A long time ago (2004 to be precise) in a galaxy far away (but not that far away) a young right winger established a think tank (as almost everyone was doing at the time). The right winger was called Dominic Cummings and the short-lived think tank was portentously titled the New Frontiers Foundation. All of which might be little more than a tiny postscript to the history of the rise of Boris Johnson and his entourage, but buried deep within the musty archives of deleted internet pages one finds an insight into how Cummings, the most powerful man in Downing Street, notwithstanding the PM, has been plotting against the BBC for the past 16 years at least.
Cummings’ think tank began articulating rage about the BBC in a blog in January 2004 which unambiguously describes the Corporation as “the mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party.
The blog was then silent on the topic until July of that year. Perhaps the enlargement of the hated EU two months previously prompted the July post which, in considering issues such as the EU, the role of markets and even the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, observes: “The BBC is dominated by a culture that regards differing points of view… as immoral”. It goes on to say: “The privileged closed world of the BBC needs to be turned upside down and its very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign.” To that end the blog calls for “whistle blowers armed with internal memos and taped conversations of meetings” to come forward and denounce the Corporation.
A day later the blog adds, as an afterthought, that the right should be campaigning for the legalisation of political advertising on television – presumably in the interests of balance.
By September of that year Cummings’ New Frontiers Foundation had sufficiently marshalled its anti-BBC argument into a plan of action for the right consisting of: “1.) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2.) the creation of a Fox News equivalent / talk radio shows / bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3.) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”
The blog recognises that these are rather ambitious long-term goals (though 16 years later the prospects are looking decidedly rosy) but suggests that, in the interim, the right should develop online networks “scrutinising the BBC and providing information to commercial rivals with an interest in undermining the BBC’s credibility”.
There is a certain amount of naivety here in the suggestion that ITV or Channel Four or Channel 5 would have had any interest in seeking to undermine what they would then, and still do now, see as their public service broadcasting partner.
In 2004 Cummings and his think tank were prescient in talking about the need for scrutinising the BBC’s reporting of any EU referendum, saying its coverage must be “taken apart minute-by-minute”. The same judgement is applied in the lead-up to the 2005 general election urging on the right, which the blog says “must fire missile after missile at the BBC” – the long-term aim being to undermine the BBC’s reputation “in the way CBS’ reputation is being undermined now [in 2005]”.
The New Frontiers Foundation blogs ceased in 2004 and the organisation itself was dissolved two years later.
Cummings is then absent from the blogosphere until 2013 when his antipathy to the BBC appears to have momentarily softened. In May 2014 he actually quotes the BBC in support of a battle he was then waging with Nick Clegg “… proving that I am telling the truth and Clegg is lying”. Indeed, in August of the same year, he goes further, actually praising a BBC programme on genetics as “excellent”. But, as far as the BBC is concerned, that’s as good as it gets.
In June 2015 he’s back on familiar ground when a new EU referendum hoves into view and, following the Tories’ success in the May general election, he writes: “Many in the BBC see the EU debate, as they saw the Euro debate, simply as ‘internationalists v racists’ which makes them even less inclined to challenge people like Ken Clarke who is routinely allowed to make factually wrong assertions without challenge on the Today programme.”
In 2017 the Spectator magazine published Cummings’ account of the Brexit campaign. In this lengthy blog he repeatedly refers to BBC staff as being out-of-touch and elite – a theme that has obsessed him ever since his time as campaign director of Business for Sterling which was formed to campaign against the UK joining the euro.
In his Brexit blog he recalls: “One famous BBC correspondent said to us during the euro battle ‘The thing is we [the BBC] like cappuccinos and hate racists.’ Such feelings tend to overwhelm reason and leave people blind to things that ought to be obvious.”
In a later post Cummings suggests: “They [BBC journalists] have little or no idea what it’s like to struggle on £18,000 a year in a part of Birmingham that has been radically changed by immigration in a short period knowing one has no reserves to call on.” And he goes on: “The BBC and other influential institutions are dominated by such people so it is almost inevitable that they see issues like the EU in ways that seem distorted to others.”
Warming to his theme Cummings concludes: “Another feature of richer people in my experience is that they tend to think that their greater wealth is a consequence of their virtues – they don’t seem to reflect much on the genetic roll of the dice.” (One notes in passing that Cummings, educated privately and at Oxford, married to the daughter of a Baronet, didn’t do so badly when those same dice rolled for him).
Cummings is equally scathing about how BBC producers were covering the referendum. He outlines an occasion when the Leave campaign was launching a report that claimed that leaving the EU would be economically advantageous for the UK. He quotes an unnamed BBC TV producer who, Cummings claimed, evinced a lack of interest in the story saying: “Sounds boring… Who’s fronting it? Got any new names? Any chance of Boris putting the boot into Dave and George?”
Notwithstanding, Cummings is not shy in taking credit for manipulating the media: “It was not in our power to change basics of how the media works. We therefore twisted them to our advantage to hack the system.”
No matter how much he despised the BBC, Cummings recognised its importance, noting how Boris Johnson’s telegenic personality ensured that it was the Cummings-led Vote Leave campaign, rather than the one led by Nigel Farage, that received maximum media exposure in the referendum, and, in so doing, he suggests, secured the additional votes that he believed achieved the victory: “Without Boris,” he wrote, “Farage would have been a much more prominent face on TV during the crucial final weeks, probably the most prominent face. (We had to use Boris as leverage with the BBC to keep Farage off and even then they nearly screwed us as ITV did. It is extremely plausible that this would have lost us over 600,000 vital middle-class votes.”
It’s illuminating to now look back to 2004 when a short-lived right-wing think tank, under its little-known director, mused on the BBC – the Tories’ “mortal enemy” – and suggested that the Corporation should be undermined to the extent that its very existence should be questioned.
In 2020 Cummings can regard with some satisfaction the present suggestion that Paul Dacre might succeed to the chair of Ofcom and that right-wing figures are being considered for the job of BBC chairman. Equally good news for him are the moves to de-criminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee (a move with huge financial implications for the Corporation’s income) with some satisfaction. So with a review of the BBC’s Charter due in 2027 Cummings can now look forward to seeing his campaign to undermine the BBC succeeding, not in one grand swoop, as maybe he hoped, but in a virtual death by a thousand cuts.