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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”