Men walk past a bank of television screens in the BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House. Photograph: Getty Images
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We must defend the BBC from Murdoch and death by a thousand Tory cuts

If we want to preserve quality public-service broadcasting in Britain, we must defend the Beeb.

Rule one of politics, as Barack Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once remarked, is: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.” Right-wingers in the UK have heeded his words: they certainly aren’t allowing the crises engulfing the BBC “to go to waste”. And their strategy is as brazen as it is cynical and opportunistic: to magnify and exaggerate the sins of the hated Beeb while quietly minimising the crimes of their friends at News International.

A case in point was Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column of 12 November. After blithely declaring that the “real tragedy” was the “smearing [of] an innocent man’s name” by BBC’s Newsnight (and not, as you might think, the sexual abuse of children), Johnson claimed that Newsnight’s reporting had been “more cruel, revolting and idiotic than anything perpetrated by the News of the World”.

Sorry, what? Dare I remind the Mayor of London that more than 4,000 people have been identified by police as possible victims of phone-hacking, including the families of dead British soldiers, relatives of the 7/7 victims and a murdered schoolgirl? Yet the cultural vandals on the right only have eyes for the BBC, whose existence has always been anathema to their free-market, anti-regulation ideology.

Hysteria and hyperbole

The Newsnight debacle has provided the perfect cover for an attack on the corporation that has been a long time in the making. Remember, in opposition, the Conservative Party in effect allowed James Murdoch and NewsCorp lobbyists to write its media policy. And on coming to office, the Tory-led coalition froze the BBC licence fee for six years. An unavoidable cost-cutting measure, perhaps? Not quite: a gleeful David Cameron let the mask slip when he referred to the BBC “deliciously” having to slash its budget. (For the record, the BBC costs each licensed household less than 40p a day.)

In recent weeks, conservatives – both big and small “c” – have queued up to denounce the broadcaster and demand that it be downsized or even broken up. “The BBC must do less, and do it better,” declaimed the Telegraph on 13 November. The Defence Secretary, the Conservative Philip Hammond, suggested in (where else?) a BBC radio interview that the future of the licence fee might be in doubt.

What we are witnessing is a shameless, co-ordinated assault on the BBC’s reputation and output by Conservative politicians and by their outriders in the right-wing media echo chamber. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: where were these doughty Tory defenders of media ethics when Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of the murdered architect Joanna Yeates, was being smeared as a “creepy” killer by the press? Eight newspapers, including the Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail, had to pay “substantial” libel damages to the former schoolmaster. None of those papers’ editors quit his job; none “stood aside” from his post pending an independent inquiry.

It is also worth asking why so few Tory MPs and Tory-supporting columnists have gone after ITV – the network on which the presenter Phillip Schofield idiotically ambushed the Prime Minister, live on air, with a list of alleged paedophiles culled from the internet. Schofield is still in his job. So, too, are the chairman and chief executive of ITV.

To try to delegitimise or dismantle the BBC, the world’s biggest and best broadcaster, on the basis of Newsnight’s double failure – first over Jimmy Savile, then over Lord McAlpine – is unfair both to the corporation and to Newsnight itself. Ask the brave people of the besieged Syrian city of Homs what they think of the show. Newsnight’s acclaimed film Undercover in Homs, which reported their plight to Britain, won an Amnesty media award in May.

The BBC is bigger than Newsnight – though you might not have guessed it from the recent hysteria and hyperbole in the press. Consider some of the award-winning and popular BBC output of the past 12 months: Panorama, David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet, Andrew Marr’s History of the World, Strictly Come Dancing, The Archers, Sherlock, the Today programme, Children in Need, the Proms, Woman’s Hour, CBeebies . . . the list goes on. Figures released by the corporation suggest 96 per cent of the UK population consumes BBC services every week.

The inconvenient truth for right-wingers is that their hatred of the taxpayer-funded, publicly owned BBC has never been shared by the tax-paying public. As the Financial Times noted on 12 November: “In a survey by Ofcom, the media regulator, in November 2011, 59 per cent of people said the BBC was the news source they most trusted. The next, ITV News, scored 7 per cent.” The reporters added: “No newspaper beat 2 per cent.”

Beware the Rupert

The BBC has bent over backwards to hold itself to account. How many other media organisations would have allowed their editor-in-chief to be flayed in public by one of his own employees, as Ent­wistle was by the Today programme’s John Humphrys on 10 November?

Full disclosure: I was once a BBC employee and I now do paid punditry for various BBC programmes. But I am no dewy-eyed defender of Auntie: I have, on these pages, condemned the Beeb’s “establishment bias . . . towards power and privilege, tradition and orthodoxy” and its “stomach-churning” coverage of the monarchy. And I agree that the corporation’s “bonkers” (© David Dimbleby) management structure is stuffed with “cowards and incompetents” (© Jeremy Paxman).

But what is the alternative? Death by a thousand Tory cuts? The Foxification of the British media landscape? Make no mistake, Rupert Murdoch – who incidentally hasn’t had to resign as chief executive of a media company where phone-hacking was conducted on an industrial scale – is waiting in the wings.

The BBC, despite its many faults, must be protected from its right-wing enemies. In the battle to preserve high-quality, non-partisan public-service broadcasting, Auntie is our last line of defence.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer to the New Statesman. This piece is crossposted with the Huffington Post here

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.