BBC and consequently a lower licence fee. Elsewhere, the Green Paper is filled with phrases praising the BBC’s role, reputation and performance: but none of this found its way into the BBC press release.

The BBC was not the only media outlet too quick off the mark. The Daily Telegraph, looking through the Commons Committee report, plucked out the idea of replacing the licence fee with a levy on all tax payers, noting the implication that non-tax-payers would be exempt and consequently tax-payers would end up with a much higher charge for the BBC than currently (thereby constituting a threat to the “middle class”). The only problem was: that idea never made it to the Green Paper. Unsurprisingly, the Telegraph’s reaction to the actual Green Paper was muted.

Not so The Times: several articles and a supercilious leader flowed from Murdoch’s prestige title, all sadly lacking in accuracy and any sense of history. We were told this was the first examination of the funding of the BBC for 70 years: thereby eliding the major Royal Commissions of Inquiry into the BBC of 1949 (Beveridge), 1962 (Pilkington), 1977 (Annan) and 1986 (Peacock). Oh dear – and the first into the BBC’s digital strategy (so much for the Davies panel’s report of 1999, specifically on that subject). Radios 2 and 3, we were told, were at risk – actually, the degree of overlap between the two was all that was questioned in the Green Paper: an overlap actually raised in a report from the BBC Trust.

But then, the BBC’s own Mark Easton, in his account of the Green Paper for BBC television and radio, managed to make two crucial errors of his own: “there was a danger of Radio 1 or 2 being funded by advertising” – but that was specifically ruled out by the Green Paper. And reported as fact was that the Green Paper said the BBC should not broadcast programmes like “Strictly Come Dancing”: actually, that programme was praised, as a BBC origination, in contrast with “The Voice”, an expensively imported format from the US. The BBC’s noisy defence of Radios 1 and 2 are better targeted at its own governing body, the BBC Trust, than at Whittingdale.

A bigger BBC mistake was to run its own PR line of “the BBC under threat” as editorial in its news reporting on Thursday, and to use just one interviewee, Lord Fowler, in its flagship “World News Tonight” at 10 pm. Fowler is a Tory, and a regular member of the Lords Culture Committee, but is an idiosyncratic Tory, strongly supporting the licence fee and strongly opposed to subscription (when we both appeared on Radio 4’s “The Media Show” a week earlier, he disparaged my support for subscription – so must have been irritated when it survived as an option in the Green Paper – and pitied the wasteland of TV choice I faced in New York, from where I was speaking. I checked the listings, and found the usual 50 channels in my hotel room that evening, including subscription channel Showtime offering “Masters of Sex”, followed by “Ray Donovan”, followed by “The Affair”: three dramas better than anything offered by all UK channels combined in the previous 12 months).

Maybe the BBC thought it smart to use a Tory ex-minister to critique a document superior to anything that his own government ever managed to produce on broadcasting, but that will not persuade its actual Tory critics of its impartiality, any more than citing another Tory ex-minister (and former BBC chairman) Lord Patten, in describing the expert panel appointed by Whittingdale as “gravediggers” at the BBC’s funeral.

Interestingly, apart from The Times, most of the Tory press found little to write about in relation to the Green Paper, other than to speculate briefly on what the BBC “could” be forced to do, possibly. The Daily Mail writer Quentin Letts accurately summed up the Green Paper as “terribly mild”. The Mail chose to vent its spleen at the ill-judged celebrity letter, but the BBC had more squibs up its sleeve. One of its most highly paid (and arguably over-paid) presenters, Graham Norton, revealed that the BBC had experimented with depriving people of all their media for two weeks, at which point, he said, they were sh---ing themselves to pay the licence fee. Either he, or the BBC, had forgotten that access to the internet and on-demand TV does not require a TV licence. Naturally, the BBC has not experimented with allowing people the choice of watching whatever they like except the BBC, without paying the licence fee, or paying the licence fee and adding BBC channels to their range of TV options.

One of the least convincing Labour front bench spokesmen on broadcasting, Chris Bryant, has joined the chorus of those claiming that the Tories are determined to cut the BBC down to size. Is it wise for the BBC to adopt a similar line? Some BBC employees I have spoken to are nervous about the tone of the flow of emails from BBC corporate to all staff warning of an existential crisis. The implication is that Charter review, which only happens once every ten years, should not be allowed to include “root and branch” examination of the BBC’s purpose, remit, values, scope, scale, structure, governance and financing. But if not now, when? The award-winning director of the impressive BBC drama Wolf Hall, Peter Kosminsky, went public wondering how anything the BBC did could possibly be open to question: everyone he knew admired the BBC and could not understand why we would question its status, ever.

The real danger of such an approach is that it encourages a hostile atmosphere in which the BBC’s vulnerabilities are subjected to even more critical examination. Is it right that the BBC should have 60% of all radio revenues? That 100% of all radio drama comes from the BBC? Would we not think it strange if every single theatre in the UK had to ask some apparatchik in London for permission to put on a play? Is it right that the BBC should have a (growing) 77% share of TV news consumption, and a (growing) 61% share of all news consumption in the UK?

Can the BBC really justify why its finance function costs £85 million a year? Technology £166 million? Property £162 million? Divisional bureaucracy £85 million? Digital development  £83 million? Marketing £70 million?    

The BBC is determined to avoid decriminalisation of licence fee evasion, despite the human cost of 150,000 criminal convictions of the very poor each year, and 30-50 imprisonments, because easing those draconian penalties might cost it £200 million a year in increased evasion. It would rather spend £201 million a year on its website.

The BBC’s founding mantra – which it continues to repeat today – is “information, education and entertainment”. Last year, 0.01% of its TV output was education, and 0.001% of its radio output. No other broadcaster can afford to invest in education. The BBC has £3.7 billion guaranteed income, yet chooses to spend virtually none of it on education. Can that be right?

When the BBC launched the iPlayer seven years ago, it knew perfectly well that no TV licence was required to use the service, nor did it seek any change in the law to create such a requirement. It wanted to build an online video audience before its competitors could do so first. Now that millions of people use the iPlayer, and hundreds of thousands see no need to continue paying the licence fee, it wants a change in the law: bait and switch? Likewise, the Green Paper notes the difficulty of introducing subscription when so many TVs lack the necessary decoding functionality. Yet we all know that the only reason for such a lack is a deliberate BBC policy of controlling the Freeview project and barring decoder units from any Freeview hardware. Should they really be allowed to get away with such blatant obstructionism?

Of course, there are many other questions on which the three-month consultation invites the public to express its views. That is surely a legitimate process. Whether the BBC’s challenge to the process is itself legitimate is another question. I am not convinced that there is a Tory agenda to do down the BBC: but if the BBC insists on behaving as if there is, they might just succeed in persuading the Conservative Party that something needs to be done. There are very few examples of the BBC taking on the government of the day and even fewer of it prevailing. Tony Hall needs to re-think his strategy, urgently.

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