Former BBC producer Patrick Howse demolishes the arguments for the licence fee to be scrapped, but fears that the outgoing Director General Tony Hall has been a ‘useful idiot’ for those who want to destroy the public service broadcaster.
Debunking the Netflix Comparison
The Government, fresh from its electoral triumph and the ‘delivery’ of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, has set out its stall early by going after the BBC at the first opportunity.
The Culture Secretary Lady Nicky Morgan launched a consultation into the future of the licence fee with a round of media interviews comparing the BBC to the defunct video rental company Blockbuster and wishing it could be more like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Both are subscription services, the argument goes, and both charge considerably less per year than the £154.50 annual TV licence fee.
This reasoning really only takes a few seconds to knock down.
Talking to former BBC colleagues this week one phrase has recurred several times in relation to Lord Hall: “Tony was a useful idiot”.
Netflix and Amazon provide streaming services, not news. By contrast, in return for the licence fee, viewers can watch BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, CBBC and CBeebies; and listen to Radio 1, 1X, 2, 3, 4, 5 Live (and Sports Extra), 6 Music, the Asian Network, and national stations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Along with this come major symphony orchestras, the BBC website, apps, iPlayer, BBC Sounds, local radio stations, international services and lots more.
Netflix is billions of dollars in debt and runs at a loss, while Amazon subsidises its service with income from the company’s other activities – neither has a proven business model. There are no broadcasting or value-for-money arguments for ditching the TV licence.
The Real Political Agenda
But there are ideological arguments. Many on what would have once been called the right-wing of the Conservative Party – but must now be characterised as mainstream Conservatives – believe that the licence fee is an unfair compulsory tax, a view Dominic Cummings (the UK’s top unelected bureaucrat) has long held.
This ideological antipathy to the BBC is far more important for conservative thinking than any notion of liberal bias (though that is present too). It poses an existential threat to the Corporation and has resulted in an ongoing and relentless squeeze on funding over many years.
Last week, the BBC’s head of news, Fran Unsworth, announced £40 million cuts in her division alone (part of the £80 million of cuts announced in 2016), resulting in 450 job losses and the closure of the Bafta-winning Victoria Derbyshire programme. Newsnight, 5 Live and the World Service also took hits.
BBC insiders fear that these cuts will do nothing to appease its enemies inside Government, but will have the effect of making the BBC’s news less distinctive and interesting, and will further alienate audiences.
There’s a real concern that news teams (which are already making high-profile mistakes – such as BBC News at Ten mistakenly showing images of LeBron James in its coverage of the death of his fellow basketball star Kobe Bryant last month) will be stretched beyond breaking. There’s also a lot of anger that people affected by the recently announced cuts found out about them from reading newspapers.
Lord Hall, the BBC’s outgoing Director General, probably genuinely feels that he has tried to steer a sound editorial course through dangerous waters. I have written previously in these pages about my unhappiness with the BBC’s editorial approach, particularly in the past four years. The BBC was caught out by the Brexit Referendum and did not have an answer to a new phenomenon that quickly emerged during the campaign: politicians deliberately lying.
The Cost of Lies and False Balance
This may sound odd but, in my longish experience of dealing with and listening to UK politicians, outright lies were rare.
The BBC initially had no answer when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and the others started campaigning on the basis of a lie – that leaving the EU would free-up ‘£350 million a week’ for the NHS. The BBC did what it has often done in times of uncertainty – it resorted to false “balance”.
In Lord Andrew Adonis’ memorable phrase, the BBC “rounded 52% up to 100, and rounded 48% down to zero”.
So, for example, when the Conservative MP and doctor Sarah Wollaston changed sides during the 2016 EU Referendum and denounced the ‘£350 million a week’ lie, the BBC immediately “balanced” her comments with those of John Redwood, who repeated the lie. The audience was presented with a confusing “she says this, but he says that” narrative which left them none the wiser, and no better informed. The Truth is not the midpoint between a fact and a lie.
Once the Referendum result was known, the BBC was terrified of being portrayed as being part of the ‘out-of-touch liberal elite’. Lord Hall decreed that BBC programmes should make it clear that Britain would be leaving the EU (even though that was by no means certain, as subsequent parliamentary events showed), and there was a lot of talk about the debate being over (even though it had barely begun). In Lord Andrew Adonis’ memorable phrase, the BBC “rounded 52% up to 100, and rounded 48% down to zero”.
Talking to former BBC colleagues this week, one phrase has recurred several times in relation to Lord Hall: “Tony was a useful idiot” – and there is a feeling among some experienced old BBC hands that he bent over backwards in his efforts to appease the right and England’s Brexit voters.
Lord Hall announced his departure from the BBC last month (he’s off to the National Gallery to add to his amazing collection of establishment sinecures). The BBC will now have to replace him, and it is already coming under political pressure. Johnson and Cummings, we’re told, want a say in that appointment. That’s something we should all be very concerned about, whether or not they succeed.
Representing a Divided Country
Of course, there have always been people who’ve hated the BBC. On the right, aside from the resentments related to the licence fee, there has always been suspicion that the BBC is populated by unsound lefties. On the left, there has been very vocal criticism of the BBC’s coverage of the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
It has often been said within the corridors of Television Centre and Broadcasting House that “if we’re being attacked by left and right, we’re probably not doing very much wrong”. But, what the BBC has still not realised, is that those criticisms have broken out of their traditional bunkers.
Pro-EU centrists, the “Unashamed Remainers” (to use John Humphrys’ disgraceful description), now feel that they have been let down. They expected the BBC to hold politicians to account, not to repeatedly “balance” those who were basically telling the truth with others who were more than happy to lie. The people who turned out on pro-EU protests in their hundreds of thousands have in many cases turned off the BBC. These are people who once would have gone out onto the streets to defend a beloved institution. Will they now?
One sign of hope is radio. The latest Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar) audience figures, covering the last quarter of 2019, saw increases of half a million for 5 Live, and even the Today programme appears to have added about 400,000 to its audience (Humphrys left in September). The audience for linear, traditional radio is holding up much better in the face of competition from online services than television is and, in fact, appears to be growing. This might be one reason why Rupert Murdoch is keen to break into this sector, with the planned launch, announced last month, of a new talk-radio service, Times Radio. The BBC has very powerful enemies.
However, there is another big cloud on the horizon: the United Kingdom is more divided now than at any time in the corporation’s history.
Brexit, the prospect of Scottish independence and other very divisive issues have caused deep, unhealed wounds. Since its foundation, the BBC has been very good at bringing the country together through comedy, sports events, drama, science and natural history, and being a trusted source of news when the chips are down.
It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of the BBC but, sadly, times have changed. Ignoring the 48% of voters who wanted to Remain in the EU, the failure to hold liars to account (or even to think, as Lord Hall does, that it is not the BBC’s job to point out that someone is a liar), and the continued pressure for Scottish independence leave a question that the BBC has closed its eyes to: what happens to an institution that has always glued the country together when the country seems to be falling apart?