The roots of the government’s latest attacks on the BBC can be traced back to blogs written by Dominic Cummings’ think tank 16 years ago.
If you are planning a coup, taking control of the national broadcaster is a job for day one. Boris Johnson did not need a coup to secure power – he was elected both as leader of his party and of the country according to the democratic processes. But many detect signs that he means to change the landscape to secure that power for his party, if not for himself, in perpetuity. Note the attacks on the judiciary, the civil service and, top of the list, the BBC.
The corporation has long been in Johnson’s sights, culminating in not-so-veiled threats about the licence fee during last year’s election campaign – threats that contrast sharply with his view in 2008.
Then he devoted a Telegraph column to upbraiding Noel Edmonds for refusing to pay. “To everyone who resents this state tax, when the BBC can no longer supply such basic programming as Test match cricket or rugby, Edmonds will be classed as a martyr, a Gandhi, a landmark exponent of civil disobedience. But not to me, amigos. I think Edmonds is quite wrong, and I speak with all the vehemence of one who spent last Friday evening in a state of ecstatic rapture at the Proms.”
And so he waxed lyrical about “bare-armed female violinists” for a thousand or so words, pointing out that no licence fee would mean no Proms (and no Mr Blobby), defending the BBC against demands that it be funded by advertising or private subscription (the very ideas now under discussion), emphasising its role as part of the nation’s cultural heritage (the one it should now stop cringing about).
My, how he has changed his tune (not surprisingly, perhaps, since his rhapsodising was over a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and most particularly its Ode to Joy). Now he wants to make his former boss Charles Moore and former Mail editor Paul Dacre – BBC-sceptics both – chairman of the corporation and head of its regulator, Ofcom. More old white men. Is he serious? Or is it a dead-cat ruse to deflect attention from Covid, Brexit and any number of U-turns?
Whether appointments commissioner Peter Riddell is minded to approve these men or not, the intention is clearly to cow the BBC. And it’s a safe bet that Dominic Cummings helped to concentrate the prime minister’s mind.
Sixteen years ago, when Tony Blair had a Commons majority twice that which the Tories enjoy today, when Johnson was editing the Spectator and Michael Gove was overseeing news coverage at the Times, Cummings was the director of a small free-market think-tank called the New Frontiers Foundation, focused on how to rescue the Conservatives from the political wilderness. Its ideas were articulated in a series of blogs.
In January 2004, one blog warned the Tories should recognise that the BBC was a “mortal enemy”. In June, another said the party leader should boycott the Today programme unless he was announcing a major new positive proposal. In July, one argued that the BBC’s world needed turning upside down, with its “very existence” subject to “a very intense and well-funded campaign” involving spies leaking internal memos and taping conversations.
By September, the New Frontiers Foundation had a three-point communications strategy: undermine the BBC’s credibility; create a Fox News equivalent and radio talk shows; end the ban on TV political advertising.
Online networks should scrutinise the BBC and feed information to commercial rivals. “During the election and even more so in an EU referendum [Blair had promised one on ratifying the European constitution in 2006], there will be a huge need for the BBC’s reporting to be taken apart minute-by-minute.”
Tories should fire “missile after missile”, since they “could only prosper in the long term by undermining the BBC’s reputation for impartiality, as was happening with CBS in America” – and as president Trump has sought to do with CNN and his constant cries of “fake news”.
Today many of Cummings’ wishes have been granted. Johnson shuns Today, preferring the cosier mass-audience Holly and Phil; right-leaning TV and radio stations are in gestation. Meanwhile an army of Beeb-bashers marches across the internet, from ‘below-the-line’ commentators on mainstream news platforms to libertarian bloggers and the News-Watch website, which is entirely focused on calling out ‘bias’ by the BBC (but not other broadcasters) in posts with headlines like “How dare they? BBC robs the poor to feed millions to its fat-cat presenters”.
An assault on the BBC was not the only tactic advocated by the think-tank, which closed in March 2005 after only 15 months. It also called for a “thorough purge” of the civil service to “remove swathes of the top people” (tick) and for “a move by the Tory leadership towards executive government…a mix of the best Tory MPs and some alpha outsiders”. One wonders who the author could have been thinking of. This would, the blog continued, inject a level of professionalism and seriousness into the party that would go down a storm with voters.
“Professionalism” and “seriousness” are not words that have cropped up a lot in descriptions of today’s Conservative government, but “Boris” certainly went down a storm at election time.
So now we are rapidly moving towards government by fiat by an immovable executive that disdains any aspect of accountability. Just as Cummings wanted all those years ago.
Whether Moore and Dacre are dead cats or dead certs, the threat to our democracy is deadly serious.