The Tories’ attempt to freeze a £3 increase in the BBC licence fee was easily outvoted by Labour and the Lib Dems last week in the House of Commons. The Tories do not seem particularly upset, and one could easily regard the episode as a bit of sabre rattling that will soon be forgotten.
But one could look at it another way. Let us assume the Conservatives win the next general election by a clear majority. Unless they muck up things on a grand scale, they would probably be looking at two terms in power. Ten years is a long time in which to set about reshaping the BBC.
At the moment, of course, the BBC gives David Cameron a very fair wind. But Tories recall the days before the Iraq War when they thought of the BBC as the Blair Broadcasting Corporation – the days when, following the ukase of its sinisterly styled “chief political adviser,” any mention of Peter Mandelson’s sexuality was officially proscribed by the Corporation. They remember being treated as exhibits at a freak show.
Mr Cameron’s insight was that if the Tories were ever to be re-elected the all-powerful BBC had to be neutralised, and this would only happen if the Tory “brand” was “decontaminated”. So it has been. But he is well aware that the default position of the BBC is one of antipathy to the Tories, and he knows that a year or two into a new Parliament the rotten apples will start raining down again. I don’t say he wishes to extirpate the BBC, or even that he hates it – only that he has a vested interest in seeing its wings clipped.
In normal times, this would not be possible. Margaret Thatcher disliked the BBC, but could do nothing, though Norman Tebbit fought the occasional guerrilla action against it. Because the BBC enjoyed widespread public support, and because it had much of the media on its side, it was effectively off-limits. During the next Tory administration this may not be so.
Among media people of every hue one increasingly hears the complaint that the BBC is “too big”. Whereas, in the past, one expected to read diatribes against the BBC in the Daily Mail (occasionally written by me) or the Daily Telegraph, one now comes across quite critical pieces in The Guardian or The Economist.
Liberal-minded broadcasters who work in the commercial sector are also increasingly unsympathetic.
These new criticisms are not political, as Mr Cameron’s private ones might be, but journalistic and commercial. While every other media organisation experiences cutbacks, the BBC sails on regardless. There are many examples of the Corporation sticking its fingers into other people’s pies. One common grumble is that the BBC’s free website – in effect an enormous online newspaper – makes it impossible for newspapers to charge for their websites. Their revenues are in freefall partly because lucrative readers are switching from newsprint to the net where, largely thanks to the BBC, they do not expect to pay.
My point is that there is a growing anti-BBC alliance which includes people who would have previously automatically sprung to its defence. Neither Mark Thompson, its director-general, nor Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, appears to be alive to the burgeoning resentment in many parts of the cash-strapped media. Last week both of them showed frighteningly little sensitivity to the new mood of criticism as they blithely tried to justify the increase in the licence fee. They had better realise that, in more ways than one, the wind is changing.
It won’t be ‘The Sun’ wot wins the next election
The Sun is getting very agitated. It is demanding an immediate election. Of course, it won’t get one. What will it then do? Some pundits are suggesting it might finally summon up the courage or anger to ditch New Labour and plump for David Cameron.
But this question – when will The Sun switch to the Tories? – has become about as interesting as the life cycle of an obscure beetle in the Amazonian rain forest.
The bitter truth is that it doesn’t really matter when, or even whether, the paper endorses Mr Cameron. With a great deal of help from Gordon Brown, the Tory leader and his party are far ahead in the polls.
Neither The Sun nor any other newspaper has put them there. After Neil Kinnock and Labour somewhat surprisingly lost the 1992 election, The Sun claimed the credit. It was one of those contentions that is impossible to disprove. We went along with it. Now the paper can’t even pretend to be a kingmaker. Its choice lies between looking impotent outside the Tory camp and looking unimportant within it.
A hungry dingo wouldn’t have made this Wapping error
There is a tortured soul who every morning picks up The Daily Telegraph with a renewed sense of dread. But he is not a Labour MP with dark secrets about flat screen televisions. Or a Tory one who has been too lavish with the manure.
He is James Harding, editor of The Times. Like Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun, Mr Harding, chose not to buy the disk containing details of MPs’ expenses.
The decision must weigh more heavily on him than her. The Sun could not have kept up the relentless day-by-day coverage we have seen in The Telegraph. Its readers would have grown bored, and so would Ms Wade. But The Times could have done it.
It is not impossible to understand Mr Harding’s decision. The Times is, after all, The Times. Under his editorship it has become more respectable and dignified. More like the old Times, in fact, for which I have yearned for many years. How could such a paper pay money to a grubby little man in a raincoat offering stolen goods?
Such considerations must have seemed sensible at the time but, as The Daily Telegraph has heroically carried all before it, Mr Harding must have had second thoughts. Let’s face it: The Times should have bought that disk.
And one can’t help wondering whether it would have done so if Rupert Murdoch had still been in charge, and had not handed over responsibility for his British papers to his son James. One can imagine lawyers with sepulchral faces and wan, tightlipped executives.
Too dangerous. Not the right image. Might backfire on us. The old, swashbuckling Rupert Murdoch would not have been so cautious. He would have whipped out his chequebook quicker than a wombat being chased down its burrow by a hungry dingo. Is something missing at Wapping?