Cultural commentator and broadcaster PETER YORK on those with the knives out for the Corporation.
There is a war against the BBC. Does that sound over the top? When Paddy Barwise and I were searching for a title for our new book, back in 2018, we feared it might be.
A war against the British Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s most important cultural institution, the social glue in the system, the stalwart of the Second World War, the people who give you The Archers and Gardeners’ Question Time…? We didn’t want to sound paranoid or alarmist.
The BBC had its critics for sure, and even some hard-core enemies, but it seemed, back then, to be pulling through. It was still coming up with the goods, with new award-winning programmes like Killing Eve to I May Destroy You and Line of Duty.
It was certainly facing challenges. There was erosion of its audience from the California streamers, led by Netflix and the other SVOD (subscriber video on demand) giants. But improved versions of its pioneering iPlayer technology – developed when Netflix was practically baby Blockbuster – meant it could hold its own. Even now, 91% of Brits use one or other BBC service every week, and research shows that the public admires and trusts the Corporation far more than it does national newspapers.
And yet, as we chewed through mounds of evidence – Paddy Barwise is an academic guru on broadcasting economics and I’m a market researcher by background – so the alliances against the BBC became clearer, and their threat more potent.
We could see that there had been a positively industrial approach to anti-Beeb propaganda in recent years. The national press has accused the BBC of being bloated and extravagant and ever expanding; of forcing its competitors out of business; of having massive left wing – and later anti-Brexit – biases; of being on a ‘cultural Marxist’ mission to brainwash the country into wokeness, whatever that was.
It didn’t sound like the Auntie we knew – careful, even a bit timid, with its Reithian mission to inform, educate and entertain. This was, after all, a media organisation legally required to be politically ‘impartial’ – unlike its attackers – and was the most scrutinised and regulated of all operators. The BBC is the only one with a Royal Charter – a sort of deal with the nation to supply orchestras, support local journalism and a host of other ‘public purposes’ (check it out in its report) – that none of its competitors has to follow.
The BBC is an entirely British institution – owned by the public, not part of central government (though hugely vulnerable to its interference). There are no shareholders, no private equity involvement, no overseas owners.
The BBC is still the biggest investor in original British content – programmes made by Brits for Brits, fresh, live and local. And its staff work from studios in Glasgow, Stoke-on-Trent, and elsewhere. Half of them work outside of London – compare that to the organisations criticising it.
So what exactly is behind these sustained assaults on the BBC? The answer is an unholy combination of ideology and commercial rivalry. The ideology – promoted by think-tanks and politicians on the right – is a kind of 1980s free market dislike of public service organisations. The Institute of Economic Affairs has been a longstanding critic. It was behind calls in the 1980s for it to be funded by advertising and in 2016 published a report attacking the licence fee and criticising the Corporation’s alleged left wing bias. The BBC is not alone in attracting criticism from these free market quarters. The NHS has been another – although the attacks have lessened of late; it is not a good look during a pandemic.
Then there’s the commercial rivalry for the attention of all those people who watch and listen to the BBC. Other media players think it a tragic waste not to make a big profit from them.
We analysed this anti-BBC agenda, from the sophistry of the think-tanks and their economic analyses not just to the Beeb-bashing newspapers, but to what we saw online, where criticism of the Corporation has been gaining ground.
We looked at websites with names like Biased BBC, and a host of YouTube sites that accused the BBC of employing “goons” to enforce licence-fee payment. Such sites are less concerned with free market arguments than with stirring up a culture war front against the BBC – of convincing the world that the Corporation is seriously unpopular with ‘real’ people, a bastion of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ out of touch with the rest of the UK.
This is certainly the message of the #DefundtheBBC movement, which has been putting up anti-BBC billboards featuring stars like Gary Lineker and Emily Maitlis – two of the top targets for online critics of the Corporation. James Yucel, who describes himself as a Conservative student, said he set up the campaign after being so disillusioned with what he interpreted as left wing bias at the BBC. Yet an analysis of its Twitter launch this summer by University of Westminster academics Steven Barnett and Doug Specht suggests this supposedly spontaneous grassroots expression of anger actually resembles a suspiciously coordinated operation, linking together several pro-Brexit, free-market (and in a few cases far-right) social media accounts. The campaign has insisted it is “100% grassroots-funded” and denied accusations that it is an “astroturf” operation (one which disguises its true backers by posing as a grassroots organisation).
That is not the only recent development, though, that has confirmed our thesis that there is a war on the BBC. Earlier this year, just as we were finishing the book, two things happened to pull it all together, to nail the lies about the BBC, and show the workings of its most committed enemies.
In January, a series of 2004 blogs from Dominic Cummings’ now defunct think tank emerged. As Liz Gerard explains on these pages, those articles declared pretty baldly that the BBC had to be destroyed, set out how to do it and outlined what to put in its place so the Conservatives could regain and hold on to power.
The lines we’d drawn between the BBC’s enemies, their motives and objectives, seemed far clearer after that, less like the ‘conspiracies’ we had thought they might be earlier in our research.
Then in March, the consumer group, The Voice of the Listener and Viewer, analysed the BBC’s finances. The results were astonishing. Far from this over-weening, ever-expanding behemoth painted by Fleet Street, the BBC had actually shrunk. Real net inflation-adjusted public funding had already been cut by 30% since 2010. The regime of ‘top-slicing’ and licence-fee fixing imposed by this government’s predecessors has left it notably poorer. Further cuts are imminent, notably the plan to decriminalise licence-fee evasion, five years after an independent Conservative-commissioned review had rejected the idea. This could cost the BBC another £250 million a year.
So the BBC has been left poorer, and it has also been left weaker. Had it had inflation-adjusted funding over the decade, it would have had almost £1.4 billion more a year and would have been in a better position to deal with those other – non-political – threats it faces: the rising cost of creating content and distribution; competition from debt-financed megaliths like Netflix; and keeping the attention of the young, with their furiously ‘non-linear’ ways of watching and listening. The Corporation – more technically innovative, not bound by demanding shareholders – had already developed new channels and platforms like BBC Three to engage these audiences. But hard budgets forced them into starving BBC Three – nursery of Reggie Yates and Stacey Dooley – and forcing it into an online-only platform before it was really established.
George Osborne, the chancellor from 2010 to 2016, must therefore bear much responsibility for the assault on the BBC, for passing on the cost of providing free television licences for people aged over 75. He is less ideological than some of its enemies, perhaps, but more damaging than most.
And now, the BBC faces Johnson, its most hostile PM ever. He is far more threatening to it than even Margaret Thatcher, who despite all her free market enthusiasm and her natural suspicion of the BBC, accepted the findings of the 1987 Peacock Report, namely that forcing the BBC to fund itself by taking advertising was not a good idea for anyone – least of all ITV.
In her article, Liz Gerard suggests that Johnson himself may not have much a personal animus towards the BBC – he seems to have rather liked it – but, as those Cummings blogs show, those close to him feel very differently.
It remains to be seen whether the recent reports, that his government plans to make Charles Moore and Paul Dacre – the former editors of the Telegraph and Mail, BBC-sceptics both – chairman of the Corporation and head of its regulator, Ofcom, come to pass, or whether they are – in that memorable phrase – “dead cats” intended to distract from other issues.
But one thing is certain. A month before our book is published, no one says our title is over the top any more. Just timely. This is war.
- The War Against the BBC, by Patrick Barwise and Peter York is published by Penguin on November 26