Matthew Norman: How Murdoch must be relishing this fiasco

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The Independent Online

Somewhere on earth today, in Aspen, Colorado or New York's SoHo, or most likely perhaps 36,000 feet above it in his bespoke 747, a skinny old buzzard with a striking resemblance to Monty Burns, the resident capitalist monster in The Simpsons, will be chortling with delight at the latest confirmation of the last iron law of British life: the one stating that, whatever the battle on whatever front, Rupert Murdoch will always win.

The route to yesterday's job cuts announcement by Mark Thompson, the professional apologist who moonlights as director-general of the BBC, has been tortuous enough to make precision about the starting point hard to come by. Some will identify it as the Hutton report which, although it could have cauterised the retina at 40 paces on the day it was published, looks a more blinding whitewash than ever now that serious medical doubt is cast on the belief that David Kelly killed himself. Myself, I think it goes deeper and further back than that, to the decades-old crisis of confidence suffered by the instinctively liberal professional middle class from which the cringing Mr Thompson has emerged.

What seems clear enough, though, is that all roads lead back to Mr Murdoch. Without the wickedly deceitful propaganda his newspapers churned out in prosecution of his campaign to strengthen Sky TV at the BBC's expense, it would have been the leaders of the Government, and not the Beeb, who fell on their swords after Hutton. As it was, Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke were bounced into meekly resigning over a report, by Andrew Gilligan, that was correct in every important regard. Thus they sowed the seeds of the culture of grovelling for non-existent or very trivial errors we see blooming so lusciously under the green-fingered aegis of Mr Thompson today.

Mr Dyke's successor was so cowed by Hutton, and inherited an organisation so traumatised by its persecution by government and Murdoch press, that when the next wave of attacks were launched he capitulated at once. Instead of counter-attacking by icily disdaining lessons in journalistic ethics from the sort of newspapers which criminally bug royal telephone calls, Mr Thompson apologised pitiably for such banal misdemeanours as the mischievous editing of trailers and the misnaming of Blue Peter pets.

In this atmosphere of perpetual cringing, any effective resistance to a vindictively mean licence fee settlement was out of the question, even if this is one thing for which Mr Thompson should drop to his knees to offer a mea culpa. At the crucial meeting to discuss the settlement, Gordon Brown was so unimpressed with Mr Thompson's inability to make a coherent case that he is said to be unable to refer to him by name to this day. The D-G's infantile response – the attempt to blackmail the Government by threatening to abandon the relocation of a chunk of BBC news and radio operations to the Labour marginal of Salford – was duly ignored, the settlement came in at several billion below par, and the search for savings began.

Here, Mr Thompson did what any seasoned observer would have bet at least one kidney on him doing. Rather than savagely prune the huge layer of BBC middle management that is so frantically busy seeking ever more recherché ways to look frantically busy, he aimed his axe widely enough to take in news and current affairs, the most gleaming gem in the BBC crown.

The fiscal illogic of this speaks for itself. For example, the Today programme costs some £8m per annum, and the annual bill for Newsnight is £5m, so that between them they cost less than 1 per cent of the BBC budget. Yet in the noble cause of democratising the vandalism, they too must now be deprived of staff they cannot afford to lose.

It was when such ridiculous cuts were proposed that a proper chairman of the oxymoronically retitled BBC Trust (you wouldn't trust this lot of placepeople to defend a corner in a seven-a-side match against a team managed by Snow White) would have stepped in. Such a mythical character would have told Mark Thompson that some things are sacrosanct, nore more so than the quality of news journalism ; that unless the BBC remains the gold standard of factual broadcast journalism, it calls its right to public funding into question, and plays straight into Mr Murdoch's rapacious hands; and that therefore news and current affairs must be protected, even if that necessitates the sacrifice of a few hundred additional paperclip organisers and ring-binder technicians.

Sadly, the chairman of the BBC Trust is Sir Michael Lyons, the economist and quangocrat who last week revealed his instinctive understanding of his organisation by wishing out loud that the BBC be more like "most companies" in stifling criticism from its staff; and whose stumbling, drivel-laden appearance on Newsnight this week established him as Steve McClaren's major rival for the cherished title of Most Embarrassingly Overpromoted Public Appointee.

A grievous loss to the parking permits department of Wolverhampton Council proved the BBC's most lustrous gain when Sir Michael took over in time to rubber stamp the masterplan known to Mr Thompson, by way of one of those sub-Orwellian doublespeak imbecilities beloved of (David) Brentian managerial types, as "Fewer, Bigger, Better".

And so the natural supporters of traditional BBC values look glumly on, too battered by 30 years of Murdochian assaults on excellence ("elitism") in the sacred cause of mass-market mediocrity ("accessibility") to do more than whinge, as I am doing today, as the last truly great entity in British life is denuded and devalued, its wrists cut and its lifeblood ready to begin slowly seeping away.

Just as with Dr Kelly, the onlooker's automatic assumption is suicide. Yet while there is no denying that the lions of BBC news are led by managerial lemmings, this is assisted suicide, and playing the role of the Dutch euthanasia clinic is the dessicated eminence who orchestrates British government policy on Europe, law and order and much else besides from across the Atlantic.

No doubt there will be some brief skirmishing by way of strikes, and in the absence of any emergency legislation to decriminalise the public horsewhipping of Mark Thompson and Michael Lyons in front of the "For Sale" sign outside White City, the best of luck to them.

But it's much too late. The result of the war to defend traditional BBC values was decided long ago, some time between the glory of the Thatcher-Murdoch axis and the rise of John Birt, when "liberal" became regarded as a swear word and "elitism" as a socially transmitted disease, and yesterday's announcement was the white flag raised to surrender yet another major battle. Mr Murdoch has never had better reason to cackle with glee.

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