Chris Patten addressed the trustees’ dinner at the British Museum on Wednesday. Speaking in the Enlightenment Gallery, he gave the most lugubrious, depressed, downbeat speech I have yet heard, either from him or from a BBC chairman. It was as if the whole weight of the world were upon his shoulders.
Sure, the BBC has a lot to answer for over what seems to have been a systemic failure to tackle Jimmy Savile and others. But for God’s sake don’t give up on the BBC. Bear in mind that, day by day, the extremely dedicated people who have always hated the corporation for personal, ideological or commercial reasons are grinding their axes. They got their way immediately after the election when the BBC was slashed by 25 per cent in one of the strangest and most secretive of government negotiations. BBC journalists are now being double-decimated. Production budgets were slashed, and doubtless Rupert Murdoch and his Tory acolytes are happy.
So I want Lord Patten not to lose faith in what remains the greatest British cultural invention of the 20th century.
Patten made two fundamental errors. The first was understandable. Speaking to an audience of the very great and the very, very good, he gave example after example of public service broadcasting that might appeal to them – the Proms, hifalutin’ theatre and impartial news and current affairs. But the miracle of the BBC licence fee is not only that it provides a massive production fund for home-grown talent, but that it gives something for everyone.
Many think of Match of the Day, EastEnders, Holby City, Strictly Come Dancing, Hunted and Spooks as the very essence of what they pay for. Yes, Radio 4 is outstanding, but Radio 1 is every bit as important in breaking new bands, having a much wider playlist than commercial radio and providing insightful news to a younger generation. So, Chris, I know you’re the Chancellor of Oxford University and you hang around with Tories in the Lords who can countenance the licence fee only if it provides what could never be commercially available. But that’s a flawed model. So don’t surrender the pass.
His second mistake was to keep on referring to “we at the BBC”. There was a time when the governors and the board of management went hand in glove and the chairman was basically top dog. But the newly created BBC Trust was meant to act as a more independent regulator, ensuring value for money, holding the management to the Charter, and fighting for the viewer and listener. Every time Patten says “we at the BBC”, he gives the game away; and if the BBC Trust is no more independent than the old BBC Board of Governors, then the Beeb might as well be regulated by Ofcom, just like all the other broadcasters.
There’s some digging to be done
The unintended consequences of the disastrous government reshuffle continue. Tim Loughton, who could be irritatingly correct when a shadow minister, was resoundingly good as the Children and Families minister, but was summarily sacked, a victim of skulduggery in Michael Gove’s office. Since then, he has proved an always intelligent irritant to the Government, this week pointedly agreeing with Yvette Cooper (pictured) that Theresa May is daft to run nine different child abuse inquiries without an overarching one.
That’s not all, though. He’s also been tabling questions about the special advisers and policy advisers at his old department, including how much they get paid and to whom they report. As he studied Mesopotamian archaeology in the 1980s, he may be rather good at unearthing the facts. I detect a man out to get even.
A good place for a private function
When Gladstone first came to Parliament, he complained that the palace had no facilities, which is why the Victorian building was given resplendent dining rooms and bars. One of the long-running complaints about MPs is the taxpayers’ subsidy of these bars and restaurants, which cost £5.9m in 2010-11, so we had a debate on Thursday about how to cut that. It’s not as easy as it might seem. When prices were put up by 10 per cent in 2010, a large number of the 30,000 passholders, many of whom earn far less than MPs, decided that the palace was too pricey and sales fell.
Under the new IPSA regime, 96 fewer MPs are entitled to claim for London accommodation and go home the moment business is over. So now the palace is deserted on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Yet the fixed costs of a poorly built building are exorbitant. The only answer must be a greater commercial use of the building.
Dangerous game to play
Phillip Schofield’s gimmick on Thursday morning TV was clearly puerile and the Prime Minister didn’t make that bad a fist of it in reply. Yet many friends, colleagues and Twitter followers have insisted that David Cameron’s answer conflated paedophilia and homosexuality in a dangerous way. I think they’re wrong. I’m sure he would agree that a homosexual is no more or less likely to be a paedophile than a heterosexual is, that many abusers have no adult sexuality and most abuse involves a family member.
But what has surprised me is that three Tory MPs have accosted me this week, demanding to know who the Tory politicians referred to by Tom Watson are. When I declared ignorance, they immediately suggested a list of their own. Depressingly, all the names are men who have at one time or another been rumoured to be gay. And that’s where the PM was spot-on. Rumour’s cruelty runs on wheels that are oiled by the internet every minute.