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

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Commons Confidential: Smith, selfies and pushy sons

All the best gossip from party conference, including why Dennis Skinner is now the MP for Selfie Central.

Owen Smith discovered the hard way at the Labour party conference in Liverpool that one moment you’re a contender and the next you’re a nobody. The party booked a luxurious suite at the plush Pullman Hotel for Candidate Smith before the leadership result. He was required to return the key card the day after Jeremy Corbyn’s second coming. On the upside, Smith no longer had to watch his defeat replayed endlessly on the apartment’s giant  flat-screen TV.

The Labour back-room boffin Patrick Heneghan, the party’s executive director of elections, had good cause to be startled when a TV crew pounced on him to demand an interview. The human submarine rarely surfaces in public and anonymity is his calling card. It turns out that the bespectacled Heneghan was mistaken for Owen Smith – a risky likeness when vengeful Corbynistas are on rampage. There’s no evidence of Smith being mistaken for Heneghan, though. Yet.

Members of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee are discovering new passions to pass the time during interminable meetings, as the Mods and the Corbs battle over each line of every decision. The shadow cabinet attack dog Jon “Sparkle” Ashworth, son of a casino croupier and a bunny girl, whiles away the hours by reading the poetry of Walt Whitman and W B Yeats on his iPad. Sparkle has learned that, to echo Whitman, to be with those he likes is enough.

I discovered Theresa May’s bit of rough – the grizzled Tory chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, a former Derbyshire coal miner – does his gardening in steel-toecapped wellies stamped “NCB” from his time down the pit thirty years ago. He’ll need his industrial footwear in Birmingham to kick around Tories revolting over grammar schools and Brexit.

Another ex-miner, Dennis Skinner, was the MP for Selfie Central in Liverpool, where a snap with the Beast of Bolsover was a popular memento. Alas, no cameras captured him in the Commons library demonstrating the contorted technique of speed-walkers. His father once inquired, “Why tha’ waddling tha’ bloody arse?” in Skinner’s younger days, when he’d top 7mph. Observers didn’t dare.

The Northern Poorhouse minister Andrew Percy moans that he’s been allocated a broom cupboard masquerading as an office in the old part of parliament. My snout claims that Precious Percy grumbled: “It’s so small, my human rights are violated.” Funny how the only “rights” many Tories shout about are their own.

The son of a very prominent Labour figure was caught trying to smuggle friends without passes into the secure conference zone in Liverpool. “Don’t you know who I am?” The cop didn’t, but he does now.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories