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Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

It makes no sense for the Government to shrink the BBC brand online. Unless of course that is its principal objective

James Cusick
Tuesday 07 July 2015 16:55 BST
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s (PA)

Whether plagiarism or favouritism, George Osborne’s new assault on the BBC, accusing it of harbouring “imperial ambitions”, is a straight lift from a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2009. The person delivering that address was James Murdoch.

Then head of the European division of his father Rupert’s global media business, and now the heir to that empire, Murdoch Jnr claimed the BBC’s “dominance” was being achieved through the expansion of “state sponsored” news. He said the Corporation’s ambitions were “chilling” and “free news” on the BBC’s website was making it “incredibly difficult” for private organisations – especially those run by his dad – to get people to fork out their cash.

Much has happened since then: News International’s reputation was shredded through the revelations that criminal activities were part of its culture; News Corp’s potentially lucrative takeover of BSkyB was thwarted; and there was a hesitant divorce between Murdoch Snr and David Cameron’s Conservative Party.

The Chancellor, however, has signalled that the Tory-Murdoch marital bad patch is now over, and the BBC, their joint enemy, is back in the firing line. At the weekend Mr Osborne indicated that the BBC’s website would be scrutinised to ensure it did not crowd out newspapers and their growing websites. “What’s The Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail or The Sun, or the Daily Mirror, going to look like in 10 years?” he asked

Mentioning four Tory-supporting papers, among them two Murdoch-owned titles, was either a slip or, worse, payback marketing. I favour the latter, simply because Mr Osborne said the Government needed to look at the BBC’s website evolving into a de facto online broadsheet. “You wouldn’t want the BBC to completely crowd out national newspapers,” he said. Translation: “I can’t disappoint all those media folk who’ve backed my party and allow this to happen.”

The Chancellor’s mimicry of the Murdoch “imperial” message suggests the Government favours a self-imposed cutback of the £174.4m that the BBC spends on its online activities.

Currently, BBC digital media has an average weekly UK reach of around 25 million. Recent global figures for point to 1.3 billion page views a month from 96 million browsers. If the BBC global news services are important to the UK, if the BBC World Service wants to grow its audience and influence, then it makes no sense at all to shrink the brand online.

Unless of course that is your principal objective.

The competitors are out there. The global top three are not English-speaking sites. China’s Xinhua news agency, People’s Daily Online and China Daily account for 235 million unique visitors a month. Take away the foreigners and the news-only web fight at the top includes the Huffington Post, CNN, the Mail, The Guardian and The New York Times, with the BBC battling inside the top 10. So Mr Osborne is not involved here in some altruistic concern for the news market. The Treasury doesn’t believe the BBC is a distorting influence. No. His “imperial” criticism is the product of aggressive lobbying that wants a clear-out of the UK state broadcaster simply to increase the pickings for everyone else.

Mr Osborne’s deliberate misreading of the Corporation’s web presence masks the connection with the rest of the BBC’s output and how audiences are shaped. It’s convenient for critics of the BBC, either commercial or political, to paint a picture of malevolent state influence. It has been accused of being the British equivalent of the old Gosteleradio, or the “USSR State Committee for Television and Radio”. Its chairman was a member of the Soviet government, there was no licence fee, and state budgets took care of all running costs. So, not quite the BBC.

Similarly in East Germany, the “state” broadcaster did an obvious job. But audience, even without the profit motive, was still important.

Frustrated that the East German population tuned in to broadcasts from the West, the communist government erected a huge transmitter in 1983 that could reach the West’s TV sets, bought a cache of Robert Redford films, including Butch Cassidy and All the President’s Men, and broadcast them at the same time West Germany’s main news bulletin went out.

The UK government in the 1920s failed to see the importance of “seeing by wireless” (as The Times called early TV). So it would be easier to imagine that Mr Osborne is simply part of the latest generation of ill-informed Luddites like AA Campbell Swinton, who in 1928 complained: “We are being led to expect that the public will sit at home in their armchairs and be able to watch moving images!”

From the day in 1922 when the first radio news was aired, to 1948 when hard news first appeared in its TV newsreels, to 1953 when the first dedicated TV news bulletin was aired, BBC News has been through an endless flow of technological changes in its delivery – satellite technology, digital graphics, live broadcasting from reporters on location, the switch from film to fast digital editing. Almost nothing inside, or indeed outside, a television news operation has remained the same, apart from the requirement to write a script and decide what stories need to be told – and even that has changed with the expansion of 24- hour news channels.

The key objective of BBC News is to inform and analyse – and if the news website is seen as just an additional opportunity to explain, rather than as a separate standalone business, then what Mr Osborne is asking for is a reduction in the BBC’s ability to tell us what the hell is going on, every day, everywhere, without a break.

So is the online budget worth it? And what “issues” inside the BBC does the Chancellor want to look at? The BBC, like the NHS, is perhaps an accidental state asset. It deserves better than this Government engaging in phoney excuses to limit its authority.

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