Time For A Leaner BBC To Pay Its Way

John Whittingdale is a Culture Secretary who means business. He must stop W1A’s Europhiles from hijacking the EU referendum

Features Media UK Politics
Double standard: The BBC's bias could be seen in the contrast between interviews with party leaders (photo: Dave Smith, via Flickr)

For as long as I can remember Tories have been grumbling about the bias shown against them and their causes by the BBC. In the 1980s Norman Tebbit often laid into the Corporation; he was particularly upset at what he regarded as its unpatriotic coverage of the Falklands War. Many in the Conservative Party felt Michael Howard was unjustly vilified by the BBC during the 2005 election campaign for expressing misgivings about mass immigration that have since become commonplace. In the years following the creation of the Coalition in 2010, several Tory ministers believed they were getting a rough ride from the BBC, though for the most part their complaints remained private. Even David Cameron was said to be intermittently furious at what he regarded as unfair treatment from Auntie.

After the stunning election victory on May 7 these deeply felt frustrations, so long held in check, may well boil over. It so happens that the future of the BBC is on the political agenda because of next year’s decennial charter review. And the Tories, no longer inhibited by pusillanimous Lib Dems, and at last in a position to follow their own instincts, believe with some justice that they weren’t dealt with even-handedly during the election campaign. Grievances include coverage skewed in favour of Labour on the BBC’s news website, and Andrew Marr’s coruscating interview of Mr Cameron, whom he interrupted some 23 times, and wrongly accused of having written that fox-hunting was his “favourite” sport. (Ed Miliband, by contrast, was treated much more indulgently when interviewed by Marr, who in his days as a newspaper columnist happens to have been a strong Labour supporter.) Some Tories also resent the BBC’s invariable assumption on all its news programmes that a hung parliament was the only feasible outcome of the election.

These gripes might still die away. Indeed, the commentariat, which got the result so wrong (I do not exempt myself), takes it for granted that the political sound and fury over the next five years will be generated by the European Union, Scotland, the Human Rights Act and welfare cuts. These are doubtless highly contentious issues, but mightn’t the BBC also be explosive? I ask because if David Cameron had scoured the wide world to find someone who disapproved of the Corporation, he could scarcely have found a fiercer critic than John Whittingdale, a former private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, who has been unexpectedly plucked from the back benches and his role as chairman of the Commons Culture Committee, and made Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. His appointment didn’t go down well with some anti-Tory numbskull in the BBC press office, who retweeted a message highlighting Mr Whittingdale’s opposition to gay marriage and his support for foxhunting. This was hurriedly deleted.

Of course, once the bitter memories of the campaign have faded, Mr Cameron’s enthusiasm for shaking up the BBC might falter. He is not one of nature’s radicals, after all. But the choice of Mr Whittingdale must tell us something. Only last October the Thatcherite veteran questioned the long-term future of the annual £145.50 licence fee, suggesting it was “worse than a poll tax”. His Commons committee produced a report on the BBC’s future three months ago which warned that the licence fee is “becoming harder and harder to justify”.

Isn’t it obvious to everyone save myopic BBC employees and narrow-minded Guardianistas that in the new media world the Corporation and its antiquated funding arrangements stand in need of reform? I don’t doubt it retains some strengths. It is one of the few national institutions that remind us we are British, which may explain why it has got up the noses of the Scottish National Party. And despite much dumbing down it still has pockets of excellence, some which might struggle in an entirely commercial environment. Its virtues should be defended. But the BBC as an entity has become too powerful as an arbiter of cultural values and too dominant as a source of news.

The Left bangs on about the “evil” power of Rupert Murdoch and of the Daily Mail, but the BBC dwarfs them as a news provider. A 2013 report by Ofcom suggested that the BBC accounts for 44 per cent of people’s consumption of news, taking into account television, newspapers, radio and the internet. Murdoch’s national newspapers, including the Sun, speak for just 4 per cent. Other surveys have put the Corporation’s share higher. It is true, of course, that tabloid newspapers are more explicitly propagandist than Auntie, even when she is pulling out the anti-Tory stops. But the BBC has the sheer numbers. Moreover, its spectacularly well-resourced website is alleged by national newspaper publishers to have hastened the decline in print circulations, while the Corporation’s extensive coverage of local news is plausibly said to have had a similar effect on the dwindling sales of local newspapers.

Proving that the BBC abuses its enormous power by leaning to the Left, and sometimes giving Tories a hard time, is quite easy. Its historical tendencies in this direction were conceded by Mark Thompson, its then director-general, who said in 2010 that there was a “massive bias to the Left” when he joined the BBC in 1979, which was directed against Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. He suggested that this bias has ended but did not offer any reason as to why it should have done so. The BBC attracts the same sort of journalists (8,000 of them at the last count, more than in the whole of Fleet Street) and generally leaves them to their own devices. Indeed, Mr Thompson seemingly implied that they continue to have their political blind spots. In July 2011 he wrote in a magazine article that “there have been occasions when the BBC, like the rest of the UK media, was very reticent about talking about immigration”.

If the Tories can reasonably consider themselves hard done by during the election, UKIP is entitled to think it was taken to the cleaners by the Corporation. Despite Ofcom’s decree that it should be treated as a “major party” on the same basis as Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems, it was regularly tacked on to the end of BBC political reports, and sometimes entirely ignored. In one television debate Nigel Farage was barracked by a BBC-selected audience that appeared predominantly anti-UKIP. When grilled by Newsnight’s Evan Davis Mr Farage was treated as though he was batty or an extremist or both, though when Mr Davis came to interview the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, he was full of smiles and reassurance.

By way of further supporting evidence, let me point out that the editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz, is a former deputy editor of the Guardian, its political editor hails from the same newspaper, and its economics editor was previously an economist at the TUC. Ask yourself whether it is imaginable for the editor and political editor of the most important current affairs programme to have worked for the Daily Telegraph, or for its economics editor to have cut his teeth at the Institute of Economic Affairs. The answer is obviously “No” — as it is equally inconceivable that an ex-Tory cabinet minister would be appointed as the £300,000-a-year “director of strategy and digital”, as the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell was in 2013. The same point can be made about the centre-Left participants who monopolise the Beeb’s satirical and culture shows. Sometimes it seems as though Tony Hall, director-general, as well as its head of news, James Harding, are ’avin’ a larf.

I don’t doubt there are many fine journalists working for Auntie who strive to be neutral and objective, and often succeed in being so. But with a few exceptions they are what they are — metropolitan, conventional members of the slightly left-wing cultural elite, wary of Tories and their strange antediluvian beliefs. Appointing right-wing BBC chairmen or director-generals won’t affect the direction of travel, as Margaret Thatcher discovered in the 1980s. It is surely instructive that almost every BBC journalist to whom one talks is convinced that the organisation is even-handed.

Any attempt by Mr Whittingdale to tinker with its governance will make little difference. Replacing the BBC Trust with something like the old governing body but with a more authoritative chairman is a positive but hardly revolutionary idea. Equally, decriminalising licence-fee evaders — their cases are clogging up magistrates’ courts — would be a welcome move, but it won’t lead to a transformation of the BBC.

Something more radical is called for — the slimming down of the Corporation so that it concentrates on doing things which the market cannot be relied upon to produce. Whole swathes could be sold off over time: most of BBC1, BBC3, Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 5 and local radio. Needless to say, Auntie would fight such proposals like mad. She is refusing even to contemplate a £100 million offer for BBC3, which is being shoved online to save money. In other words, the BBC won’t even sell a minority, little-watched television channel in order to preserve it in its existing form. How much more will it squeal and struggle to hang on to its prize assets!

In the real world Mr Whittingdale can’t simply instruct the Corporation to flog off parts of itself. There would be an outcry, and he would be returned to the backbenches in short order. But he can squeeze the BBC by reducing its licence fee, forcing it to consider selling off chunks of its sprawling empire. And he can also make clear that the days of relying on a tax, paid for by all television viewers regardless of whether or not they watch the BBC, are numbered. The Corporation’s future should be subscription charging. Let the market determine the scope and nature of its offerings. The government’s responsibilities should be limited to protecting those channels — Radio 4, perhaps, and Radio 3 — which the market might not embrace, though it is perfectly possible that it would do so.

The BBC as it is presently constituted is on the wrong side of history, as Tony Hall should be clever enough to see. Not only is the licence fee morally indefensible in a multi-channel world, forcing people to pay for programming of which they watch little or nothing at all. It is also increasingly impractical. More and more viewers are looking at BBC channels exclusively on their laptops, tablets and mobiles. About 1,000 households a day are said to be opting out of the licence fee for this reason. It is technically difficult, as well as potentially controversial, for the BBC to make them pay up, and no prosecutions have yet been brought against people who watch programmes in this way. If the practice grows, the Corporation’s income will haemorrhage even without Mr Whittingdale applying a squeeze.

Does anyone believe that the BBC will report even-handedly on Mr Cameron’s forthcoming renegotiation of our EU membership, or the package he eventually obtains? There will be scare stories galore. One recent example: on BBC1’s Ten O’Clock News on April 7 economics editor Robert Peston (a seemingly ardent Europhile) declared that the think-tank Open Europe believed “the worst-case outcome is significantly worse than the best-case outcome of [Britain leaving the EU]. So they would say the costs massively outweigh . . . well, not massively, but they outweigh the potential benefits.” In fact, Open Europe predicts broadly similar costs and benefits.

John Whittingdale certainly faces an enormous challenge, which might be described as the unfinished work of Margaret Thatcher. He may turn out to be a theorist who lacks the courage or the political nous to get his way. Or — more likely, I would think — he could be reined in by a naturally cautious David Cameron.

Alternatively, he may start a revolution which ends up with a smaller and less overmighty BBC funded by people who want to use its services. If Auntie then continued to show an anti-Tory bias, we could at least say that that is what its subscribers wanted.