Friday 2 October 2009
Johann Hari: If we care about the BBC, we must fight to defend it
The Tories' plan to scrap impartiality would mean Sky mutating into Fox News
There is a scandal in British politics that is passing almost unnoticed in the night. It will alter the ecology of our politics – and our culture – in ways that will damage us for decades to come.
There is one thing most British people think we do best: broadcasting. A recent ICM poll found that 77 per cent think the BBC is an institution to be proud of, and 63 per cent say it is good value for money. This makes the BBC by a long way the most popular public institution in Britain – yet both main political parties are lining up to happy-slap Auntie. The link between the licence fee and the Beeb is about to be broken by a Labour government, and a Tory government will sweep in and widen the gap, while unleashing a snarling pack of Fox News-style hounds across the rest of the channels. And for what? To win the favour of a foreign right-wing billionaire.
Let's start with the good news. The BBC works. For just £2.60 a week, the British get a package of the best television and radio in the world. We get the best comedies, the best drama and the best news. There's a reason why we have won seven of the past 10 international Emmies, and the BBC News website is the most popular on earth. As soon as he took power, Nicolas Sarkozy asked how he could make French broadcasting more like ours. It is a model for the world of how to create journalism that isn't contaminated by either corporate advertisers and proprietors on one side, or state ownership on the other. Three independent polls have found that a large majority of Brits would happily pay more for it.
Of course we can all find some parts of its output we don't like. I can't stand Jeremy Clarkson, Andrew Neil's blatant editorialising, Chris Moyles, or bogus questions about whether Gordon Brown is popping pills. A right-wing bias still seeps into a lot of its news coverage: see the new book Newspeak by David Edwards and David Cromwell for details. But other people will loathe the parts I love – In Our Time, Start the Week, EastEnders, Question Time, Lauren Laverne, Mark Kermode, BBC4. It's a package: it's impossible for every part to delight every individual. But when there are so many riches, we almost all find something to enjoy: a London Business School found that 99 per cent of us use it every week.
Far from becoming outdated, the BBC model is more necessary than ever. Commercial television is losing its ability to produce quality programmes, fast. Advertising money is leaking away to the internet: this week, for the first time, online advertising overtook TV ads in Britain. Revenues are expected to fall by 20 per cent in the next decade, and to continue spiralling after that. As more of us get digital packages that make it possible to record programmes and fast-forward through the ads, it will only get worse. Budgets for shows on commercial channels are in freefall. We won't get good programmes for nothing again. The BBC is the simplest answer, and we are overwhelmingly happy to pay it.
So why would our politicians start trashing this system? Rupert Murdoch has long despised the BBC, for the simple reason that although it works well for us, it works badly for him. He can't step in and make a profit by providing his import-filled alternatives, because we're happy with what we have. So he has launched a long campaign through his newspapers to delegitimise the BBC. They relentlessly present it as poor value, biased to the left, and bloated. It's not working with the public: the BBC is 9 per cent more popular today than a decade ago. But he is determined to shrink the BBC to a feeble service like PBS in the US, producing worthy programmes watched by a handful.
Despite losing the public argument, Murdoch has another way to exert influence: his newspapers have long applauded the politicians who most serve his interests, and savaged the politicians who lag behind. It's part of a long pattern that stretches across continents. In the debate about The Sun's endorsement of David Cameron this week, many naive observers have acted as if the newspaper is a pressure group with only the interests of the British people at heart, rather than the arm of a corporate machine acting bluntly in its own self-interest.
The Labour government began the bidding for Murdoch's favour by proposing – for the first time – to break the link between the licence fee and the BBC. From now on, a chunk of it will be given to other broadcasters like Channel 4 and regional news providers. At first it sounds like a small and reasonable step – it will go to support valuable programming – but it begins a process that will bleed the BBC. You won't be able to see so clearly where your money is going. Gradually, more and more money will be dispersed from the BBC by a Tory government eager to keep Murdoch's favour, and the corporation will shrink back. As it provides less easily traceable value, it will be harder to defend the license fee itself – and Murdoch will win.
The Tories then upped the bidding. This summer Ofcom – Britain's broadcasting regulators – found Murdoch's BSkyB guilty of effectively pricing other companies out of the pay-TV market. David Cameron responded by saying he will quietly put Ofcom to sleep, scrapping most of its regulations. Then he gave Murdoch another bauble he has craved for decades: he is going to scrap all the political impartiality rules covering British television (except on the BBC). If Cameron succeeds, Sky News will mutate into Fox News, pumping its poison 24/7. Murdoch duly endorsed the Tories.
This quid pro quo is unspoken – there are no meetings in darkened rooms – but Murdoch is quids in nonetheless. His son James Murdoch has been at the forefront of trying to rationalise these grabs for profit. He called the impartiality rules "an impingement on the right to free speech". This is based on a basic error. Your right to free speech – which is the closest thing I have to a sacred belief – doesn't include the right to speak wherever you want. I don't have a primetime show on BBC1 to expound my views, but that doesn't mean I'm being censored. Your right to say what you want doesn't entail a right to say it on the public airwaves. They are a shared public resource, and it is right to regulate them in the public interest.
James Murdoch then claimed the BBC "penalises the poorest in our society with regressive taxes and policies". This is hilarious. If James Murdoch is against regressive taxes, why has News International – which makes billions – paid no net taxation in Britain for more than a decade? Why do his newspapers vehemently oppose moves to tax the rich more and the poor less?
After this argument belly-flopped, he claimed the only "guarantor of independence [in broadcasting] is profit". Perhaps he should visit Italy, where the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, owns half the TV channels, and makes them support his political campaigns.
Enough. We can't tolerate a clandestine campaign to trash one of our great national institutions, just so a foreign billionaire can make more profit. Where are these politicians' spines? Where is their patriotism?
Follow Johann Hari on Twitter twitter.com/johannhari101
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