It was heartening that the director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, opened the autumn with a fighting speech to save the organisation he loves. His vision of the BBC being an “open platform” for creativity in the online age is an obvious evolution of public service broadcasting and one proposed means of doing it – the suggested “ideas service”, bringing the best video of our great cultural institutions together in one accessible TV portal – is an imaginative leap forward. But these are plans marred by the need to find a further 20% of financial cuts, demanded by a government whose principal objective is to reduce the BBC’s scope and influence.
Even then, the shrinkage won’t be enough for the modern Conservative party or its press allies. To deplore – even viscerally to hate – the BBC has become a badge of what it means to be a Tory today. It is the kind of “behemoth” statist organisation with “imperial ambitions” that it is their mission to eliminate, especially given its alleged marriage to “liberal values”. It allegedly crowds out doughty private sector media companies, most of whom represent the Tory interest. It is funded by a “regressive” tax.
Its quest for political balance means that, unlike the press, it is charged with being systematically biased against the Conservative party, demonstrated not just in its news and current affairs coverage but somehow in its comedy and drama output too. It is a Tory’s sacred duty, in parliament or in the print media, to pulverise it into insignificance. The opportunity, with charter renewal happening next year, has now presented itself. It will not be passed up.
However, the political problem for the government is how to do this and escape the political backlash, because, unhappily for Conservatives, the British public stubbornly loves and respects its brilliant public service broadcaster (an attitude widely shared internationally). Strictly Come Dancing, The Archers and now The Great British Bake Off are cherished among Tory as much as Labour voters.
And although Tory politicians smart from what they perceive to be bias, viewers and listeners have witnessed and heard enough Labour politicians getting the same treatment to know otherwise. The BBC’s bias, to the extent that any exists at all, is towards the centre. Everyone knows that it tries, however imperfectly, to get at the truth.
Nothing the BBC can do can change the mindset of its tormentors. For the business secretary, Sajid Javid, who declares that his most influential intellectual influence is the American ultra-libertarian Ayn Rand, the corporation is a standing reproach to all that she argued. In her anti-Enlightenment philosophy, there can be no conception of public service broadcasting because it is predicated upon the existence of a public – a “we” – who hold values and interests in common. This is definitionally impossible and morally undesirable. Instead, there is, she argued, only “I” and my individual self-interest. I have an obligation to resist all coercive claims on my individual autonomy and choice that makes me a moral being, of which a noxious exemplar is a universal licence fee.
The culture secretary, John Whittingdale, with a long and honourable pedigree on the Thatcherite right, is almost in the same league. He detests the licence fee in principle and over the years in private has made no secret of his loathing of the organisation as a whole. Advisers are chosen according to the degree they are declared critics of the corporation.
Javid and Whittingdale’s twin job is to dismantle the edifice of public service broadcasting. ITV is to be sold abroad; Channel 4 is to be privatised; the BBC is to be scaled back enormously. At the next election, it will be the print and social media that set the political agenda in the Tory interest; public service broadcasters with their commitment to political balance will be greatly less influential and by 2025 largely marginalised. It is not technology driving this change, but political choice.
Tony Hall holds, nevertheless, more cards than he realises – and certainly realised when he received the fateful telephone call immediately after the election from George Osborne demanding that the BBC pay for over-75s’ TV licences that will cost it £750m by 2020, a bill that will steadily rise, offset, Hall claimed, by the government’s revised willingness to allow the licence fee to rise with inflation.
But, crucially, there was no agreement that the baseline licence fee would be the current £145.50, so any rise would be from whatever might be needed to fund a potentially greatly downsized BBC. There was not even a joint public statement from the chancellor about the deal’s terms. Osborne succeeded in ensuring that by 2026 the BBC’s share of TV revenues will have fallen from today’s 20% to 12%, while reserving the right to come back for more. Best of all, the Tories have clean hands: it will be the BBC that makes the cuts, not them.
However, the next phase of the attack is much more politically awkward. The government does not want, obviously, to be the author of scrapping Dr Who, Match of the Day, David Attenborough and Jools Holland, all for a mere £145.50. This is not great politics by any standards. It might even expose today’s Tories as more ideological than a Labour party retreating to a left comfort zone. The BBC can and must be much tougher. It has power – it must deploy it. Hall’s commitment to an open BBC is just the beginning. The BBC must say loud and clear that its revenues – whether through the licence fee or the proposed household levy (dangerously close to a poll tax and to be avoided in my view ) – are designed to be the public’s to be spent on great programmes, not a surrogate tax to be raided by government.
It must be 100% transparent about its choices and insist that the responsibility for any cuts is entirely the government’s. It must acknowledge that popular protests would be helpful to its cause. How about a sequence of citizens’ marches on Westminster and Whitehall? The BBC belongs to the British public, not to a transient Tory cabinet aiming for the country’s Torification. The British are notoriously poor at stewarding their great institutions. Only the British public can now protect the BBC. There is a “we” and it’s time to show it.