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The Tories are coming for the BBC

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has talked of cutting the BBC down to size, and the licence fee is under attack as never before

This year sees the launch of a new and potentially serious challenge to existing broadcasters: Rupert Murdoch’s News UK is launching a new cable TV news channel. Another cable channel, GB News, backed by £60m ($83m) of capital and fronted by the broadcaster and journalist Andrew Neil, is also about to launch.

Both are targeting disaffected BBC viewers. GB News will be aimed at “the vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard by their media”. According to the channel’s chief executive, it will be “proudly independent and fearless in tackling the issues people care about”.

Even now, however, in times of crisis, the public do not turn to the billionaire press for their news. They turn to the BBC

Maybe. Albeit from a right-of-centre perspective, Neil is certainly a journalist with a healthy respect for evidence, but behind him lurk some usual suspects: a handful of foreign-based billionaires and corporations with very deep pockets.

Nor is it quite true to say that GB’s target audience are “underserved and unheard” by existing media. At least so far as written media is concerned, Brexiteers, English nationalists and the un-woke are somewhat over-represented, and most of our newspaper journalism cannot be said to be either “fearless” or “balanced”, let alone “independent”.

For good, historical reasons, however, different standards prevail in broadcast media. From its inception, broadcasting - the BBC in particular - has been strictly regulated on the grounds that in the wrong hands, so large a monopoly (or near monopoly) would become a dangerous weapon. Only in recent years has the consensus surrounding the regulation of the broadcast media begun to fray. Even now, however, in times of crisis, the public do not turn to the billionaire press for their news. They turn to the BBC.

It may well be argued that a £60m news channel hardly represents a threat to the mighty BBC - and on paper, this would be true, but for the fact that the ambitions of those behind GB News happen to be shared by people in high places. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has talked of cutting the BBC down to size, and the licence fee is under attack as never before. The backers of this new enterprise have chosen a good moment to strike. 

The digital age

On several occasions during my 23 years in parliament, we debated legislation concerned with regulation of broadcast media. Latterly, this involved discussion of how to manage the coming digital age. What was striking about many of the contributions from the Tory side, however, was the extent to which they included attacks on the BBC, even though this was often irrelevant to the legislation under discussion. 

In January 2009, I attended a breakfast meeting with Ed Richards, then the chief executive of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom. His theme was the likely impact of digitalisation. His prognosis was gloomy: we were moving rapidly down the American road - hundreds of television channels with little worth watching on any of them.

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Google and satellite television were, he said, gradually dragging the terrestrial channels downmarket. “Soon,” he said, “we will be in a position where only the BBC will have the resources for original programming.” It was apparent, however, that the Tories present did not share his concern. They thought the BBC was the problem.

Eight months later, at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, James Murdoch delivered the prestigious MacTaggart lecture. That, too, was an assault on the BBC and what he called “state-sponsored journalism”. He spoke of “excessive regulation”, a need for “trusting and empowering consumers”, and for “private enterprise and profit” to become “a driver of investment”.

He went on: “We have a system in which state-sponsored media - the BBC in particular - grow ever more dominant. That process has to be reversed … We must have genuine independence in news media.”

The case for regulation

He was not entirely wrong. There is a respectable argument that the BBC, funded as it is by the licence payer, has become bloated and has extended into areas best left to the market. It is also arguable that the plurality of outlets reduces the case for regulating commercial broadcasting.

However, to hear a scion of the Murdoch empire calling for “genuine independence in news media” inevitably provoked cynicism. In a nutshell, the case for continued regulation is precisely to stop our broadcast media falling into the hands of those who control our newspapers, with all the attendant abuses. One has only to look at Fox News and other satellite channels in the US to see where this road leads.  

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, are pictured in Idaho in 2013 (Getty Images via AFP)
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, are pictured in Idaho in 2013 (Getty Images via AFP)

In a parliamentary debate in July 2011, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused James Murdoch and News International of pressing the government to undermine the BBC in pursuit of its own commercial interests.

“Their aim was to cut the BBC licence fee, to force BBC online to charge for content, for the BBC to sell off its commercial activities, to open up more national sporting events to bids from BSkyB and move them away from the BBC, to open up the cable and satellite infrastructure market, and to reduce the power of their regulator, Ofcom. I rejected these policies.” Brown may have done but, as we shall see, his Tory successor didn’t.

Voice of the establishment

The Tories have not always harboured a grievance against the BBC. For decades, it was the voice of the establishment. Most BBC executives and correspondents were drawn from the upper-middle class. They spoke with the clipped tones of officers addressing the other ranks.

At times of national emergency - the 1926 general strike for example - the corporation could be relied upon to lean heavily towards the government’s version of events. And just in case anyone was tempted to stray too far off course, the state took precautions to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The standards of reporting at the BBC were high and slotted easily into the postwar consensus. Only as the consensus began to fray did cracks become visible

From the mid-1930s on, applicants for editorial and executive jobs at the BBC were vetted by security services. This continued for six decades. In the 1980s, Brigadier Ronnie Stonham was discovered in room 105 at Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, stamping Christmas trees on the personnel files of those whose careers were not to progress. His job was to liaise with security services with a view to vetting applicants for employment for evidence of ideological unsoundness.

In the early days, this was no doubt deemed necessary by the powers-that-be to prevent fascist or communist sympathisers from infecting the airwaves - but many of those whose careers were blighted by Stonham’s Christmas trees were left-of-centre liberals whose views today would not be controversial. Interestingly, when at the end of the Cold War, the security services themselves suggested that vetting might no longer be necessary, senior BBC managers insisted that it continue, although they were persuaded to reduce the number of posts subject to scrutiny.

Nevertheless, as late as the early 1990s, about 3,000 individuals, an eighth of the BBC workforce, were still subject to vetting. Internal guidance for senior management suggested that, if asked about security-service vetting, they were to obfuscate.

Caught red-handed

Not long after Stonham was outed, I was among a party of MPs entertained to lunch at Broadcasting House by Marmaduke Hussey, the rather grand Tory gentleman who was then chairman of the BBC board. The purpose of the lunch was to bend our ear on the Broadcasting Act, then just a gleam in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s eye.

Halfway through the lunch, I inquired: “Who now works in room 105 now that Brigadier Stonham has retired?” The room suddenly fell quiet. From around the table came the sound of knives and forks hitting plates. “I think this is one for you, Patricia,” the chairman said, indicating a woman at the far end of the table who was then the secretary of the BBC.

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The lady in question was Patricia Hodgson. After a bit of humming and hawing, Hodgson replied that she thought it was the special assistant to the director-general. “Yes,” I said. “What is his name and what does he do?” Even though we had the top brass of the BBC around the table, no one seemed able to identify this individual.

“Tell you what,” I said. “We’re only two floors up. Why don’t I just nip downstairs, knock on the door and ask?”

“No, no, no, don’t do that,” the chairman said. “We’ll write.” After a bit of prompting, I received a letter indicating that Stonham had been succeeded by Michael Hodder, a former officer in the Royal Marines. Although I was assured that Hodder’s job description was very different from Stonham’s, it seemed remarkably similar. They were still at it, even though they had been caught red-handed.

In 'safe' hands

The result of all this was that for most of the postwar era, the BBC remained in what the powers-that-be regarded as “safe” hands. It must be said that, within certain parameters and in comparison to most national newspapers, the standards of reporting at the BBC were high and slotted easily into the postwar consensus. Only as the consensus began to fray did cracks become visible.

The struggles between left and right in the Labour Party tended to be portrayed by most BBC commentators as being between “moderates” and “extremists”. There was also a tendency to downplay the size of demonstrations against nuclear weapons, and when such events were reported, the cameras would often focus on the banners of the tiny Communist Party contingent.

In the 1980s, when nuclear disarmament briefly became official Labour policy, it tended to be reported as “disarmament” - the word “nuclear” was usually missing. This was obviously deliberate, because it continued even though the misleading description was pointed out repeatedly. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on 10 March 2021 (AFP)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on 10 March 2021 (AFP)

The bitterly fought miners’ strike in the mid-1980s was another unfortunate episode. There was a good deal of violence and intimidation on both sides, but on the whole, only one side got reported - even though many of the police who flooded the pit villages of Yorkshire and the northeast behaved badly. In one particularly notorious incident at Orgreave in South Yorkshire, a veritable cavalry of mounted police officers launched an apparently unprovoked attack on picketing miners, and the BBC was caught reverse-editing its film to make it look as if the miners had first attacked the police, and not the other way round.

The resulting outcry meant that the mistake, if that is what it was, was quickly rectified - but among those who did not take the establishment view, it added to a general feeling that the BBC was not always to be trusted. Nor did it help that complaints tended to be brushed off with a smug response, the gist of which was usually: “We receive equal amounts of criticism from both sides, so we must have got it about right.”

Significant fallout

In 1986, I had my own little brush with BBC officialdom. In July that year, after months of meticulous research, I published a book suggesting that the wrong people had been convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings, at that time the biggest murder in British history. The book provoked considerable interest.

My publisher arranged a lengthy schedule of interviews with newspapers and broadcasting outlets, including BBC television news and Radio Four’s Today programme. Both were cancelled at the last minute. Later, I heard that an unseen hand had decreed that I was not a person of sufficient stature to be taken seriously. I duly wrote a letter to a national newspaper describing what had happened, and both interviews were swiftly reinstated. 

By and large, however, the BBC’s worldview broadly matched that of the Conservative Party, and those in charge were generally regarded as “sound”. By and large, the Tories were content with the way things were. True, there had been a brief but significant fallout at the time of the 1956 Suez crisis over a decision by the BBC to award airtime to the leader of the Labour opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, to reply to the government’s version of events. Some Tories even went so far as to suggest that the government should take editorial control of the BBC, but Suez turned into such a debacle that the matter was soon forgotten.

The BBC stood its ground, but the seeds of what would eventually become widespread Tory dissatisfaction with the BBC had been sown

It was not until Thatcher that more serious tensions arose. Many Tory MPs were outraged by the BBC’s coverage of the 1982 Falklands War, which they deemed to be insufficiently patriotic. In 1985, BBC governors attempted to censor a documentary that included an interview with an IRA paramilitary. The programme was eventually broadcast, but not without a major row that led in due course to the sacking of the director-general, Alasdair Milne.

In 1986, Thatcher allowed then-US President Ronald Reagan to use bases in the UK to launch bombing raids against Libya in retaliation for an attack on a Berlin nightclub, in which two US servicemen had been killed and which was alleged to be the work of Libyan agents. Inevitably, civilians were killed - including, it was said, an adopted daughter of Libya’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

This was duly reported by the BBC correspondent on the spot, Kate Adie, causing the Tory party chairman, Norman Tebbit, to complain that the coverage was “riddled with inaccuracy, innuendo and imbalance”. The BBC stood its ground, but the seeds of what would eventually become widespread Tory dissatisfaction with the BBC had been sown.

Iraq dossier

Perhaps the biggest bust-up of the postwar era between the government and the corporation, however, involved not the Tories, but Labour. In May 2003, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan suggested that the government had “sexed up” its dossier on Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction in order to boost its case for war. Two other BBC journalists reported similar claims. 

The government hotly disputed this, but the BBC stuck to its guns, saying it had confidence in its source, who was eventually revealed to be a government scientist, David Kelly. Not long afterwards, Kelly was found dead in the woods near his home. A coroner’s court eventually returned a verdict of suicide. An official inquiry was set up under a senior judge, Lord Hutton. To widespread surprise, the Hutton report, published in January 2004, exonerated the government and resulted in the resignation of both the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, and the director-general, Greg Dyke.

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Damaging though this was to the BBC’s self-confidence, the fallout from the so-called “dodgy dossier” was not fatal. The Labour government had no interest in undermining the BBC, which on the whole remained a widely respected source of journalism in a media landscape that was becoming increasingly tabloid.

In the background, however, the war drums were beating. In addition to his four national newspapers, Rupert Murdoch had by now acquired a controlling interest in a satellite broadcaster, which by the early part of this century reached into almost 40 percent of households. 

The rise of social media and the proliferation of channels made possible by digitalisation meant that the BBC’s natural customer base was rapidly eroding, especially among the young. In addition, the Murdoch press rarely lost an opportunity to bash the BBC for real and perceived failings.

The 2011 decision by the BBC to shelve an investigation into allegations of child abuse against entertainer Jimmy Savile was deeply damaging. Likewise, the unfounded allegation on BBC Two’s Newsnight that a prominent Conservative politician was involved in a child abuse scandal in north Wales provided yet more ammunition for those who wanted to see the corporation cut down to size.

A narrative began to develop on the Tory right that the BBC was the preserve of a middle-class, London-centric, liberal elite who were out of touch with public sentiment on issues such as immigration and, above all, Brexit. These themes were increasingly taken up by the tabloid media, especially the Murdoch press.

Changing licence fees

The first big blow was struck during negotiations between the corporation and the government over the renewal of the BBC’s charter, which takes place every 10 years. This is the one moment when the government has the whip-hand. In 2015, in a climate of austerity, Chancellor George Osborne insisted that the cost of free television licences for citizens aged 75 and over should in future come from the licence fee rather than the Treasury, even though it was the Treasury under Gordon Brown that took the original decision to grant the concession.

Had Osborne wanted to rescind the concession, there was nothing to stop him from doing so, save that it might have damaged his party’s poll ratings among a section of the population that overwhelmingly votes Conservative. Instead, he chose to saddle the BBC with the liability at a cost of £750m ($1bn) a year - around a fifth of the corporation’s budget.

People protest outside the BBC studios in London against the end of government funding for free TV licenses for those over 75 in June 2019 (AFP)
People protest outside the BBC studios in London against the end of government funding for free TV licenses for those over 75 in June 2019 (AFP)

The BBC has since said that the exemption will apply only to the poorest pensioners, but even so, the cost is likely to be considerable. And that wasn’t all: Osborne also insisted that the corporation should bear 75 percent of the cost of the BBC World Service, which had hitherto always been a responsibility of the government, accountable to the Foreign Office. It was another large hit on the BBC’s budget. 

A programme of cuts is now well under way. Last July, it was announced that 450 jobs in regional news and current affairs were to go. Further job losses have been announced since, and more are in the pipeline. Overall, the corporation is aiming to cut budgets by £800m ($1.1bn). The impacts are already visible. BBC One schedules are becoming increasingly tabloid and infantile. News bulletins are increasingly insular. With rare exceptions - US elections, bushfires in Australia - most foreign news has disappeared from domestic bulletins.

In one sense, Covid-19 and Brexit have proved a godsend. Entire bulletins are consumed by these issues, to the exclusion of just about everything else. Forays outside the studio are becoming a rarity, except to conduct fatuous vox pops. 

Reliable source

The impact of budget cuts on the World Service remains to be seen. In addition to English, the BBC broadcasts in 40 languages, and has long been for many people who live under oppressive regimes the most reliable source of information about what is going on in their own country. The late UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, described the World Service as “Britain’s greatest gift to the world”.

During the Vietnam War, my Vietnamese father-in-law listened nightly to the BBC Vietnamese service in preference to local media. Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar, described the BBC as her “lifeline” during many years of house arrest. Likewise, during the Arab Spring, the BBC Arabic service was a more reliable source of information than most regional outlets - even more so now that the uprisings have been suppressed.

The corporation's reach would shrink dramatically and the plunge downmarket, already underway, would accelerate

To this day, the BBC remains one of the few sources of regular and accurate reporting from Yemen, and its recent documentary on the kidnapping and detention of the daughter of the ruler of Dubai was groundbreaking. Although sometimes accused of pro-Israel bias on that most controversial issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the sheer volume of complaints the BBC receives from the Zionist lobby suggests that it must be doing something right.

So far, the budget cuts have fallen mainly on the BBC’s domestic output. Some language services - notably those in Eastern Europe and the Balkans - have been discontinued, but new services have opened in Africa and the Far East. Investment in the Arabic service has actually increased. How long this can be sustained, given that three-quarters of the World Service budget now comes from the licence fee, is anyone’s guess - but at a time when Britain’s influence in the world is in decline, it is not in the government’s interests to let the World Service wither.

Looming crisis

On the home front, however, a new crisis looms. Johnson is no friend of the BBC. During the 2019 election campaign, he described the licence fee as a tax that could no longer be justified. Ministers were ordered to boycott the Today programme. In September 2020, Tim Davie, a former Tory activist, was appointed director-general and has talked of reducing "perceived left-wing bias".

Once the election was out of the way, the gloves came off. In February 2020, the Sunday Times quoted a “senior” source as saying: “We are not bluffing on the licence fee. We are having a consultation and we will whack it. It has got to be a subscription model … The PM is firmly of the view that there needs to be serious reform. He is really strident on this.”

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So far, the government has confined its consultation to whether or not to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee - currently £157 ($219) a year per household - which could effectively make payment optional. An announcement is expected in the summer.

In truth, the licence fee is getting harder to justify amid the proliferation of outlets and the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, and the fact that the BBC no longer plays much part in the lives of many of the younger generation in the way that it once did in the lives of their parents. We may have reached a moment when political reality and the ambitions of little England ideologues coincide.  

The future of the licence fee is a large cloud on the horizon. For some on the right, reducing the BBC to a subscription-only service, along the lines of PBS in the US, would be the Holy Grail. The corporation’s reach would shrink dramatically and the plunge downmarket, already underway, would accelerate. To paraphrase James Murdoch in his MacTaggart lecture, profit rather than standards would become the main driver of investment.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.