Why the Conservatives should be fighting to keep the BBC exactly as it is, and why they won't

The support of a widely mistrusted press is not enough to keep the UK together.

Thomas Barlow
29 May 2015

Rupert Murdoch (ink). Image: Flickr/ Joy Garnett

In a time of questionable electoral legitimacy and fracturing nationhood the Tories need a strong BBC now more than ever. As research shows it is an institution that promotes their core values of nationalism, euroscepticism, and support for big business. 

So why weaken the corporation at a time when they need support for these ideas the most? An answer could very well be something to do with Murdoch’s rant to his staff in the run up to 7 May. As the Independent reported: “Rupert made it very clear he was unhappy with The Sun’s coverage of the election. He basically said the future of the company was at stake and they need to get their act together.” 

The Tories needed Murdoch and the other press Barons to win this closest of elections more than ever before (less than 900 votes decided it). In return he wanted to be left unregulated and the break-up of his most hated institution, good old Auntie. 

The Coming Changes 

John Whittingdale - a man with links to Murdoch, a former aide to Thatcher and a vocal critic of the BBC - has been given the task of renegotiating the BBC Charter. This happens every ten years, usually with some fuss, but also with continued support for the institution overall. While other commentators see Whittingdale as a moderate or benign force - suggesting that the press is using hyperbole to shift copies, rather than accurately portraying his position - he has actually outlined his intentions to implement significant changes.  

Whittingdale chaired the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee where he recently outlined the changes he thought would be necessary in a highly critical report. In the weeks since his appointment it has become clearer which of these are most likely to be realistically implemented.

● The license fee freeze will continue - this sounds benign but has meant a 20% cut since 2010, and which realistically means a further 20% cut over the coming five years. Losing two fifths of funding will be devastating.

● Decriminalisation of the Fee in 2017 - this will cost at least £200m a year and may eventually turn the BBC into a market competitor for voluntary subscription fees, like Sky.

● A Budgetary Commission - opening the books to OFCOM. This seems to be a reasonable step to allow public oversight of BBC spending.

● Replacing the Trust with a corporate style board - another top down restructuring may be costly, though no numbers are available.

● Channel 4 could also be facing an uncertain future - the possibility of privatisation is likely to be on the agenda.

● ‘Top Slicing’ of the fee to continue and deepen - this is where the license fee gets used for other purposes, such as rolling out broadband coverage.

The BBC say by 2026 the fee might be attached to a household tax - this will be more progressive and send less people to jail, but is not popular with Whittingdale

● Regional newspapers will get a boost of revenue - as some of the fee will be taken out of the BBC and given to regional newspapers. It is worth noting that 70% of the local press is owned by the 5 Press barons. In essence this is a direct subsidy paid to these monopolists from the public purse.

In the medium term we are looking at BBC fundamentally different from the current one - where certain channels are lost, others sold off, and key functions handed over to the private sector (as Toby Young outlines in the Spectator). It may very well become riddled with adverts, as happened in New Zealand, and be reduced to a minor player in a commercial TV market (like PBS in the US and ABC in Australia - two other enemies of Murdoch).

Why conservatives should love the BBC as it is

It is economically efficient.

The BBC produces a huge amount of TV, Radio, and Online content for a cost to the individual of 40p a day - in comparison to Sky which is £20 a month for a basic subscription. The BBC includes great sporting events like Wimbledon, Olympics, World cup and more 'for free', whereas Sky coverage of anything comparable increases in cost to the consumer. The economies of scale derived from its size means that it can produce a lot more quality content at a cheaper rate in comparison to a non-universal counterpart.

It is a nationalist institution. 

The BBC represents Britain nationally and globally, and reinforces national narratives around British history, and British foreign policy - rather than critically examining them. It reinforces British nationhood (rather than, say, Scottish) is eurosceptic, and portrays Britain as a relatively benign (even heroic) force in the world - both currently and historically. “I want to bring our country together, our United Kingdom together," said Cameron on election night. The BBC is the ultimate One Nation institution, perfect for conservatives facing a crisis of national identity.  

It is already run by Conservatives (and many ex-Murdoch employees).

The Board, the directors, the news team and the front of house news reporters are largely Conservatives, ensuring prominence for a conservative news agenda, even if that isn’t the BBC’s natural slant. Ex-Murdoch employees and conservative allies from the City of London, weapons companies and elsewhere populate the BBC to the highest levels. 

It doesn’t have adverts 

OK this isn’t exactly a Conservative thing, but I think we can all agree that the last thing we need is another channel full of advertising.

BBC news reporting reflects Conservative values on nearly every issue 

This is a statistical fact, not the bizarre and unsubstantiated conjecture of so many Conservative commentators and politicos who are determined to suggest that it is somehow left wing. 

In fact the claims of left wing bias are - as ever - merely a cover for Tories to do what they wish with the corporation. Well placed quotes, fed to friendly reporters from Conservative spin doctors, have helped paint a picture of left wing bias throughout the election (and well before) - where in fact there is nothing of the sort.

The left retorts that in fact the BBC is incredibly right wing in its bias. To the uninformed observer this results in a screaming match between left and right about relative biases, which clouds the empirical facts, and leads neutrals to assume the BBC is doing it’s job of being centrist and annoying everyone equally. This is not the case, as studies from Loughborough and Cardiff amongst many others show.

It allows Conservatives to play the victim

The BBC is the ultimate Conservative bogeyman. Its commitment to equal opportunities and diversity - however poorly carried out - give it the appearance of an institution of social liberalism, diametrically opposed to a Conservative agenda.

This enables Conservatives to draw on anecdotal examples of bias to paint themselves as the aggrieved minority. This helps them deflect criticism of any of their values or policies, whilst being able to position themselves as the much loved British underdog, fighting an establishment bully that ranges its mighty forces against them.

Why they won’t fight to save it 

Rupert Murdoch (and the other press Barons) wants to see it privatised.  

The current press barons, especially Murdoch, are monopolists. They are aiming for greater and greater personal market share in all areas of media. And they simply cannot compete with the BBC. “The BBC is a powerful player and unchecked there is a danger that it will, by accident or design, crowd out smaller rivals and inhibit their ability to grow” says Whittingdale’s report - mimicking Murdoch’ arguments perfectly.

The Government owes these people

The Tories owe the press and especially Murdoch for attacking Miliband so virulently during the election (attacks on him were worse than Kinnock), and so the government will be committed to the changes. Even prior to the election their manifesto supported changes to the BBC and C4 whilst leaving the press entirely unmolested. So whilst backbench support for sweeping changes might waver, the front bench of the Government will be fully in support of Whittingdale’s agenda. This means that the government, the press and key figures in the BBC will all pulling in the same direction - remoulding the BBC in Murdoch’s vision.

The risks for Conservatives

By defunding and eventually commercialising the BBC, it is likely to become little more than another advert-ridden competitor in the commercial market place. This means destroying a trusted symbol of national unity during a period of national identity crisis.  The Tories need a staunch ally with the coming constitutional questions around the EU, Scotland, Northern Devolution, and widening inequality. A biased and mistrusted press won't be good enough - the BBC is the perfect vehicle.

Thankfully for the left, the Tories look ready to destroy their greatest ally.  

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