Former BBC producer Patrick Howse speaks to those inside the Corporation about the threats facing it at the hands of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.
Boris Johnson may be intent on making his Cabinet behave, but he appears not to be content with meek colleagues and subservient newspapers. He – and his favourite unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat Dominic Cummings – have decided to go after the BBC.
John Whittingdale was not in the room as the new reshuffled Cabinet bleated its obedience to its leader, but the newly appointed Minister of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was presumably lurking somewhere in Whitehall’s corridors of power. He is a former Culture Secretary, who has been brought back to the same department in a more junior role – an appointment that raises a few questions.
An article in this weekend’s Sunday Times made it clear that the BBC is in for it. The article quoted “a senior source” from No. 10 as saying “we are not bluffing on the licence fee. We are having a consultation and we will whack it. It has to be a subscription model”. The source told the newspaper that the public service broadcaster will have to become smaller because “they’ve got hundreds of radio stations, they’ve got all these TV stations and a massive website. The whole thing needs massive pruning back”.
The comments have drawn criticism from Conservative MPs including Damian Green who tweeted that “destroying the BBC wasn’t in our manifesto and would be cultural vandalism”.
But these attacks come at a time when the BBC feels unsure of where it’s going. The Director General Lord Hall is leaving and a replacement is yet to be appointed. Some alarming names – including Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth – have been floated as possible replacements. It adds up to a climate of fear for the national broadcaster.
“This is real boot on the throat stuff – it’s all about making the BBC compliant and docile,” says Meirion Jones, a former BBC journalist who was instrumental in breaking the Jimmy Savile abuse story – the row over which led to his departure from the Corporation.
“The BBC is set to lose the licence fee in 2027 and it’s now been put on notice that that can be brought forward at any time,” he told me. “It’s direct, obvious pressure – anything they do now will be immediately punished. One mis-step and that could be it. Anything controversial has to go up to the Director General, as editor-in-chief. With a threat like this hanging over them they’re not going to do anything to rock the boat.”
It is worth restating that the BBC does much more than news and politics. It is a massively important cultural institution which has helped shape Britain for almost a century. It is also a global brand that has enabled this country to punch way above its weight. From local radio to the natural history Unit, from CBeebies to Test Match Special, it serves its listeners, viewers and readers with unforgettable programming across every platform.
The BBC still inspires love from its audiences and from the people who work for it, many of whom continue to be willing to risk their lives for it. And that’s partly why the likes of Cummings and Boris Johnson fear and hate it – because, at its best, it is brave, brilliant and out of their control.
Re-Enter John Whittingdale
However, the BBC’s headquarters are in London, not Heaven, which means that it’s not perfect. I have written about its failings over Brexit and related issues and I’m not alone in recognising those very serious shortcomings. It is already too slow to rock the boat and has lost the support of many who would have once supported it.
Despite all this, former BBC current affairs journalist John Sweeney is one of many who have been quick to support the Corporation. “My timeline on Twitter is crowded with people ripping great lumps out of me for defending the BBC,” he told me. He left the organisation last year over a row about a Panorama documentary, which has not yet been broadcast, about the far-right rabble-rouser known as ‘Tommy Robinson’, but he still believes “passionately” in the BBC. “It is a noble thing. I am worried that Boris, Dom and Co are out to smash it to pieces by a thousand cuts. To take away the licence fee would be the biggest blow.”
There must be serious doubts that Tony Hall’s successor as Director General is going to have the guts to properly hold such a Government to account. One very experienced investigative journalist, who still works for the BBC, told me that the news department has too many layers of timid management and needs a shake-up.
“No decision can ever be made quickly and too many people are covering their arses rather than making the ethically, morally, or editorially correct decision,” the journalist said. “But – and it’s a big but – it seems as if people like Johnson, Cummings and Whittingdale are not interested in making a strong, healthy press but want to neutralise any potentially strong critical voices, a la Trump.”
Some in the BBC see the weekend’s events as clumsy bluster. “I think it’s mostly c*ck-waving for the Sunday Times to be honest,” one former colleague told me. “They’ll never sell English local radio, it’s too strong a public service and MPs like appearing on it. Plus the commercial sector is all about rationalising into a national network at the moment.” However, in the longer term, “I don’t see a future for a public BBC post-2027,” he said, reflecting a growing sense of pessimism among many BBC staff.
It is clear that “the senior No. 10 source” who spoke to the Sunday Times clearly doesn’t fully grasp the meaning of “consultation”, having already made up his mind before anyone else has told the Government what they think. And we may be excused for being confused about which sense of the word “whack” he intended – did he mean a Chicago gangster whack, as in a hit, or did he mean chastisement?
Which brings me back to John Whittingdale. When he was appointed Culture Secretary by David Cameron in 2015, the journalist Peter Oborne wrote that his views on the BBC “repay inspection”. “The new Culture Secretary is the spokesman for a very powerful body of right-wing opinion which has long been determined to weaken and even to destroy the BBC as a national institution, and clearly sees its opportunity in the wake of the 2015 General Election victory,” Oborne wrote in openDemocracy.
Whittingdale didn’t survive long in his post. In April 2016, newspapers reported that he had been involved in a six-month relationship with a female sex worker – he said he had been unaware of his girlfriend’s true occupation after meeting her online. He survived, but was sacked when Theresa May took office later that year.
That “very powerful body of right wing opinion” Peter Oborne wrote about is now in power, unchallenged and ravening and, behind it, are media organisations desperate to get their teeth into the BBC’s dismembered carcass. They all hate the ideal of public service broadcasting that reaches into every home in the country and which is funded by what they present as a “regressive tax”.
John Sweeney views Whittingdale’s appointment as “both silly and dark, all at the same time”.
“He was disgraced after he hid a freebie he took with a sex worker from the House of Commons register of interests,” he told me. “As an MP, he took far too many freebies thanks to a British-Ukrainian friendship group funded by pro-Kremlin oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is now a fugitive from the FBI. Whittingdale is one of the Kremlin’s useful idiots.”
He is also a politician who might have something to gain from a compliant, docile media.