John Whittingdale is the new Culture Secretary. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is the BBC safe in the hands of our new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale?

Licence to kill.

On the face of it, John Whittingdale’s appointment as secretary of state for culture is thoroughly bad news for the BBC and those who value its cultural, democratic and economic contribution to the UK. With the current ten-year charter due to expire next year – at the same time as the freeze in the licence fee – Whittingdale will essentially determine on what basis and with what resources the BBC will continue from January 1 2017.

The Daily Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, Christopher Hope, described his appointment as an “effective declaration of war” on the BBC while the Daily Mail’s political editor James Chapman tweeted that, while Cameron had apparently been angered by BBC election coverage: “I didn’t believe he was as cross as Whittingdale’s appointment suggests."

If commentators from the right-wing press are agitated, the reaction from supportive civil society groups and academics borders on despair.

 

It is not difficult to see why. Ideologically on the right of his party, Whittingdale described the licence fee last year as “worse than the poll tax” and unsustainable in the long term. The Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which he chaired, published its report on the BBC just three months ago, clearly imprinted with his personal vision for the future. Whittingdale wants a BBC which must “do less in some areas”, with a small proportion of revenue “made available for other public service content priorities” and with market impact tests to be triggered by any allegations of “crowding out” by commercial competitors.

Combined with replacement of the BBC Trust by a “Public Service Broadcasting Commission” with the power to redistribute revenue to other organisations, the report was a recipe for a BBC reduced to an impotent rump within ten years.

Moreover, Whittingdale is reported to have historical links to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which has long targeted the BBC – just as it does the ABC in Australia and PBS in the US – as a public sector intervention which interferes with Murdoch’s own corporate ambitions.

As long ago as 1996, Whittingdale resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the Conservative minister Eric Forth, having voted against his own government’s broadcasting bill because it prevented any newspaper proprietor with more than 20% of national circulation from owning a terrestrial television licence. As everyone recognised at the time, there was only one proprietor in the frame. In the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, he was revealed to have been a long-standing friend of Murdoch’s key senior executive Les Hinton.

Ostensibly, then, a perfect storm of an antagonistic minister, a charter renewal process that must be short and sharp, a Conservative government likely to be at its most energised and least vulnerable in the first 18 months – and a right wing baying for BBC blood.

Making a case

There are, however, a couple of straws in the wind. During his ten years running the media and culture committee, Whittingdale was widely regarded as a fair and effective chairman. He is very familiar with the issues and is not deaf to proper arguments. Having given oral evidence to his committee on several occasions, I can testify that – unlike one or two of his former select committee colleagues – he listens.

Moreover, he was clear in his comments about the future of the licence fee that he was thinking beyond the next ten years – in other words, any move towards subscription or other funding solutions would have to wait until the 2026 Charter, by which time both technology and politics will have moved on.

In the short term, then, Whittingdale might be open to persuasion that the BBC is indeed a unique and valuable UK asset which should be protected from the ravages of deep and immediate cuts, let alone fundamental restructuring. It will, however, require not only the marshalling of incontrovertible facts, but a well-organised civil society campaign to demonstrate that the BBC remains a much-loved and internationally admired institution.

To reduce its funding or start redistributing the licence fee will inevitably result in services closed and quality compromised, with profound and irreparable damage to the BBC’s long-term future. Will Whittingdale want to preside over the wilful destruction of what remains for most people – if not his own right wing – a great British institution?

If all else fails, perhaps we can rely on the House of Lords. According to the Salisbury convention, the Lords will not oppose government legislation which arises out of election manifesto promises. But while the Conservative manifesto commits to continued use of licence-fee revenue for rural broadband roll-out, it says nothing about reducing the size of the BBC, changing its constitutional structure or introducing contestable funding.

If the new culture secretary is really intent on returning to his ideological roots and inflicting terminal damage on such a vital British institution, those of us who wish to resist such political savagery may have to start mobilising the upper house.

Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left