BBC-bashing: a modern ritual

Churchill did it, so did Harold Wilson, Norman Tebbit - even John Birt. But how will the BBC respond to the latest tirades?

There is nothing accidental about the current Conservative attack on the BBC. If you substitute the name of the former Today presenter Brian Redhead for John Humphrys, you get a real sense of dj vu. Nor is it surprising that John Major has backed the campaign started last weekend by one of his most media-hardened and savvy ministers, Jonathan Aitken.

The Government is in trouble, facing local government elections that will offer no cheer, while the party itself is torn between sticking with its leader or swinging behind an autumn challenger, as the General Election looms. John Major is offering himself up for a rare Panorama interview with David Dimbleby next Monday, the first since the last election. So waving a stick at broadcasters is a rational way to try to deflect some of the most damning coverage.

"If you don't like the message, then bash the messenger," observed one senior BBC figure yesterday about the Government's attempts to intimidate. But the other question is whether the Government has been encouraged to be more shamelessly hostile because the BBC has offered itself up as a soft target. It is difficult to overestimate the anger aroused within the BBC by last month's speech by the director-general John Birt, in Dublin, in which he criticised confrontation, studio argy-barging and overbearing interviewers. "He opened the way for it, even if he didn't mean to," says one senior journalist.

But how vulnerable is the BBC? The jaundiced view is that the Corporation is always open to government attack because it is a creature of the state, funded by a licence fee whose level is set by government. But the current attack lacks the venom of the 1986/87 raids orchestrated by Norman Tebbit as Tory chairman and so effectively backed by the nit-picking approach of Dr Julian Lewis at the Media Monitoring Unit (see right). These had a far more ideological bent.

In fact, since John Major became Prime Minister, the BBC has enjoyed a remarkably peaceful era. The proof lies in last summer's White Paper on the Corporation guaranteeing continuation of the licence fee for at least five years. True, the BBC is anxious to know whether the basis of its indexed annual rise will continue after 1996, and if the transmitter network will be privatised, but it detects no political appetite (or votes) for wielding the axe.

So we are watching here a modern ritual of British politics. Not pretty, but like the first cuckoo of spring, a signal that an election is on the way.

Maggie Brown

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