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Each BBC crisis sows the seed for the next

After the Newsnight debacle, it is excessive caution – not recklessness – that threatens the BBC.

On the evening of Monday 12 November, on my way to an awards ceremony, I was walking along Portland Place, near Broadcasting House in London. Huddled in the damp air outside the building that is symbolic of all that the BBC represents, and has represented since it was established under a royal charter in 1927, were a few reporters, hoping to be tossed more scraps of information about the latest “stepping aside” inside the embattled media organisation, so that they might feed the mighty maw of the rolling news channels. (One of the curious spectacles of the latest BBC crisis is just how self-referential so much of the reporting on the story is – which is in turn a consequence of the very strangeness of an organisation that is simultaneously opaque and transparent, private and public.)

Earlier in the day, Tim Davie, the acting director general, had brusquely ended an interview with Sky News conducted from Broadcasting House via a satellite link. In obvious irritation, he removed an earpiece and promptly walked off camera. It was a moment of small drama. Back in the studio, Sky’s Dermot Murnaghan snidely said: “I bet he wouldn’t do that to the BBC.”

Murnaghan’s aside was in keeping with the general mood of sustained anti-BBC hostility of recent days. The continued existence of the BBC as an impartial, semi-autonomous global media organisation publicly funded by a nonnegotiable national licence fee offends many. The Conservative free-market right has long suspected that the BBC leans left, which is nonsense. What the BBC has is a resolutely establishment bias. Is there a more establishment figure than the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, or the ubiquitous yet admirable Dimbleby brothers?

The Murdochs and their compliant editors despise the BBC’s power and influence – it represents all that Rupert and James Murdoch loathe. Rival media organisations from the Guardian, which has lost more than £40m this year, to the Telegraph resent its free-to-use website, with its rich, continuously updated content, iPlayer and wonderful archive of talks and music. Even Davie’s “mockney” accent has been held up as a signifier of a deeper decline. Davie, who before joining the BBC worked at Procter & Gamble, may have no journalistic experience but he has energy and the kind of commercial acumen that the BBC requires. Nor is he some kind of cultural barbarian. I’ve met him once. We had coffee and he took me on a brief tour of the remodelled Broadcasting House. When we met he was in the process of reading every Booker Prize-winning novel; he had a list of the winners folded in his wallet and a tick had been placed beside each one he had read.

If you were setting up a national broadcaster today you wouldn’t create the BBC in its present form, with its many layers of middle management, labyrinthine processes and structures and its desire to be all things to all people. Yet the BBC remains one of the few British institutions that is admired throughout the world for its impartiality, the range and quality of its programmes and, in spite of the Newsnight debacle, commitment to truth-telling. It is a cherished link to and a creation of the old culture of benevolent paternalism that flourished between the two world wars and reached its apotheosis with the 1945 Labour government that created the National Health Service and the welfare state.

Not far from Broadcasting House that night, the awards dinner for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was being held at the Royal Institute of British Architects. In his introductory remarks, Stuart Proffitt, publishing director of Penguin Press and chairman of the prize committee, praised the BBC as the greatest cultural institution in the history of the world. His words were well chosen because true and were received with spontaneous applause. Here, at last, was someone prepared publicly to speak up for the BBC when so many others were seeking to traduce and destroy it.

For many years when he worked at the Rupert Murdoch-owned publisher HarperCollins, Proffitt, who is cerebral and donnish, was committed to publishing non-fiction books of distinction in a house that was then often in open revolt against deliberation and scholarly plurality. He eventually resigned in 1998 after he was ordered not to publish Chris Patten’s memoir of the period from 1992-97 that he spent as the last governor of Hong Kong. Proffitt had agreed a £125,000 advance for a book he told Harper- Collins’s then chairman, Eddie Bell, was “the most lucid, best written and compelling . . . I have read by any politician of any persuasion since I came into publishing”.

That was not enough for Murdoch and his acolytes, who felt that the Patten memoir was too critical of Chinese power and could damage News Corporation’s ambitions for media expansion in Asia. The book was dropped. As for Patten, he received a £50,000 payout from HarperCollins and, as he recently told the Leveson inquiry, his memoir was published in the United States with a sticker on the dust jacket that said: “The book that Rupert Murdoch refused to publish.”

“It was a commercial decision, which rebounded to my financial advantage,” he said. Neither Patten nor Proffitt is a cultural leftist but both men recognise the intrinsic value of the BBC, as an institution that holds the British nation state together and embodies an unfashionable, anti-market ethos. The danger now is that, as it self-flagellates and moral panic spreads, the BBC will lose all confidence, its enemies will be emboldened and its senior editors and producers will become even more cautious and constrained by a disempowering culture and bureaucratic managerialism.

“The search for someone to blame is always successful,” a senior BBC source told me. “But the solution to each crisis seems to sow the seeds for the next. So we will probably end up with even more managers, more box-ticking, and more compliance ‘to stop this happening again’. I knew something was wrong when the compliance officer became the most powerful person in the building.

“Compliance should be left to engineering firms. The BBC needs to restore the culture where producers are given the confidence to produce and editors the confidence to edit. Because that climate was destroyed after Hutton and Brand.”

Expect more box-ticking, less boldness and journalistic freedom and risk-taking.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.