Speaking Truth Unto the BBC
Charles Moore, one of the BBC’s most trenchant critics, discusses its future with its former chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, and the Editor of Standpoint, Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnson: Charles, you object to the continuing employment of Jonathan Ross and you’ve decided that as long as he is still at the BBC you won’t pay your licence fee. I know this is part of a wider critique of the BBC, but why do you feel so strongly as to risk prosecution?
Charles Moore: Well, sometimes a particular event brings to the fore something that has been going on for ages, and the Jonathan Ross affair was the BBC’s credit crunch. So he is, as it were, its Fred Goodwin. What it exposes is how a culture has gone wrong. What you have is the triumphalism of the organisation and the over-indulgence of the star, at the expense of the presumed and often stated values of the corporation, and at the expense of the interests of the licence payer.
And so a corruption that has been building for a long time suddenly appears manifest and dramatic, so that the chap who is paid more than anybody has ever been paid in the history of the BBC by miles — and presumably where your treasure is, there should your heart be also — makes these telephone calls with Russell Brand to Andrew Sachs. And the point about them is not just that they were vile phone calls — this wasn’t just off-duty misbehaviour of a star. This was for the show. No, the big idea was that it was a very funny thing to do and that it should be broadcast. And right down the line all the key people either agreed or did nothing about it. And so you could see the whole organisation from star to editor to gofer agreeing with it and, judging by what came out afterwards, thinking how marvellous it was. And then only afterwards beginning to think.
And that showed to me this systemic problem, in which the BBC has lost touch with what it is supposed to be. And since we the listeners or viewers have no power in this matter because we can’t take our business elsewhere, the only way that I feel one can effectively protest is to refuse to pay the licence fee. And go on watching TV. I’m going to challenge the BBC’s right to make me pay it just to watch TV.
DJ: Christopher, you were Chairman of the BBC Governors from 1996 to 2001 and still strongly support the corporation’s broad principles. Why is Charles wrong to be doing what he’s doing?
Christopher Bland: I don’t think he is wrong. I think Ross should have been fired. I think it was egregiously bad behaviour. Where I would disagree with Charles is in two things: I don’t think the BBC’s response was triumphal. It was inadequate, it was late, it wasn’t thought through, and it didn’t deal with the key protagonists anything like severely enough. But it wasn’t triumphal — the BBC knew that it had got it wrong, it just didn’t respond in a sufficiently firm way.
I also would add that I don’t think Ross is worth going to jail for [laughter] and I shall make sure that Charles doesn’t go to jail because he won’t like it at all and the jail won’t like him either. I shall pay the licence fee on his behalf, and I don’t think he can stop me!
DJ: But there clearly is a loss of public confidence in the BBC, isn’t there? There was a recent poll in the Guardian which showed that 77 per cent think it is an institution that people should be proud of, but that 57 per cent think it has gone downmarket. And there is widespread unease about figures like Ross, not just because they’re so grotesquely overpaid but simply because they have this institutional arrogance. Doesn’t the rot start right at the top?
CB: Plainly it is the top that was responsible for that decision and it is wrong. But does it mean that it is systemic, that it’s institutionalised? That’s a far bigger step than I would care to take. By and large, the 77 per cent were right — the BBC is something we should be proud of, are proud of most of the time. Charles, you’re Catholic, aren’t you?
CB: Well, it’s a bit like the ur-Catholic Church, the ideal, just as there’s the ur-BBC, and then there’s the reality: the two aren’t the same. The closer that the reality approximates to the ideal the happier we all shall be, and the BBC falls short of that from time to time. But the idea that serious errors are systemic and happen all the time is wrong.
CM: Can I just suggest a different interpretation of the failure of people to complain? There could be two possible ones. One is that there’s absolutely no point in complaining to the BBC — you just get enmeshed in boring bureaucracy and patronising letters which tell you that you don’t have a sense of humour. And the other could be — and it rather makes my point, that public taste has been corrupted — that there is quite a large audience for certain programmes which likes watching detestable scenes of people being insulted. I’m not saying that should be against the law, but I am saying I shouldn’t be made to pay for it.
I think the BBC is a bit like the Church of England in the 19th century before the commutation of the tithes. You had to pay the tithes to the Church regardless of your faith because it was the state religion. As a result, the CofE became to some extent corrupt, very rich and, as it were, indulged its stars. This was gradually recognised to be indefensible in a plural liberal society. Why should a Jew, or a Catholic, or a non-believer be maintaining the CofE in a comfortable manner? So as part of the widening of British society, tithes were abolished. The Church is still the established Church, but it’s not paid for by the taxpayer — rightly so.
But then broadcasting came along in the 1920s and we decided we would replicate the idea of Henry VIII’s establishment in the airwaves. We did it in quite a Henry VIII way actually, because we didn’t allow any competition to start with and then we only allowed some competition very reluctantly. And we did it in the name of values, believing that we were doing something wonderfully British, and good, and deep, and “Nation shall speak peace unto nation” and all the rest of it. That seems to me to be a very difficult thing to defend in any free society, but I do acknowledge that in the early days the BBC took those values seriously. I would not wish for a broadcasting system to be constructed in that way, but there’s no doubt that it did try. Therefore it produced very high quality programmes.
That seems to me to have long disappeared and the coherence has been lost, and it’s become much more imperial. And it’s partly because it feels it has to capture every area of broadcasting. So the church has lost its way but not unfortunately lost its power and its money, and that seems to me to be wrong, and illiberal. And the fact that most of the people who run the BBC are called “liberals” in the sense that those are their political views…
CB: By whom?
CM: In general, they would be recognised as what people mean by liberal. It’s undeniable that the ethos of the BBC is liberal in the sense that people use that word meaning “vaguely lefty”.
CB: You mean like Andrew Neil? You call him liberal?
CM: No, but he doesn’t run it. On the whole it’s undeniable that the ethos of the BBC is liberal in the sense that people use that word meaning “vaguely lefty”.
CB: Well, it’s plainly deniable, because there was a rather good article in the New Statesman recently, saying that the BBC is a rather right-wing organisation. I don’t believe that either.
CM: I’m saying these people are “liberals” but nevertheless it is an illiberal system. If you tell this to an American they can scarcely believe that it’s against the law to watch live television in this country unless you pay money to the BBC.
CB: The same American will tell you that he wishes he had a broadcasting service producing as high-quality, impartial news and current affairs and drama as the BBC. The two go together. And because you don’t like, for reasons of free market purity, the system of funding, you find it difficult to recognise the strength of the BBC’s output.
CM: It’s not really a free-market point — it’s a freedom point. And I don’t agree with the idea that we have impartial news. Let’s take the best of all BBC news programmes — the Today programme: you can always tell by the way it’s presented who’s in the dock and who’s the hero. First, that’s not the way an impartial programme should be done. Second, the person who is usually in the dock is a person who is considered to be bad from a soft left-liberal position. It’s not something you could prove in a court of law, but it’s perfectly obvious to me. For example, how many times would there be a thing on the Today programme in which an industrial producer was the hero of a story about the environment and Friends of the Earth was the villain? How often would it be the case that an anti-homosexual preacher was the hero and a gay rights advocate was the villain? How often would it be the case that an Ulster Unionist was the hero and an Irish nationalist was the villain? I think you honestly couldn’t deny that those things were discernible.
CB: But I do deny it. I think you’re mistaking a very inquisitorial style for a parti pris position by the inquisitor. I genuinely think that isn’t the case. It was Today that, with all its flaws, exposed the government’s sexing up of the Iraq dossier — and this is an allegedly liberal, left-leaning organisation.
CM: But that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about — it did it from a left-liberal position. It had grossly inflated Blair as a hero when he came in because he was supposed to represent a left-liberal government against a Tory government and it was bitterly against the Iraq war for normal left-liberal reasons. So those of us who supported the war thought that the way the BBC covered the dossier, and the way it attempted to undermine the government by attacking it in this respect, was outrageous. And it did it from a left liberal position.
CB: I don’t think that’s right. Today was trying to find out what had actually happened. And what had actually happened was egregious interference with that dossier, and you couldn’t support that however much you supported the war. At the time, I supported the war. I no longer do, but I still think the BBC did an outstanding job in pointing out the very flawed basis on which it turned out we’d gone into it.
CM: What was very clear was that they were out to get the government because they were against the Iraq war. And it went on and on, and that’s why quite rightly [Greg] Dyke had to go, and the Hutton report [on the BBC and the Iraq war] did its work.
CB: The Hutton report was a complete whitewash!
CM: I don’t agree with that. My point, the dossier point, is that it’s an absolutely classic example of the BBC imposing its left-liberal views on the news agenda.
CB: That simply demonstrates that you’re always going to see whatever the BBC does through a rather strange set of lenses.
CM: But do you really think there’s nothing in this? The burden of my case is not only political bias. That’s why I’m acting on the basis of Ross. But nevertheless do you really think it is pure fantasy that it’s the conservative commentators in newspapers who are more worried about the BBC than, say, the Guardian? Are they just completely wrong?
CB: The Guardian is frequently worried about the BBC.
CM: Surely, Christopher, this is silly. The Guardian is essentially trying to defend the BBC. Papers like the Mail or the Telegraph or the Sunday Times are much more critical, and that reflects the political views which tend to be reflected by the BBC.
DJ: Is it the case that the licence fee, the quasi-monopolistic funding system that we have, has created an institutional culture at the BBC which is monolithic and over-mighty, as for example James Murdoch has suggested recently, at Edinburgh? Is Charles completely wrong to see this as rather sinister — the word James Murdoch used was “chilling”?
CB: I’m a good deal more chilled by James Murdoch than I am by the BBC. I think that his MacTaggart lecture was very poor and ill thought-out. An organisation that kicked the BBC off the Star satellite in order to please the Chinese, and failed to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs for the same reason, was a very odd source for concern about the BBC as a state-sponsored monopoly of news.
It’s very clear that, whatever else the BBC is, it is not a state broadcasting organisation in the conventional sense. And one of the great acts of self-denial by parliament was to distance the BBC’s funding and its control from a government department, or from parliament itself. So the BBC’s independence of government, although not perfect, is extraordinary.
CM: But then the question is, if that distancing takes place, to whom is power given? The answer is to the BBC. It has this intensely privileged position, because if you can collect the money — and under the hypothecated tax you collect all money — and don’t have to answer to a minister or to parliament, except via the charter, and your money is secure, because people have to pay it or they get punished, then you have the most incredible power.
CB: First of all, I agree, it is the most incredible power, and if from time to time it’s abused, that is to the detriment of society. But it’s not often abused. Second, I believe — but you do not — this separation creates the genuine independence of the BBC, and contributes to its strength as a broadcaster.
It collects the licence fee, but there are other sources of broadcasting income that it has no part of: there is advertising revenue which goes to ITV and Channel 4, who are currently being heavily squeezed. Then there’s the elephant in the room, which is subscription TV, dominated by the real monopolies of those twin battering rams, as Rupert Murdoch described them, sport and films. It’s absolutely clear that Sky are not prepared to share these, for understandable commercial reasons.
But the BBC’s power, while it’s a source of arrogance from time to time, is also the reason why it continues to make outstanding radio and TV programmes and the best online news service in Europe.
CM: I want to come back to that word “chilling”. I’m not sure why James Murdoch used it, but I want to use it not in the sense of a horror film being chilling, or the Nazis being chilling, but in the sense of a libel chill — the chill that is cast by a certain sort of power. The BBC chills our culture, because it makes it so hard to compete with it.
The classic recent example is its internet presence — all the licence fee comes through the television, and yet it’s being used to subsidise something which millions of licence-fee payers don’t have, which is the internet. And the effect of that is to chill the development of the internet for newspapers, because it is impossible for any newspaper to do news with the amount of money behind it that the BBC puts behind it. It produces a pretty good website, the BBC, but the damage, the chill, done to opportunity for everyone else in society is great.
I’m not saying that particularly for the commercial interest of any newspaper that I write for, because I think that this chill has an effect right through the culture, both commercially and in other ways. It means that a certain sort of view of things can be constantly promoted through the BBC, and by implication other views aren’t — that includes political views, commercial opportunities, cultural variety, what happens in different parts of the country and so on. The church naturally wishes to reiterate its power, and therefore it wishes to crush the other sects that might otherwise grow up in the little tin tabernacle down the road, and the Radio Carolines of religion, as it were.
CB: You’ve got a very short memory, because you forget that until the BBC took the internet seriously, no newspaper had shown serious interest in developing it. It was the BBC when I was there — and it was one of the much-maligned John Birt’s real contributions, both to the BBC and to the UK information society — that recognised the internet, long before anyone else did.
CM: As a point of fact, it wasn’t, because we started the internet Telegraph in 1995, I think.
CB: The BBC was absolutely at the heart of the development of the internet in the UK as a news medium. I agree there is now a problem for which the solution is not clear: with BBC Online being free, it makes it very difficult for newspapers to charge for their online services.
This is also the case in America, where the BBC doesn’t exist as an online force, so you can’t pin the problem solely on the BBC. It’s not clear that, if you abolished the BBC website overnight, the newspapers would suddenly be able to charge, because that isn’t the case in the US. Rupert Murdoch says he wishes he could do it, but the risk is that if you start charging and everybody else doesn’t, you’ll lose market share and your audience. It is a real dilemma.
CM: Isn’t that part of a wider problem, which is that one of the doctrines of the BBC seems to be that it has to go on and on into every realm of communication and that this has become an absurdity? Isn’t that what James Murdoch is talking about? He’s talking about the idea of spectrum scarcity, when there is no longer such a thing. The BBC doctrine is that you must conquer each new piece of territory, otherwise someone else will, and then people will say, why should we pay you the licence fee? This has had a bad cultural effect for the homogenising and semi-dictatorial reasons that I talk about. It’s also becoming impossible.
CB: What’s becoming impossible?
CM: The BBC’s ability to conquer every form of medium and to make sure it extracts money from everybody using the medium. The technological change is so great. So it’s highly unlikely that in ten or 20 years you can get the money out of people — already if you look at the warning letters I get from TV licensing when I don’t pay, they always explain about all the different ways in which you can watch TV and for which you should have a licence. So it’s no longer just on the television, it’s on the mobile phone, it’s on the internet, it’s on all sorts of things. The BBC is at the very simplest level going to have an enforcement problem. And at the organisational level it’s going to try to run something that can’t be run. This is something that already happened a long time ago, because the values that people think are worthwhile about the BBC are values which depend on an editorial voice which runs through it, which is impossible if you grow beyond a certain size. Once upon a time, the BBC, obviously under Reith, but in a different, more lefty way under Hugh Greene, had an identity. It had something that it believed in, and it propagated, and though its defenders will claim that’s still the case, I don’t really think it is. I think what it really is, is a massive great bureaucracy.
Even if I thought better of it than I do, my argument is that it can’t survive. I’m not saying it will die tomorrow, but it is an idea whose time has gone. It’s like the British Empire in 1930 — it exists, but it’s on the way out.
CB: The BBC is exactly the kind of organisation that is producing the kinds of programmes that make your 77 per cent feel proud. You listen to Radio 4 quite a lot, don’t you?
CB: What would you do without it?
CM: You’re right that I think a lot of Radio 4 is valuable — not just valuable, but valuable in a unique way. I haven’t really seen that replicated in any other form of radio. That might also be true of Radio 3.
CB: It is true of Radio 3.
CM: Yes, but if you maintain the view that the BBC has to try to do everything, you constantly refuse to think about what would happen if it didn’t do everything but if it did some things. If it were to do some things that we can all be proud of, then it couldn’t be financed in the same way, because it would be wrong to take money from everyone compulsorily for a much narrower range of things. However, it might be considered less wrong if the BBC took less money. I mean, if the licence fee were halved, the indignation against paying it would obviously reduce and perhaps give you breathing space. So I would like to try and start the argument about what to do next.
If Radio 4 is a treasured institution, as I think it is, isn’t it about time that we started thinking seriously about how that could be funded in a way which was not unfair for other reasons?
For example, is there a form of subscription that it could be funded by, in which it was encrypted and you could listen to it that way, rather like the airwaves equivalent of the National Trust? Or could the listeners to Radio 4 tolerate free riders? Could we just agree to contribute to the annual cost, broken down individually, even though we knew that lots of people would listen to it for free? This is, after all, what happens already, but we’d have to do it by agreement rather than by legal compulsion. I’d like to start all those type of arguments, because most of the BBC is not particularly distinguishable as the BBC. If you turn on the TV, most of the programmes are very much the same you might get anywhere else.
CB: I absolutely disagree. If you take a look at today’s schedule, if you look at what’s on BBC 1 and 2, it is quite different to that which is on ITV or Sky — quite different and better, more orginal, more eclectic and of a higher quality, doing things in peak time that the other broadcasters simply wouldn’t do.
CM: I don’t agree with that, and I don’t really agree with the point that’s often made in the comparison that it’s so rotten in the US — it seems to me not so obviously true.
CB: Then you and I have real difficulty arguing, because if you think that American TV would produce a better outcome for the viewer and listener in the UK, then I’m sorry for you. I hope that your views receive no currency.
CM: Thank you for your sympathy, Christopher.
CB: It’s heartfelt.
CM: But the point is partly about cost. There is no model of a wonderful television set-up in any country in the world. You’re right that one of the consequences of what I’m talking about will be more bad things. But it will also be more good things. This whole idea that there can only be a certain amount, and that therefore it’s very important that some wise and good people have power over this amount, is both an oppressive and an out-of-date idea. No one thinks this about books. Once upon a time, books were controlled by the Catholic Church, by State licence to print, by the difficulties of the actual physical object that printed the book, by the cost of getting the leather and the paper, and the rest of it. Now there are books, books, books. And a huge proportion of them is crap, and some of them are marvellous, and it’s free — it’s a medium which is at liberty to do what it wants. That’s even more true of the internet. And it’s true, because of the increasingly low cost of technology, of television.
CB: The internet is free in the sense which you would like to reverse, because you would, understandably, and I agree with that, like to see newspapers charging.
CM: My point is simply that technology has a tendency to create greater freedom at a lower cost. This is not an unmixed blessing, but it is nevertheless a blessing. It’s perverse to go against it. The consequence of this is that things like the BBC pass into history. And what I want to do is to help it pass into history, and get the bits that are of value and think of how to project them into the new era. What I feel now about the bureaucrats who run the BBC is that they’re all scared, they’re all worried, sad people. I met the head of comedy the other day — I’ve never met a gloomier person in all my life!
CB: Oh well, clowns are always gloomy.
CM: That’s true, yes. But it’s because they sort of know that they are doomed. They’re very powerful and they’ve got a bit of life in them yet, but they can’t have the courage of their convictions because then they get attacked. So what they do is have an act of listening to everybody all the time. And what they’re really doing is trying to defend an extraordinary bureaucratic apparatus for as long as they possibly can, and that seems to me to be soul-destroying. The BBC is full of negativity, and I would like it to move into a more creative area, which means getting rid of most of it.
DJ: Next year the new government will have to think about what to do about this. There really are only three ways to fund a thing like the BBC. Either you stick with the system that you have, which has the huge advantage that it is accepted broadly by most people, because it’s been there for a long time.
CB: Except Charles.
DJ: A lot of other people don’t like it too.
CB: Who likes paying taxes?
DJ: Nobody does and it is a regressive tax. But the other two things are advertising and subscription, and there isn’t really another alternative. They all have a downside.
CB: They do. Advertising you can rule out, because there isn’t enough of it to go round the existing channels. If you tossed the BBC into the equation it would become the most powerful commercial broadcaster in the UK overnight, and that would destroy ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Subscription is possible, but I think the licence fee remains, with all its imperfections, the best way of funding a service which I admire.
CM: To come back to the point about costs, it is relevant, because costs always develop when there is protection of the entity, when there is monopoly or quasi-monopoly, or protected power of one sort or the other. And so one of the interesting things about Jonathan Ross is just how much he is paid — unbelievable. And this is all done on the basis of competition, a sort of bogus market way of talking. It’s utter rubbish. He needn’t be paid even a twentieth of that to retain his services in the current environment.
CB: You and I both would have fired him, so he wouldn’t be paid anything.
DJ: Should all these salaries be published?
CB: They should be published, and that will bring a sense of reality which the BBC hasn’t caught up with. The market has changed: the squeeze on ITV and Channel 4 has meant that the BBC are stronger and don’t have to pay as much as they thought they had to.
CM: Christopher makes a very good point that if you simply said that the BBC could collect advertising then you’d just be creating this massive business with a privileged position.
DJ: Like BT perhaps?
CM: Yes! This argument about why the BBC is so marvellous is very much the same as the rubbish you used to hear about national champions in industry in the 1970s — “You’ve got to have a massive motor industry, British Leyland” etc. By the way, the Tories are extremely cowardly on this subject because they’re frightened of being attacked by the BBC, which again shows why the BBC’s a bad organisation.
CB: You’re such a terrible cynic. You’re quite wrong. The Tories think the BBC, for all its faults, is the best broadcasting organisation in the world.
CM: No, I know this for a fact. They decided that in order to get back into power they had to get on the side of the establishment. They had to be considered house-trained and not be constantly mocked, excluded, derided by everybody on the BBC. So they had to be nice to them. And that’s the strategy they pursued, and very successful it’s been.
CB: I think actually that they believe in the BBC in a way that you do not.
CM: Well some of them do, some of them don’t. But suppose for example — just as a way of testing reality, rather like what happened in the 1980s when industries prepared for privatisation — that the BBC was just told the licence fee was going to be halved. That would concentrate minds, and then the BBC would have to think about why they exist. Something like that might be quite a good, crude way to do it, in which you force reality upon it.
CB: Yes, it’s like forcing reality upon a prisoner by cutting him in half, and seeing how he likes that. Maybe you should just chop off his arm, and then at least he has a chance of survival.
DJ: The public sector generally is going to have to cut itself a lot.
CB: Absolutely, and I agree that the BBC will have to too. I don’t think the BBC’s level of funding in absolute and relative terms is sustainable over the long term, given the squeeze on public expenditure everywhere. Because the BBC has a seven-year agreed licence fee. It wouldn’t be fixed at that level, today.
CM: If you’re thinking of it as what the BBC is really for, and you did have to make these choices because you only had half the money — I’m just playing my game — then you need to ask what is at the core?
CB: I can’t play your game with half the money, because the game is up. But what would I least like to lose? In no particular order: all of the BBC radio, and I include Radio 1, partly because none of these costs a lot of money, and BBC 1 and BBC 2. The impact of more straitened financial circumstances will be to put a real dampener on costs in the BBC in a way that hasn’t happened so far, although the BBC’s savings have been considerable. And I think that it will be not just overheads, but artists’ salaries, and some programme rights that will be affected.
It’s heretical, and I hardly dare say it, but it’s not absolutely clear what the BBC brings to sport. The creativity that the programme makers bring is limited to good-looking ex-footballer presenters, and maybe some graphics in the case of cricket. The game is the game, whoever shows it. Now I’m in favour of listed events — there are some things that ought to be available on broadcast television and not exclusive to subscription, but it’s not clear that the BBC would die if it no longer covered sport, because other people would do it.
CM: I’m glad to hear you say it, but it’s a principle capable of considerable extension.
CB: Not considerable extension, because the BBC creates most of its programmes in one form or another.
CM: An interesting example is regional — if you watch the BBC regional news programmes they’re good, but you do wonder why they’re there. Because they again have the chilling effect that it makes it pretty well impossible for somebody else to produce a regional programme.
CB: I think that isn’t the case. Actually what happened is that ITV lost its regional focus, gave up its regional programming, and stopped producing decent regional news. I was chairman of the BBC and its local news ratings passed ITV’s for the first time. That was ITV simply taking their eye off the ball. And they’ve taken it further and further off the ball, they’ve lost the identity of the regional companies like Granada, Yorkshire and Tyne Tees, probably irrecoverably.
DJ: What about the idea of sharing the licence fee, of so-called top-slicing?
CB: It’s complete nonsense. If you want to reduce or cap the licence fee there are perfectly strong, sensible arguments in a straitened economic environment for doing that. But the idea that you somehow redistribute some of it is nonsense. Did you read the Digital Britain report?
CM: I did actually, yes.
CB: I call it the Twitter Blatherwick Report. It’s depressing. It has everything that is most despicable about the government. It held un-conferences. It had a Twitter account. It had an introduction by [Peter] Mandelson and [Ben] Bradshaw. It had the Blatherwick family digitally connected in South London. It had a tsar, a Champion for Digital Inclusion. It had what it described as “a new model of industrial activism”, which is the old Industrial Reorganisation Corporation writ large. It had a stealth tax, a £5 annual “supplement” on every fixed-line telephone to pay for the upgrading of the internet.
CM: Yes, on this I’m in complete agreement. And on top-slicing, this goes back rather amusingly to the argument about the established Church. When people started to think whether they should disestablish the Church of England in Ireland and Wales, somebody proposed that instead of disestablishing it they should establish other Churches as well. So they would give money out to the Presbyterians and Methodists and Catholics. Then you’d get even more ecclesiastical snouts in the trough. That’s what top-slicing is — not only the BBC, but every bloody broadcaster who claims to have a public service element to it will just grab more of it.
CB: I fear that the government is going to fail to deal with the crippling problem of ITV, which is in serious decline. It needs to be much bolder. It has to say to ITV that the good old days of having a public service broadcasting obligation in return for a quasi-monopoly or dominant position are over, and that ITV must do whatever it needs to survive.
CM: We come back to the point where we started really: that the game’s up for the BBC as well. And it’s Recessional: “The tumult and the shouting dies / The Director-Generals and the Kings depart.” It’s just a matter of time, and when we look back at it we’ll see there were some good things about it, but we’ll also see that it was pretty hard to defend, and impossible to maintain.
CB: No, you’re absolutely wrong. We will feel nothing but regret, if this gloomy recessional event takes place and mourn the fact that we’ve lost a really remarkable baby with Charles’s bathwater.