Stephen Glover: Thompson's attack is more than it seems

Monday 30 August 2010 00:00

In his MacTaggart Lecture a year ago, James Murdoch, son of Rupert and head of the Murdoch empire in Britain, accused the BBC of mounting a "land grab", and described its ambitions as "chilling".

Last Friday, Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, warned in his own MacTaggart Lecture that BSkyB (which is controlled by the Murdoch empire) is too powerful, and threatens to "dwarf" the Corporation and its competitors.

Yours is far bigger than mine. No it's not. Yours is much bigger. That about sums up this slightly childish exchange between the two men.

It was, of course, pretty absurd for the son of the biggest media mogul in history to complain about the increasing power of the BBC. Apart from controlling BSkyB, which they would like to own outright, the Murdochs have four national newspapers accounting for approximately 35 per cent of all sales.

The savagery of James Murdoch's attack on the BBC stirred old animosities against Rupert Murdoch on the centre-left which had been largely quiescent during the long years of his support for New Labour. Mr Thompson's aggressive counter-attack on the Murdoch empire should be interpreted in this light.

It was partly a diversionary tactic. The BBC has come in for a lot of criticism for paying many of its executives hefty salaries which they would be fortunate to receive in the private sector, and for showering licence payers' money on stars such as Jonathan Ross. Mr Thompson was trying to take the heat off his own lax management by attacking BSkyB. More important, he intended to inflame anti-Murdoch prejudices, which used to run very deep.

Whatever we may think of Rupert Murdoch – and I have my reservations – we should take what Mr Thompson said with a pinch of salt. His assertion that the BBC is in danger of being "dwarfed" by BSkyB is extremely melodramatic. This claim would seem to rest on the fact that BSkyB's revenues are £5.9bn a year while the Corporation has an annual income of about £4.5bn including £3.5bn from the licence fee. The comparison doesn't make much sense. By any yardstick the BBC is a much bigger organisation, employing 20,000 people in comparison to BskyB's 11,000, and with a far wider reach.

Whereas Sky's programmes are watched in nearly 10 million households, the "penetration" of BBC television is at least two-and-a-half times as great. The BBC dominates national radio, where Sky has no presence at all. BSkyB does not have a website to compare with the BBC's. Nor does it have a World Service broadcasting to tens of millions of people in dozens of languages. Or anything resembling BBC Worldwide. Or a network of local radio stations throughout Britain.

As a political and cultural influence the BBC dwarfs (to coin a word) BSkyB, both in this country and abroad. Whereas the Corporation is a national institution enjoying monopolies that seem well-nigh impregnable, BSkyB is simply an extremely successful and dynamic commercial broadcaster, very likely to get bigger but also certain to lag a long way behind as far as the eye can see.

The director-general of the BBC is not a stupid man. Beneath his wildly exaggerated fear-mongering about the Murdochs there lay a deeper though unspoken purpose – to divide the Coalition. Rupert Murdoch is, after all, the new best friend of David Cameron, who enjoys the unqualified support of the Murdoch-owned Sun. In demonising the Murdoch empire, Mr Thompson was calling into question the company the Tory leader keeps. And he was also trying to rally the Lib Dems, whose atavistic anti-Murdoch hatreds do not lie far below the surface.

His strategy may seem a dangerous one. The Tories, after all, are the senior partners. But they can hardly ignore Lib Dems' dislike of the Murdochs as well as their feelings of approval for the BBC, which are reflected not just in bien pensant circles but in the country at large. Mr Thompson's suggestion that the Corporation is threatened by the wicked Murdochs is obviously preposterous in view of the enormous power it wields and the privileges it enjoys. But it is a compelling myth, designed to make it more difficult for David Cameron to indulge Rupert Murdoch while starving the BBC.

Scoops galore at the Screws

It is fashionable to decry the Murdoch-owned News of the World for being vulgar and hypocritical. The paper undoubtedly took a knock when Mr Justice Eady ruled that it had infringed the privacy of Formula One boss Max Mosley as he indulged in an outlandish orgy. But the red-top has carried on with a succession of impressive "stings".

Yesterday's story that members of the Pakistan cricket team have allegedly delivered "no-balls" in return for cash payments is its most influential for a long time, and led BBC news bulletins for many hours. It was even sorrowfully mentioned by the vicar at a church service I attended. If true, the story is profoundly depressing to all cricket-lovers, but most will be grateful that the News of the World had the courage and ingenuity to publish it. Is there another newspaper in this country that would have done so?

Private misgivings

On reflection, the headline on my item last week about press freedom may have overstated the case. I'm not sure I have changed my mind about the desirability of a privacy law. It would be fraught with dangers, the chief one being that politicians might attempt to safeguard themselves from media investigation. But shouldn't the matter at least be discussed? At the moment we have judges gradually introducing a new privacy law without politicians or anyone else having a say. If nothing is done, the process may be complete in a few years. I may not trust politicians to frame a privacy law, but I trust judges even less.>

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