Stephen Glover: Who in Fleet Street will defend the BBC?

Media Studies: Mark Thompson has contrived to leave the organisation over which he presides almost friendless

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:34

Three weeks ago I complained that the BBC was being spared the savage cuts threatened elsewhere in the public sector. No longer, it seems. Last Saturday's Daily Telegraph "splashed" with an interview of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt – the latest in a series of exclusives obligingly dropped into the paper's lap by the coalition Government.

Mr Hunt, who is a mild sort of chap, was ferocious in his criticisms of the BBC. It had been responsible for "extraordinary and outrageous" waste in recent years and needed to recognise the country's "very constrained financial situation". He strongly implied that the licence fee would be cut from 2012. These remarks were strikingly at variance with those of his number two, Ed Vaizey, who suggested on 22 May that the coalition would shelve Tory plans to freeze the licence fee.

Unless Mr Hunt is blowing hot air, the BBC faces tough times. Aware of the looming threat, it recently announced the closing of its generous pension scheme to new members and a cut of 25 per cent over the next 18 months in its salary bill for top executives. Unfortunately, every austerity measure is accompanied by new admissions of excess. A few days ago it was revealed that the travel expenses of some senior executives have risen, while we recently learnt that the Corporation's payroll went up slightly last year, and that the number of its executives earning more than £100,000 a year increased from 308 to a total of 313.

What a party those boys have been having! The Government knows the BBC remains popular with the public, but it also realises that extravagance on this scale is unacceptable in the present climate. That is why the BBC will suffer the biggest cutback in its history. The BBC Trust and Mark Thompson, the director-general, are much at fault for letting the party go on – in fact, become even wilder – throughout the worse recession since the war.

Unsurprisingly, just when it needs friends, the Corporation discovers it has virtually none in Fleet Street. Of course the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail have long pilloried the BBC out of a mixture of commercial rivalry and ideological disdain. The Daily Telegraph has more recently joined this band.

But even the BBC's natural supporters such as The Guardian seem increasingly browned off, partly because they don't understand why the BBC should escape the cutbacks they are enduring, and partly because its ubiquitous website is seen as a direct competitor. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, recently described the Corporation as "a pain in the neck".

Is it any surprise that the Government should feel able to target the BBC? Mr Thompson has contrived to leave the organisation over which he presides almost friendless. This is a grave error. Of course, he will always have The Guardian's redoubtable Polly Toynbee cheering for him, though she resembles a raucous aunt standing on the touchline at a school match whose cries of support are increasingly drowned out by the opposition.

The importance of Lord Black's other day job

Last Wednesday the Daily Mail's Richard Kay column reported that Guy Black had taken his seat in the House of Lords as a Conservative working peer. The item related that Lord Black was once communications director for the ex-Tory leader Michael Howard as well as a special adviser to the former Energy Secretary Lord Wakeham, who introduced him to the Lords.

However, the Mail made no mention of Lord Black's current job, which is arguably more important than anything else he has done. He is executive director of the Telegraph Group, and right-hand man to Murdoch MacLennan, its chief executive. To omit the Telegraph connection is a bit like writing about the Duke of Wellington without any reference to the Battle of Waterloo.

The reason for the omission is that The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have a bizarre agreement whereby neither paper ever mentions the other. The origin of the deal, which I first wrote about several years ago, was a lingering hope on the part of the Mail that it might one day buy the Telegraph, and so did not wish to risk offending its owners, the Barclay brothers. The possibility of such a purchase may now seem more remote than it once did, but the agreement persists.

Incidentally, no one has speculated about the advantages to David Cameron of having a newly created Tory peer at the heart of the Telegraph Group. Of course, Lord Black would disavow any influence on editorial policy, but he is a wonderfully sinuous character who whispers helpful advice in many ears without causing offence. At the very least he can tell Tony Gallagher, editor of The Daily Telegraph, what David Cameron is thinking, and vice versa.

Not so bonkers after all

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is learning how to play the press. The Daily Mirror "splashed" with a story last Thursday about Boris and another woman. The next day the Daily Mail speculated at length about the paternity of a baby recently born to the same woman. (I wrote an accompanying piece about Boris, whom I know quite well.) So far there have only been half-hearted follow-ups in some of the tabloids.

Why? After all, Boris has form, and is one of the best known politicians in the country. The explanation is that the BBC and the so-called qualities will not generally touch a pure extra-marital-sex-and-politician story. Even The Sun, which normally loves "Bonking Boris" stories, carried only a short item because of its agreement to protect the Tories. Boris's indiscretion a few years ago became national news as a result of his denying it ("an inverted pyramid of piffle") and he was sacked by Michael Howard, then Tory leader, for telling an untruth. This time he has wisely said nothing.

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