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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.

Men walk past a bank of television screens in the BBC headquarters
Men walk past a bank of television screens in the BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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