Matthew Norman: Thank Murdoch for saving the BBC

Is it possible that he and Blair carved out a licence-fee-for-referendum deal in the time it took to drink a cup of char?
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The Independent Online

If the quango that replaces its governors chooses to erect a statue of the Saviour of the BBC, whose marbled head should sit on the plinth? In a public poll of the kind beloved of the Today programme, nominations might be split between Tony Blair, Tessa Jowell and even perhaps, cornering the sentimentalist market, Greg Dyke. But my vote would go to that dark emperor across the water, Rupert Murdoch.

It is only after a prolonged internal debate that I plump for him over two other candidates. One is Lord Hutton, whose musings of a year ago into David Kelly's death provoked a pro-BBC reaction too strong for so opinion-poll fixated a Prime Minister to ignore. On similar grounds, the other is Alastair Campbell, whose crowing may have done even more to reactivate the dormant volcano of public affection for the BBC. Just after Alastair held his triumphal press conference, YouGov found that 31 per cent of the populace trusted the Government, whereas 67 per cent believed BBC reporters.

Yet without seeking to downplay these vital contributions, the stark fact is that nothing important can happen in Britain today without the tacit or express approval of Mr Murdoch. Had the issue led him to put his hobnails on Mr Blair's throat and threaten to withhold the support of The Sun, one suspects the PM would have weighed the electoral cost of that against the price of antagonising the BBC-loving middle class, and concluded that the licence fee was the more expendable of the twain.

If this portrait of the PM as a crawling Murdoch bag-carrier seems fanciful, I commend to you the vastly entertaining memoirs of Piers Morgan, as serialised in the Daily Mail this week. The picture Mr Morgan paints is gruesome in the extreme, but not surprising. Chatting with the then Mirror editor before coming to power, Mr Blair is unwontedly honest about his determination to gratify Mr Murdoch in every way, and his post-May 1997 deeds speak louder than his pre-election words.

One vignette concerns a visiting Bill Clinton, whom Mr Morgan persuaded to write an article urging voters in Belfast to back the Good Friday agreement. The conduit for the arrangement was Alastair Campbell, who then took the liberty of redirecting the piece - ghosted for Mr Clinton by a Mirror writer - to The Sun, where it duly appeared the next day.

A couple of years later, Mr Blair spent 45 minutes on the phone to his chum and holiday host Silvio Berlusconi trying (in vain, as it happened) to broker a satellite deal on behalf of his guv'nor in Aspen, Colorado. Mr Blair likes to raise comparisons between himself and Winston Churchill, yet while Winnie may have had Lord Beaverbrook in his wartime Cabinet, and earnt fortunes from his papers, it's hard to envision him taking Stalin aside at Yalta and saying: "Joe, old man, it would be the most tremendous favour if you could help a mate of mine corner the newspaper market in Georgia and Ukraine. See him right and I promise to stop making such a fuss about a democratic Poland."

Given all this, the obvious question concerns the multibillion-pound quid pro quo that brought Mr Murdoch's compliance over the licence fee at untold cost, in extra subscriptions and advertising revenue, to his Sky network. And the obvious answer, according to those in the Murdoch empire who should know, is Europe. In return for Mr Blair promising him a referendum which Mr Murdoch rightly expects to reject the EU constitution, thus rupturing the relationship between Britain and Brussels for God knows how long, he has graciously permitted the BBC another decade of financial independence.

Years ago, shortly before he was first resigned, I sat next to Peter Mandelson at dinner. The conversation turned to Mr Murdoch, with whose plan to buy Manchester United the then Trade Secretary seemed disinclined to interfere. I asked Mr Mandelson why exactly an Australian-born US citizen would be so desperate to keep a country in which he couldn't bring himself to live from a more federated European structure?

"What you have to understand," said Mr Mandelson, as though speaking to a slightly backward seven-year-old, "is that no single government is strong enough to stand up to him. Europe, on the other hand ..."

All this, I'm well aware, may seem exceptionally crude. Deciding the constitutional future of a nation, even more than the fiscal future of a state broadcaster, is a vastly torturous process, conducted at half the pace of a snail with rheumatoid arthritis that cannot for the life of it find its crutches. Countless thousands of human hours at myriad meetings go into preparing consultation documents, which are then thrashed over line by line by barely comprehensible line in smoke-free rooms throughout Whitehall and beyond. Conclusions are reached, scrapped, rejigged and scrapped again, heads are banged together, battles of ego and territory are fought, compromises thrashed out, and eventually a four-word front-page headline emerges.

So can it be that the outcome apparently reached via a process of such Byzantine complexity was in fact predetermined by one of those cosy Number 10 chats for which Mr Murdoch prefers to slip in through a back door? Is it possible that he and Mr Blair carved out a licence-fee-for-referendum deal in the time it took to put away a cup of char and a custard cream? From all we know about a PM who often entertains The Sun's editor to Chequers weekends, and from all we've read in Mr Morgan's memoirs, it isn't merely possible but extremely probable. Not, of course, that one is complaining about the outcome.

For all its smugness and self-reverence, and despite the poor quality of its populist television, the BBC is a truly wonderful thing. When I was growing up in the Seventies, when the dregs of post-Imperial arrogance had yet to drain away, everyone spoke routinely and robotically of various British institutions as "the best in the world". The monarchy, the police, the NHS, the justice system, Parliament, even Lloyds of London ... all these were, of their type, "the best in the world". Only one institution is ever talked of in such terms today, not just here but throughout a world in which it is, so inarguably, the best.

The cliché of drought-ridden African tribespeople huddled around the wind-up radio listening religiously to the World Service is, like all decent clichés, simple fact. People love the BBC for the reason that politicians across the spectrum loathe it. It strives for the objective truth. More even than its position as last outpost of beneficent élitism, more than for the dazzling range of its output, this is both the BBC's unique selling point; and - in a country tragically indifferent to the degradation of civil liberties and the erosion of natural justice - its essential democratic function.

The irony that it should be the proprietor of Fox News who allows such a thing of beauty to survive speaks for itself. Whether the survival of a vibrant, independent Beeb is worth the hideous fallout from a rejection of the EU constitution is a debate for another day. For now Davros Birt has been defeated, and all we need do is agree with the words of Tom Baker's Dr Who, upon defeating the original at the end of Genesis of the Daleks, that out of all evil there cometh good.