JOHN KAMPFNER on the perils that lie ahead for the Corporation ni the coming years, as it navigates choppy political, financial and technological waters.
All the talk of One Nation Conservatism is a ruse. Boris Johnson has put himself at the heart of a protracted culture war and the BBC is a big prize. The Corporation epitomises everything the populist-nationalists in the UK and US loathe about the media and the arts. They will not rest until they have dismembered it.
That is why Tony Hall gave up the ghost early. He knows that his successor faces a super-human battle to keep the organisation’s values remotely akin to those that have guided it for close to a century. Indeed, the fact that the director general didn’t want to wait to preside over the centenary shows how debilitated he and the Beeb have become.
It is battered on all sides, for its funding model, a series of personnel disputes and for its approach to reporting the news – particularly the Brexit referendum and the recent general election.
Often it is the author of its own misfortune. The case against it is familiar, as anyone who has worked there or had any dealings with it can attest. All large organisations have bureaucracies and inefficiencies. The issue with the BBC is not so much over-manning (although there is that too), but a curious mix of the ultra-cautious and the cavalier.
In its response to Jimmy Savile (which undid the last DG) and its approach to the gender pay gap, the management’s response exacerbated the original failings. Its actual record on male versus female salaries isn’t great – but it is better than most equivalent companies.
The BBC – like the NHS – does everything it can to try not to admit error. Part of this is down to institutional arrogance, part to fear. It doesn’t make it easy for its friends to defend it.
A familiar argument is to cite opinion polls showing that the BBC is more trusted than parliament and other institutions. That is true, but it a narrow interpretation of legitimacy. On big national moments – such as a royal death or coronation – viewers will turn to it first. Presenters such as David Attenborough have achieved cult status. But they are few and far between and in any case, these are not strong enough reasons to justify the status quo. As the figures show, many people are tuning out of the BBC, particularly the young, just at a time when a divided country is in desperate need of cohesion.
As for news and current affairs, it used to be said that if a report is attacked by both sides of an argument – say Israel/Palestine or Northern Ireland – then editors must be doing something right. “On the one hand, on the other, only time will tell” morphed into “we don’t have a role in telling you whether someone is lying, you make up your mind”.
Social media, fake news and Brexit blew apart this superficial understanding of ‘balance’. During the referendum campaign, as is well documented, the BBC allowed the protagonists to spout untruths and distortions pretty much unchecked. Hence the extra £350 million a week for the NHS and the hordes of Turks who would arrive on our doorstep. The Remain side’s over-heated “Project Fear” forecasts were not equivalent. The Leave camp, as has been amply demonstrated since, won the mendacity competition with consummate ease.
Its henchman in chief, a certain Dominic Cummings, is now steering the ship in Downing Street, on the warpath to rid the UK of the influence of its ‘London-centric liberal elite’. Governments have consistently tried to intimidate the BBC. Margaret Thatcher went for it over Libya, Tony Blair over Iraq. The Johnson government is doing the same, with alacrity, over Brexit. But it is going much further.
In 2015, when David Cameron had achieved his pyrrhic election victory, I remember going to see his culture secretary John Whittingdale. I had just set up the body representing the creative industries. I thought ours would be a wide-ranging conversation about the creative sector. Instead Whittingdale spent almost all the one-hour meeting obsessing about the BBC. People like him throw in a line about how much they respect the organisation when what they are actually trying to do is to break it up.
He began that by trying to turn the organisation into a social security agency and forcing Hall to agree to provide free licence fees to three million over-75s. The DG agreed to that and other concessions in order to buy 11 years for the licence fee. Whittingdale and other ideologues wanted Cameron and Osborne to go further. They now have their moment.
With viewing habits changing beyond recognition, perhaps a decade was as good as Hall was ever going to get. But even that looks shaky. The government’s plan to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee (“decrim” in the jargon of Broadcasting House and Whitehall) will undermine the BBC’s ability to operate. How many people will simply not bother to pay their £154.50 if they suspect that, at worst, it will be treated no differently to a parking fine?
In the end the BBC will be dragged, kicking and screaming, to a new funding model. This may take the form of a ring-fenced grant for news and current affairs alongside arts, classical music, high-end drama and natural history – and of course the World Service. Initially that might not feel so bad. But a core principle will have been broken. Funding would become discretionary and thereby political pressure would grow even stronger than it is now. This is the backdrop for negotiations on charter renewal, due in 2027.
Politics is only part of the problem. When in 2014 I started working with Hall (who has worked hard to link the BBC to the wider creative industries, he made clear he saw the competition lying less with the likes of ITV and Channel 4, much more with Amazon and Netflix.
At the time that seemed curious. Those giants were at the time only beginning to make an impact on viewing habits. The tech revolution has changed the way everyone consumes content. With one or two exceptions (Attenborough, Strictly) there are no communal appointments to view.
Many people, watching on their laptops at a time of their choice, have no idea what channel or production company made a particular programme. That’s why making the case for a universal broadcasting tax is only going to get harder.
The government will want to get its man (or perhaps more likely woman) to replace Hall. It wants someone open to “new ideas” on funding. It doesn’t have a direct role in the appointment, but it will lean heavily on individual members of the BBC Board. Ministers do have absolute authority to choose the BBC chair. The successor to David Clementi, whose term ends in February 2021, will come firmly from the Johnson-Cummings stable. From that point on, all bets will be off.
It would be misleading to suggest that Johnson and his ilk want to replace the BBC with a British version of Fox. Even he knows that this would be a step too far. But they have begun a process of remodelling the UK in their own image, a low-tax, high-tech economy projected through a political framework of cheap nationalism.
In this post-Brexit nirvana there will be no room for public institutions that do not conform. The BBC, like the European Union, has many flaws. Once it is gone, or changed beyond all recognition, even many of its detractors will miss it. But by the end it will be too late. The new DG will need tenacity, diplomacy, luck – and a magician’s touch – to save it. Is there anyone out there?