Three-D Issue 25: Mitigating the damage of a vengeful government

4Steven Barnett
University of Westminster

To a large extent the BBC damage is already done. Driven by ideological hostility, under cover of “essential public expenditure cuts”, and with no democratic mandate for inflicting its own political animus on a much admired institution, the newly elected Conservative government – exactly as the Coalition government did 5 years earlier – acted swiftly and secretly to impose draconian cuts on a browbeaten BBC.

The funding settlement – in which the BBC was forced to take on the £750m per annum welfare cost of free TV licences for the over 75s – is likely to add another 15% funding cut to the 25% already inflicted in 2010. James Purnell, the BBC’s director of strategy, prefers to call it a “concession” policy rather than a “welfare” policy to reflect the discretion allowed to the BBC to rescind the over 75s freebie – to which the only possible response is Good Luck With That. Imagine the headlines when kind old Auntie turns callous money-grabber, plundering the hard-won savings of poverty-stricken grannies to subsidise Snog, Marry, Avoid.

In the House of Lords shortly after the funding settlement had been announced, former Director General John Birt was withering in his assessment of the two shotgun funding deals: “Twice in five years we have seen… opportunistic, expedient and unprincipled diktats issued to the BBC in the dead of night, a pistol to its head, absent any democratic debate—diktats that have sidelined the licence fee payers, the Trust that represents them, the department concerned and Parliament itself. Above all, these diktats have trampled on the independence of the BBC.”

That last point is the most damaging. In July this year, I was lecturing in Australia where, after a period of relative stability under a fairly benign Labor government, ABC had also suffered funding cuts and corporate attacks by a deeply hostile Abbot-led coalition. One ABC executive forlornly suggested that they could no longer hold up the BBC as a model of political independence in trying to repel government attacks. Writing in a recently published book on the BBC, former BBC governor and ITN Editor-in-Chief Richard Tait: “The danger for the BBC…. is that the politicians begin to chip away at that independence from political interference which is what has up to now distinguished the corporation from most public broadcasters in the world”1. The reputational damage of these attacks to the BBC and to the UK is becoming unsustainable.

We urgently need a wholly independent mechanism for setting BBC revenue, and indeed for running the whole Charter renewal process. In the same Lords debate as John Birt launched his tirade against politically motivated funding cuts, John Major’s former broadcasting minister Richard Inglewood proposed that the Government “put on the statute book a BBC charter renewal (procedure) Act 2015” which would establish a “road map” for the current process and future occasions.

While the funding damage has already been done, that would at least be a start in reassuring BBC licence payers – and the rest of the world – that the BBC will in future be protected from malicious and ideological assaults. In the meantime, the battle must continue to ensure that the government does not unilaterally impose further restrictions on the BBC through the new Charter.

Posted by Einar Thorsen