New Broadcasting House. The BBC is a fine institution, but needs to get its house in order. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Leader: Blind faith in the BBC

The BBC is the best broadcaster in the world - but it needs to get its house in order.

The former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson once said that the National Health Service was the nearest thing the English people had to a national religion, but surely the BBC must come close behind. Our state broadcaster is frequently mentioned as a source of Britain’s international “soft power”, with Top Gear alone sold to more than 200 countries around the world.

The comparison between the NHS and the BBC is apposite, because these institutions suffer from several of the same malaises: overmanaged while their front lines are under-resourced, a few individuals at the top enjoying bloated salaries while low-paid workers with insecure contracts pick up the slack from redundancies and cutbacks at the bottom.

It also must be said that both organisations are too often blindly defended by the left. That is understandable. If neither existed, our country would be much the poorer for it. Yet affection for the history of these great institutions should not lead us to treat questions over their efficiency and purpose as an assault on our values. During the last election, Ed Miliband spoke of “weaponising” the health service; in the end this amounted to a handful of small-scale proposals, such as one-week tests for cancer, and a panoply of misty-eyed “I heart the NHS” badges and Twitter ribbons. Labour’s health policy was never bold or innovative: the service was supposed to function merely as an applause line, its very existence an implicit rebuke to the supposedly uncaring Tories.

It is tempting for progressives to pursue a similar strategy towards the BBC, particularly because it now seems to be coming under sustained assault from a Tory party that has always chafed at the licence fee funding a supposedly “left-wing” broadcaster. (This suggestion of left-wing bias is laughable; the BBC’s bias is merely towards the establishment.) John Whittingdale, who has long been hostile to the licence fee, is now Culture Secretary; and on 5 July the Chancellor, George Osborne, told Andrew Marr that he would curb the BBC’s “imperial” ambitions by reducing its budget. Mr Osborne added that the lifestyle features and the recipes on the BBC’s website were practically turning it into “the ­national newspaper as well as the national broadcaster”.

Tempting as it is to dismiss this analysis as one merely intended to help the (mostly right-wing) newspaper industry, it is fundamentally correct. For example, the BBC website publishes articles that recap trending topics on Twitter – traffic-chasing content that is in plentiful supply elsewhere. The reality shows on the youth-focused BBC3, such as Snog Marry Avoid and Don’t Tell the Bride, are hardly in the Reithian tradition. At the same time, the corporation’s coverage of news and politics has fallen far behind that of Channel 4 and Sky News in terms of the diversity of voices it represents (it is still, in Greg Dyke’s phrase, “hideously white”, but we could add to that: southern, male and middle-class). And as Jason Cowley notes in this week's issue, there are too many long-time senior executives collecting huge salaries with far too little to show for it.

The BBC is eminently defensible. It is the best broadcaster in the world. Thanks to the licence fee, it produces content of a quality and breadth that the commercial sector could never hope to match. And it is clear that it will need to be defended as the Conservatives enjoy the newfound power their overall majority in the Commons gives them. But the BBC must overhaul its practices and get its house in order.

Budget blues

The perversity of the British tax system is that it falls most heavily on earned income. Successful entrepreneurs pay more tax on their earnings and business than their children do on inheriting the fruits of that labour, while the very rich are adept at avoiding taxation altogether. A homeowner whose house triples in value pays no tax on the asset other than council tax – based on property valuations fixed in 1991. Land ownership, an increasingly valuable commodity, is subject to almost no taxation at all.

This requires a fundamental change in our attitude. We need a new business model in Britain, one that shifts the burden of taxation from earned to unearned income; from taxes on income and consumption to those on static assets – property, inheritance and land. As Vince Cable has written, we should shift taxation away from “profitable, productive investment” and towards “unproductive asset accumulation”.

For his next Budget, instead of tweaking inheritance tax to benefit the already property-rich, Mr Osborne should think again: levy more tax on assets, and less on income.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.