There are few institutions in British society so loved as the BBC. It is surprising then, that culture secretary John Whittingdale has had the audacity to present to parliament a green paper outlining potential changes in the future scale and scope of the BBC. The organisation is undoubtedly the relic of a bygone era, especially the archaic and arbitrary way that it is funded. Yet, having a debate about this large and successful media giant, presents a world of possibilities about the future relationship between Britain’s public institutions and an impatient cash-strapped public.
I have a confession to make, I actually quite like the BBC. I don’t often watch much telly, but when I do it is usually a BBC programme. I think that some of the documentaries on BBC4 are great. Furthermore, my Thursday nights wouldn’t be the same without the ritual of sitting back and being reliably outraged about what various politicians are saying on Question Time. My morning drive to work is usually accompanied by the Today Show and my journey home allows me to catch up on the day’s news with PM. I must also admit that I often rely on the BBC NEWS app on my phone to deliver my ‘breaking news’ if not the analysis. I love the RADIO 1 Rock Show and the Punk Show and genuinely got very into the Bake-Off this year. If the license fee was abolished tomorrow, the chances are that I would be one of the millions of people subscribing to a newly privatised BBC.
It already looks like the BBC approving public have taken up defensive positions. The Conservative’s insistence that the license fee be scrapped for over 75s has been a sudden and intrusive act of vandalism in the eyes of aunties’ most ardent supporters. On RADIO 4’s Moral Maze this week, Giles Fraser vociferously lamented the delinquency of ’conservatives who don’t want to conserve anything’, ripping the heart out the British community and accused the IEA’s Ryan Bourne of ‘free market fundamentalism’.
In the eyes of many free-market folk, the new challenge to the broadcasting behemoth is a welcome one. Yet, a closer look at the facts about Whittingdale’s green paper reveals that it is much less radical than many of us expected. It would appear the panel tasked with assessing the BBC is made up of representatives from private broadcasting organisations and industry experts, surely a clear statement of intent that the BBC is going to be carved up? Not quite, what strikes me about the green paper is how cautious it is. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that in true Cameronesque style, the Tories are talking tough but won’t end up delivering anything remotely radical. I predict that as soon as Whittingdale’s pals in the broadcasting industry are appeased, he will renew the royal charter with little alteration.
This is unfortunate, however with any luck this could be a much needed watershed moment. It is quite clear that the modern BBC goes well beyond the remit for a ‘public service’ broadcaster. Something about news readers having celebrity status and managers with sky-high salaries should make license fee payers wince as they cough up a mandatory £145 every year. It’s quite clear that the BBC wants to be a slick global broadcasting empire, like CNN or Al Jazeera, and I am quite happy to let that happen…but not with taxpayers’ money.
In fact, I would argue that the BBC could have the potential to be a commercialised miracle. Part of the reason why privatisation has such a bad name in Britain is because it has been done so badly. However, with a globally recognised and prestigious brand, a privatised BBC doesn’t have to be a ‘fire sale’; it could be a grand unleashing. Furthermore, as Allister Heath and Ryan Bourne have suggested, in the short term the government could easily provide funding for ‘public service’ programming on a case by case basis. But a blanket license fee in the digital age is clearly unjust.
Another aspect of what will inevitably become a game of political football is the snobbery shown by some supporters of the BBC. I am referring to the idea that without public funding, programmes about philosophy, classical music or obscure melodramas simply couldn’t exist. I would ask people who hold such views to visit their nearest corner shop, and stare at the magazine rack. Despite printed media being one of the most competitive industries in the country, there is no shortage of highbrow reading. For every copy of Nuts, The Daily Star and Closer; there is National Geographic, The Financial Times and Private Eye. I believe that this view held by many; is snobbish nihilism of the worst kind, that the masses requires rivers of freely flowing taxpayers money to have enlightening material rammed down their throats, it is truly absurd.
The real losers of the BBC’s review will be the people who want to see the organisation crushed and humiliated. The Murdoch press, Guido Fawkes fans and anyone who has ever said ‘The British Bolshevik Corporation’ will be disappointed by John Whittingdale’s assessment. I would also like to add here that we shouldn’t be overly enthusiastic about the Culture Secretary giving the BBC a bloody nose, reducing one part of government whilst expanding another couldn’t be described as much of a victory.