Five months ago, the House of Commons Culture Committee issued an important report into the future of the BBC, seen as the opening salvo in the fight over next year’s charter renewal.
Although querying the long-term future of the licence fee, it backed the idea of some form of universal levy. John Whittingdale was right on both counts. Since then, he has been elevated to the Cabinet in the Government’s most intriguing appointment. Yet in his new job as Culture Secretary, he has been responsible already for undermining the institution and for underlining its uncanny ability to damage itself, forcing the BBC into supine acceptance of a stitch-up to shoulder the £650m annual cost of free television licences for the over-75s.
Critics were right to attack this “shabby backroom deal”. It turns the BBC into a branch of the Department for Work and Pensions, forces it into the political arena in an ageing society and will cost a huge chunk of its income.
No wonder previous bosses with more backbone resisted this financial knee-capping. For as that all-party report said in February, licence-fee income should be used “only for the purpose of broadcasting or the production of public service content on television, radio and online”.
Now comes more pressure, with Whittingdale’s appointment of a high-powered board to advise on charter renewal amid talk of “root- and-branch” reform. A Green Paper this week is predicted to question if the BBC should stop chasing viewers and focus more on public service broadcasting, while also proposing abolition of the toothless BBC Trust. This is no great loss, as shown by the shafting of BBC3 after spending £1bn building the brand.
Whittingdale is far removed from his image as a thuggish Thatcherite. Yet Tory antagonism against the BBC – responsible for half the news coverage consumed in Britain – hardened during the election campaign. David Cameron’s battle bus joke about closing it down revealed anger over perceived bias on prestigious news programmes, which was not helped by threats to “empty chair” the Prime Minister if he failed to join leaders’ debates.
Most BBC chiefs were banking on a Labour victory, reflecting their world view. Now they face the challenging political landscape of a seething Conservative Government supported by a largely hostile press, while the main opposition parties lie shattered. So they gave in quickly over last week’s Budget deal, softened up by George Osborne’s partially justified attack on the BBC’s “imperialist ambitions”, and sweeteners such as unfreezing the licence fee. This highlights the BBC’s perilous position almost a century after Lord Reith launched his celebrated mission to “inform, educate and entertain”.
Ever since tangling with the Blair government over Iraq, the corporation has been cursed by a lack of confidence. It stumbles from crisis to crisis – the Savile scandal, sacking older female presenters, faking footage, encouraging tax avoidance, overpaying stars and top staff – that reveal the failure of its inept management and stifling bureaucracy. Those seeking to inject dynamism soon find themselves stymied.
Now the BBC faces an existential threat, its funding model looking outdated in the modern media age. Ownership of conventional televisions is at its lowest level for three decades and falling fast. Young people watch half of the amount of live television as adults; they turn more to their tablets for YouTube, Netflix and Vice. They are amused by the fondness of older generations for television news at fixed times when they can watch it whenever they want on demand – and people tend to stick with viewing habits picked up in youth.
The Government plans to bring forward legislation to force viewers watching only iPlayer to pay a licence fee. But this debate is just beginning, with the loss of television rights for the Olympics and even the launch of Apple radio demonstrating again how the BBC’s unifying role as national broadcaster is slipping in the fast-evolving digital world. The concept of a dedicated tax for a state broadcaster is archaic and unfair to rivals, although cheap compared with average Sky subscription fees of £47 a month.
Yet the BBC merits fierce defence. You only have to go abroad to be reminded how much we might miss it: the quality of its news output, the quest for impartiality, the extraordinary cultural range, the efforts to cater to the entire public rather than just those attractive to advertisers.
The public trusts its journalists more than any others – and much more than those hectoring politicians – while it reaches 96 per cent of the population. It is also one of Britain’s most-admired global brands, the World Service especially is a cherished voice in parts of the planet. I am wary of tradition, heritage being the weakest defence for any institution. But despite a succession of self-induced disasters, the BBC remains a national treasure – and one under serious threat from powerful foes.
It may be an infuriating, self-righteous and bloated beast, but it would be all too easy to damage or even destroy the Corporation, thereby corroding our national fabric. And we would mourn Auntie if she were not around in our daily lives.Reuse content