A Cameron-Murdoch alliance could devastate the BBC

Many Conservatives sympathise with James Murdoch's attack on the BBC as a state behemoth

Does the BBC have much to fear following James Murdoch's turn as Gordon Gekko at the Edinburgh International Television Festival?

In previous years the rhetorical excesses of his MacTaggart Lecture, which invoked George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four to damn the BBC, could have been playfully batted away by the corporation's executives.

But this year, with a Tory party increasingly sceptical of the BBC's size and scale on the brink of power, the corporation faces the threat of a powerful alliance between Cameron's Conservatives and Murdoch's News Corporation.

If Cameron promises to cut the BBC's funding and to reverse what Murdoch described as its "chilling" landgrab he could secure the support of the Sun and the News of the World at the next election.

Murdoch may have delivered his speech to an audience of television executives, but it was dominated by his concern that the BBC's vast online presence prohibits any attempt to successfully charge for news websites.

Murdoch Sr has declared that he intends to charge for all his news websites by next summer and his papers are likely to line up behind those politicians who promise to curb the influence of the BBC.

The Conservatives have already demonstrated their willingness to challenge the successive licence fee increases the world's largest broadcaster has enjoyed under Labour.

In May, parliament voted on a Tory proposal to freeze the licence fee, with Cameron arguing that during the recession the BBC needed to do "more with less".

The proposal made little political impact and was easily defeated by 334-156 votes, but it set an important precedent. BBC executives are more troubled by Cameron's suggestion that the licence fee could be reviewed annually, exposing the corporation's £3.6bn annual income to unprecedented scrutiny.

Many Conservatives have great sympathy with Murdoch's call for the BBC to become "far, far smaller". Like him, a significant number believe that the continued expansion of the BBC even as its commercial rivals lose millions in advertising revenue is intolerable.

At a time when the government's Digital Britain report has argued that the licence fee should be "top-sliced" and shared with the BBC's competitors, the corporation finds itself unusually short of friends and increasingly vulnerable.

The BBC Trust's perfunctory response to Murdoch's harangue did little to raise morale within the broadcaster. Unless the BBC's leading figures begin to make the positive case for its funding far more effectively than they have done, they may be unable to prevent the formation of a potentially destructive alliance.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad