BBC2's Newsnight turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a bit of a Spartist cell. On Friday morning, its economics editor, Paul Mason, was pictured on a picket line outside BBC Television Centre holding a placard bearing the message "Stop the Pensions Robbery", while trying to dissuade "scabs" from going in. In yesterday's Sunday Telegraph, Newsnight's political editor, Michael Crick, was quoted as saying: "I haven't listened to the Today programme. I regard listening to or watching the BBC as strike-breaking." Golly. So, dear reader, if you saw Strictly Coming Dancing or Match of the Day on Saturday, you too were strike-breaking. I hope you are ashamed of yourself.
I wonder how much each gentleman is paid. My guess would be upwards of £90,000 a year. It could be more. After all, Newsnight's star presenter, Jeremy Paxman, trousers an annual £1m, though admittedly that includes sneering at students on University Challenge. Messrs Mason and Crick are probably paid at least four times the national average, and would be considered by many to be wealthy men. Why, then, do they talk and act like Arthur Scargill circa 1984? A charitable interpretation would be that they were showing solidarity with their less well-paid colleagues. That might be a half-reasonable defence were they merely, like some BBC journalists, reluctant to cross a picket line. In fact, they went much further. They behaved like militants. They identified with a cause – which is that at a time of national austerity all BBC journalists should continue to receive a generous guaranteed pension funded by the licence-payer.
The BBC pays about £350m a year, which is 10 per cent of its annual income from the licence fee, towards the pensions of its staff. It has a pensions "black hole" of at least £1.5bn. The corporation's management was determined to do something about this problem even before the announcement that its licence fee will be frozen for six years and the BBC will suffer a drop in its income of 16 per cent. Action is inescapable, though many BBC journalists evidently do not think so.
Four other broadcasting unions have already accepted the deal, which was slightly improved a few weeks ago. What is on offer is much more generous than the arrangements enjoyed by almost everyone in the private sector. Existing BBC employees can remain in the generous final-salary scheme. A new scheme does not guarantee final payments in retirement – which is also the case with private pensions. The corporation hopes to reduce its annual pension costs from £350m to about £260m a year.
Any fool can see that the BBC has been paying more on pensions than it can afford, and has no option but to cut back. I am a little surprised that Newsnight's economics editor cannot understand this. When generally less well-paid members of other broadcasting unions have accepted the deal, and millions of workers in the public and private sectors face cutbacks and other deprivations, it seems myopically self-centred for well-paid journalists such as Messrs Mason and Crick to clamber on to the barricades.
But it is worse than that. By their actions these men and their fellow militants have defined themselves as anti-cutters. And yet both men are required to report, analyse and comment upon the effects of the Coalition's cuts on the wider economy. Indeed, Mr Crick has already produced a very gloomy series for Newsnight about the potential consequences of cuts in various parts of the country. If I thought these reports were one-sided at the time, now I think – with Mr Crick's Spartist claptrap ringing in my ears – that they may very well have been driven by a personal political agenda. It is a bit like asking Arthur Scargill 25 years ago to do a programme about the benefits of nuclear power.
No sensible journalist reporting on the Middle East would wish to join a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy if he or she wanted to retain a reputation for even-handedness. And no BBC journalist reporting on government cutbacks should risk under-mining the audience's expectations of independence by appearing as a militant activist. The BBC has been accused of presenting the cuts in a negative or even apocalyptic light. Now that one has seen how some of its journalists behave, it will be much more difficult to counter these accusations of bias.
Will the Coalition lose its place in The Sun?
As soon as George Osborne announced a six-year freeze in the BBC's licence fee, it was clear that Vince Cable would have to refer to Ofcom the bid by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp to acquire 100 per cent of British Sky Broadcasting. There would have been an outcry had the Business Secretary waved it through. A formidable anti-Murdoch alliance comprising such unlikely bedmates as the BBC and the Daily Mail has been created.
The fascinating question is what will happen to the "understanding" between the Murdoch empire and David Cameron if the matter is passed on to the Competition Commission, and the bid finally turned down. This is not how it was meant to be. When Rupert Murdoch switched his newspapers' allegiance to the Tories in October 2009 he must have been confident that Mr Cameron would help him commercially. Even Mr Cable seemed reasonably well-disposed to nodding through the deal – until the anti-Murdoch forces built up.
Of course, there is no question of the Murdoch papers reverting to Labour. But if the deal is thwarted The Sun might be less indulgent of the Coalition, particularly over its remarkably pro-EU policies. That is why David Cameron will still be hoping that Rupert Murdoch gets most of what he wants.