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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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